Baroque Music Characteristics-Everything you need to know.

The baroque period of music was approximately between 1600 and 1750.  In this complete guide, I’ll cover Baroque music characteristics, baroque music examples and some of the composers from this time.

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Music of the baroque period is highly elaborate, just like its furniture and architecture.  Grand designs and ornate gold leaf is a typical feature of baroque architectures.

An image of a Baroque church, with ornate marble and gold leaf decorations.

Composers of the period used ornamentation and polyphonic textures to decorate the music. 

Baroque Music Definition

The word Baroque is French and derives from the Portuguese word ‘barrock’ which translates to ‘A misshapen pearl’. 

Its exuberant style and highly ornamented music are quite fitting of this title. The Baroque period of music history produced some of the earliest examples of music that is familiar to most of us today.

These works include Pachelbel’s Canon and Antonio Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons.

What was happening in the world during the baroque era music?

Some significant events took place during this period, and the world was seen to be changing rapidly. 

People were gaining a much better knowledge of the Universe, through the work of Galileo and the acceptance of Copernicus’s 16th-century theory that the planets didn’t revolve around the earth.

An image of a statue of Galileo, with a quote

The technology was advancing, and the invention of the telescope was of great significance.

Great thinkers like Descartes, Hobbes, Spinoza and Locke tackled the big questions of existence and artists like Rubens, Rembrandt and Shakespeare portrayed this in their works.

An image of William Shakespeare with a quote by him

European nations grew more and more involved with foreign trade and colonisation, bringing us into direct contact with parts of the globe that were previously unfamiliar.

Baroque Musical Characteristics

Ornamentation and the use of polyphonic writing can often make the music sound both highly elaborate and on occasions dissonant.

Not all baroque period music, however, has the presence of trills and part writing. When these baroque characteristics are missing, students often find it difficult to differentiate a baroque piece from other periods. 

There are lots of features of this period which are often overlooked by students. These are key to ensuring that the musical style is identified correctly.

Characteristics of Baroque Music in more detail

When looking at the baroque music period, there are certain key elements which baroque music composers often used.

That’s not to say that these compositional devices are not used in other periods of history. However, it’s always good to look at several characteristics in music before determining which period it was likely to be written.

Recognising characteristics of music is often required in music examinations which is why people study key aspects of the baroque music era. 

However, understanding the historical background, baroque music forms and other baroque music features will enviably improve your playing.

Baroque Music- Melody

Music was derived from a single melodic idea as shown under the brackets in the example below.

An image of the first few bars of Vivaldi's Four Seasons, showing the Baroque music characteristics within melodies

You can read more about phrasing in music here.

Baroque Music Rhythm

Music had a continuous rhythmic drive with little or few rests.

An image of the Scarlatti's sonata No1

Baroque Music Dynamics

Terraced dynamics were often used by performers when phrases were repeated.

The term terraced dynamics was adopted in the late nineteenth century and is something most players choose when playing baroque music. 

The use of imitation is prolific in baroque music, and terraced dynamics are one of the ways to create interest in the phrases.  A motif’s first appearance is often ‘forte’ and when it’s repeated its played ‘piano’.  It creates an echo effect.

The dynamic markings in the example below are editorial.

An image showing Bach's sonata in Minor with editorial dynamics

The Concerto Grosso is possibly one of the reasons that terraced dynamics are popular.  The ripieno section alternating with the concertante would naturally give the results of loud and quiet parts.

The harpsichord had no dynamic range, and the invention of the piano in 1709 was an attempt to overcome this.  Bach himself is noted as sharing his joy that the volume could gradually be changed on the new keyboard.

Baroque Music Texture  

The texture of baroque music was usually homophonic (melody with chordal harmony) or polyphonic in texture.

An image of Bach's fugue number five, showing polyphonic texture in music.
The Fugue has a polyphonic texture
An image of the four part chorale BMV 269 showing homophonic texture in music.

You can learn more about musical textures in this post

Baroque music tonality

Modes were replaced by the Major/Minor key system; with the invention of the Major and Minor key system, it became possible for composers to modulate from one key to another related key. 

An image showing the baroque music characteristics of tonality in Andante, Sonata No4 by Bach

Baroque Music- Form

Music of this period is generally written in a form such as Binary, Canon or Fugue.

An image showing binary form in Handel Sonata Op1 no7

The mood of Baroque Music

One mood throughout the entire piece:

An image of Air on the G string, showing that there is only one mood in Baroque music

Baroque Music Genres

Before the Baroque period, music was almost exclusively written for religious services and allowed for minimal variation.

As the Baroque period progressed, secular music written for royalty and the courts became popular. It was used as a source of entertainment.  

Baroque Music Dance Suite

A baroque suite is an important style of the Baroque period.  It comprises of a collection of dances, usually the Allemande, Courante, Sarabande and Gigue. 

Although these works were inspired by dances, they were written to be listened to, rather than danced to.

Baroque Music-Fugue

Suppose you ask any pianist for ideas of baroque music to study. In that case, the 48 Prelude and fugues by Bach will undoubtedly be amongst the answers.  The fugal form was a favourite of this period. 

It has a contrapuntal texture in which the parts imitate each other.  There are usually three are four parts known as voices, and the entire piece develops from one musical idea. 

The Fugue begins with a statement of the musical idea in the tonic key. This is called the fugal statement.  The other voices then enter with the statement, in a structure that alternates starting on the tonic and dominant notes.

Baroque Counterpoint is intricate and in many ways, mathematical.

Characteristics of Baroque Period Music Sonatas

Musicians used the word sonata to describe music that was played rather than sung during the Baroque period.  The name was generally applied to all small baroque music instrumental works whether accompanied or not.  There are two main types.

Sonata de Camera-

The word camera is Italian for chamber, and these works usually had several dance-like movements for 2 or 3 players. 

Corelli later standardised the form by calling it a suite.  The chamber music characteristics of Corellis’s suites have an introduction, and either three or four dances which follow. 

These types of Baroque sonatas were written for people to play at home or in the courts.  They would usually have a continuo part for someone to play on the harpsichord or lute.

Sonata da Chiesa-

These baroque pieces were much more serious in character and written for the church.  Chiesa is the Italian word for church. 

You play the continuo part on the organ, and the piece would usually have four movements that alternate between slow and fast.

Many baroque composers wrote sonatas including Bach, Handel, Corelli, Scarlatti, Couperin and Purcell.

For string players, Bach’s sonatas that he wrote for unaccompanied violin and cello are significant works in the repertoire. 

Pianists should also consider studying some of Scarlatti’s solo sonata’s.  He wrote over 500 of them, and they are an integral part of the repertoire.

If you are a woodwind player, there are many baroque trio sonatas written by Bach, Corelli and Handel which are well worth exploring. 

Baroque Music Vocal Styles

Concerto Grosso

The Concerto Grosso was the forerunner of the symphony and not the concerto as you might think. A concerto Grosso has a small group of accomplished instrumentalists which are called the concertante. 

They are accompanied by a larger group of strings called the ripen. Orchestral instrumental music such as Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos are excellent examples.

  The concertante in Number one consists of two horns, three oboes, passion and a small violin.  This small group is heard in alternation with the larger body of strings.  Corelli and George Frideric Handel also wrote in this style.

Baroque Oratorio

A baroque oratorio is similar to an opera. However, the text is always sacred.  They are usually performed without scenery and costumes. Oratorios were first performed in St Philip Neri’s oratory in Rome at the beginning of the 17th century. 

In the early days, there was acting, but gradually they turn into concert works.  Like baroque opera, characteristics include recitatives, arias and choruses. 

The baroque arias provide plenty of opportunity for virtuosic display and are some of the most challenging in this style.

The most renowned Oratorio is possibly Handel’s Messiah, which is famous around the world, particularly during the Christmas period.

Cantata

A cantata is a poem or story set to vocal music.  In a way, it’s similar to an Oratorio but on a smaller scale.  They can consist of solos, duets and trios with contributions from the chorus.

Cantatas are usually accompanied by the orchestra and can be either sacred or secular.

Johann Sebastian Bach was perhaps the greatest writer of cantatas.  He wrote five complete sets which include over 200 of them. 

They frequently begin with an elaborate chorale with contrapuntal imitations between the parts.  They often end with a simple four-part harmonic piece, in which the congregation could join. One of the most popular is ‘Sleepers Wake’.

Baroque Music Instruments

The baroque orchestra was much smaller than today. However, it was during this period that the standard framework began to take shape.  The string section became a unit in itself, and baroque composers began to add instruments such as flutes, recorders, oboes, horns and occasionally trumpets.

The basso continuo part was still essential to form the harmony. It was usually played from a figured bass on the harpsichord or lute.

How to perform Baroque Style Music

Many would argue that to perform this style of music authentically, baroque instruments are essential.  However, for many, this is not an option. Personally, I think there is much that you can do to replicate the main features of baroque music in your playing.

Articulation

Like ornamentation, baroque characteristics regarding articulation are always a hot topic for debate.  There are several good books written on the subject.

As composers of the era often did not specify, we can only rely on the research into standard practices of the time.  In general, notes should be more staccato when tonguing to compliment the plucked sound that a harpsichord would make. 

You should also be aware that dynamics are not possible on the harpsichord. Hence, it was up to the wind or string player to define the time signature. The first beat of each bar should be slightly lengthened to indicate the strong beat. 

On semiquaver passages, there are various patterns you can adopt, many are often related to the shape of the motifs.

Ornamentation

Ornamental embellishments are an integral part of baroque performance.  However, they were often left to the discretion of the player.  The French baroque music characteristics relating to ornaments are much more specific than composers such as Bach. 

That said, here’s a quote from the master himself;

“avoid a prodigal use of embellishments . . . Regard them as spices which may ruin the best dish, or gewgaws which may deface the most perfect building”

Stinson, R. (1996). Bach: The Orgelbüchlein. Schirmer, New York.

In general musical ornaments should start on the beat and on the upper note.  

Vibrato

Vibrato is another hot topic of debate when it comes to music -baroque era. Players of the time did use vibrato but in a different way to performers today. 

In general, vibrato should be used less frequently in slow movements, and the undulations should be narrower than if one were playing a contemporary piece.

Famous composers of the Baroque period

Bach and Handel are perhaps the most highly regarded, but numerous other composers are worthy of studying.

Vivaldi did an extraordinary amount to establish the violin as a solo instrument and contributed to the growth of opera. 

Baptiste Lully developed the French-style overture, opera and ballet. As I mentioned earlier in this post, the works of Scarlatti and Corelli are worth studying and Claudio Monteverdi. He is considered a bridge composer between the renaissance and Baroque wrote several significant works. 

These include Vespers and his opera’s Orfeo and L’incoronazione di Poppea.  The opera’s of Jean-Philippe Rameau and of course the prolific works of Telemann.  He wrote as much music as Bach and Handel with  600 French overtures or orchestral suites, 200 concertos, 40 operas and more than 1000 pieces of church music.

I hope you’ve found this post helpful, if so do leave a comment below and share it with others.

If you are learning to play a musical instrument, why not check out this post on effective practice.

Effective practice methods are invaluable and something that’s often overlooked in music lessons. My Learn Music Together Academy helps support adults who learning an instrument with their practice.

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2 thoughts on “Baroque Music Characteristics-Everything you need to know.”

  1. Very informative, explains it well to a layman 😊

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