Germany (then joined with Austria and other Germanic-speaking lands)) was part of the Holy Roman Empire in the Middle Ages, and Charlemagne was its first Emperor. In 1517 when Martin Luther started the reformation in Germany, many northern cities and principalities became Protestant, whereas the southern ones remained Catholic. The Protestants preferred simpler, less polyphonic music in their churches, and the chorale emerged as a dominant form. The southern Catholics continued to be strongly influenced by Italian and French musical tastes.

Johann Sebastian Bach  introduced a new, essentially German style in music, and he became the first of a long line of German composers right up to the start of the 20th century. Organ and choral music were his specialties, and he also wrote many intricate fugues and virtuoso toccatas.

At Mannheim, Johann Stamitz oversaw the birth of the modern orchestra, and the symphony in its modern form. In the early classical period, the southern Catholics, especially Haydn and Mozart, reigned supreme in Vienna, with elaborate masses involving orchestras, and symphonies and concertos in the new Mannheim style. (See Austria). Beethoven was born in Bonn, Germany, but moved to Vienna in 1790. He developed the classical style of Mozart and Haydn to its highest level, but he also sowed the first seeds of German romantic music with his Pastoral Symphony.

German romantics include Mendelssohn, Schumann, and Brahms. Wagner created a totally new, entirely German kind of opera, and Richard Strauss followed this trend also.