The History of Instrumental Music

This article is a collaborative effort, crafted and edited by a team of dedicated professionals.

Contributors: Andranick Tanguiane, Fred Lerdahl,


The development of instrumental music was marked by a series of important changes. These include the growth of instrumental music in the Baroque period, the rise of symphonic music, and the development of electronic music.

The Early Years

Instrumental music has been around for centuries, with the earliestknown examples dating back to the Middle Ages. In the early years,instrumental music was generally used for religious or ceremonial purposes. However, by the Renaissance, instrumental music had become more widespread, with composers writing pieces specifically for instruments.

The first instruments

Instrumental music is any music that is performed using musical instruments. This type of music can be traced back thousands of years to the early days of human civilization. The first instruments were probably simple percussion instruments like drums, cymbals, and gongs. These instruments were used for both religious ceremonies and entertainment.

As time went on, more complex instruments were developed. These included stringed instruments like the violin and cello, woodwind instruments like the flute and clarinet, and brass instruments like the trumpet and trombone. These new instruments allowed for a wider range of sounds and greater expressive possibilities.

The development of instrumental music was greatly influenced by the development of Western classical music in the 18th and 19th centuries. Many of the greatest classical composers, such as Bach, Beethoven, and Mozart, wrote a great deal of instrumental music. This tradition has continued into the present day, with composers writing works specifically for particular instruments or instrument combinations.

The first composers

The first composers of instrumental music that we know anything about lived in ancient Greece. We don’t have any of their music, but we know their names from writings by later Greek and Roman authors. The first known composer was a man named Terpander, who lived in the city of Lesbos in the 7th century BC. He wrote music for the lyre, a small stringed instrument that was very popular in ancient Greece.

Other early composers included Pythagoras, Sappho, and Alcman. Sappho was a famous poet as well as a composer; she wrote songs for the lyre that were accompanied by dancing. Alcman was from Sparta, and he wrote songs for a type of lyre called the kithara. His songs were also accompanied by dancing.

Pythagoras is best known today for his work in mathematics, but he was also interested in music. He is credited with inventing the musical scale that is still used today. This scale consists of eight notes: do, re, mi, fa, so, la, ti, and do (these are the same as C, D, E, F, G, A, B and C).

The Baroque Era

The Baroque era was a time of great change in the world of music. One of the most important changes was the development of instrumental music. Prior to the Baroque era, most music was vocal. This meant that the composer had to write the music around the words of the singer. With instrumental music, the composer was no longer constrained by the limitations of the human voice. This allowed for a greater range of expression and a more complex musical structure.

The rise of the orchestra

The word “orchestra” originally meant the area in front of a stage where the chorus sang. In the early 17th century, orchestras began to play a more prominent role in operas and ballets. By the middle of the century, they had become an essential part of concert life as well.

Instrumentation also continued to evolve. The violin family became increasingly popular, and by the end of the century, it had replaced the viol as the main melodic instrument in most orchestras. The winds group also expanded, with the addition of the oboe and bassoon. New keyboard instruments, such as the harpsichord and pipe organ, were also added to orchestras during this period.

Instrumental music reached new levels of popularity in the early 18th century. The rise of secular concerts (performances not connected to religious ceremonies) gave composers a new outlet for their creativity. Opera, which had been dominated by vocal music, began to include more instrumental pieces as well. And instrumental music was no longer restricted to simply accompanying other genres—it could now be enjoyed on its own.

The birth of opera

The Baroque era was a time of great creativity in the arts, with new genres and styles emerging all the time. One of the most important and influential new genres to emerge during this time was opera.

Opera is a form of musical theatre in which the story is told through music. It began in Italy in the early 1600s, and quickly spread to other parts of Europe. The first operas were quite simple, with just a few singers and instrumentalists performing short pieces of music. Over time, opera became more complex, with larger casts and orchestras, and more elaborate sets and costumes.

Opera was immensely popular during the Baroque era, and many famous composers wrote operas, including George Frideric Handel, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and Giuseppe Verdi. Today, opera is still popular, with thousands of performances taking place all over the world every year.

The Classical Era

The Classical era was a time of great change for instrumental music. New instruments were developed and the way music was performed changed. The classical era is generally considered to be from 1750 to 1820.

The symphony

The symphony is an extended musical composition in Western classical music, most often written by composers for orchestra. Although the term has had many meanings from its origins in the ancient Greek era, by the late 18th century the word had taken on the meaning common today: a work usually consisting of multiple distinct sections or movements, often four, with the first section in sonata form. Symphonies are almost always scored for an orchestra consisting of a string section, brass, woodwind, and percussion instruments which altogether number about 40 to 80 musicians. Symphonies are notated in a musical score, which contains all the instrument parts. Orchestral musicians play from parts which contain just the notated music for their own instrument.

The word symphony first appeared in ancient Greece, during the Roman Empire it came to mean an extended musical composition that consisted of multiple distinct sections or movements. The term symphony began to be used regularly in Europe only from the late eighteenth century onwards. Many well-known classical era composers wrote symphonies including Haydn (who created 104 of them), Mozart (who wrote 41) and Beethoven (who composed 9). In addition to these famous names there were numerous other excellent symphonists whose works are only now beginning to be widely performed and recorded such as Johann Christian Bach, Franz Anton Hoffmeister and Carl Ditters von Dittersdorf.

The concerto

The concerto, which arose during the early Baroque period, was a musical composition in which one or more instruments featured as soloists in contrast to the rest of the orchestra, which accompanied them. The concerto grosso (“grand concerto”), a genre particularly associated with the Baroque composer Arcangelo Corelli, involved a small group of instruments (the concertino) pitted against the rest of the orchestra (the ripieno).

As the Baroque period progressed and orchestras became larger and more unified in style, the role of Ripieno instruments diminished, and the concertino—consisting of one or more contrasting solo instruments such as a violin or oboe—came to take on greater importance within the overall texture. In addition, new genres of concerto emerged, including the Concerto da camera (a chamber music-like work with one or more solo instruments) and the Concerto da chiesa (a church work featuring a large orchestra).

The concerto reached its height in the late 18th century with such masters as Johann Sebastian Bach, Antonio Vivaldi, Arcangelo Corelli, Georg Philipp Telemann, Franz Joseph Haydn, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and Ludwig van Beethoven.

The Romantic Era

The Romantic period was an incredibly important time for music. This was the era where the idea of the “composer” came into being, and where instrumental music truly came into its own. It was a time of great change, in which the music of the past was both celebrated and critiqued.

The rise of the soloist

During the Romantic Era, there was a rise in the popularity of solo instrumental music. This was partly due to the increased virtuosity of performers, as well as the larger size and range of instruments available. The piano became particularly popular, thanks to the exploits of virtuosos such as Franz Liszt and Chopin. Other popular instruments included the violin, cello and flute.

The decline of the orchestra

In the early Romantic era, orchestras tended to be smaller and their music was simpler than that of the preceding Classical period. Romantic composers were interested in nationalistic themes, which is reflected in the music of many countries during this time. As the Romantic era progressed, however, orchestras became larger and their music more complex. Wagner’s operas, for example, require very large orchestras.

The late Romantic period saw the rise of the conductor as a significant figure in classical music. Conductors such as Arturo Toscanini and Leonard Bernstein were well-known for their dynamic conducting style and for their ability to evoke emotion in the music they led. The decline of the orchestra began in the late Romantic era, as composers began to write works that were better suited for smaller ensembles or solo performers.

The Modern Era

Instrumental music has come a long way since the early days of simple melodies played on flutes and drums. With the advent of the modern era, instrumental music has taken on a new level of sophistication and artistry. In this section, we will explore the history of instrumental music from the early days to the present.

In the early 20th century, the recordings of Enrico Caruso and other popular singers brought opera to the masses. The rise of popular music in the modern era also contributed to the spread of instrumental music. With the advent of radio and recorded music, people were exposed to a wider range of music from all over the world. This made it possible for people to appreciate music from different cultures and to become familiar with a wide range of musical styles.

As popular music became more widespread, it began to influence the development of other genres of music. In the mid-20th century, rock ‘n’ roll emerged as a new style of popular music that had a significant impact on the course of instrumental music. Rock ‘n’ roll incorporated elements from both blues and country music, and it quickly became immensely popular with young people. The popularity of rock ‘n’ roll helped to make electric guitars and other amplified instruments more commonly used in bands and orchestras.

The decline of classical music

The decline of classical music is often thought to have begun in the early 20th century, with the rise of popular music and the decline of traditional orchestras and opera houses. However, classical music continued to be popular throughout the first half of the century, and there was still a considerable audience for it in the later years.

The real decline began in the 1960s, with the rise of rock music and the decline of interest in traditional forms of music. This was compounded by economic factors, as orchestras and opera houses began to struggle financially. Many were forced to close their doors, while others had to reduce their programming.

As a result, classical music became less accessible to the public, and its audience began to dwindle. Today, classical music is still popular among some segments of the population, but it has lost much of its former popularity.

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