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Music in the Romantic Era is multi-faceted, but can be thought of as a shift from the expression of logic and reason to individualism and emotion. Romanticism embraced the intense portrayal of emotion and human passion over the restraint that prevailed in the Baroque and Classical eras. This philosophy is reflected in the musical characteristics of the time.
In addition to philosophical-driven changes, the improvements to instruments in their tonality, volume and technique also influenced composers. Musical ideas that previously could not be executed on the instruments of earlier times were now possible and presented composers with more options.
- Texture: Homophonic texture facilitated the focus on melody, but the supporting accompaniment could be thick and complex, especially with later Romantic composers. Increased ensemble size also added to a thicker tonal texture.
- Harmony: Improvements to instruments facilitated greater stability in more keys, which facilitated the expansion of harmony. Chord progressions in the Romantic era include chords that are more distantly related (e.g., C Major – Eb minor – Db Major – Bb minor – C Major) and more colorful (e.g., 11th chords, sharp 13th chords). Greater dissonance was accepted to accurately portray intense emotions and conflict.
- Ornamentation: Romantic composers became more exact in writing ornaments than what occurred in the Baroque and Classical eras. This meant that performers became less responsible for adding ornamentation and shifted to reading what the composer wrote. The gruppetto, or turn, became widely used in the Romantic period. As instruments evolved and became more technically capable, ornaments became longer and more virtuosic (e.g., groups of 8 grace notes instead of 2). Cadenzas grew in length and were more often written by the composer instead of the performer.
- Affect: The limits of affect that were found in the Baroque and Classical eras were removed to allow any change of affect within a piece or movement that was needed to tell a story or create a musical description of a place, emotion or event.
- Form: The concept of free-form replaced the strict adherence to forms found in the Baroque and Classical eras. New forms, including the fantasia, nocturne and rhapsody, focused on the overall impact to the listener rather than strict rules in terms of form.
- Dynamics: Dynamic range continued to increase, fueled by the larger ensemble size and improvements to instruments. Stark dynamic contrasts were juxtaposed to create intense and dramatic effects.
- Melody: Romantic music focused on lyricism and melody as a means of emotional expression. Melodies were often longer and less symmetrical than what was found in the Baroque and Classical eras.
- Absolute vs Program Music: Romantic music is often program music or descriptive in some way. It tells a story, describes something foreign or exotic, evokes a feeling or references the past.