Instrumental Music of the Classical Period Emphasized

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

Contributors: Andranick Tanguiane, Fred Lerdahl,


The instrumental music of the classical period emphasized a balance between the melodic and harmonic aspects of the music.

The Classical Period

The Classical period was an era of classical music between 1730 and 1820. The Classical period falls between the Baroque and the Romantic periods. Instrumental music was the dominant genre during this time. The main genres were the concerto, symphony, and sonata.

Major composers of the Classical period

The late 18th century is known as the Classical period. This was a time when composers sought to imitate what they saw as the ideal music of the ancient world—the music of Greece and Rome. Composers such as Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven created works that are still performed today. They raised the level of instrumental technique and improved the standard of orchestral playing.

Major composers of the Classical period include:
-Joseph Haydn
-Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
-Ludwig van Beethoven

Thematic development

The period saw the rise of the concerto and sonata as musical genres. Composers such as Haydn and Mozart started to develop the idea of the “theme” with recognizable character, a melody that could be manipulated in many ways to create suspense, interest and contrast.

One of the most important aspects of music during the Classical period was “thematic development.” This is the process by which a composer takes a musical idea (or “theme”) and manipulates it to create interest, contrast, and suspense.

There are several ways in which a composer can develop a theme: by expanding or modifying the melody; by altering the rhythm or meter; by changing the harmony; or by adding new melodic, rhythmic, or harmonic elements.

The Orchestra

The word “orchestra” originated from the Greek word “orkhestra,” meaning a place for dancing. The first orchestras were created for dancers, not for concertgoers. The word “orchestra” didn’t come into use to describe a concert ensemble until the late 18th century. So what exactly is an orchestra?

The string section

The string section is the largest and most important section in the orchestra. It usually has first and second violins, violas, cellos, and double basses. The first violins usually play the melody (the main tune), while the second violins usually play harmony (parts that go with the melody). The other string instruments usually play background parts.

The string instruments are played with a bow (a long stick with horsehair that you pull across the strings). You can also pluck the strings with your fingers (this is called pizzicato). The sound of the different string instruments varies depending on their size. The larger the instrument, the lower its tone.

The woodwind section

The woodwind section is usually made up of flutes, oboes, clarinets, and bassoons. Sometimes a piccolo (a small flute), an English horn (a large oboe), a bass clarinet, or a contrabassoon (a large bassoon) will be added. The flute is the oldest of all the instruments in the woodwind family and was originally made of wood. Today, however, it is almost always made of metal. The oboe probably developed from the shawm, a double-reed instrument that was popular in the 1500s. The clarinet evolved from an earlier single-reed instrument called the chalumeau. The bassoon is also a double-reed instrument and is related to the dulcian, another early double-reed instrument.

The instruments in the woodwind family are played by blowing air across a reed or through a metal tube. (The flute is an exception; it is played by blowing air directly across an opening at one end.) The vibration of the reed or metal tube sets the column of air inside the instrument vibrating. These vibrations travel up to the mouthpiece where they are amplified and then pass on to the resonating chamber, which makes the sound louder.

The brass section

The brass section is made up of instruments that produce sound through the vibration of lips as the player blows air into a tubular instrument. The section includes all of the French horns, trumpets, and trombones. These instruments can play a wide range of notes, from very low to very high. The sound of the brass section can be very powerful, making it an important part of the orchestra.

The percussion section

The percussion section is responsible for providing the rhythmic foundation for the music. The instruments in this section include the drums, cymbals, timpani and other percussion instruments. The percussion section plays an important role in classical music, providing the beat that keeps the music moving forward.

The Piano

The piano was the most important instrument during the classical period. It was used in almost all genres of music during that time. The piano allowed for a greater range of expression and dynamics than any other instrument.

The fortepiano

The fortepiano is a historians’ favourite. It was the most common type of piano during the Classical Period, and it’s the kind of piano that people like Mozart and Haydn would have known and played. The fortepiano has a much lighter action than our modern pianos, so it’s much easier to play for long periods of time without getting tired. The sound is also quite different – it’s more like a harpsichord than a piano, with a clearer, less sustain sound.

The harpsichord

The harpsichord is a keyboard instrument that was popular during the Classical period. It is similar to the piano, but produces a different sound because the strings are plucked rather than struck. Harpsichords vary in size and shape, but are typically rectangular with two sets of strings. The harpsichord was an important orchestral and chamber music instrument during the Classical period, and was also used as a solo instrument.

The Voice

Instrumental music took precedence during the Classical period. This was a time when composers were able to rely less on vocal range and instead focus on developing themes and melodies. The increased popularity of the piano also contributed to this change.


Opera is a form of theatre in which music has a leading role and the parts are taken by singers, but is distinct from musical theatre. The performance is typically given in an opera house, accompanied by an orchestra or smaller musical ensemble, or large concert hall with a pit for orchestra. Opera incorporates many of the elements of spoken theatre, such as acting, scenery and costumes and sometimes includes dance. The word opera is derived from the Italian word “opera”, which means “work”, both in the sense of the labour done and the result produced. This derives from the Latin “opus”, which can in turn be traced to the Greek “ὄψος” (óps), meaning “eye” or “face”.

The first operas were written in Florence in the early 1600s by a group of composers known as the Camerata. One of their number, Giulio Caccini, wrote a work called Euridice, which was premiered in 1600 and is generally regarded as being the first opera ever written. It was based on Ovid’s story of Orpheus and Euridice, in which Orpheus goes to the Underworld to rescue his wife. The Camerata also wrote other works that were inspired by ancient Greek drama, including Peri’s Euridice (1600) and Rinuccini’s Dafne (1608).


An oratorio is a composition for solo voices, chorus, and orchestra, usually on a sacred or serious subject. Handel’s Messiah and Bach’s Christmas Oratorio are examples. The libretto (text) of an oratorio is usually taken from the Bible or from another religious source. The music of an oratorio is often divided into recitatives (speech-like passages), arias (songs for solo voices), and choruses.


Instrumental music of the Classical period emphasized melody and balance, which was achieved through the use of fewer chords and a more predictable harmonic progression. The music was more focused on entertaining the listener than on provoking emotion. This change in focus can be seen in the increased use of lighthearted genres such as the minuet and the sonata.

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