Classical music has been a cornerstone of Western culture for centuries, with countless composers creating timeless works that continue to inspire and captivate audiences. In this comprehensive guide, we will explore five works from each century, highlighting some of the most influential and enduring pieces from each era.

12th Century

The 12th century produced music that was predominantly vocal and religious in nature. Most music was monophonic, consisting of a single melody without harmony. Here are five classical works from this era:

1. Ordo Virtutum – Hildegard of Bingen

“Ordo Virtutum” is a play composed by Hildegard of Bingen that features a rich and diverse array of vocal and instrumental music. This work is considered a milestone in the history of classical music.

2. Perotin’s Organum

Perotin was a French composer and a prominent figure in the Notre Dame school of polyphony. His organum compositions, such as “Viderunt Omnes” and “Sederunt Principes,” are characterized by their complex and intricate polyphonic textures.

3. Jaufre Rudel’s Troubadour Songs

Jaufre Rudel was a French troubadour who composed a number of beautiful and evocative songs during the 12th century. His works, such as “Lanquan li jorn” and “Quan lo rius de la fontana,” are celebrated for their emotional depth and poetic lyricism.

4. Carmina Burana – Anonymous

“Carmina Burana” is a collection of medieval Latin poems set to music by various composers. These works are characterized by their lively rhythms, memorable melodies, and often irreverent subject matter.

5. Cunctipotens Genitor Deus – Anonymous

“Cunctipotens Genitor Deus” is a striking example of a 12th-century polyphonic conductus, a type of sacred vocal music. This work features multiple voices weaving together in complex and captivating patterns.

13th Century

The 13th century brought about the rise of the Ars Nova style, which introduced innovations in rhythm, melody, and harmony. Here are five classical works from this period:

1. Machaut’s Messe de Nostre Dame

Guillaume de Machaut was a French composer and poet who was a central figure in the Ars Nova movement. His “Messe de Nostre Dame” is the earliest known complete polyphonic setting of the Mass, and it remains an iconic work in the history of classical music.

2. Sumer Is Icumen In – Anonymous

“Sumer Is Icumen In” is an English round composed by an anonymous composer. This delightful and lively piece celebrates the arrival of summer and is often considered one of the oldest surviving examples of counterpoint.

3. Palästinalied – Walther von der Vogelweide

Walther von der Vogelweide was a German Minnesinger and poet whose “Palästinalied” is a moving and powerful work that reflects the religious fervor of the Crusades.

4. La Quarte Estampie Royale – Anonymous

“La Quarte Estampie Royale” is an instrumental dance piece composed by an anonymous composer. This work is a prime example of the lively and rhythmic dance music that was popular during the 13th century.

5. Douce Dame Jolie – Guillaume de Machaut

“Douce Dame Jolie” is a virelai composed by Guillaume de Machaut. This work showcases Machaut’s mastery of melody and harmony and is a testament to his status as one of the most important composers of the Ars Nova era.

14th Century

The 14th century saw the emergence of the Renaissance style, characterized by a renewed focus on enlightenment and the arts. Here are five classical works from this period:

1. Ma Fin Est Mon Commencement – Guillaume de Machaut

“Ma Fin Est Mon Commencement” is a rondeau composed by Guillaume de Machaut that features a complex and intricate structure. This work is considered a prime example of the intellectual sophistication of 14th-century music.

2. L’homme Armé – Anonymous

“L’homme Armé” is a French chanson composed by an anonymous composer. This popular and influential work features a memorable and catchy melody that inspired numerous composers to create Mass settings based on its tune.

3. Deo Gracias Anglia – John Dunstaple

John Dunstaple was an English composer whose “Deo Gracias Anglia” is a stirring and patriotic work that celebrates England’s victory in the Battle of Agincourt. This piece showcases Dunstaple’s innovative approach to harmony and counterpoint.

4. Landini’s Ballate

Francesco Landini was an Italian composer and poet who composed a number of beautiful and expressive ballate, such as “Ecco la Primavera” and “Non avrà ma’ pietà.” These works are celebrated for their melodic beauty and emotional depth.

5. Gloria and Credo from the Messe de Tournai – Anonymous

The “Messe de Tournai” is an anonymous polyphonic setting of the Mass that showcases the stylistic innovations of the 14th century. The “Gloria” and “Credo” movements, in particular, feature captivating harmonies and intricate polyphonic textures.

15th Century

The 15th century witnessed the continued development of the Renaissance style, as well as the emergence of new musical forms and styles. Here are five essential classical works from this era:

1. Nuper Rosarum Flores – Guillaume Dufay

Guillaume Dufay was a Franco-Flemish composer who played a crucial role in the development of the Renaissance style. His motet “Nuper Rosarum Flores” is a stunning and innovative work that was composed for the consecration of Florence Cathedral.

2. L’homme Armé Masses – Josquin des Prez

Josquin des Prez was a Franco-Flemish composer who is considered one of the most important figures in the history of Western classical music. His “L’homme Armé” Masses are a set of polyphonic Mass settings that showcase his mastery of counterpoint and harmony.

3. Ave Maria… Virgo Serena – Josquin des Prez

“Ave Maria… Virgo Serena” is a motet composed by Josquin des Prez that features a serene and moving setting of the Ave Maria text. This work is celebrated for its exquisite harmonies and expressive vocal lines.

4. Missa Prolationum – Johannes Ockeghem

Johannes Ockeghem was a Franco-Flemish composer and an influential figure in the development of Renaissance polyphony. His “Missa Prolationum” is a unique and innovative work that employs complex canonic techniques and inventive harmonic structures.

5. Se la Face Ay Pale – Guillaume Dufay

“Se la Face Ay Pale” is a chanson composed by Guillaume Dufay that features a melancholic and evocative melody. This work showcases Dufay’s ability to create deeply emotional and expressive music.

16th Century

The 16th century was a period of great innovation and experimentation in classical music. Here are five classical works from this era:

1. Spem in Alium – Thomas Tallis

Thomas Tallis was an English composer who is considered one of the most important figures in the history of English choral music. His motet “Spem in Alium” is a tour de force of Renaissance polyphony, featuring 40 individual vocal parts that weave together in intricate and mesmerizing patterns.

2. Palestrina’s Pope Marcellus Mass

Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina was an Italian composer who is considered one of the most important figures in the history of Western classical music. His “Pope Marcellus Mass” is a landmark work that showcases his mastery of counterpoint and his innovative approach to sacred music.

3. William Byrd’s Masses

William Byrd was an English composer who is considered one of the most important figures in the history of English choral music. His Masses, such as the “Mass for Four Voices” and the “Mass for Five Voices,” are celebrated for their intricate polyphony and expressive vocal lines.

4. Monteverdi’s Madrigals

Claudio Monteverdi was an Italian composer who is considered one of the most important figures in the history of Western classical music. His madrigals, such as “Cruda Amarilli” and “Lamento della Ninfa,” are celebrated for their innovative approach to harmony and their expressive and dramatic character.

5. Tomás Luis de Victoria’s Requiem

Tomás Luis de Victoria was a Spanish composer who is considered one of the most important figures in the history of Western classical music. His “Requiem” is a haunting and powerful work that showcases his mastery of counterpoint and his innovative approach to sacred music.

17th Century

The 17th century saw the emergence of new musical styles, such as opera and the Baroque style. Here are five important classical works from this period:

1. Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo

Claudio Monteverdi’s “L’Orfeo” is considered one of the first great operas in the history of Western classical music. This groundbreaking work features innovative instrumentation, expressive vocal lines, and a captivating retelling of the Orpheus myth.

2. Lully’s Armide

Armide is an opera in five acts composed by Jean-Baptiste Lully. The opera, first performed in 1686, was an immediate success, cementing Lully’s status as the leading composer of French opera during the Baroque era. The work features Lully’s signature style of combining French and Italian musical elements, as well as elaborate ballet sequences and dramatic vocal performances.

3. Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas

Dido and Aeneas is an opera composed by Henry Purcell. The opera, which features some of Purcell’s most famous work, has become a staple of the Baroque repertoire and is widely regarded as one of Purcell’s greatest achievements.

4. Peri’s Euridice

Peri’s opera Euridice is one of the earliest surviving examples of opera. The opera is known for its use of recitative, a style of singing that allows for more naturalistic expression of dialogue and emotions. Peri’s music is simple and elegant, with a focus on the text and the emotions of the characters. Euridice was an important milestone in the development of opera, paving the way for the grander works of later composers like Monteverdi and Handel.

5. Pachelbel’s Canon in D

Johann Pachelbel was a German composer who is best known for his famous Canon in D. This work is characterized by its simple and elegant melody, as well as its enduring popularity in various forms of popular culture.

18th Century

The 18th century was a time of great innovation and creativity in the world of classical music, marked by the rise of the symphony, sonata, and string quartet, as well as the development of a more refined, elegant musical style. Composers continued to push the boundaries of classical music, creating works that were both technically brilliant and emotionally powerful. Here are five classical pieces that highlight this era:

1. Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos

When discussing the 18th century, one cannot overlook the genius of Johann Sebastian Bach, whose Brandenburg Concertos stand as a testament to his unrivaled skill as a composer. Comprised of six distinct concertos, each featuring a different combination of instruments and musical forms, the Brandenburg Concertos are a masterclass in Baroque composition.

2. Mozart’s Symphony No. 40 in G minor, K. 550

Symphony No. 40 in G minor by Mozart is a prime example of the composer’s ability to create a perfect balance of emotion, melody, and harmony. This symphony, one of only two Mozart symphonies in a minor key, is known for its dramatic and passionate themes, embodying the essence of the classical era.

3. Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons

Antonio Vivaldi was an Italian composer who is considered one of the most important figures in the history of Western classical music. His The Four Seasons is a set of four violin concertos that are beloved for their vivid depictions of the changing seasons and their virtuosic solo parts.

4. Handel’s Messiah

George Frederic Handel’s oratorio Messiah tells the story of Christ, from prophecy to resurrection. Composed in just 24 days, this monumental work is known for its powerful choruses, most notably the “Hallelujah Chorus,” which has become a staple of choral music.

5. Haydn’s The Creation

The Creation is an oratorio by Haydn that brings to life the biblical story of the creation of the world. With its vivid orchestration and expressive arias, this work remains a favorite among choirs and orchestras worldwide, showcasing Haydn’s mastery of musical storytelling.

19th Century

The 19th century was a time of great artistic expression and experimentation, giving rise to many great composers who each contributed to the development of the genre in their own unique way. The symphony orchestra became a popular form of music, with composers experimenting with different combinations of instruments to create new sounds. The Romantic movement also had a profound impact on classical music, with composers seeking to evoke powerful emotions and tell stories through their music.

1. Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 in D minor, Op. 125

Ludwig von Beethoven’s final symphony, the Symphony No. 9 in D minor, Op. 125, “Choral,” represents a groundbreaking moment in classical music history. The inclusion of a choir in the final movement, singing Friedrich Schiller’s “Ode to Joy,” was a revolutionary move that has since become a symbol of unity and brotherhood.

2. Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake

Swan Lake, a ballet by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, tells the enchanting story of a prince who falls in love with a beautiful swan princess. With its unforgettable melodies and dramatic score, Swan Lake has become one of the most popular ballets of all time, captivating audiences with its timeless tale of love and transformation.

3. Wagner’s The Ring Cycle

Richard Wagner’s monumental work, The Ring Cycle, is an epic tetralogy of operas based on Norse mythology. Comprised of four individual operas (Das Rheingold, Die Walküre, Siegfried, and Götterdämmerung), this groundbreaking composition is known for its innovative use of leitmotifs and immense scale, spanning over 15 hours in performance.

4. Brahms’ Symphony No. 1 in C minor, Op. 68

Johannes Brahms’ Symphony No. 1 in C minor, Op. 68, is a work that triumphantly showcases the composer’s mastery of orchestration and thematic development. Often compared to Beethoven’s symphonies, Brahms’ first symphony is a testament to his ability to create a rich, emotional landscape through music.

5. Chopin’s Nocturnes

Frederic Chopin’s piano Nocturnes are a set of 21 compositions that showcase the composer’s unparalleled skill in creating delicate, expressive melodies. These intimate works, often described as “night music,” are characterized by their haunting beauty and emotional depth, making them some of the most cherished pieces in the piano repertoire.

20th Century

Classical music in the 20th century was marked by a significant shift from the traditional tonal harmony of the previous centuries. Composers began to experiment with atonal and dissonant sounds, and new techniques such as serialism and electronic music emerged. Many composers also drew inspiration from non-Western musical traditions, resulting in a fusion of styles and pushing the boundaries of what was considered acceptable in classical music. Here are five pieces that explore this century:

1. Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring

Igor Stravinsky’s groundbreaking ballet, The Rite of Spring, marked a turning point in the history of classical music. With its revolutionary score, characterized by complex rhythms, dissonance, and innovative orchestration, The Rite of Spring shocked audiences at its premiere and continues to captivate listeners with its raw, primal energy.

2. Ravel’s Boléro

Boléro by Maurice Ravel is a one-movement orchestral work that builds upon a simple, repetitive theme to create an enthralling crescendo of sound. With its hypnotic rhythm and lush orchestration, Boléro remains one of the most popular and recognizable works of the 20th century.

3. Barber’s Adagio for Strings

Samuel Barber’s beautiful Adagio for Strings is a deeply emotional work that has become synonymous with moments of profound sadness and reflection. Originally composed as part of a string quartet, the piece was later arranged for string orchestra. Its mournful melody and poignant harmonies have made it a staple of modern classical music.

4. Copland’s Appalachian Spring

Appalachian Spring by Aaron Copland is a ballet suite that evokes the spirit of the American frontier. With its open harmonies, folk-inspired melodies, and vibrant orchestrations, this work has become a symbol of American optimism and the pioneering spirit.

5. Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5 in D minor, Op. 47

Dmitri Shostakovich’s powerful Symphony No. 5 in D minor, Op. 47, is an enigmatic work that reflects the composer’s tumultuous relationship with the Soviet regime. With its dramatic themes and complex emotional landscape, the symphony remains one of the most compelling and significant compositions of the 20th century.

21st Century

Classical music in the 21st century is alive and thriving, with new and innovative compositions that challenge traditional notions of the genre. Despite the challenges of modernity, classical music has remained relevant, with new avenues of exposure, including digital technologies and live broadcasts, keeping it alive and thriving. Here are five standout classical pieces from this century:

1. Adams’s Doctor Atomic

Doctor Atomic, an opera by John Adams, explores the moral and psychological dilemmas faced by the scientists behind the creation of the atomic bomb. With its contemporary subject matter and innovative score, Doctor Atomic represents a new era in classical music, pushing the boundaries of storytelling and expression.

2. Adès’ The Tempest

The Tempest, an opera by Thomas Adès, is a modern adaptation of Shakespeare’s classic play, blending contemporary music with timeless themes of love, betrayal, and forgiveness. Adès’ innovative score, characterized by its intricate textures and vivid orchestrations, has established The Tempest as a significant work of 21st-century classical music.

3. Higdon’s Blue Cathedral

Jennifer Higdon’s Blue Cathedral is an orchestral work that evokes a sense of spiritual journey and contemplation. With its shimmering textures, soaring melodies, and rich emotional tapestry, Blue Cathedral has quickly become a modern classic, showcasing the continued vitality and innovation of contemporary classical music.

4. Shaw’s Partita for 8 Voices

Caroline Shaw’s Partita for 8 Voices is a groundbreaking work that combines elements of vocal and instrumental music, exploring the full range of the human voice. This ground-breaking composition, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 2013, is a testament to the limitless potential of the human voice and the ever-evolving landscape of classical music in the 21st century.

5. Salonen’s Violin Concerto

Esa-Pekka Salonen’s Violin Concerto is a vibrant and virtuosic work that showcases the composer’s unique voice and command of orchestral color. With its bold themes and rich textures, the Violin Concerto stands as a prime example of the continued relevance of classical music in the modern era.


Classical music has been an integral part of human culture and history, evolving over centuries to define the soundscape of each era. These masterpieces have left their marks on our collective consciousness, serving not only as a window into the past, but continuing to inspire and captivate the listeners and composers of the next generation.

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