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Categories (or forms) of Music

The most important categories are symphonies, concertos, sonatas and chamber music.

In this section you will find information about the main categories (or forms) of music written in the western tradition. There are lists of some of the best tunes belonging to each category.  Click on any Category in the list below to find out more. 

No.CategoryDescription
1 Ballet MusicBallet music is music specifically written to accompany dance. It usually exhibits fairly strong rhythms. Ballet originates from the aristocratic palaces of renaisssance Italy, where lavish entertainments combined music, dance, pageantry and poetry. It spread to France in 1533, where it became known as 'ballet de cour' (= court ballet). King Louis 14th of France formed the first professional ballet compnay in 1672, 'The Royal academy of Music and Dance'. This company later on became the Paris opera. Classical ballet as we know it today dates from 1830 to 1900, and is set to music of the 'Romantic' period. In this period emerged the famous traditions of pointed shoes and tutu skirts for ballerinas, and graceful movements giving an impression of lightness and elegance. Adam, Auber and Delibes are French composers who wrote ballets in the second half of the 19th century. Ballet then travelled to Russia, and it rapidly became extremely popular there. The most famous ballet composer of all time is Tchaikovsky, who collaborated with the Russian choreographer Petipa, to create Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty and Nutcracker. Russian ballet dominated the world of ballet into the 20th century, with the choreographer Diaghilev and his company, the 'Ballets Russes'. Stravinsky wrote 3 famous ballet scores, Firebird, Petrushka and The Rite of Spring.
2 Chamber MusicChamber music is music written for small groups of instruments, for performance in a small room or 'chamber' from French 'chambre' = room. If performed in front of a small audience, in the old days the room would have been a grandiose aristocratic 'salon', but today the room is more likely to be a small hall. Early chamber music included parts for assorted instruments and often also some voice parts. In the baroque period it evolved into some more rigid forms such as the 'trio sonata'. This might involve 3 players - 2 violins and cello, or 2 violins and keyboard continuo. Sometime it would involve 4 players, 2 violins, cello and keyboard. In the classical period, chamber music was written for groups without a keyboard continuo as a backing. These include the string quartet - 2 violins, viola and cello, the wind quintet - horn, flute, oboe clarinet and bassoon, amongst other lesser-used combinations. Another element introduced was the addition of a soloist accompanied by one of these groups. Examples of this include Mozart's clarinet quintet, and his horn quintets, in all of which the solo instrument plays with a string quartet. In contrast to orchestral music, chamber music is more intimate, and the texture is crystal clear because of the small number of parts. Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert wrote some of their most beautiful woorks in this medium. In their more mature chamber works, beethoven and Brahms expressed some of their deepest musical feelings.
3 ConcertoThe concerto is usually a major work written for a single solo instrument backed by a full orchestra. The word derives from latin 'concertare' = to work together. In the renaissance and baroque periods, the term was loosely applied to all sorts of groups of instruments playing together, usually with only one of each instrument. In the later baroque, it became the 'concerto grosso', when more than one of each instument was employed. The classical concertos created by Mozart and Beethoven employ a dialogue between the 'big' sound of the full orchestra, and the intimate sound of the soloist, but also feature passages with genuine integration of both. In the romantic period, the concerto increasingly came to be a platform for displaying the virtuosity of the soloist.
4 Folk SongFolk songs are traditional tunes handed down orally from generation to generation. Some are as much as five or more centuries old. Usually the original composer is unknown, and the music may have changed substantially in the course of time. Most have only been written down comparitively recently, especially by late 19th century composers who published collections of folk songs from their own countries. The folk-song tended to become a symbol of nationalism in many countries, in the later 19th and early 20th centuries, although this trend was resisted in England. Many types of music are included in folk songs., for example, lullabies, nursery rhymes, love songs, battle songs, ballads about historical events, and work songs. They all posses memorable and direct melodies, simple harmonies, and un-sophisticated words. They are usually strophic in form, that is they consist of many verses set to the same tune, sometimes with a 'chorus' interposed between each verse. In Britain, Cecil Sharp and Vaughn-Williams were pre-eminent in writing down and publishing English folk-songs. The Scottish, Welsh and Irish songs are generally better-known then the English ones. In many continental European countries, the folk songs and associated folk-dances have formed the basis of a modern tourist industry, in which large-scale theatrical performances in brightly-coloured traditional costumes, are attended by eager bus-loads of tourists. In Austria and Switzerland, some folk songs originate from mountain farmers who 'yodelled' to send their voice over long distances. In Russia, folk song is often associated with folk dances such as the Trepak of the Cossaks. In Spain, flamenco guitarists accomany singers and dancers with their fiery and unique style. The United States of America has inherited many folk traditions from the immigrants who settled there from all over the world. In particular, the spirituals or religious songs sung by the descendents of the African slaves, have been adopted as a feature of typical 'North American' music. In the 1960s some US songwriters started writing songs in a style blending folk elements with 'Pop' and 'Rock', and they called themselves 'folk-singers'. So in the USA the distinction between traditional folk songs, and modern rock, has become somewhat blurred.
5 JazzJazz originates from the southern states of USA in about 1900. It started when black Americans adapted their traditional work-songs and spiituals into "Blues" . They then adopted the instruments of the marching brass band, and this music evolved into the form known today as "Traditional jazz", "New Orleans" or "Dixieland". One of its main features is improvisation, based on a rigorous harmonic sequence determined by the theme tune of the music. When Jazz moved North with the migration of black Americans to Chicago, other forms of Jazz evolved, and were taken up and enthusiastically adapted by white musicians. One such variation is "Jazz Swing". Typically, this is music written in 4/4 time, in which dotted quavers followed by semiquavers are played as two thirds then one third of a triplet, giving the "swing" feel to the music. Lots of popular songs of the 30's, 40's and 50's were orchestarted in the Jazz Swing manner. Frank Sinatra was a famous singer who adopted this style as his own. Another variation is the "Big Band Sound". Here the Traditional Jazz band of trumpet, trombone, tuba (or double bass), and clarinet is greatly enlarged by the doubling or tripling of these instruments, and the addition of tenor and alto saxophones. Glenn Miller is one of the most famous exponents of this style. It was immensly popular in dance halls of the 20's and 30's. In the late 60's Rock and Roll took over from jazz as the mainstream popular music form. New, more abstract and dissonant forms of Jazz emerged, variously called "Cool Jazz", "Modern Jazz" and "Progressive Jazz".
6 MarchMusic with a strong simple duple rhythm written to accompany a marching group, (eg soldiers), often the band marches with the troop. Faster marches are often in compound duple time, i.e.6/8, slower marches are usually in 2/4 or 4/4 time.
7 Nursery RhymesA traditional song for children, usually handed down by oral tradition from generation to generation. The tunes are usually very simple, and often very catchy, so adults will remember them all their lives. Sometimes the words are silly nonesense, occasionally they may incorporate an element of political satire from centuries ago, and frequently they involve fantasy, which appeals to young children.
8 OperaAn opera is a drama set to music, performed by singers on the stage accompanied by an orchestra in a pit. It is usually preceded by an orchestral overture, and it may include orchestral interludes and ballet sequences on the stage.
9 OvertureAn Overture was originally a short piece of music performed before opening the curtain at an opera. The word derives from French 'ouverture' = opening. It has evolved to mean a short work in one movement only, but often in sonata form.
10 Popular SongsToday, popular songs (usually abreviated to 'Pop') are songs sung by 20th and 21st century popular artists, played frequently on radio stations, used in dance clubs and discoteques, and usually released as "hit parade" recordings on vinyl and compact disks, or as downloadable mp3 files for use on portable electronic devices such as smart-phones and tablets. In previous centuries, the term was used for what we now often describe as 'folk songs'. They share the elements of simple melodies and harmonies with traditional folk songs, in many cases. However, today they are often accompanied by very loud percussion on every beat. Who knows, in future centuries, which of today's pop songs will be remembered, and called 'folk songs'?
11 SacredHymns are songs expressing praise or love of God, usually sung in the various Christian churches. The earliest hymns, in Latin, date from 340 AD, written by St Ambrose. Up to 1400 AD, hymns usually were monophonic, that is they only had one voice part, like Gregorian chant. Hymns usually are strophic in form, with repeating stanzas consisting of 4 lines, each set to a different musical phrase. So the form ABCD is sometimes called 'hymn form'. Since the reformation in the 16th century, hymns were sung in 4-part harmony, with block chords for every word. The Mass is the main religious service in the Roman Catholic Church, and commissions to set it to music have been the impetus for many composers to create great works. Bach's B minor mass is one the most famous, and Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven have all written masses for soloists, chorus, and orchestra. An anthem is a short choral work, based on the Bible or other religious texts, sung in Protestant churches.
12 Short PieceThis category covers all kinds of short works, such as piano miniatures like Chopin's waltzes, mazurkas, Nocturnes and Polonaises, or brief orchestral and instrumental works which don't fall into other categories
13 SonataA sonata is an instrumental composition with three or four movements, for solo piano or violin etc., or for a duet, usually one instrument being the piano accompaniment. Sonata in Italian means "played" as opposed to "sung" as in the Italian word "Cantata". From the Renaissance (1450 - 1600) on, the word "sonata" was used to distinguish an instrumental piece from a vocal composition or "Cantata". The precise form was not laid down in this period, but it typically would resemble a simple song. In the classical period, from the second half of the eighteenth century on, the sonata evolved into an important form of highly structured instrumental music. The sonata consists of three movements, in contrasting tempi, fast, slow, fast. The first movement, usually "Allegro," is in "SONATA FORM", in which the themes are treated in a carefully ordered sequence. The second or slow movement is marked Andante, Adagio, Lento, or Largo, and is often like a song. The third movement marked Allegro or Presto is often a RONDO. The first and third movements are in the same key, but the second is in a different one. Most sonatas have three movements, but a few have only two, notably Beethoven's two "Easy" sontas for piano, Opus 49 numbers 1 and 2. These both miss out the middle slow movement. Some sonatas include a fourth movement, such as a minuet or a scherzo, before the final fast movement. Occasionally the third movement is in the form of a theme with variations. Three other major categories of music use the same form as the sonata. The symphony (for orchestra), and much chamber music such as the string quartet, have four movements. The concerto (for soloist and orchestra) has only three movements. The idea of inserting a minuet before the last movement in symphonies and string quartets comes from Stamitz of the Mannheim school. Mozart and Beethoven are the most famous sonata composers. Mozart wrote over forty violin sonatas and nineteen piano sonatas. Haydn wrote many piano sonatas, mostly shorter and apparently simpler than Mozart's and Beethoven's, but every one of them is an absolutely delightful gem. Beethoven composed thirty-two piano sonatas, some of his most famous are the Pathetique Sonata (op. 13), the Moonlight Sonata (op. 27, no. 2), the Pastoral Sonata (op. 28), and the Appassionata Sonata (op. 57). He also wrote violin and cello sonatas. His most famous violin sonata is probably the Kreutzer Sonata, op. 47. Schubert wrote about ten piano sonatas, using a more lyrical style but still in classic form. Mendelssohn wrote a violin sonata, and two cello sonatas. Even Chopin and Liszt wrote a few sonatas. Brahms, a late romantic composer, used the classic sonata form. His sonatas for violin, piano, and clarinet were written between 1850 and 1900.
14 SongA song is a tune set to words and sung by the human voice. This category covers many types of song, including operatic arias, German lieder, popular songs and folk songs. It also covers works arranged for instruments, but which are either originally written with a voice part, or else they have the form of a song, but no words, and called Songs Without Words.
15 SuiteA longer work consisting of several movements, without the formal structure of a classical symphony or sonata. There may be a large number of movements.
16 SymphonyMajor work for an orchestra, usually with 4 movements - allegro, lento, minuet or scherzo, then allegro or presto.
17 Tone PoemOrchestral or solo work, where the music attempts to "paint" an impression of some scene or mood.
18 VariationsA theme is followed by any number of variations, which are different arrangements based on the initial theme
19 WaltzMusic in 3/4 time with light tuneful melodies, and simple chordal lower parts with the first beat heavily accented. It is primarily a dance form, still popular in the ballroom, but has been adapted for the concert hall in many famous classical works. It originates from Austrian and Gerrman country dances or Landler, from the mid 1700s. Johann Strauss is the most famous composer to have specialized in writing waltzes, such as the Blue Danube, and tales of the Vienna Woods. His beloved city of Vienna is considered the waltz capital of the world.
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