Commonplace book

Classical Music Naming Convention 🌲


Generally “bigger” pieces of music are named by category. The main categories for instrumental music would be:

  • Symphony – 4 movements for orchestra
  • Concerto – 3 movements for solo instrument accompanied by orchestra
  • Sonata – 3 movements for solo instrument and piano, or solo piano
  • String Quartet – 4 movements for two violins, viola and cello
  • Quintet – 4(?!) movements for solo instrument and string quartet

Larger works are made up of separate pieces of music called “movements” which are usually referred to by the number and the speed of the music, like “1st Movement: Allegro”. Then you might include the key the music is played in, like C major or A minor. Sometimes, composers or publishers gave additional descriptive names to the works, like “Pastorale”.

So a piece is named like “Mozart’s Symphony No. 41in C major, “Jupiter”, and if you were talking about a single movement you’d add “3rd Movement, Menuetto”.

The major vocal works like Operas, Masses, Oratorios and Cantatas, are made up of lots of songs for choir or for soloists which are usually named for their lyrics. So “Sheep May Safely Graze” is from one of Bach’s Cantatas, and so is “Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring” – the titles are the lyrics of the song… The only problem being that most of them aren’t in English so it’s hard to tell!

Some composers, or their publishers, made a catalogue of all the composers pieces and gave them a number called an Opus Number, so if a composer wrote two piano sonatas in E major, one might be Op.3 and one might be Op. 5 and that’s another way of telling them apart. Mozart and Bach and some others have their own numbering system, so Sheep May Safely Graze is from the Bach Cantata with the number BWV208, Mozart’s 41st Symphony is K.551.

Some of the most famous pieces are just movements from larger works, like the “Hovis Tune” is actually the second movement of Dvorak’s Symphony No. 9inE minor, “From the New World”.

Also, it’s worth having a look at what composers were working in what period. So if you like Bach you might like Vivaldi or Handel as they are all from the Baroque period.

Broadly (there are sub-periods but still) in order it goes:

  • Early / Renaissance
  • Baroque
  • Classical
  • Romantic
  • Modern