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Glossary of Musical Terms

The following section details the major innovations in both music and dance. Composers and instuments are listed where applicable.


Music. The earliest forms of music were the improvised rhythms of pre-historic man. They probably had a magical or spiritual meaning and were found in rituals and ceremonies up to the fall of the Roman Empire.

Instruments: Flute, drum, harp, trumpet, lyre.

Dance. As with music, dance started out as a ritual. It portrayed the hunt (by costumed figures), preparation for war, fertility rites and so on.

THE MIDDLE AGES (400-1300)

Music. The middle ages saw the invention of plainsong and polyphony, the musical scale by Pope Gregory I (540-604) and a system of writing music by Guido d'Arezzo (980-1050). Minstrels and troubadours emerged during the 11th century.

Instruments: Recorder, organ, bagpipes.

Dance. The first organised dances were processional Court dances. By the 12th century these had progressed to couples dancing alone. The Pavane was probably the first stylized dance.

RENAISSANCE (1300-1600)

Music.  Mostly polyphonic church music. Harmonics and instrumental music emerged along with national styles in open-air pageants and theatre.

Instruments: Harpsichord, lute, guitar, violin family, bassoon.

Dance. Early renaissance dances were: danse basse (low gliding steps) and hault danse (high fast steps). A European dance manual was published in 1416 and the first ballet performed in 1489. Beginning of the clog dance. First printed account of a ballet, 1581.

BAROQUE (1600-1750)

Music A period of great operatic works, the first true opera written by Monteverdi, 1607. Naples later became the centre of operatic development. In France and Britain the spread of opera was hampered by the strength of court (chamber) music.  Instrumental music became much more popular. The baroque period  saw the first appearance of a full orchestra performing concertos, sonatas and symphonies. Polyphonic music at its height.

Instruments: Oboe, french horn.

Composers: Monteverdi, Purcell, Vivaldi, Bach, Handel.

Dance. Ballet masquerade with its hideous and ornate masks bekame very popular. The main baroque dances were the mazurka, jigs, saraband, chaconne, gavotte and minuet.  The waltz, derived from the minuet, was condemned as evil in England. A popular book was the 'English Dancing Master' written by Playford in 1651. The five classical ballet positions were codified.

CLASSICAL (1750-1800)

Music. The symphony is symbolic of the classical style. Composed initially with 3 movements (fast-slow-fast) this had developed by the end of the 18th century into 4 movements (fast-slow-fast-fast). Early symphonies were relatively short but later composers produced long and very complex pieces. Church music became less popular, string quartets more popular and opera less serious.

Instruments: Clarinet, piano.

Composers: Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven.

Dance. The beginning of the movement to away from formal dance and towards free expression. Ballet became more physical, dances now included pirouettes and leaps. Masques were removed.

ROMANTIC (1800-1900)

Music. A break away from formal composition. Great symphonies and concertos and the height of the piano virtuoso. Opera had less set pieces and became more continuous. In Italy there was a move away from classical themes and towards more realistic subjects. From the mid 19th century onwards came brass bands, operetta and music hall. Beginnings of the blues and musicals in the late 19th Century.

Instruments: Harp, saxophone, tuba.

Composers: Early Romantic: Beethoven, Paganini, Schubert, Mendelssohn. High Romantic: Liszt, Wagner, Verdi, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Grieg.

Dance. Dancing became more professional both in the court and theatre. Ballet abandoned Greek mythology and dancers were on points for the first time. Introduction of the square dance, can-can, polka and the great waltzes.

The Modernists. Post romantic movement in the 1900's writing dreamlike and expressive music.

Composers: Puccini, Debussy, Strauss, Ravel, Elgar.


Music. The 20th century has seen the spread of many generic styles such as: rock, country and western, folk, soul, reggae and so on. The birth of popular music (pop) is said to have began in the fifties with rock and roll, a style derived from rhythm and blues and aimed directly at the young. Such is the variety of popular music it is now almost impossible to categorize all of its forms.

Dance. Russian ballet introduced to the west. Beginning of free dance incorporating international styles. Ballroom dancing widespread, many dances with Latin-American origins such as the samba, tango and rumba. Also new were the two-step and foxtrot. The tap dance was introduced in 1920. Modern free dance began in the fifties with Rock and Roll, the dance styles often following the music charts.

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