Music Forms of the Classical Period

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

If the Baroque period was known as the "age of absolution," (the aristocracy and church at that time were very powerful) the Classical period is known as the "age of enlightenment" (the power shifted to the middle class). As a result, music forms during this period were simpler and less intense than that of Baroque music. Here are some music forms during the Classical period:

Sonata form - It 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. An example of this is Mozart's "Symphony No. 40 in G Minor, K. 550."

Theme and Variation - It may be illustrated as A A'A'' A''' A'''', notice that each successive variation (A' A'', etc) contains certain elements of the theme (A). Compositional techniques used to create variation may be instrumental, harmonic, melodic, rhythmic, style, tonal and ornamentation. Examples of this is Bach's "Goldberg Variations" and Haydn's 2nd Movement of the "Surprise Symphony."

Minuet and Trio - It is derived from a three-part (ternary) dance form and may be illustrated as: minuet (A), trio (B, originally played by 3 players), minuet (A).

Each section may be further broken down into 3 sub-sections. It is in 3/4 time (triple meter) and often the third movement in Classical symphonies, string quartets or other works. An example of this is Mozart's "Eine kleine Nachtmusik."

Rondo - 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) that is restated several times as it alternates with other themes. There are two basic patterns of a rondo: ABACA and ABACABA (the A section represents the main theme). The last movement of sonatas, concerti, string quartets and classical symphonies is often a rondo. An example of this is 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. In Germany, a similar style called "sentimental style" or empfindsamer stil were adapted by composers.
  • Music Events During the Classical Period - The music of the Classical period, which spans from 1750 to 1820, is characterized by simpler melodies and forms such as the sonatas. The piano was undoubtedly the primary instrument used by composers during this period.
  • Most Influential Classical Music Composers - Largely different from Baroque music which was mostly flamboyant, new music styles during the Classical period had simpler harmony and clearer tonality. Here are several notable composers of this period or those whose works represent Classical music.