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The Enlightenment was a period that introduced many immense changes in Europe. These changes impacted the role and styles of music in society. In this lesson, we’ll explore how music came to reflect the new attitudes of the era.

Enlightened Music

You can often tell a lot about people by the music they listen to. People who listen to country music tend to have different interests than people who listen to emo music. But people’s interests can change, and as their interests change, musical styles and tastes change as well. One place where we see this on a massive, historical scale is during the Enlightenment, a period that introduced major intellectual, social, and artistic changes in the 17th and 18th centuries. These weren’t just minor shifts in social attitudes.

The changes of the Enlightenment were literally revolutionary, eventually leading to the Industrial Revolution and French Revolution. The Enlightenment changed a lot of things, and people needed musical styles that fit the times.

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The Enlightenment

Before we can talk more about music, we need to discuss the Enlightenment a little more thoroughly. The Enlightenment was brought on by changing philosophical attitudes. For centuries, Europeans had looked to their traditions and religion as the source of truth, but Enlightenment philosophers had a different idea. They claimed that individual reason was the source of truth and that universal truths could be deduced by individuals. There are a few important implications here.

For one, it meant that all people are inherently equal because all humans are capable of rational thought. It also meant that nothing should be accepted simply because it is traditional. Together, these ideas promoted a belief in democracy, liberty, and equality.

If these ideas sound familiar, it is because the American Revolution was very strongly influenced by the Enlightenment.

The Enlightenment and Music

So, how do these ideas translate into music? Well for one thing, the Enlightenment changed how people saw music. Before this, fine music was mostly reserved for the highly educated, the nobility, and the wealthy. The common people were traditionally assumed to be unable to appreciate fine arts. However, Enlightenment scholars challenged this tradition. They claimed that since all humans are inherently equal, all people can appreciate fine music and more people should have access to such music. During the Enlightenment, the number of amateur musicians skyrocketed as musical learning was opened to more than just the wealthy.

Composers also felt they had a moral obligation to provide fine music for the common people.This idea, and the general concept that the Enlightenment could challenge tradition, opened up composers to a much greater range of artistic freedom. Rather than just creating music for the educated elite, they strove to create compositions that were more universal in their appeal. Whereas Baroque music, the dominant style of the previous era, was filled with complex melodies and exaggerated ornamentation, music of the Enlightenment was technically simpler.

Instead of focusing on showing off skill and refinement, this new music was focused simply on enjoyment and was meant to be pleasing.We call this emerging period the Classical era. Classical music was composed with the goals of universal appeal and accessibility – the most educated connoisseurs and the least educated commoners should be able to appreciate the melodies equally. The name of this era actually relates back to the Enlightenment focus on the Classical civilization of ancient Rome, in particular, the Roman Republic.

Roman art was logical and rational, emphasizing reason and harmony with little superfluous ornamentation. That’s sort of what Enlightenment composers had in mind.While Baroque music was intricate and ornate, Classical music was easier to listen to, with repetitive musical phrasing and clearer organization within the composition. Melodies were captured in short, memorable phrases, while harmonies tended to follow simpler chord progressions and slower changes. If you want to really appreciate how music was changed by the Enlightenment, go look up the Baroque masterpiece Hippolyte et Aricie by the French composer Jean-Philippe Rameau.

Seriously- go listen to it. Then listen to Concerto per il Clarino by Classical composer Joseph Haydn. Can you hear the difference? Haydn’s piece features repetitive melodies, softer harmonies, and shorter phrasing. By the end you can almost whistle along with it.

Again, one of the major focuses here was creating music with universal appeal, enjoyable by everyone. Baroque music didn’t disappear, however. But overall, the Enlightenment allowed music a much higher degree of freedom and expression.

It was a music of the people, for the people, and by the people, at least in theory. You really can tell a lot about people’s values by their music.

Lesson Summary

From the late 17th through the 18th centuries, European society underwent some major changes. In this period, called the Enlightenment, philosophers claimed that individual reason, not tradition or religion, was the source of authority and ultimate truth.

This sort of thinking led to changes in fine music, which became more accessible to everyone.Amateur musicians had greater opportunities to learn and perform, and composers created masterpieces that were more accessible and meant to be universally enjoyed. While the previous artistic genre, called the Baroque era, was defined by dramatic ornamentation, the music of the new Classical era featured repetitive melodies and simpler harmonies. Classical music was about enjoyment more than technical skill and intricacy. It was a new style of music for people with new ideas about their lives and societies.

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