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Common practice period

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Title: Common practice period  
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Subject: Classical music, Diatonic and chromatic, Atonality, Key (music), Harmony
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Common practice period

In the history of European art music (broadly called classical music), the common practice period – spanning most of the baroque, classical, and romantic eras – lasted from about 1600 to around 1900. Sometimes, terminologies are reversed with some authorities referring to a common practice era spanning most of the baroque, classical, and romantic periods (Konečni 2009).

General characteristics

Common-practice music obeys two types of musical norms: first, it uses conventionalized sequences of chords, such as I–IV–V–I (see Roman numeral analysis). 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.

Technical features


Common-practice harmony is almost always derived from diatonic scales and tends to follow particular chord progressions that have withstood the test of time.

For example, in common-practice harmony, a major triad built on the fifth degree of the scale (V) is unlikely to progress directly to a root position triad built on the fourth degree of the scale (IV), but the reverse of this progression (IV–V) is quite common. By contrast, the V–IV progression is readily acceptable by many other standards; for example, this transition is essential to the "shuffle" blues progression's last line (V–IV–I–I), which has become the orthodox ending for blues progressions at the expense of the original last line (V–V–I–I) (Tanner & Gerow 1984, 37).


Coordination of the various parts of a piece of music through an externalized meter is a deeply rooted aspect of common-practice music, though this has gone largely unnoticed (London 2001). Rhythmically, common practice metric structures generally include (Winold 1975, chapter 3):

  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


Durational patterns typically include (Winold 1975, chapter 3):

  1. Small or moderate duration complement and range, with one duration (or pulse) predominating in the duration hierarchy, are 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 are 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 are 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 confirm the meter, often in metric or even note patterns identical to the pulse on specific metric level.

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 (Kliewer 1975, chapter 4).


  • Kliewer, Vernon (1975). "Melody: Linear Aspects of Twentieth-Century Music". In Aspects of Twentieth-Century Music, edited by Gary Wittlich, . Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall. ISBN 0-13-049346-5.
  • London, Justin (2001). "Rhythm, §II: Historical Studies of Rhythm". The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, second edition, edited by Stanley Sadie and John Tyrrell. London: Macmillan Publishers.
  • Tanner, Paul, and Maurice Gerow (1984). A Study of Jazz. Dubuque, Iowa: William C. Brown Publishers. Cited in Robert M. Baker, "A Brief History of the Blues".
  • Winold, Allen (1975). "Rhythm in Twentieth-Century Music". In Aspects of Twentieth-Century Music, edited by Richard Peter Delone and Gary Wittlich, . Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall. ISBN 978-0-13-049346-0.

External links

  • Benjamin Piekut, "No Common Practice: The New Common Practice and its Historical Antecedents" (February 1, 2004).
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