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Music in the Classical Era was a response against the complexity that arose during the Baroque Era. The mathematical balance of Classical form and simplicity of texture made Classical music support the ideas of rational and logical thought that characterized the Enlightenment. Music was intended to clear the mind and make it free for quality thinking.

Prussian King Frederick the Great playing flute at his court.

Changes from Baroque to Classical

Since the Classical Era is in many ways a reaction against the late Baroque musical practices, it is helpful to compare characteristics of Classical music to those of Baroque music.

Changes in music during this time include:

  • Texture: Homophonic music (single melody with harmonic support) replaced the complex counterpoint (multiple melodies played simultaneously) from the Baroque Era. The concept of a simple, elegant melody over an Alberti Bass (broken notes of a chord played in the bass) was widely used.
  • Ornamentation: Improvisation remained, but was less frequent and less complex than in the Baroque Era. The focus was elegance and simplicity of melody.
  • Harmony: Classical harmony is simpler than the thick, colorful harmonies of the Baroque Era. Triads and seventh chords created clean sounds that were easy to understand and organize.
  • Affect: Composers started to develop sections within movements to provide contrast. This opposed the Baroque Doctrine of Affections in which composers maintained a single affect or mood throughout a piece or a movement. Emotional impact is present but refined by limiting it to what sounds pleasant musically.
  • Form: Large instrumental genres were created, including the symphony and the concerto.
  • Dynamics: Improvements to instruments, expansion of the use of brass instruments, and the adoption of the piano over the harpsichord allowed for the development of crescendo/decrescendo (gradually getting louder or more quiet). The Mannheim Orchestra became the model of extreme dynamic changes and the long crescendo. Gradual change of dynamics replaced the terraced dynamics used in the Baroque Era.
  • Melody: Musical phrases became shorter in the Classical Era, often 4 measures.
  • Absolute Music: Absolute music was favored over program music. Absolute music does not attempt to describe an idea or thing in sound and usually has a title such as Sonata in Bb or Symphony #4. Program music uses music to describe an idea, emotion, or object, such as Handel’s duet for soprano and flute called Sweet Bird.

These characteristics sought to set the mind in order, helping to create a more enlightened mind. The style of music in the Classical Era promoted the idea that an ordered and peaceful mind is able to think rationally and logically, and therefore understand the world more clearly.

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