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Victoria Williams

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C9. Periods and Composers

Grade Six Music Theory - Lesson C9. Periods and Composers

It’s likely that you will have to guess the composer or time period of one of the scores in your grade six music theory exam.

You will normally have a choice of four, and will sometimes have to give a reason for your choice.

The extracts chosen for the exam will always be typical of their era – you won’t be tricked with a piece which was written in Modern times, but is Classical in style!

You won’t need to be able to differentiate between composers of the same era. You only need to know which composers are from which era, and what are the characteristics of music from that era, not the individual characteristics of the composers themselves.



The musical periods are usually broken down into hundred year stretches (in the exam). We can give these periods names: 

  • 1600-1700 - Baroque
  • 1700-1800 - Classical
  • 1800-1900 - Romantic
  • 1900-2000 – Modern

 Note: the musical eras are not generally defined with these specific dates, but it is useful for exam purposes to think of them in this way. 



Some of the most famous composers of each era are as follows:

  • Baroque – Bach, Purcell, Handel 
  • Classical – Mozart, Schubert, Haydn, Clementi, Beethoven
  • Romantic – Rachmaninov, Elgar, Chopin, Mendelssohn, Dvorak, Wagner, Berlioz, Verdi, Tchaikovsky, Liszt
  • Modern – Ravel, Debussy, Ireland, Shostakovich, Gershwin, Britten, Stockhausen 


While some composers (e.g. Mozart) were prolific and wrote in many different genres, other composers focused on just a few types of composition. It's useful to know these:

  • Chopin, Liszt & Rachmaninov – piano music, or piano with orchestra
  • Strauss – waltzes
  • Verdi & Wagner– operatic
  • Schubert – Lieder (songs for voice and piano)


The best way to learn about the styles of each of these composers, is to listen to them. Use a website like Youtube, and try to listen critically to a selection of music from each era. Think about the following criteria as you listen. Each of these is explained in more detail below.

  • Instruments
  • Texture
  • Harmony
  • Expression
  • Form



You can sometimes easily find a clue to the period by checking what instruments are playing. 

  • The clarinet did not exist in Baroque times 
  • Piano music barely existed in Baroque times
  • The harpsichord was used in Baroque times but became less popular in later eras

In general, the size of the orchestra was much smaller in Baroque and Classical times, and at its biggest in the Romantic period.



“Texture” in music refers to the way instruments combine with each other in an ensemble.

In the Baroque era, each instrument/voice was often weighted equally, with separate melodies woven together intricately to make a harmonious sound. Each part would be quite independent. This is called counterpoint. We can say the music has a “contrapuntal texture”.

The following piece is by Bach (written for “clavier”, which means “keyboard instrument”- either the harpsichord or clavichord).



Although it’s a composition for just one instrument, Bach uses the contrapuntal style by writing separate strands of music which are interwoven. The melody begins at A in the right hand. At B, the left hand plays a similar tune, but a fifth lower. At C, a third part is added, playing the same notes as in A, but an octave lower. At this point, the right hand has to play the upper two parts, and the left hand begins the third part. This type of composition is called a “fugue”.

 Another common contrapuntal genre from the Baroque period is a vocal composition called the “chorale”. The harmonisations and figured bass exercises in the grade six music theory exam are all based on the chorale style.

This is an example by Buxtehude, from his harmonisation of “Wie soll ich dich empfangen”, for two sopranos, bass and a “continuo” (keyboard) part. Notice how the voice parts enter one after another,  with the same melody (one at an interval of a 5th) in the same way as in the above fugue.



Not all Baroque music was contrapuntal in texture, but if you do see music written like this it’s likely that it will have been written by a Baroque composer.

In the Classical era, the texture of music is generally less “complicated” than in the Baroque era. Music of the Classical era tends to sound light, clear and elegant. Instead of being mostly “contrapuntal”, at this time music was mostly “homophonic”.

Homophonic (which literally means “sounding together”) usually means there is a single melody which has an accompaniment based on chords. (Compare this to “contrapuntal” music, which has several melodies woven together.)

Here is part of Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet (for clarinet and string quartet). Notice how the melody is almost completely in the clarinet part, with the strings providing an accompaniment. 





In the Romantic era, textures became thicker, richer and more luscious. Romantic music is also more likely to feature dramatically contrasted sections – for example a full-on orchestral section followed by just the woodwind and cellos, for example. Here is another clarinet quintet, this time by Brahms.





Notice how much richer the texture is. Instead of there being a simple melody plus accompaniment, the parts are more involved. The clarinet has the melody, but the first violin imitates it a beat and a half off-set. The second violin, viola and cello have a complicated quaver (8th note)/triplet accompaniment, which will sound much heavier than the crotchets (quarter notes) in the Mozart quintet.

The piece is in 3/4, but rather than having, say, three crotchets (quarter notes) or perhaps six quavers (8th notes) in a bar, there is a huge amount of rhythmic movement going on. In the first bar alone, there are notes being played at 11 different instances- each beat is divided into triplets, but the second two beats are also divided into normal quavers (8th notes). This makes the texture sound dense.

Modern era music is not really defined by texture – modern composers tend to be very experimental, and use all kinds of textures.



In Baroque and Classical music, pieces were usually written in one key for long stretches. Modulation was usually only to related keys, the relative major or minor, the dominant, or occasionally the subdominant.

In Romantic music, composers travelled to more distant keys when modulating. They would still employ a pivot chord (a chord which exists in both keys) to propel the music to a new key, but did not feel restricted to closely related keys.

Romantic music tends to use more melodic chromaticism (adding flats or sharps to the music because “it sounds nice”, rather than only for modulation purposes).

In Modern music, many composers abandoned the diatonic system, which is the system using major and minor scales as a basis for a piece. Some composers experimented with building pieces based on other types of scale. For example, Debussy exploited the pentatonic scale (the 5-note scale you get by playing only the black notes on a piano).

You can explain your choice in the grade six music theory exam by saying the “harmonic language is typical of X era”.


Each musical era developed organically from the previous one, and there will be overlaps. We can define each era roughly, however, in the following ways.

Baroque music

  • Marked with a tempo, ornaments and minimal articulation markings.
  • Not usually marked with “expression” directions written in words.
  • Dynamics often change abruptly. One section will be soft, the next will be loud, without a crescendo in between.
  • The mood of a piece will remain the same throughout.
  • Melodies are often long and energetic.


Classical music

  • Expression directions are sometimes used, but not heavily.
  • Dynamics can be gradual, with long crescendos or decrescendos.
  • The mood of a piece can change considerably as the piece progresses.
  • Melodies are shorter than in Baroque music.


Romantic music

  • Directions for expression are abundant and descriptive, including detailed articulation (staccato, accents, sforzandos, etc.)
  • Dynamics change frequently, either gradually or suddenly.
  • The mood of a piece is more dramatic – tragedy, comedy or romance, for example.
  • Melodies are often more lyrical, song-like.


Modern music

  • Expression directions can be incredibly precise and may not be restricted to the “traditional” Italian terms.
  • Dynamics may go to extremes or be used for special effects.
  • The mood of a piece and types of melody used are completely open to the composer’s imagination. They may be atonal (not built from notes which correspond to a diatonic or modal scale), discordant (jarring chords), modal (based on a very old scale system) or something else altogether.

Here’s a summary of the clues that can help you answer this question.











Homophonic, light

Homophonic, dense


Many ornaments

Some ornaments

Few ornaments

Few ornaments

Related modulation

Related modulation

Modulation from pivot

Any modulation

Few chromatics

Some chromatics

Many chromatics

Many chromatics

Usually diatonic, sometimes modal

Always diatonic

Always diatonic

Sometimes diatonic

Mood constant

Mood varies

Moods are dramatic and varied


Small orchestra

Medium orchestra

Large orchestra

Medium orchestra

Few (de)crescendos

Many (de)crescendos

Many (de)crescendos


Long, energetic melodies

Short, elegant melodies

Song-like melodies


Few expression directions

Some expression directions

Many expression directions

Very precise expression directions


 In fact, it’s rare to find a Modern piece in the grade six music theory exam, although they do crop up from time to time. The main give away that a piece is Modern is that it doesn’t conform to any of the other categories, particularly in its harmony.

Although a large number of modern pieces are diatonic, just like in the other eras, in an exam situation you will normally be presented with a non-diatonic piece if it is Modern.

Giving reasons for your choice

If you have to give reasons for your choice of era/composer, you can use some of the following phrases, depending on the extract. (You can replace the words in brackets with whatever is appropriate):



harmonic language
instrumental combination
melodic style
use of dynamics

is characteristic of
is not characteristic of


The lack of

expression marks


Further help

Quite often the extract you have to identify is from a famous piece of music. The broader your knowledge of music in general, the easier this question will be. Use the free resources around you and try to listen to a wide range of music every day. You could try:

 Take a look at some of the series on the MyMusicTheory blog. Although not aimed at exam students specifically, you will find the useful for revision purposes, and also for further listening.


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