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A tiny history of Western music.

Updated on August 1, 2012

From the lyres of Greece to dubstep beats.

If you've got your headphones in and they're blaring the latest trip-hop, folktronica, dubstep remix of your favorite '80s-revival garage synth-pop song, it may feel like Beethoven didn't have anything to do with that. Well, amateur history buffs (like myself!) would probably disagree. No one - in music or any other field - really does anything original without building from the legacy of past practitioners. In this lens I'll give you the briefest of brief overviews of the history of Western music. And maybe I can change your mind about the whole trip-hop folktronica thing.

(Image credit: Jason Hollinger)

Ancient music.

8th century BC - 5th century AD

The earliest music we really know anything about begins, as does nearly everything else worthwhile, with the ancient Greeks. The Greeks relied on music in many of the same settings we still do today: religious ceremonies, war hymns, festivals, and theater. Music also played an integral part in the recitations of epic poetry like Homer. The Greeks pioneered a number of different musical instruments, including the lyre and the pan flute.

Greek musical notation, which survives in a few fragments, was very simple. It consisted of a series of markings placed over the lines of text to be sung, and could indicate both pitch and duration. From Greece we get our modern idea of scales or "modes" - patterns of notes from which melody and harmony are built, and from which rules regarding tension and resolution arise. In fact, the Greeks had strict rules about which mode should be used to convey a specific emotion; the Dorian mode was harsh and fierce, the Phrygian mode was sensual and romantic, et cetera.

The ancient system of notation was not widely understood, however. Transmission of songs was still largely an oral tradition. Greek music was also primarily monophonic, meaning only one tone was sounded at a time (there were a few exceptions to this rule, but complex harmonies as we understand them didn't develop until the late Middle Ages). By setting the stage for early Christian music, the Greeks - and the Romans who inherited their tradition - had an immense influence on liturgical music.

(Image credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Early Christian music.

1st century - 5th century AD

As the Christian Church began to take shape, it gradually commandeered the development of Western music as a whole. Music began to be used more and more in strictly liturgical settings. The monophonic tradition of the Greeks lived on in the newly minted style of Gregorian chant, named for Gregory the Great. This type of chant was less metered than Greek and Roman music. It was notated using reminder markings called neumes, which functioned similarly to the old Greek notation system (in fact, the word neume is an adaptation of the Greek word pneuma, meaning "breath").

As Gregorian chant became more and more central, the use of instruments in music declined and even became frowned upon. Saint Jerome, an original Doctor of the Church, said that a Christian maiden should not even know what a flute or lyre is!

(Image credit: Sancta Missa)

Medieval music.

500 - 1400 AD

After the Church rose to prominence in Europe, musical traditions were shaped almost exclusively through Christianity until the Renaissance. This period lasted nearly a millennium, and some crucial innovations were made during that time. First, choirs began singing chants in two voices at a fixed interval, creating a style known as Organum. This style quickly gave rise to true polyphony, meaning music composed for multiple voices singing different parts.

Another innovation came at the hands of an Italian monk called Guido d'Arezzo. He began positioning the neumes (notation markings) at different heights on the page to represent pitch. He later added three and then four horizontal lines to create a musical staff that is the precursor to today's five-line staff.

(Image credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Renaissance music.

1400 - 1600 AD

The cultural awakening of the Renaissance vibrantly colored the development of music during the period. The most important development of the period was in polyphony. Renaissance music was written with more and more emphasis on the blending and contrasting of multiple voices. Increased reliance on the interval of the third, rather than the more fundamental fourth and fifth intervals, gave rise to the major and minor tonalities that dominate music down to the present day. More attention was paid to the progression of chords, and experiments with tension and resolution flourished.

The invention of the printing press and rises in literacy also made the distribution and preservation of music much easier. Thus, from the Renaissance onward there remains a vast and varied historical record of the Western musical tradition.

(Image credit:

Baroque music.

1600 - 1760 AD

The Baroque period was one of grandiose art and architecture, and one of competing colonial interests and economic expansion. The world was changing fast, and music followed suit. The most important development that Baroque music offered was the shift from polyphonic to homophonic structures. In the polyphonic music of the Renaissance, equal importance was generally given to each voice, which tended to overwhelm the listener and make lyrics difficult to follow. Let's just say it was difficult music to hum to yourself.

Homophonic music, on the other hand, gives preference to a single voice called the melody. The remaining voices form a harmony that provides the foundation upon which the melody moves. This structure further cemented the major / minor dichotomy, and it is the prevailing paradigm today. Think of a crooning songwriter accompanying herself with some simple chords on an acoustic guitar - that is homophony. The Baroque era is when some of the first heavy hitters of Western music emerged - Vivaldi, Bach, and Handel, to name a few.

(Image credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Classical music.

1750 - 1830 AD

The late 18th and early 19th centuries form the Classical period - not to be confused with the broader term "classical music," which tends to mean pretty much any orchestral music made in the last millennium! The events and thought of the time colored the music. A revival of Greek architecture sparked a move towards clarity of form and simple, contrasting elements. Newton's contributions to science led to an appreciation of work firmly grounded in axioms and well-articulated. Lastly, the American and French revolutions inspired heroic and hopeful themes and motifs.

Classical music is cleaner, clearer, and lighter than Baroque music. The utter death of the old polyphonic form meant that the newly simplified homophonic music would need to crutch on other developments for interest. Specifically, dynamics and phrasing gained importance in the Classical era. Some of the major composers from this period are Mozart, Haydn, Schubert, and Beethoven.

(Image credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Romantic music.

1815 - 1910 AD

The Romantic period in music is a facet of the broader cultural movement of romanticism. This is where music starts to really get complicated and individualized. Composers began reacting against the simplicity and clarity of the Classical period by experimenting with new structures, keys, tonalities, tempos, instrumentations, orchestra sizes, and everything else you could think of. Chromaticism - meaning the use of all twelve tones instead of the seven diatonic ones - became increasingly popular. Music from this period is dramatic, adventurous, richer, more ambiguous, and more discordant than its predecessors. The invention of valve-operated brass instruments opened the way for new, bright, and bold sounds and textures.

All these factors created a musical environment in which individual composers could be more easily identified by their "trademark sound." The Romantic period produced an enormous outpouring of talented composers, including Chopin, Wagner, Verdi, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Grieg, Dvorak, and Liszt. You can say that again.

(Image credit: Talk Classical)

Modern music.

20th and 21st centuries

When we arrive at the 20th century the floodgates have completely burst. Anything and everything is musically permissible at this point, and frankly if you don't pull some crazy stuff in your compositions you can't even get your name out there. Claude Debussey starts using whole tone scales and ushers in the Impressionist movement - but he claims to hate the term "Impressionist!" Schoenberg outdoes Debussey by abandoning the entire notion of "key" and pioneers atonal music. Stravinsky gets a headache from all of this wild dissonance and inaugurates the neoclassical revival.

Composers quickly tire of Stravinsky's movement, though, and they forge new ground. Futurism attempts to draw inspiration from themes like speed and technology and....I don't know, flying cars! Microtones - intervals smaller than semitones, the proverbial cracks between the piano keys - come into fashion for a while. Composer John Cage decides that random chance has a place in music; this births traditions like aleatory passages, free improvisation, and indeterminacy.

A minimalist movement is born which strips music down to its most basic features. A spectral school of music develops that creates compositions through spectral analysis. Soviet composers like Shostakovich develop socialist realism through their obligation to dedicate their music to the advancement of the Communist cause.

This is all pretty dizzying stuff, and it hasn't really stopped. I mean, there are composers today who are citing house and techno music as their influences! Things are changing fast in music these days. As the Twitter generation comes of age, I'd recommend bracing yourself for things to get even crazier.

(Image credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Have a favorite era in Western music? A favorite composer? Did I miss something of critical importance? Leave your comments and questions here.

Comments and questions welcome!

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    • profile image


      6 years ago

      Great information on the history of western music.

      I love classic music, especially Beethoven.

    • Rangoon House profile image


      6 years ago from Australia

      This made me smile. We were at an orchestra concert only last week where the conductor was attributing the boomp boomp bass music so often heard in revved up cars at stop lights to Beethoven origins. Blessings.

    • Wbisbill LM profile image

      Barbara Isbill 

      6 years ago from New Market Tn 37820

      Great info. Thumbs up!

    • LittleLindaPinda profile image

      Little Linda Pinda 

      6 years ago from Florida

      Thank you for all the information. I love music and appreciate a great variety of styles.

    • Thrinsdream profile image


      6 years ago

      Well it looks like I have to give a big thank you to Guido d'Arezzo (another new piece of info for me!). As a lover of music (and dubstep love Modestep at the minute) it's another thank you from me! Loved my little wander through the ages . . wish they had banned young maidens learning piano every night for hours when I was 11 hey ho! With thanks and appreciation. Cathi x

    • Deadicated LM profile image

      Deadicated LM 

      6 years ago

      Very enjoyable and informative!

    • Gayle Dowell profile image

      Gayle Dowell 

      6 years ago from Kansas

      Well written lens. Love history and music.

    • Northwestphotos profile image


      6 years ago

      I always loved Baroque music for whatever reason. Great lens!

    • mariaamoroso profile image


      6 years ago from Sweden

      You have made an excellent job to write about such grand subject on one tiny lens!

    • BestRatedStuff profile image


      6 years ago

      Great lens, beautifully presented and so informative.

    • TriciaLymeMom profile image


      6 years ago

      Great lens. I would love to hear some examples but still way more interesting than the classes I took in college! :)

    • chookyco profile image


      6 years ago

      Some great history of music here, thanks for writing up about it

    • Wedding-Music profile image

      Matt Warren 

      6 years ago from Cheshire, UK

      very interesting, thank you!

    • allenwebstarme profile image


      6 years ago

      Excellent lens about history western music.

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      This is a fabulous lens, I've been smiling from ear to ear from start to finish. Blessed!

    • MelonyVaughan profile image


      6 years ago

      A beautifully presented lens. Well done!

    • John Dyhouse profile image

      John Dyhouse 

      6 years ago from UK

      Excellent wizz thru' the history of western music. Blessed

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      This lens is a great beginning.. :) Put up some video examples of the different types of music so we can hear what you're talking about! :) Blessed!

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      Hi Eric,

      I love music since I was young. My dad always said that I was a "music baby" but today I think you are the music wonder boy with your in-depth knowledge. Love this len!

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      I love western music. Nice job.

    • PianoStreet LM profile image

      PianoStreet LM 

      6 years ago

      Very impressive and well written! Congratulations! I have a favorite instrument... Now that I have read this beautiful survey I am inspired to write a tiny history of the piano. Unless you get there before me!

    • Rosaquid profile image


      6 years ago

      I really enjoyed this lens. Thanks!

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      Outstanding review of music development. Thank you for publishing this lens. It's great.

    • KReneeC profile image


      6 years ago

      O i love ALL western music! Such a wonderful lens!

    • flycatcherrr profile image


      6 years ago

      I cannot believe you fit so much into such a small space! Very well done, indeed. *blessed*

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      Wow, an amazing lens. Thank you!

    • siobhanryan profile image


      6 years ago

      Gregorian Chant. I travel Ireland to hear the Benedictine monks chant.

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      es bueno conocer algo mas, excelentes apuntes, informacion muy completa, gracias.

    • LiteraryMind profile image

      Ellen Gregory 

      6 years ago from Connecticut, USA

      Absolutely wonderful lens. So informative. Nice job.

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      I enjoyed reading this lens... I love music and history so it's a great combination!! Great job.

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      I enjoyed reading this lens... I love music and history so it's a great combination!! Great job.

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      Nice history stepback in time. Enjoyed it and it only took me about 7 minutes to read it. *blessed by a squid angel*

    • intermarks profile image


      6 years ago

      Wonderful. I have learn something new today. Thanks!

    • Elyn MacInnis profile image

      Elyn MacInnis 

      6 years ago from Shanghai, China

      I really enjoyed seeing a broad overview. This is great -thank you.

    • jlshernandez profile image


      6 years ago

      Thanks for a mini walk through Western Music. Great info.

    • Gabriel360 profile image


      6 years ago


    • captainj88 profile image

      Leah J. Hileman 

      6 years ago from East Berlin, PA, USA

      Terrific dip into a huge ocean. Hope it sparks greater interest in your readers. I just attended a classical piano duet concert today; the skill of those musicians was astounding and inspiring. I hope we never lose the classics!

    • julescorriere profile image

      Jules Corriere 

      6 years ago from Jonesborough TN

      What a great overview for people who want to know a little something about the history of music. I also like the pictures you chose. To make the lens a little more interactive, you might want to add a poll module. People love to vote! :)

      Terrific Lens. Blessed by Squid Angel alwaysjules!

    • tyrosine profile image


      6 years ago

      Great learning for amateurs like me!! Many thanks!

    • profile image

      ilovemusic lm 

      6 years ago

      From amateur history buff to another, thanks for a fascinating walk through Western music.

    • vividviolet profile image


      6 years ago

      Well, personally, I think that Chopin is the best classical music composer of all time.

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      Great Lens. I absolutely love Gregorian chant although I don't care too much for the jazzed up versions on youtube!

    • JoyfulPamela2 profile image


      6 years ago from Pennsylvania, USA

      Bravo from the music teacher!! =D

    • PNWtravels profile image

      Vicki Green 

      6 years ago from Wandering the Pacific Northwest USA

      Fascinating information about the history of western music.

    • esvoytko lm profile imageAUTHOR

      esvoytko lm 

      6 years ago

      @JoanTheChoirLady: Well, their Dorian mode was not the same as ours today. The ancient Greeks didn't use a 12-tone octave like we do now; they had a few more tones to play around with. They more or less invented to concept of modes, as well as giving them all the names we use today, but they have changed. Also, you can rest assured that your church could probably out-blues the Greeks any day!

    • JoanTheChoirLady profile image

      Joan Hall 

      6 years ago from Los Angeles

      Fascinating that the Greeks saw the Dorian mode as harsh. In the black church, the Dorian mode is comfort food. It has just enough of a bluesy feel to give the music a soulful sound without being as melancholy as the Aeolian mode.


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