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Though it is impossible to reduce an entire time period to distinct characteristics, it is also helpful to attempt to do so to provide a framework for thinking about that time period.

The following table lists traits of the Classical and Romantic musical eras to create a contrast between the two. While examples of one trait can certainly be found in the other time period, the traits listed below dominated the period. This list includes musical and societal traits.

Classical TraitsRomantic Traits
Acknowledges Limits – Revered the limits of the natural world, laws of math and physics. Musically, strict adherence to form.Stretches Boundaries – Revered stretching the mind to what is possible outside the natural world. Musically, form was greatly expanded.
Control of Emotion – Acknowledges human emotion, but with constraint.Passion – Emphasis on the extremes of human emotion (without necessarily regarding “goodness”).
Order – Music should set the mind in order to prepare it for thinking about science and math.Unexpectedness – Music should inspire thoughts that might not occur in normal life.
Clarity – Focus on the natural world, which is able to be known through the senses.Ambiguity/Obscurity – Focus on the spiritual world, which can not be known in the same way as the natural world.
Balance – Musical forms were balanced to create a sense of stability.Asymmetry – Musical forms were stretched unequally, giving more length and attention to some areas than to others.
Absolute Music – Music exists for its own sake, not necessarily to tell a story, describe something, or express an emotion.Program Music – Music is used to describe a character or object, tell a story, or depict a common human emotion.
Simplicity – Music should be understandable. Melodies were often singable, form was balanced and harmony supported the melody.Complexity – Music should elevate the mind to things that are not fully understood. Harmonic complexity increased as instruments developed. Expanded forms became less recognizable.
Ancient Greeks (Logic) – Revered the logic and rationale of the Ancient Greek society.Middle Ages (Heroes) – Revered the heroes of the Middle Ages (e.g., King Arthur).
Small, Educated Audience – Music was listened to primarily by the educated upper class, many of whom studied music and played as amateurs.Large, Diverse Audience – Concerts were made available to the general public. Audiences were larger and included people who did not study music.
Lived Close to Nature – Primarily agricultural societyIndustrial Revolution Separated from Nature – Rise of factory jobs separated people from natures, making nature more appealing.
Rational, Scientific – Emphasis on reason, logic, science, math – generally objective knowledge of the natural world.Supernatural – Sought for greater understanding of that which is beyond the natural world.
Known – Curiosity to understand the known world.Fictitious – Focus on the supernatural, spiritual and folklore to provide inspiration.
Enlightenment – Elevation of logic, reasoning and understanding.Sturm and Drang – Elevation of expression of extreme emotions, often revolting against society.

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