Classical music crash course – glossary

For my Classical music crash course at the Idler Academy I”ve prepared a
quick glossary of the four key periods I”m covering, with a brief overview
and definitions of five key terms that are relevant to each. Enjoy!

Baroque music: c1607 to 1750

Essential elements? Dance-like feel behind much of the music; rhythmic drive; often still a polyphonic approach to composing; some extremely expressive music, with flamboyant vocal writing and extraordinary poetry; craftsmanship rather than self-expression.


Tonic, dominant and relative minor:– the tonic is the home key, and the
dominant its closest relative, on the fifth of the scale. Relative minor is
the closest minor key to a major-key tonic, starting on the sixth of the
Pedal point: a device used towards the end of a piece when a note is held
to anchor the harmony; usually in the bass, and usually on the dominant.
Fugue: From the Latin fuga, its name describes how one voice chases another
in an imitative way, in this musical form based on imitation.
Polyphony:– music in many parts which act independently.
Stretto:– in a fugue, when a theme enters before the previous one has
finished in another part.

Classical era: c1750 to 1820

Essential elements? Balance and beauty; clear, elegant discussion of musical
ideas, avoiding extremes; plenty of conventions, often subtly contravened.


Chamber music:– music with one instrument per part.
Compound duple time:– 6/8. Two beats in a bar, subdivided into three within
each beat.
Cadence:– two closing chords, like an Amen.
Sonata form:– the arrangement of an opening movement into three sections of
a musical argument: exposition, development and recapitulation.
Codetta:– a short passage that rounds a section off.

Romantic era: c1820-1910

Essential elements? The rise of the artist; combining music with other
arts; celebrating nature and individual nationhood; pushing the sound world
of opera and orchestra to the limit, and doing the same with the tonal


Programme music: music that’s designed to tell a story or paint a picture
(as opposed to absolute music).
Gesamtkunstwerk: Wagner”s idea of bringing several disciplines together to
make a perfect, all-embracing art form.
Thematic transformation: transmogrifying a musical theme during the course
of a musical drama.
Leitmotiv: in a dramatic context, a recurring musical theme that’s always
associated with a particular character or idea; aka idée fixe.
Tone poem or symphonic poem: a piece of narrative programme music painted on an orchestral canvas.

C20th era:

Essential elements? Music being pushed to the brink and a whole variety of
approaches emerging, some radical and others conservative: expressionism,
neo-classicism, serialism, electronic composition, modernism,
post-modernism, minimalism, post-minimalism ……


Timbre: – the quality of a note produced by a musical instrument.
Bitonal:– having more than one tonal centre.
Ostinato: – a repeated rhythmic figure.
Diatonic: – based round a tonal centre.
Serialism: – a procedure that orders the 12 notes of a chromatic scale as the
basis for a piece of music; also known as twelve-tone composition.


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