Musical Characteristics and Performance Practice of the Classical Period

By Jacy Burroughs

The Classical period of music had its advent in Italian music of the early eighteenth century and extended into the early nineteenth century. Some musicologists mark the end of the Classical period around 1815, at the end of Beethoven’s compositional middle period. However, the Classical period truly overlaps with both the Baroque and Romantic periods. Characteristics of and performance considerations for Classical period music are outlined below.


In Classical Period music, dynamics were more frequently dictated than during the Baroque period. Gradual crescendos and decrescendos gained greater popularity than the terraced dynamics of the Baroque period.


Slurs were in greater use during the Classical period to imitate the bel canto style of singing. Bel canto is a term used in Italian opera that means “beautiful singing.” It is characterized by smooth legato phrasing, agility through florid passages, and evenness of tone. The singer would also include artistic ornaments to demonstrate the flexibility of his or her voice and add expression to the music.

Rhythm and Texture

The Classical period saw a gradual move away from the use of notes inégales, a type of rhythm also known as over-dotting. This rhythm was very typical of French dance music during the Baroque. Also characteristic of the Classical period was a slowing of harmonic rhythm, which is the rate at which chords change.

Musical texture was primarily homophonic, meaning that the melodic line was found in one voice or part and has a subordinate accompaniment.


Overall, there was less ornamentation in the Classical period than in the Baroque. Ornamentations, including cadenzas, were not written out and often not marked at all. This is in striking contrast to the Baroque period when there were many symbols used to indicate different types of ornaments. One of the most commonly used ornaments in Classical period music was the trill, particularly cadential trills, which immediately preceded a cadence. Trills typically began on the upper note, thus creating greater harmonic suspension. It was common practice to conclude cadence points with a turn. Appoggiaturas were another type of ornament commonly used. An appoggiatura is written as a grace note before the principal note, but actually would have received half the value of the principal note. It is approached by a leap and resolved by a step, either ascending or descending.

The use of vibrato was also considered a type of embellishment added to the music. Woodwinds used both breath and their fingers to create vibrato. During the Classical period, woodwind instruments were made with tone holes carved out of the instrument, not keys which are used today. This design made finger vibrato possible.

Example of turn notation

Example of turn notation

How a turn is executed

How a turn is executed

Notation indicating an appoggiatura

Notation indicating an appoggiatura

How an appoggiatura may be executed.  Also known as a sigh figure.

How an appoggiatura may be executed. Also known as a sigh figure.


Pitch during the Classical period was approximately A430 hertz. There were two primary temperaments in use. The Vallotti temperament from Italy, also known as well temperament, enjoyed widespread use.   This system was more closely approaching equal temperament (equal spaces of 12 pitches in an octave). In the Vallotti tuning system, the fifths F-Bb-Eb-G#-C#-F#-B are tuned pure and the rest are tempered. The Werckmeister temperament was used in Germany. Andreas Werckmeister described four different tuning systems, which used mostly perfect fifths but tempered specific fifths by various frequencies depending on whether one is playing chromatic or diatonic music.


 Within the Classical Period, there were three distinct musical styles:

Sturm und Drang, meaning storm and stress, was a movement in German literature that began in the second half of the eighteenth century. Its goal was to illicit shock in the powerful, and even violent, expression of emotion. It found its place in music primarily during the 1770s in German opera and melodrama.

The galant style, in eighteenth century music, referred to homophonic style as opposed to strict, learned or contrapuntal style. It is characterized by light texture, frequent cadences, heavily ornamented melody and simple harmony. It is considered the characteristic style of the early Classical period and can be found in music from all the major centers: Italy, France, and Germany.

Empfindsamer Stil, a style associated with north Germany, could be considered a dialect of the galant. While the goal of the empfindsamer style was to express emotion, it was done so more naturally, sensitively, and subjectively than in Sturm und Drang. Empfindsam means “sensitive” or “sentimental.” This style was also present during the mid-eighteenth century and was characterized by simple homophonic texture, frequent use of appoggiatura or sigh figures, and harmonic and melodic chromaticism. C.P.E. Bach’s lieder and later keyboard pieces, particularly the fantasies and sonatas, are examples of this style.

Jacy Burroughs is the Online Merchandiser for Sheet Music Plus. She has degrees in horn performance from the University of the Pacific Conservatory of Music and the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.  She is a freelance horn player in the Bay Area. 

6 Responses to “Musical Characteristics and Performance Practice of the Classical Period”

  1. 1 Sara Takhtechian November 26, 2017 at 2:36 pm

    The article says “Baroque music used slurs to imitate bel canto”. Is that meant to say classical seeing as this is an article about the Classical Period?

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