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Guide to Music History

Ancient Music

In ancient Greek, music came from the muses or goddesses of the arts and sciences. Music originated in 500 B.C. when Pythagoras began to experiment with the ways in which math related to tones formed from plucking strings.

The Music of Greece: The Past is Present traces the influence of the ancient Greeks on classical music, opera and modern jazz.
Homeric Singing: An Approach to the Original Performance provides a history on significance and influence of Homeric singing.
The Music of Ancient Rome contains a comprehensive history on the music of Ancient Rome and includes helpful visuals and maps as well.
Music in the Greek and Roman World provides a brief overview of music in the Greek and Roman Eras.
Music in Ancient Greece and Early Christian Rome is a chapter from A Concise History of Western Music and analyzes the types of music present in Ancient Greece and Early Rome.

Chants in the Middle Ages (450-1400 AD)

The main form of music throughout the Middle Ages was the Gregorian chant, named after Pope Gregory I. The Gregorian chant was used in the Catholic Churches as a complement to the services.  This monophonic Chant consisted of a sacred Latin text sung by monks without instrumentation.

During the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, music began to move beyond the church setting. At this time, French nobles called troubadours were among the first to compose secular songs.  Throughout most of the Middle Ages, music was limited to the nobility, with court minstrels performing for members of the nobility.  In addition, there were also wandering minstrels performing music and acrobatics in castles, taverns, and town squares.  These people were regarded as being among the lowest in class and status, but they played an important role in not only entertainment, but the passing of along of information and communications.

The Middle Ages provides a complete guide to music in the Middle Ages, including the Gregorian Chant, Ars Antiqua, troubadours, and Ars Nova.
Chant in the Middle Ages is a well-organized, practical, and comprehensive guide on chants in the Middle Ages.
Chant and Secular Song in the Middle Ages contains a history of Chant throughout the Middle Ages as well as resources for further study.

Renaissance (1450-1600)

During the Renaissance, a humanistic interest in language gave way to an intimate relationship between words and music.  Composers such as Antoine Brumel, Jean de Castro, John Dowland, and Thomas Morley began composing particular types of music which reflected deeper meaning and emotional context. They wrote in a style referred to as “word painting,” a style in which the music and words combine to form a representation of poetic images.

Music became more popular during the Renaissance, due in large part to the invention of the printing press, which circulated mass copies of music.  The number of musical composers also began to increase, as this era’s ideal of the “universal man” required schooling and training in musical education. Though there were still musicians working in the churches and courts, choirs would now sing together, as opposed to performing solo.

The Renaissance contains a history of dance music, polyphony, and English madrigals.
Music in the Renaissance provides a brief but well-written and informative history of music during the Renaissance.
Text in Vocal Music of the Renaissance and 20th Century is a thesis analyzing text in the music of the Renaissance and the 20th century.

17th Century Opera

Opera originated in Ital at the end of the 16th century. A group of Florentine musicians and intellectuals known as la camerata fiorentina became increasingly fascinated with the music of antiquity and opposed to the excesses of Renaissance polyphonic music. This group sought to revive what they thought to be the simplicity of ancient tragedy. The Legend of Orpheus, composed by Monteverdi in 1607, was the very first opera to be performed and continues to be staged today. Venice rapidly became the center of opera, where the first commercial opera house opened in 1637, granting access to the wider public. This form of music and performance soon spread throughout Europe. By 1700 Naples, Vienna, Paris and London housed major opera centers.

The Early History and Development of Opera contains a complete history on the origins of opera.
History of the Opera Until 1800 contains information on the various types of operas prior to 1800.
Verisimilitude in Early Venetian Opera: A Historical Perspective and a Study of Monteverdi’s Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria is a publication which analyzes Venetian Opera in a historical and stylistic context.
Opera: European Opera Days provides a history of a variety of opera movements as well as links for further research.

Baroque (1600-1750)

Unity is the single defining characteristic of the Baroque period. The majority of musical pieces throughout this period expressed one continuous mood throughout the composition.

Music became increasingly popular during this era. A variety of venues were in high demand for musical performances. Composers such as Johann Sebastian Bach, Johann Pachelbel, and Antonin Vivaldi were pressured to write new pieces, as audiences began to desire a departure from the music of the Renaissance. In the Baroque Age, one became successful as musician if he was the son of a musician or an apprentice.

Baroque Music: Part One provides history and stylistic characteristics on the Baroque period.
Baroque Music contains insightful and comprehensive information on the history, philosophy, and influences of Baroque music.

Classical (1730-1830)

The uniformity of the Baroque Age was replaced by varied tones and moods during the Classical period. These moods were both gradual and sudden and dependent upon the composers, which included Ludwig von Beethoven, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and Franz Peter Schubert.  In addition to mood, rhythm was another element that was varied; classical composers now began to incorporate unexpected pauses, syncopations, and frequent changes in length of the notes into their compositions.  This period saw more composers becoming freelancer, such as Beethoven, who was instrumental in inspiring other musical freelances to compose for their own enjoyment. As a result of the Industrial Revolution taking place during this time, demands for music in the middle class experienced rapid growth, and public orchestras and operas became more popular.

The 1000 Year Timeline: Classical Music provides a timeline covering all musical periods.
Music of the Classical Period provides an overview and history of classical music as well as links to composers and musical compositions.
The Classical Period provides a detailed and comprehensive history of the Classical Period.

Romantic (1830-1940)

Emotion best characterized the Romantic Era. A highly stylized period, people were now able to quickly decipher the composer of a piece of music because of its unique, individual and highly emotional register. The majority of compositions throughout this period conveyed nationalism and exoticism, the latter reflecting artists’ fascination with the remote, picturesque, and mysterious. The incorporation of program music enabled composers to write music in order to follow a story, poem, idea, or scene.  The instruments would represent the emotions, characters, and events of a particular story; it would also convey sounds and motion of nature.  One of the greatest program music composers was Hector Berlioz, who wrote the Symphonie fantastique, a story about an artist who overdoses on opium.

Music History 102: The Romantic Era contains introductory information on the characteristics and influence of Romantic music.
Music Traits of the Romantic Period provides information on Romantic style and characteristics of Romantic musical compositions.
Classical versus Romantic Approaches to Art contains an overview on Classical and Romantic art forms with an emphasis on music.

Jazz Age (1890-1930)

New Orleans, birthplace to jazz, contains one of the most heterogeneous populations in the United States. As a result of its location and important role it plays in the international economy, New Orleans became home to an amalgamation of culture, language, and groups of people including the French, Spanish, African American, European, Caribbean, Latin American, and Scandinavian. Composers such as Jelly Roll Morton, Sidney Bechet and Louis Armstrong, deeply influenced by opera and the Creole composer Louis Moreau Gottschalk, were most notable for creating the daring, bold, and distinct “jazz idiom.”

A History of Jazz Music provides a complete guide on the history of jazz music as well as information on specific jazz musicians.
Roaring Twenties: Jazz provides information on jazz as well as historical background on the Roaring Twenties.

Twentieth Century

Throughout this era, the use of technology came to be incorporated in many compositions. Electronically created sounds are used in combination with other electronic sounds or played together with traditional music instruments. More recently, the use of computer technology has greatly transformed the ways in which music is composed and performed. Sergei Rachmaninoff, George Gershwin, Aaron Copland, John Philip Sousa, Jon Lennon and Bob Dylan are just a sampling of the many varied and eclectic significant artists and composers.

20th Century Music provides a complete history of 20th century music as well as links to notable composers.
20th Century Music Part One contains an extensive collection of links to musical composers, a history of the time period, and significant song lyrics.
A History of 20th Century Popular Music provides an introduction to music throughout the twentieth century as well as links to specific musical movements during this era.
Music History 102: The Twentieth Century  contains introductory information on music throughout the twentieth century.