Music Forms of the Classical Period

A Musical Reflection of the Age of Enlightenment

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Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Austrian composer. Woodcuts according to a painting. Printed by A. Hoelzer, Berlin. Publishing House: Moeser & Scherl, Berlin. Around 1785. Imagno / Getty Images

Classical Period music forms are simpler and less intense than those of the previous Baroque Period, reflecting a shift in the political and intellectual culture of Europe at the time. The Baroque period in European history is known as the "Age of Absolution," and at the time the aristocracy and church were very powerful.

But the Classical period took place during the "Age of Enlightenment" when the power shifted to the middle class and science and reason overturned the philosophical power of the church.

Here are some music forms popular during the Classical period.

Forms and Examples

Sonata—The Sonata form is often the first part of a multi-movement work. It has three main sections: the exposition, development, and recapitulation. The theme is presented in the exposition (1st movement), further explored in the development (2nd movement), and restated in the recapitulation (3rd movement). A concluding section, called the coda, often follows the recapitulation. A good example of this is Mozart's "Symphony No. 40 in G Minor, K. 550."

Theme and Variation—Theme and variation may be illustrated as A A'A'' A''' A'''': each successive variation (A' A'', etc) contains recognizable elements of the theme (A). Compositional techniques used to create variations on the theme may be instrumental, harmonic, melodic, rhythmic, style, tonality, and ornamentation. Examples of this include Bach's "Goldberg Variations" and Haydn's 2nd Movement of the "Surprise Symphony."

Minuet and Trio—This form is derived from a three-part (ternary) dance form and may be illustrated as: minuet (A), trio (B, originally played by three players), and minuet (A). Each section may be further broken down into three sub-sections. Minuet and trio is played in 3/4 time (triple meter) and often appears as the third movement in Classical symphonies, string quartets or other works.

An example of minuet and trio is Mozart's "Eine kleine Nachtmusik."

Rondo—Rondo is an instrumental form that was popular in the late 18th to early 19th centuries. A rondo has a main theme (usually in the tonic key) which is restated several times as it alternates with other themes. There are two basic patterns of a rondo: ABACA and ABACABA, in which the A section represents the main theme. Rondos often appear as the last movement of sonatas, concerti, string quartets, and classical symphonies. Examples of rondos include Beethoven's "Rondo a capriccio" and Mozart's " Rondo alla turca" from "Sonata for Piano K 331."

More on the Classical Period

  • Music of the Classical Period—By the early 1700s, French and Italian composers used the "style gallant" or gallant style; a simple yet more direct style of music. A discussion of the types of operas and other forms of music, as well as instrumentation and composers of the Classical Period.
  • Music Events During the Classical Period—The events of the Classical period, which spans from 1750 to 1820, include the active composers and the other intellectuals who informed the Age of Enlightenment.
  • Franz Joseph Haydn—One of the most influential composers of the Classical Period, "Papa" Haydn composed over 100 symphonies.