Common practice period

From Academic Kids

Eras of European art music
Ancient music 1500 BCE - 476 CE
Early music 476 - 1600
Common practice period 1600 - 1900
20th century classical music 1900 - 2000

In music the common practice period is a long period in western musical history spanning from before the classical era proper to today, dated, on the outside, as 1600-1900. It is most commonly contrasted with contemporary music. Common practice music shares many traits and is tonal as opposed to modal or atonal and includes most of classical and popular music. Despite the emergence of many new styles and techniques common practice music may still be the most common European influenced music.

Walter Piston, among others, uses the term in his book Harmony (ISBN 0393954803) to refer to the bulk of the material contained within it.

Rhythmically, common practice music metric structures generally include:

  1. Clearly enunciated or implied pulse at all levels, with the fastest levels rarely approaching extremes.
  2. Meters, or pulse groups, in two-pulse or three-pulse groups, most often two.
  3. Once established the meter and pulse groups rarely changes throughout a section or composition.
  4. Synchronous pulse groups on all levels, all pulses on slower levels coincide with strong pulses on faster levels.
  5. Consistent tempo throughout a composition or section.
  6. Tempo/beat length and measure length chosen to allow one time signature throughout piece.
(DeLone et. al. (Eds.), 1975, chap. 3)

Durational patterns typically include:

  1. Small or moderate duration complement and range, with one duration (or pulse) predominating the duration hierarchy, being heard as the basic unit throughout a composition. Exceptions are most frequently extremely long, such as pedal tones, or if short generally trills, tremolos, or other ornaments.
  2. Rhythmic units based on metric or intrametric patterns, though specific contrametric or extrametric patterns are signatures of certain styles or composers. Triplets and other extrametric patterns are usually heard on levels higher than the basic durational unit or pulse.
  3. Rhythmic gestures of a limited number of rhythmic units, sometimes based on a single or alternating pair.
  4. Thetic, anacrustic, and initial rest rhythmic gestures are used, with anacrustic beginnings and strong endings possibly most frequent and upbeat endings most rare.
  5. Rhythmic gestures repeated exactly or in variation after contrasting gestures. Use of one rhythmic gesture almost exclusively throughout an entire composition may be done but complete avoidance of repetition is rare.
  6. Produce composite rhythms which confirm the meter, often in metric or even note patterns identical to the pulse on specific metric level.
(DeLone et. al. (Eds.), 1975, chap. 3)

Patterns of pitch and duration are of primary importance in common practice melody while quality is of secondary importance. Durations reoccur and are often periodic; pitches are generally diatonic. (DeLone et. al. (Eds.), 1975, chap. 4)

Many people have proposed that a "new" common practice period is now discernible in 20th century classical music. George Perle (1990) has labeled this "Tradition in 20th Century Music", the most significant of which he considers the, "shared premise of the harmonic equivalence of inversionally symmetrical pitch-class relations," among composers such as Edgard Varese, Alban Berg, Bela Bartok, Arnold Schoenberg, Alexander Scriabin, Igor Stravinsky, Anton Webern, and himself. John Harbison refers to symmetry as the "'new tonality'."


  • DeLone et. al. (Eds.) (1975). Aspects of Twentieth-Century Music. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall. ISBN 0130493465.
  • Perle, George (1990). The Listening Composer, p. 46-47. California: University of California Press. ISBN 0520069919.
  • Harbison, John (1992). Symmetries and the "New Tonality". Contemporary Music Review 6 (2), 71-80

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