Decoding the Classics: How to Identify and Date a Piece of Instrumental Music

Long before the days of rock bands, pop music and recording labels, music was born from the minds of talented and highly revered composers. Names such as Bach, Mozart, Handel and Beethoven evoke imagery of the Classical music era. Classical Music is used as a catch-all term that covers a vast amount of different styles of instrumental music predating the 20th century. A common misconception many people make is by lumping piano or violin instrumental pieces that were written before the 20th century into the Classical music genre. What many people do not realize is that the true Classical music era only consists of 75 years, which stretched through the years of 1750-1825. Many of the most beloved pieces of instrumental music belong to a different music era. Identifying an instrumental piece’s age is easy once you are familiar with the styles of each musical era.

Middle Ages

The Middle Ages were a busy and tumultuous time period wrought with wars, disease, and religious persecution. The Middle Ages, as a musical era, is considered progressive with the introduction of the Polyphonic music style. The Middle Ages spanned from the year 450 to 1450, and featured composers such as Guillaume de Machaut, Adam de la Halle, Hildegard von Bingen. Many musical pieces from the Middle Ages era were highly energetic, long and contained a mixture of voice and instruments. Some fine examples of musical compositions from the Middle Ages include “La Messe de Nostre Dame” by Guillaume de Machaut, “Jeu de Robin et de Marion” by Adam de la Halle, and “Sus une fontayne” by Leonin.

The Renaissance Period

The Renaissance period acted as a rebirth of humanity after the bleak Middle Ages. Education, architecture, politics, art and music were just some of the things the Renaissance era improved upon. The Renaissance period spanned from the year 1450 to 1600, and featured such composers as Claudio Monteverdi, Guillaume Du Fay and Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina. Composers focused primarily on three different styles of music which included sacred music, secular music and instrumental music. Sheet music became popular during this time, and promoted the musical education of younger generations. The songs of the Renaissance period often had a flowing melody with dramatic presentation and complimentary vocal harmonies. Two excellent examples of instrumental pieces that came from the Renaissance period include “La Chasse” by Janequin and “Il est bel et bon” by Passereau.

Baroque Period

The Baroque era produced many masterful instrumental pieces, and was a period of musical evolution and exploration. The Baroque era spanned from the year 1600 to 1750, and featured well known and talented composers such as Antonio Vivaldi, Johann Sebastian Bach and George Frideric Handel. Baroque music features a style called basso continuo which is a bass accompaniment that allowed room for harmony improvising and creative freedom. Baroque pieces tend to be dramatically implemented with the rise and fall of melodic notes accompanied by ghostly vocals. Prime examples of baroque instrumental pieces include “Canon in D” by Johann Pachelbel, “The Four Seasons” by Antonio Vivaldi and “Magnificat in D” by Johann Sebastian Bach.

Classical Period

The Classical music era spanned for just 75 years but produced a massive amount of compositions. The Classical music period began in 1750 and spanned to the year 1825, and featured legendary composers such as Ludwig van Beethoven, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Franz Joseph Haydn. Compositions from the Classical period feature simple melodies that were designed to be played with fierce passion. The dramatic tendencies of the Baroque period are considerably lessened in the Classical period, and were replaced with a less complex melodic structure. The Sonata Allegro style was a structure that was followed loosely during the Classical period. Sonata Allegro follows an ABA style which includes the exposition, development and the recapitulation. The exposition is the opening of the piece and the immediate delivery of suspense, the development expands on the suspense built in the exposition and the recapitulation is a grand recapture of the exposition. Brilliant examples of Classical pieces include “Violin Concerto No. 1” by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and “Moonlight Sonata” by Ludwig van Beethoven.

Dating a piece of instrumental music can be quite simple by identifying the style of music being played. Each musical age featured a distinct playing style, with techniques evolving through the ages. The musical style of the Middle Ages had evolved and matured by the time the Classical period presented itself. The next time you are listening to instrumental music, see if you can properly identify what musical age the piece belongs to. With some practice, dating a composition is easier than you may believe.