Evolution of Western Music

The Evolution of Western Instrumental Music

The style of music, with which we are familiar in Western societies, has not long been in this form. Music is constantly evolving, since it represents the technology, culture and beliefs of society in the moment.

Pre 400 AD:

Early musicians probably used simple woodwind and plucked string instruments. In some societies, it was believed that the gods inspired music. Music and instruments were also thought to create different moods, and so were chosen to sooth when relaxing or to encourage a warrior spirit before battle. Single note melodies were played for ceremonies, dramas and other important occasions.


During the Middle Ages, music became increasingly more structured and complex. Until around 800, instrumental music was monophonic – a single melody line. After this, two or more different melody lines were played at the same time – it was polyphonic. Music was often used to accompany single voice lines or poems.


The Renaissance was a period of fast cultural development in Europe. Composers in this time experimented with new combinations of tone and rhythm. This was the beginning of counterpoint – different instruments imitated the first, with slight variations in melody, creating harmonies.


The Baroque Period brought counterpoint into an elaborate and expressive musical form. At this time, the modern system of Well Tempering was invented – the allocation of pitch as the 12 half steps that are used on the keyboard. Italy led the way in music of this era. Important composers of the period include JS Bach, Handel, Montverdi, Lully and Purcell.


During this era, the middle class had increasing access to written music and instruments. Music became a more popular form of entertainment. The lighter music, written simply for public enjoyment, became the Classical Style. It sought balance and expression of ideas and experiences. Well-known composers of this time include Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven.


Composers of the Romantic Period believed music should express the deepest of emotions and imaginations. Shorter, pleasing forms were created – such as the German Leider and character pieces. The piano underwent rapid invention and the symphony orchestra was at its highest point. Famous composers of this time include Schubert, Schumann, Berlioz, Mendelssohn, Liszt and Chopin.


Some composers sought to express the character of the people of their own countries: Nationalism. Among these composers were Grieg (Norway), Mussorgsky, Rinsky-Korsakov and Tchaikovsky (all from Russia), and Smetana and Dvorak (from Czechoslovakia). Some of Chopin’s pieces show how much he missed his homeland, Poland.

Impressionism was one of the significant art movements through the 1900s. Non-traditional harmonies, structures and ideas were included in composition. The movement originated with artists and poets in France. Debussy was one of the first to include such forms of imagery in his music.

Serialism, another 20th century style, used all 12 notes (all half steps), with no distinction of key and tone.

Music of the modern era has its roots in many of the earlier styles. The harmonies are usually more moving, and some styles have no discernible structure in form or harmony. Very popular in the early 21st Century is the NeoClassical and Symphonic forms definitely experiencing revival and renewal across all age groups.