Historically, music has been group into particular kinds. These grouping often come in the form of a dichotomy – Secular or Sacred, Vocal or Instrumental, Absolute music or Program music, etc. While it is true that most music fits this scheme, it is always possible to find exceptions to the rule. The different kinds of music include;
Sacred and Secular Music
Sacred music is music intended for worship or religious ceremony. In Europe, sacred music is usually vocal and based on religious texts and although it is rarer, there are examples of sacred instrumental music such as the ragas of India.
Secular music is simply music that isn’t sacred. Secular music is much more likely to be instrumental than sacred music is but there is certainly no shortage of secular vocal music. Secular songs throughout history, as they do today, cover a wide range of topics, comical and satirical songs to good old fashioned love songs.
Vocal or Instrumental Music
Vocal music is music with a prominent vocal part. This can be music with a solo singer or group of singers singing individual parts, or music with a choir – often referred to as “choral” music.
Instrumental music is music without a prominent vocal part, that is, music played primarily on musical instruments. Often, though not always, instrumental music has an emphasis on virtuosity and unique instrumental effects.
Program and Absolute Music
Program music is music that is based on, or uses in some way, non-musical ideas. For example, Beethoven’s 6th symphony, the “Pastoral” symphony, attempts to evoke the mood of and depict scenes from the countryside, such as bird calls, brooks, and a storm.
Absolute music is music that is not based on anything non-musical. It is music for music’s sake and is the equivalent of abstract art. Music of the Classical period, Sonatas, Concertos, Symphonies, etc. were almost always abstract – that is, it was about the music and nothing else, which is why these works have titles like Sonata No.3, as opposed to descriptive titles such as Claude Debussy’s La fille aux cheveux de lin (“The Girl with the Flaxen Hair”).
Tonal, Modal, and Atonal Music
Tonal music is the music we tend to hear today. It is based around a tonal center. So, for example, in the key of C Major, the tonal center is the note C. All other notes in the music are related by degrees to C.
Before the invention of major and minor keys in music, music was written according to certain conventions. These included how a piece of music would begin and end, and the kinds of intervals that made up the scale that it was based on. This is what is referred to as Modal music. People still write modal music today but the rules as somewhat more flexible.
Atonal music is what many people mistakenly refer to as abstract. It is music without a tonal center and is often characterised by a lot of harsh dissonance or a perceived lack of harmonic direction, though, again, there are plenty of exceptions to this.
Composed and Improvised Music
Composed music is music that has been written out in some form prior to its performance. Until the mid 20th century this would have been by way of standard music notation but after WWII composers began to experiment with new ways of notating music, often inventing new systems of notation for a single piece of music.
Improvised is music is music that is made up as it is performed. Improvisation can take many forms; A piece of music may be freely improvised without any constraints or predetermining factors, it improvisation may be based on a particular outline, motif, or chord progression, or there may be a improvisatory section within a composed piece of music.
Incidental music is music that has been written to accompany, in most cases, a dramatic performance. Film, play, or video game music are good examples of incidental music. Incidental music typically is unobtrusive and intended to evoke mood or provide atmosphere rather than depicting the scene itself.