A Beginner's Guide to Music History

Introduction to the Different Periods of Music Development

Chicago Symphony Orchestra
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Music is universal and yet it is also relative and subjective. What may be music to one may not be so to another.

For some people, music can be an orchestral symphony, a jazz set, an electronic beat or even something as simple as bird's chirping. Take a moment to ponder what music means to you as you read about the history of music.

Origin and History of Music

There are many theories regarding when and where music originated. Many agree that music began even before man existed. Historiographers point out that there are 6 periods of music and each period has a particular style that greatly contributed to what music is today.

Here is a chronological introduction to each stage of music development to help you better understand the history of music. 

Medieval/Middle Ages

The Middle Ages, which encompasses the 6th-century to the 16th-century, featured Medieval music. This Medieval Music Timeline shows important events in Medieval music history, such as the beginning of musical notation and polyphony.

During this time, there were two general types of music styles; the monophonic and the polyphonic. The main forms of music included Gregorian chanting and Plainchant. Plainchant is a form of church music that has no instrumental accompaniment and only involves chanting or singing. For a period of time, it was the only type of music allowed in Christian churches.

Around the 14th-century, secular music became increasingly prominent, setting the stage for the music period known as the Renaissance.


Renaissance means "rebirth". By the 16th-century, the Church's hold of the arts was weaker. Thus, composers during this period were able to bring about many changes in the way music was created and perceived. For example, musicians experimented with cantus firmus, began using instrumentals more and created more elaborate music forms that included up to 6 voice parts. 

Read the Renaissance Music Timeline to discover more historical turning points between the 16th and 17th-century, and here is a more extensive explanation of different Renaissance Music Forms/Styles.


The word "baroque" comes from the Italian word "barocco" which means bizarre. The Baroque period was a time when composers experimented with form, musical contrasts, styles and instruments. This period saw the development of opera, instrumental music as well as other Baroque music forms and styles. Music became homophonic, meaning a melody would be supported by a harmony. 

Prominent instruments featured in Baroque period compositions included the violin, violadouble bassharp, and oboe.

The Baroque period in music history refers to the styles of the 17th and 18th-centuries. The High Baroque period lasted from 1700 to 1750, during which Italian opera was more dramatic and expansive. Learn about other periods and events of the time with the Baroque Music Timeline.


The music forms and styles of the Classical period, which spans from 1750 to 1820, is characterized by simpler melodies and forms such as the sonatas. During this time, the middle class had more access to music, not just the highly educated aristocrats. To reflect this shift, composers wanted to create music that was less complicated and easier to understand. The piano was undoubtedly the primary instrument used by composers during the Classical period. 

Browse through this Classical Music Timeline to learn about significant events of this period, such as when Mozart wrote his first symphony and when Beethoven was born.


Historiographers define the Romantic Music period to be between 1800 to 1900. Music forms of this period used music to tell a story or express an idea and the expanded on the use of various instruments including wind instruments. Instruments that were invented or improved upon during this time included the flute and the saxophone.

Melodies became fuller and more dramatic as Romantics believed in allowing their imagination and intense emotion to soar through their works. By the mid-19th-century, folk music became popular among the Romantics and more emphasis was put on nationalist themes. Learn about more turning points during the Romantic period with  Romantic Music Timeline.


Music during the 20th-century brought about many innovations on how music was performed and appreciated. Artists were more willing to experiment with new music forms and used technology to enhance their compositions. Early electronic instruments included the dynamophone, Theremin, and Ondes-Martnot. 

20th-century music styles included impressionistic, 12-tone system, neoclassical, jazz, concert music, serialism, chance music, electronic music, new Romanticism, and minimalism