In IB Music we study the classical music eras of:
- Middle Ages (9th to 14th centuries)
- Renaissance (15th and 16th centuries)
- Baroque (1600 – 1750)
- Classical (1750 – 1820)
- Romantic (1820 – 1910)
- Modern or Contemporary (1910 to the present)
Often students ask about what came first, the music or the era? As I was thinking about how we teach eras often classifying music by characteristics, I realized this answer is multi-faceted. Music has developed and evolved in small steps through time like all great human pursuits. To classify music, musicologists have looked back and broke up this evolution into stages. The broad classification system known as the classical music eras have established and labelled types of music. The use of musical characteristics such as melody, meter, harmony, medium, form, style and context provide a basis for this classification. Often the dates listed overlap, but most musicologists agree on the overall shape of musical development.
However genres can show characteristics that defy or transgress the definition of their assigned era. Often the characteristics of the genres we know, especially concerning harmonic progression, came after the fact and are more of a poll of the most common techniques in use at the time. The classification system devised is always going to be a simplification. In reality music has evolved in a more gradual manner with a number of smaller steps along the way rather than an abrupt change occurring in a specific year.
Every time period has unconventional works that transgress categorical boundaries. This can be seen with Beethoven’s 9th symphony which includes a chorus. A CHORUS in a symphony? We call this a symphony, but it definitely transgresses the typical definition of the genre, ‘symphony.’ The same is true for pieces in the Renaissance era, as well as the other eras. The motet changed so radically throughout the last decades of the 15th century, it could no longer be called a motet.
Most of the famous pieces we know today ‘broke the mold’ of their assigned genre. It’s important as we listen to pieces of music in our classes, we allow students to understand that not all pieces fit neatly into ONE genre. We classify pieces using the era that most closely resembles the majority of its characteristics. After all, composers are innovators. And often it is this innovation we find most interesting about a piece of music.