Common practice period  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

The common practice period, in the history of European art music (broadly called classical music), spans the Baroque, Classical, and Romantic periods. It lasted from about 1600 until about 1900, and is most often contrasted with much of the music of the 20th century and with contemporary music.


General characteristics

Common practice music obeys two different kinds of musical norms: first, it uses conventionalized sequences of chords, such as I-IV-V-I. (For more on this Roman numeral notation, see chord.) Second, it obeys specific contrapuntal norms, such as the avoidance of parallel fifths and octaves.

Common practice music can be contrasted with the earlier modal music and later atonal music. It can also be contrasted with twentieth-century styles, such as rock and jazz, that are broadly tonal but do not obey the harmonic and contrapuntal norms described in the preceding paragraph. Nevertheless, there are often significant similarities between the music of the common practice period and the broadly tonal music of the twentieth century.

The term seems to originate with Walter Piston, who introduced it in the preface of his book Harmony (ISBN 0-393-95480-3) (1941).

Technical features


Common practice harmony is almost always derived from diatonic scales, and features particular sequences of chord progressions. For example, the major triad built on the fifth degree of the scale is unlikely to progress to a root position triad built on the fourth degree of the scale. However, the reverse progression is quite common.


Rhythmically, common practice metric structures generally include:

  1. Clearly enunciated or implied pulse at all levels, with the fastest levels rarely being extreme.
  2. Meters, or pulse groups, in two-pulse or three-pulse groups, most often two.
  3. Meter and pulse groups that, once established, rarely change 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 the piece or section.
(DeLone et al. (Eds.), 1975, chapter 3)


Template:Cleanup-section Durational patterns typically include:

  1. Small or moderate duration complement and range, with one duration (or pulse) predominating in the duration hierarchy, being heard as the basic unit throughout a composition. Exceptions are most frequently extremely long, such as pedal tones; or, if they are short, they generally occur as the rapidly alternating or transient components of 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 (i.e., stressed), anacrustic (i.e., unstressed), 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. There may be one rhythmic gesture almost exclusively throughout an entire composition; but complete avoidance of repetition is rare.
  6. 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, chapter 3)

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

Later trends

Many people have proposed that a "new" common practice period is now discernible in 20th century "classical" music. George Perle (1990) has argued that this amounts to "Tradition in 20th Century Music", the most significant element of which is the "shared premise of the harmonic equivalence of inversionally symmetrical pitch-class relations," among composers such as Edgard Varèse, Alban Berg, Béla Bartók, 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 0-13-049346-5.
  • Perle, George (1990). The Listening Composer, pp. 46-47. California: University of California Press. ISBN 0-520-06991-9.
  • Harbison, John (1992). Symmetries and the "New Tonality". Contemporary Music Review 6 (2), pp. 71-80.

External links

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