The coexistence of two types of performance in Croatian ecclesiastical music was the outcome of medieval European culture: Gregorian chant (preserved in the late 11th century Neum Codex) developed in Dalmatia and Istria into Glagolitic chant, first in Old Slavonic, then in Croatian, which has been maintained to the present day through oral tradition.
In the centuries which followed, vocal musical forms dominated, composed by people who were either born on the coast or had connections to it. During the Renaissance, Julije Skjavetić of Šibenik was a prominent composer, the author of a collection of madrigals and motets. The early Baroque period was the golden age of Croatian music; Ivan Lukačić was composing in Split, the Italian Tomaso Cechinni on Hvar, and Vinko Jelić, from Rijeka, published a collection of motets in Strasbourg. In the late Baroque period, the church singer and opera composer Ivan Šibenčanin worked in England and Italy.
The Classical period introduced the first prominent compositions for instruments. In Dubrovnik, Luka Sorkočević composed graceful three-movement symphonies, his son, Antun Sorkočević, composed the first Croatian sonata for piano four-hands, while Jelena Pucić-Sorkočević was one of the first Croatian female composers producing songs for voice and piano. In Split, Julije Bajamonti, a doctor, polymath, organist and composer of the first Croatian oratorio, Prijenos Sv. Dujma/The Translation of St Domnius/ (1770), and the Requiem for Ruđer Bošković (1787), was active. The organ builder Petar Nakić built about fifteen organs in Istria and Dalmatia and over 300 in Italy in the first half of the 18th century. The violin virtuoso Ivan Jarnović achieved worldwide fame and was the composer of a score of violin concertos (he was the first to call the slow movements in some of these concertos romances).
Musical events in the 19th century gravitated towards northern Croatia. In 1827, the Musikverein was founded in Zagreb (today's Hrvatski Glazbeni Zavod – HGZ), the oldest music institution in the country, with a comprehensive musical library. In 1876, the HGZ opened the first public concert hall in Zagreb, and in 1829, founded a School of Music, which became the Conservatory in 1916, then the Academy of Music of 1922. The early Romantic Nocturne in F sharp minor for piano, by Ferdo Livadić (1822), along with the nocturnes of the English composer, John Field, is considered one of the earliest works of its kind in European music. The enthusiasm of the Illyrian Movement, which reflected the spirit of romantic nationalism among the other Slavic people led Vatroslav Lisinski to compose the first national opera, Ljubav i zloba/Love and Malice/in 1846. Ivan Zajc was a major figure in the second half of the 19th century, with an opus which included the opera Nikola Šubić Zrinjski (1876). He was also the Director of the Opera and Music School of the HGZ. Franjo Ksaver Kuhač, the founder of Croatian musical historiography and ethnomusicology, collected folk songs. Among internationally renowned artists of the 19th century were the guitarist and composer Ivan Padovec, the violinist Franjo Krežma, and the singers Ilma Murska, Matilda Mallinger (who sang the part of Eva in Wagner's opera Die Meistersinger in Munich in 1868), Josip Kašman (the first Croat to sing for the Metropolitan, 1883–84), Blaženka Kernic and Milka Trnina.
In the early 20th century, the leading composer of modern music was Blagoje Bersa (Sunčana polja/Sunlit Fields/, 1917–19, a symphonic poem). In the generation of composers who were named the 'new national trend', the most prominent were Josip Štolcer Slavenski (who was acclaimed in Donaueschingen in 1924), Krešimir Baranović (Licitarsko srce/The Gingerbread Heart/1924, the first modern Croatian ballet), Jakov Gotovac (Ero s onoga svijeta/Ero the Joker/, 1935, the most popular Croatian opera) and Fran Lhotka (Đavo u selu/Devil in the Village/, 1934, the most successful Croatian ballet). Boris Papandopulo produced a rich, stylistically diverse opus (Symphonietta for Strings, 1938), and represented a bridge to the later 20th century, when representatives of the avant-garde were spearheaded by the composer Milko Keleman (Transfiguration, 1961) and Ivo Malec (Cantate pour elle, 1966), with Stanko Horvat, Ruben Radica, Anđelko Klobučar, Dubravko Detoni and Igor Kuljerić joining them. The outstanding composers of the late 20th century are Marko Ruždjak, Frano Parać, Davorin Kempf, Silvio Foretić and Zoran Juranić.
Great Croatian artists of the 20th century include the conductors Lovro Matačić, Milan Horvat, Berislav Klobučar and Vjekoslav Šutej, the bassoonist Rudolf Klepac, the horn player Radovan Vlatković, the pianist Ivo Pogorelić, and singers such as Zinka Kunc-Milanov, Dragica Martinis, Tomislav Neralić, Vladimir Ruždjak, Marijana Radev, Sena Jurinac, Ljiljana Molnar-Talajić, Ruža Pospiš-Baldani and Dunja Vejzović. Tonko Ninić and Josip Klima are the best known pupils of the Zagreb violin school, which was founded in the 1930s by Vaclav Huml. The Svetislav Stančić Zagreb piano school produced Melita Lorković, Darko Lukić, Ranko Filjak, Jurica Murai, Pavica Gvozdić and Vladimir Krpan, who founded the Croatian branch of the European Piano Teachers' Association in 1987. Cello teaching reached world levels through the efforts of the Italian artist, Antonio Janigro, who also founded the Zagreb Soloists (1953), and the composers Rudolf Matz and Valter Dešpalj. Among the younger generation of artists, cellist Monika Leskovar, singer Evelin Novak and pianists Martina Filjak, Aljoša Jurinić and Ivan Krpan have achieved international success.
Several international competitions are held in Zagreb: the Vaclav Huml Prize for violinists, the Lovro Matačić Prize for conductors, the Antonio Janigro Prize for cellists and the Svetislav Stančić Prize for pianists.
The most highly regarded Croatian orchestras are the Zagreb Philharmonic Orchestra and the ensembles of the Croatian Radio and Television: the Symphony Orchestra, the Choir, the Tambura Orchestra and the Big Band, while the Zagreb Quartet and Zagreb Soloists are prominent among chamber ensembles with a long-standing international reputation.
The most popular Croatian operettas are Mala Floramye /Little Floramye/ (1925) and Splitski Akvarel /The Split Aquarelle/ (1928) by Ivo Tijardović, and the first Croatian rock opera, Gubec-beg (1975), by Ivica Krajač, Karlo Metikoš and Miljenko Prohaska, achieved great popularity. Jalta, Jalta /Yalta, Yalta/ (1971) by Alfi Kabiljo and Milan Grgić is the best known product of the famous Zagreb School of Musicals. The Zagreb Jazz Quartet acquired fame in the 1960s, thanks to its founder, Boško Petrović and one of its members, the all-rounder Miljenko Prohaska (Intima /Intimacy/, 1962). The international Zagreb Jazz Fair had a great influence on the younger generation in the 1980s and 1990s (Matija Dedić), and the current jazz scene in Croatia continues to thrive.
Pop music has experienced several high points, from the first hits of the 1920s and 1930s (Vlaho Paljetak), through the biggest star of the mid-century, Ivo Robić, nicknamed 'Mr Morgen' for his popularity in Germany, and the Zagreb chanson school of the early 1960s, made famous by Arsen Dedić, Hrvoje Hegedušić and Zvonko Špišić, to the victory of the pop group Riva at the Eurovision Song Contest in Lausanne in 1989 (Rock Me).
The reputation of the international rock scene in the 1960s was enhanced by the singer and composer Karlo Metikoš, known abroad as Matt Collins (Ritam kiše /The Rhythm of Rain/, 1963), and the oldest rock groups which are still going today are Parni valjak and Prljavo kazalište.