The term Classical in the fields of art and architecture refers to the work of the ancient Greeks and Romans. This is characterized by bold, clear lines, symmetry and balance. Around 1700 the art world started to revive some aspects of ancient classical art, and so this was called 'neo-classical art'. In Washington DC, USA, the White House (illustrated at left) is an excellent example of neo-classical architecture. A little later, the music world embraced simplicity, boldness, symmetry and balance, and so the term classical was applied to music of this period also.

This style embodies elegance, balance, formality, restraint and clear structures, in contrast to the ornate and complex baroque style, or the freer expression of the later romantic period

Composers of the early classical period turned away from complex counterpoint, as employed by Johann Sebastian Bach. Instead they emphasized a principal melodic line, accompanied by simple chords.  Johann Bach's son, Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach (1714 - 1788) was an early exponent of this new style, sometimes called Style Gallant or Rococo.  Contrasts were provided by changes of theme, of key,  and of time signature.

As the classical style developed, strong contrasts were introduced in dynamics, with crescendos and diminuendos, and also contrasts in rhythmic patterns.  Symmetry was particularly exemplified by the classical forms which evolved in this period, such as the symphony, the string quartet, the concerto, and the sonata.  And in Mannheim was formed the first classical orchestra. Baroque orchestras contained mainly strings, with an oboe, a bassoon, and possibly a horn. The classical orchestra contained 4 distinct sections, strings, woodwind, brass, and percussion.

The principal exponents of the classical period are Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven. Some writers include Schubert as a classic, others label him as a romantic.