An Overview of the History of Music

A retro jukebox is one invention that helped further the history of music.
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The history of music is a storied road to travel. It’s also one that we at Sloan School of Music find fascinating! Music has an avalanche of influences to thank, from its humble beginnings among early humans to our modern-day composers. 

This article will provide you with a thumbnail sketch of some of the more notable events in the origin and development of music. We’ll look at key figures in musical history along the way and discover the origins of popular musical instruments such as the piano, violin, and others.

Music’s complete history is an ultra-detailed topic. Consider this article a springboard for you to investigate key periods that interest you. You can also visit us at Sloan School of Music if you’re considering learning to play music yourself.  

Music History by Era

History of music by Era

The history of music can be broken down into main periods that span decades or even hundreds of years. The contributions of musicians, like those of painters, writers, and other artists, can be examined according to the same major periods that scholars have been using to understand key developments in human history.

Early music was linked almost exclusively to religion before it began to branch out into secular forms. Music developed in complexity, with significant leaps forward in the use of a range of instruments and the depth of composition by key composers from several countries. Contributions to music were worldwide, not exclusive to only one or two areas. Here’s a brief timeline:

Early Humans

The human voice was most likely the first musical instrument. Historians believe early humans developed singing for communication, storytelling, entertainment, or just to mimic a sound they heard. There’s also evidence that they used animal bones as rudimentary flutes, and rocks and pieces of wood as simple percussion instruments.  

Early First Century

Music created during this time was primarily featured in monasteries and abbeys. Pope Gregory I (540-604 AD) is credited with developing Gregorian chants, which he created from sacred writings in Latin. Music of this time was very reserved and only produced for the “glory of God.”

The Middle Ages / Medieval Period of Music: 500 AD – Mid-1600s

The Middle Age Music Notation

Music during this time became popular with all walks of life, from peasants to royalty. This period also coincides with the development of music notation. Much of this written music has survived, letting us look back on these times with more accuracy than anything that came before. Music compositions became more beautiful and elaborate.

Key Musicians Include:

Hildegard von Bingen and Perotin. Both contributed to the development of multipart music, known as “polyphonic.”  

The Renaissance: 1420-1600

This period saw the development of several new musical instruments created to bring to life the imaginations of composers. Singing was still the primary source of music for composers, though instruments were gaining in popularity.

Key Instrument Developments of the Period

The trombone joined the brass family, and the bassoon became a member of the woodwind family, helping to make possible more complex musical compositions. The viol family of stringed instruments was also developed. Keyboards gained in popularity, foreshadowing the rise of the piano centuries later.   

Key Musicians

John Bowland, William Byrd, and Thomas Morley are among the most famous and influential. A standout figure was Josquin des Prez, whose compositions of early polyphonic style helped raise the technique’s popularity.

Baroque Period: 1600-1760

Baroque Period Violin

This period brought us some of music’s most famous composers and their beloved compositions. Italy, Germany, France, and England took the lead in popular music, continuing from the Renaissance. Each country influenced the others in style and complexity. A group of composers from Florence, Italy, also get credit for creating opera as a musical form.

Key Instrument Developments

This period is noteworthy for the birth of the violin.

Key Musicians

George Frideric Handel, Antonio Vivaldi, Henry Purcell, and the most notable name from the Baroque Period, Johann Sebastian Bach.

Classical Period: 1730-1820

Notable developments during this period include the expansion of the orchestra to include clarinets, trombones, and timpani. String quartets and operas gained in popularity and became their own form of entertainment.

Key Instrument Developments

The Classical Period witnessed the rise of the piano, replacing the Baroque Harpsichord, as pianos were considered more expressive.

Key Musicians

Austrian composer Franz Joseph Haydn was important to the development of chamber music. Haydn was also a friend of and mentor to Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Mozart was composing by the age of five and was extremely prolific, producing many pieces until his early death at 35. Many music enthusiasts consider him to be one of the greatest classical composers of all time.

Romantic Period: 1780-1880

The Romantic Period saw the improvement of many instruments, giving them greater range. These improvements allowed composers to create more emotional and elaborate compositions.

Key Musicians

Germany produced Felix Mendelssohn and Robert Schumann. Pianist Frederick Chopin rose to prominence in Poland, while France gave us Hector Berlioz. All are exceptional contributors to music, but this period is perhaps best known for the influence of Ludwig von Beethoven, one of the most revered composers.

20th Century and Beyond

20th Century classical music composition

The influence of the Romantic Period was (and is still) felt in the influential musicians of the last century, with dramatic shifts in music coming from France.

Key Musicians

The 20th century has produced an exhaustive list of incredible contributors to classical music and composition, including Arnold Schoenberg, Claude Debussy, Igor Stravinsky, Dmitri Shostakovich, and too many others to name.

Music isn’t finished evolving yet as an art form, and this classical-focused history only touches on a comparatively few notes in history’s ongoing Lollapalooza of musical styles and creators. Sloan School of Music exists to be a part of it – and to help you join the jam session.

We Can Help You Shape the Future of Music

Many composers of the 21st century continue to produce beautiful and complex works, but maybe the next influential musician is you! Whether you seek musical greatness or just the ability to play a few tunes, it’s a worthwhile pursuit because learning to play music offers incredible benefits.

We at Sloan School of Music will be happy to answer any questions you may have about learning music and which instruments to consider. Discover more about Sloan’s music lessons today or visit our cutting-edge schools in Hagerstown and Frederick, MD.

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