A quick rundown of music history

Would you like to know a bit more about music history? It’s understandable if you feel like it’s impossible to choose a starting point. Fortunately, this is your lucky day; here is a list of the “most basic” things you should know about the history of music.

To make this reading experience more enjoyable, we’ve also provided links to one musical piece per era so that you can hear the difference!

The Medieval Era (800-1400)

Listen to: O Frondens Virga

Also known as the dark ages, this was a period when the Catholic church had tremendous power in Europe. Most of the music that has survived is religious. Hardly any musical instruments were used, with a few exceptions toward the late middle ages. The church didn’t like instruments because they associated them with ungodly behavior.


  • Hildegard von Bingen
  • Guillaume de Machaut

The Renaissance (1400-1600)

Listen to: Sicut Cervus

Music became more complex during the Renaissance. A popular technique from this period is the so-called counterpoint, i.e. the weaving of different voices together. Vocal music was still big, but the lute and the organ were gaining momentum, too.

Regular people sang madrigals, a type of song usually about love. Unlike today’s love songs, these were through-composed, which means that they had a beginning, a mid point, and an end. There was no repetition in the form of verses or choruses.


  • Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina
  • John Dowland

The Baroque (1600-1750)

Listen to: Music for the Royal Fireworks

Instrumental music continued to evolve during the Baroque, and the harpsichord is a good example of instruments used in this era. This was also the time when composers wrote the first operas. Music was still mostly controlled by the church or ordered by kings and aristocrats.


  • Bach
  • Handel
  • Vivaldi

The Classic Period (1750-1800)

Listen to: The Marriage of Figaro, Overture

When people mention Classical music, they most likely refer to the music from this era. This was the era when the music started to sound a bit more to what we’re used to, with symphonic orchestras and similar use of harmony (chords). The piano was invented and had a huge impact!


  • Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
  • Ludwig van Beethoven
  • Joseph Haydn

The Romantic Era (1800-1900)

Listen to: Nocturne in E flat major

This period’s name does not only refer to romantic love, but feelings in general. In fact, composers, artists, and others were mad about feelings during this century. The music was very emotional and touching. The number of “everyday” people who bought pianos was on the rise, hence one could hear music coming from many homes.


  • Frédéric Chopin
  • Franz Schubert
  • Edward Elgar

Modernism (1900-today)

Listen to: Rite of Spring

What happened to music during the 20th century and what is happening at this very moment? Well, there is, of course, a lot to say on the subject and the internet and technological discoveries have made music evolve quicker than ever before. Still, in terms of art music, it’s safe to say that we see one significant characteristic; composers want to break free from the past. They all know the rules of music, but choose to break them as creatively as possible!


  • Erik Satie
  • Igor Stravinsky
  • Arnold Schönberg

If you liked this brief article and would like to study music history even more, make sure to check out our brand new book: Music History For Beginners.

No votes yet.
Please wait...