The idea of an instrumental opening to opera existed during the 17th century. Peri's Euridice opens with a brief instrumental ritornello, and Monteverdi's L'Orfeo (1607) opens with a toccata, in this case a fanfare for muted trumpets. More important, however, was the prologue, which comprised sung dialogue between allegorical characters which introduced the overarching themes of the stories depicted.
As a musical form, however, the French overture first appears in the court ballet and operatic overtures of Jean-Baptiste Lully, which he elaborated from a similar, two-section form called Ouverture, found in the French ballets de cour as early as 1640. This French overture consists of a slow introduction in a marked "dotted rhythm" (i.e., exaggerated , if the first chord is disregarded), followed by a lively movement in fugato style. The overture was frequently followed by a series of dance tunes before the curtain rose, and would often return following the Prologue to introduce the action proper. This ouverture style was also used in English opera, most notably in Henry Purcell's Dido and Æneas. Its distinctive rhythmic profile and function thus led to the French overture style as found in the works of late Baroque composers such as Johann Sebastian Bach, Georg Friedrich Händel, and Georg Philipp Telemann. The style is most often used in preludes to suites, and can be found in non-staged vocal works such as cantatas, for example in the opening chorus of Bach's cantata Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland, BWV 61. Handel also uses the French overture form in some of his Italian operas such as Giulio Cesare.
In Italy, a distinct form called "overture" arose in the 1680s, and became established particularly through the operas of Alessandro Scarlatti, and spread throughout Europe, supplanting the French form as the standard operatic overture by the mid-18th century. Its stereotypical form is in three generally homophonic movements: fast–slow–fast. The opening movement was normally in duple metre and in a major key; the slow movement in earlier examples was usually quite short, and could be in a contrasting key; the concluding movement was dance-like, most often with rhythms of the gigue or minuet, and returned to the key of the opening section. As the form evolved, the first movement often incorporated fanfare-like elements and took on the pattern of so-called "sonatina form" (sonata form without a development section), and the slow section became more extended and lyrical. Italian overtures were often detached from their operas and played as independent concert pieces. In this context, they became important in the early history of the symphony.
Prior to the 18th century, the symphony and the overture were almost interchangeable, with overtures being extracted from operas to serve as stand alone instrumental works, and symphonies were tagged to the front of operas as overtures. With the reform of opera seria, the overture began to distinguish itself from the symphony, and composers began to link the content of overtures to their operas dramatically and emotionally. Elements from the opera are foreshadowed in the overture, following the reform ideology that the music and every other element on stages serves to enhance the plot. One such overture was that of La Magnifique by André-Ernest-Modeste Grétry, in which several of the arias are quoted.
In 19th-century opera the overture, Vorspiel, Einleitung, Introduction, or whatever else it may be called, is generally nothing more definite than that portion of the music which takes place before the curtain rises. Richard Wagner's Vorspiel to Lohengrin is a short self-contained movement founded on the music of the Grail.
In Italian opera after about 1800, the "overture" became known as the sinfonia. Fisher also notes the term Sinfonia avanti l'opera (literally, the "symphony before the opera") was "an early term for a sinfonia used to begin an opera, that is, as an overture as opposed to one serving to begin a later section of the work".