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Music In The Classical Era

Characteristics of Musical Style

Peter Kun Frary


The Classical style didn't suddenly appear during the mid-eigthteen century. Instead, it evolved gradually over the years with traits of the Baroque mixing freely with those of the emerging Classical style. For the purposes of this discussion, I'll focus on characteristics of the Classical style as exemplified in the First Viennese School.

First Viennese School

The First Viennese School refers to three composers of the Classical era in late eighteen century Vienna: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Joseph Haydn and Ludwig van Beethoven. Franz Schubert is occasionally added to the list. The music of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven represent the climax of the Classical style, and influenced generations of composers well into the nineteenth century.

Lady with a Lyre Guitar, Italy 1811 | Pietro Nocchi (c. 1783-1855) | The Bowes Museum


Classical phrases tend to be shorter and more symmetrical than Baroque era phrases. Baroque melodies tend to churn on with few pauses. In contrast, the four-measure phrase was the norm in the Classical era. Typically, two to four phrases were grouped in a period (set of phrases), and ending with a clear cadence.

Classical melody is dominated by smooth and lyrical melodic lines. These melodic lines are often based on chord structures, e.g., The Star-Spangled Banner and Twinkle Twinkle Little Star are examples of melodies based on chord structure. Ornaments (fast decorative notes) such as the turn, trill and appoggiatura are used extensively and form an integral part of the melody. Here's a typical Classical melody written by Fernando Sor:

L'Encouragement (excerpt) | Fernando Sor | Frary Guitar Duo


The use of basso continuo was dropped in the Classical era. Compared with the Baroque, Classical chord progressions are relatively simple and slow moving. Textures are predominantly homophonic. To help drive a piece rhythmically, chords are often broken (arpeggiated) into repeated rhythmic patterns known as Alberti bass:

Alberti Bass | Duo in G Major Op. 34 No. 2: Largo (excerpt) | Ferdinando Carulli | Frary Guitar Duo

While harmony is relatively simple, modulation (key change) is used extensively to create tension and contrast. Modulation is also linked to formal structure and enhances the writing of longer pieces.

Self-Portrait with a Harp, Paris 1791 | Rose Adélaïde Ducreux (1761–1802) | Metropolitan Museum of Art

Formal Organization

At the most basic level, Classical form is built on the technique of contrasting a melody with a second melody. Symmetry and balance are important in the grouping of musical ideas at the motive, phrase and section levels. Forms are precise and clear, with sections marked off by obvious cadences.

Formal structures such as binary form, ternary form, and theme and variation are common in the Classical era. The ternary or A B A form was especially significant in instrumental music. Carulli's Andantino in A Minor is a miniature version of the A B A form. The outer A sections frame the inner B section and have perfect symmetry: they're exactly the same in terms of musical material. The A section begins in a melancholy A minor key and, beginning at 00:26, the B section shifts to a sunny C major sound. The A section returns at 00:42.

Andantino in A Minor | Ferdinando Carulli (1770-1841)

Rhythm is simple and organized into short patterns punctuated by rhythmic cadences. Rests—periods of measured silence—are a common dramatic device after a strong cadence:

Dramatic Rest | Duo in G Major Op. 34 No. 2: Largo (excerpt) | Ferdinando Carulli | Frary Guitar Duo

The listening example below, Sor's Variation 1 from Duo Opus 55, No. 3, uses four-measure phrases and clear-cut sections with strong cadences. The sections are arranged in an A A B B sequence, i.e., binary form. Notice the harmony is slow moving, usually changing chords once every two beats.

Duo Opus 55 No. 3: Variation 1 | Fernando Sor (1778-1839)

Instrumental pieces typically consist of several movements of contrasting character and tempo. For example, the movement sequence in the sonata, symphony and string quartet normally follows a pattern of fast-slow-dance-fast.


Classical era composers used dynamics more frequently and with finer gradations than Baroque composers. The use of crescendo and decrescendo became a hallmark of the Classical style.

Mood Contrasts

Unlike single moods of Baroque movements, Classical works frequently fluctuate in mood, often between extremes: turbulence to restfulness, steadfastness to playfulness, happy to sad, etc. These mood contrasts were illustrated with sudden tempo changes, change of mode (e.g., major to minor) and dynamic contrast. The listening example excerpt below, Rondo Op. 34 by Carulli, has a sudden shift from a bright major scale mood to a dark and more serious sounding minor mode. It also uses a rest to increase the drama of the mood change:

Rondo, Op. 34 (excerpt) | Frary Guitar Duo

A Man Playing a Guitar (c. 1830) | George Chinnery, 1774–1852 | Yale Center for British Art


First Viennese School, ornaments, Alberti bass, modulation, rest, period

©Copyright 2017 by Peter Kun Frary | All Rights Reserved