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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