The term classical music is usually used to represent all art music of the Western world. More specifically though, the classical era refers to the art music of Western Europe from about 1750-1820. This period coincides with the Age of Enlightenment and also with a marked growth of the middle class in Europe. It was a time when a growing number of people had money that they could spend on music, and they could afford to attend public concerts, buy musical instruments, and study music privately.
In the classical era, no middle class home was complete without a piano. The piano was a new invention and gradually replaced the harpsichord as the primary keyboard instrument. The harpsichord was unable to play at different volume levels and was therefore limited in its abilities. The piano, or piano-forte (meaning soft-loud) can play a wide range of volumes and is much more flexible. It served as the home entertainment center for families in the classical era (television was not yet available). The ever increasing number of people who could play the piano led to a much wider and much more educated audience for music.
From the Middle Ages through the last decades of the 1700s, almost all musicians were either employed by the church or royal families. This situation resulted in great frustration for many composers because they were often forced to write pieces that were dictated by some royal nincompoop who knew nothing about music. By the end of the classical era, though, a musical democracy was forming. Since the middle classes had money to spend and since they were well educated and interested in new music, public concerts helped make it possible for musicians to make a living without the assistance of royalty or the church. Also, individuals with money often paid composers directly to write specific pieces for them, giving musicians a new source of income.
The capital of the musical world in the classical era was Vienna. It was one of the largest cities in Europe and served as the political center for a huge portion of the continent. As a result, people were constantly coming through the city, bringing with them ideas and knowledge from other cultures. Also, the citizens of Vienna were very well educated and were an excellent audience for classical composers.
Some of the genres of the baroque era fell out of favor in the classical period. The trio sonata and concerto grosso were virtually nonexistent. Composers did continue to write in other baroque genres though, including the solo sonata, solo concerto, and opera. Also, new genres like the string quartet and the symphony were born and flourished.
The string quartet is a type of chamber music that is played by two violins, a viola, and a cello. The symphony is composed for an orchestra that consists of a large number of strings, woodwinds, brass, and percussion instruments. The three main composers of the time, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791), Franz Joseph Haydn (1732-1809), and Ludwig van Beethoven (1710-1827), composed prolifically in each of these genres.
String quartets and symphonies, as well as sonatas and concertos are comprised of movements. A movement is an independent section within a larger work. There are usually three or four movements in a composition and each movement has a different tempo and character. Compared to the music of the baroque era, melodies from the classical era are longer and have a much greater variety of rhythms. Baroque melodies tend to repeat the same rhythmic figures frequently. Early classical melodies have a lighter feel and often seem to float through the air effortlessly.
Three new musical forms were developed in the classical period. Form in music refers to the structure of a piece. The form of a composition holds it together in a similar way that a building is held together by is walls. Almost all music can be broken down into sections that contain either new music or repeated music. These sections help us to classify sonata form, rondo form, and theme and variations form, all of which were standard in the classical era.