Genres & Styles in Western Classical Music

[This post is #6 in the West­ern Clas­si­cal Music Series]

After look­ing at some of the Forms used in WCM, let us look at some of the pop­u­lar Gen­res or Styles that make up the world of WCM. Note that as music evolved, com­posers increas­ing­ly began to exer­cise their free­dom and cre­ativ­i­ty, to the extent that at times they even broke away from these styles.

Orchestral vs. Chamber Music

WCM works can be broad­ly dif­fer­en­ti­at­ed as either being ‘Orches­tral’ or as ‘Cham­ber Music’. Orches­tral works are those per­formed by a full orches­tra, com­pris­ing dozens of dif­fer­ent instru­ments being played by dozens of per­form­ers. Sev­er­al per­form­ers may play the same instru­ment. Cham­ber Music com­pris­es of works per­formed by a small group of per­form­ers, each play­ing a dif­fer­ent instru­ment. The rea­son for this ter­mi­nol­o­gy is his­tor­i­cal — the occa­sion and pur­pose behind the two gen­res was dif­fer­ent. Orches­tral works were per­formed for the pub­lic; cham­ber music was meant to be per­formed as an accom­pa­ni­ment inside homes of roy­al fam­i­lies who financed and sup­port­ed music com­posers. For obvi­ous rea­sons, Cham­ber Music is also referred to as Ensem­ble.

Addi­tion­al Gen­res may be defined as Instru­men­tal for solo instru­ments, Choral for group of singers (choir). What fol­lows below is a gener­ic descrip­tion of sev­er­al ‘Styles’ that lie with­in these gen­res.


The Solo Con­cer­to is an orches­tral work com­posed in three move­ments, per­formed by the full orches­tra and a solo instru­ment. Typ­i­cal­ly, con­cer­tos are writ­ten for the piano, vio­lin, cel­lo or the flute. The inter­play between the solo instru­ment and the orches­tra is the defin­ing ele­ment of the Con­cer­to — this is the clos­est in WCM to the ‘jugal­ban­di’ in Indi­an Clas­si­cal. The Con­cer­to has also sur­vived cen­turies of musi­cal evo­lu­tion and remains pop­u­lar to this day, with many accom­plished solo instru­men­tal­ists show­cas­ing their vir­tu­oso skills while per­form­ing in this genre.

Here is Sergei Rach­mani­noff him­self play­ing his Piano Con­cer­to No. 2 with the Philadel­phia Orches­tra:

This was record­ed in 1929, so there’s no live video. If this music seems famil­iar to you, it was used in David Lean’s 1945 film ‘Brief Encounter’, Bil­ly Wilder’s 1955 ‘The Sev­en Year Itch’ star­ring Mar­i­lyn Mon­roe with the famous skirt shot, and also in Clint Eastwood’s 2010 film ‘Here­after’. See how clas­si­cal music is time­less? You can read more about Rach­mani­noff and his Piano Con­cer­to No. 2 here.

Con­ven­tion­al con­cer­tos have the first move­ment in Sonata Form, the sec­ond may be sonata or free-flow­ing, while the finale is typ­i­cal­ly a Ron­do or sim­ply a ‘Theme with Vari­a­tions’.


A Sym­pho­ny is an orches­tral work, typ­i­cal­ly com­posed in four or five move­ments. Like the con­cer­to, sym­phonies have been a main­stay of WCM for a very long time and have been very pop­u­lar. A typ­i­cal sym­pho­ny con­forms to the fol­low­ing struc­ture:

  1. Open­ing move­ment is fast-paced, with a sol­id the­mat­ic char­ac­ter. This move­ment is usu­al­ly in the Sonata Form.
  2. Sec­ond move­ment is slow, some­times melan­choly or solemn. This move­ment may use the Sonata, Ron­do, or a sim­ple Theme with Vari­a­tions form.
  3. Third move­ment is a Min­uet or Scher­zo, mod­er­ate­ly paced. A min­uet is meant to accom­pa­ny dance, the Scher­zo replaced it in lat­er eras, with much faster tem­po. Both fol­low the ‘Ternary Form’ (ABA…).
  4. The Fourth move­ment is the Finale, which is again a fast-paced move­ment in Sonata or Ron­do form.

Many sym­phonies reverse the 2nd and 3rd move­ments. Beethoven evolved the form fur­ther by even intro­duc­ing the choir in the famous ‘Ode to Joy’ finale of his 9th Sym­pho­ny. Here is a sam­ple, con­duct­ed by Her­bert von Kara­jan, in the 1977 New Year’s Eve con­cert of the Berlin Phil­har­mon­ic Orches­tra:

You can sense the incred­i­ble pow­er of the full orches­tra. If any per­son is not moved by this spec­tac­u­lar music, there is a soul miss­ing.


A ‘Sonata’ is a work for one or two instru­ments, com­posed in three or four move­ments, very sim­i­lar in Form to the Sym­pho­ny (dis­cussed above). You might say that a Sonata is a Cham­ber Music ver­sion of the Orches­tral Sym­pho­ny. Most sonatas were writ­ten for the Piano (solo) or the Vio­lin (often accom­pa­nied by the Piano).

For a typ­i­cal WCM lover, about 70–80% of time is con­sumed by Con­cer­tos, Sonatas, and Sym­phonies, all of which employ the Sonata Form as their basic foun­da­tion. So if you’ve not spent time under­stand­ing Sonata Form, please do so, by read­ing the pre­vi­ous post again.


The Opera is full-fledged the­ater — a dra­ma per­formed by actors who’re singers, accom­pa­nied by a full orches­tra, involv­ing a sto­ry­line, cos­tumes, sets, etc. It is one of the most endear­ing and pop­u­lar gen­res of WCM with a rich his­to­ry of evo­lu­tion.

Opera’ means ‘work’ in Ital­ian (opus = work), pos­si­bly refer­ring to the labor involved for the per­form­ers in singing, act­ing, and danc­ing. The text of the dra­ma is the ‘libret­to’, while the songs are the ‘aria’.

This is the ‘Queen of Night’ aria from Mozart’s Mag­ic Flute:

Lis­ten to the incred­i­ble vocals start­ing from 0:45. Unbe­liev­able com­po­si­tion!

Singing in an Opera is a dif­fi­cult skill, since the human voic­es had to be heard with­out elec­tron­ic ampli­fi­ca­tion over and above the full blast of the orches­tra. Dif­fer­ent male and female voic­es are clas­si­fied into bass/tenor/contralto/soprano/etc. accord­ing to their voice types. The music of an opera is suf­fi­cient­ly a work of art in itself, that can be enjoyed and appre­ci­at­ed with­out the the­ater. The instru­men­tal work per­formed by the orches­tra before the cur­tains open is the ‘Over­ture’.

Trios, Quartets, Quintets

As their name implies, these are works for a set of three, four, or five instru­ments. These works com­prise a vast major­i­ty of Cham­ber Music, and are a delight in them­selves. Cham­ber Music is more nuanced and inti­mate than Orches­tral Music, and needs a fin­er ear and appre­ci­a­tion. They might seem decep­tive­ly sim­ple at first, as they don’t over­whelm the ear like Orches­tral works, but actu­al­ly, they’re com­plex and seri­ous, requir­ing greater ‘mind lis­ten­ing’. The most pop­u­lar among these is the String Quar­tet, which is per­formed with two vio­lins, one vio­la, and one cel­lo.

There are oth­er works in Cham­ber Music that are per­formed by trios, quar­tets, etc. but are termed dif­fer­ent­ly, like ‘Diver­ti­men­to’, ‘Ser­e­nade’, or ‘Nacht­musik’. For exam­ple, Mozart’s Diver­ti­men­to in D Major, KV 136 is a mini-sym­pho­ny for the string quar­tet, one of my most beloved works. Here’s the first move­ment, con­duct­ed by Yehu­di Menuhin:

I have pre­vi­ous­ly described how I spent 16 years to find this Diver­ti­men­to com­posed by a 16-year old, over two cen­turies ago.


A ‘Rhap­sody’ is a sin­gle move­ment work that is free-flow­ing and doesn’t fol­low any form or struc­ture. It typ­i­cal­ly has con­trast­ing shades of mood and tonal­i­ty.

Here is George Gersh­win with his Rhap­sody In Blue, which strad­dles the West­ern Clas­si­cal and Jazz gen­res:

From Tom & Jer­ry car­toons to music albums, from adver­tise­ments to movies, this work has had a huge impact on music in all spheres of life.

In the next post, we shall look at how West­ern Clas­si­cal Music evolved through his­to­ry.

Further Reading:

An Inter­ac­tive Guide To The Sym­pho­ny:
Forms & Gen­res:

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