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Characteristics of Baroque Music

Compositions from Johann Sebastian Bach, Antonio Vivaldi, or George Friedrich Handel define the period of baroque music. Along with some new genres in music, this period also gave birth to the concept of tonality. This story gives you a brief overview of the baroque style of music, and its characteristics.

Period Performance

Historically informed performance is an approach to performing arts. Here, the performance has to be in accordance with knowing the aesthetics of the period in which the compositions were made. 
Think of 'sonata', and we tend to imagine the sound of a piano in the background. If you have learned to play an instrument, especially the piano, you would probably have heard of this term, or even better, played it sometime. 
Even if you haven't, a music lover would always love to know about the various styles of music, their history, and some distinct forms that have shaped the music we make or hear today. Baroque music is one such unique chapter in the history of music that you cannot skip.
The name 'baroque' comes from the Portuguese word 'barroco', meaning 'misshapen pearl' or 'oddly formed pearl'. It was named so by some critics in the nineteenth century, as they found the music very ornamental and highly exaggerated. The period between 1600 and 1750 in Western European art music is eminently known as the baroque period.
Classical music of the West is divided into three time spans: Early music period (Medieval and Renaissance), the Common practice period (Baroque, Classical, and Romantic eras), and the 20th century period (Modern, Contemporary, or Postmodern).
In fact, the term 'classical music' is known to have originated in the early 1800s. The age of classical music begins after the baroque period.

Baroque Musical Instruments

Instruments from the baroque period are not completely distinct from those of the modern period. Although, there are some that are not found anymore. The common ones include the violin, cello, and harpsichord. Instruments like the natural horn used in that era was without the valves as seen today.
Instruments from the string family, mainly the violin, had no universal or standard model. So, violins used during the early period (in the times of Claudio Montverdi) were different from the ones used in the late baroque period (Johann Sebastian Bach).

String Instruments

The violin family included the violino piccolo, violin, viol, viola, and tenor violin. Others comprised the cello, contrabass, lute, archlute, hurgy-gurdy, harp, mandolone, and baroque guitar. The harpsichord, clavichord, organ, tangent piano, and fortepiano were some keyboard instruments.

Wind Instruments

The transverse flute, chalumeau, musette de cour, dulcian, baroque oboe (originally hautbois), bassoon and rackett (both from the earlier Renaissance double reed family), and recorder (fipple flutes) were mostly used. Brasses included the cornett, serpent (from the cornett), natural horn, baroque trumpet, and tromba da tirarsi or Zugtrompete.

Percussion Instruments

These consisted of the baroque timpani or kettledrum, tambourine, snare drum (wooden), and castanets (dancers hold these in their hands).

Characteristics of Baroque Music

Prior to the baroque period, music was only composed for church services. It was in the 1600s that composers began creating some secular music for non-religious purposes. Then, music began to be heard outside religious edifices, was well received by the layman, and was also composed for royalty in the courts. Numerous pieces of music were written, thus, for both, secular and sacred purposes.


This was the most dominant feature and a highlight of baroque music. Instrumental pieces from the famous baroque artists and composers are remembered to this date, in part, because of the element of contrast in their large-scale works. High and low tones, differences in volume and pitch, loudness and softness, flipping between slow and fast tempos, etc.,
make this music one of its kind. To better this aspect, composers are known to have chosen certain instruments for particular pieces of music, not letting any other instrument sound it. Trumpets and violins became favorites amongst the audience due to this.


Harmony was not much distinct in the music of the medieval times, though some composers focused on it. Baroque music used a different approach, by directing harmony towards tonality, instead of modality (earlier music was based on modes). This makes for the striking shift between the music of the renaissance and baroque.
Having a single tonic, or arrangement of chords or pitches to give a sense of hierarchy, led to the emergence of tonality. So, it was understood that chords can give the effect of closure in a composition, instead of notes. 'Treatise on Harmony' by Jean-Philippe Rameau, written in 1722, is one of the earliest works to explain tonal harmony.

Monody (Melody and Harmony)

What we understand to be some of the basic terms of music, like melody and harmony, have been discovered in the baroque era. Earlier, during the 15th century, polyphony was the favored norm. The practice of focusing on a single or primary sound, like the voice of the singer, was established in this period. 
Accompaniment was kept quite simple. This structure lies at the base of what is called a 'monody'.

A dramatic element and rhetorics were introduced to the musical renditions, portrayed excellently through the voice of a soloist. Claudio Monteverdi's work, named 'Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda', is an excellent example of this blend.
Baroque compositions began to display a wide range of emotions, forming a parallel between human feelings and their imagery expressed through variant ranges of voice.


Also commonly known as 'thorough bass' or sometimes as figured bass, this system of notation has also defined the entire baroque era to be the period of thorough bass. Bassocontinuo is a method of notation, almost like a musical shorthand. 
This is where the melody and bass line were written out completely, and thus helped in extending the practice of emphasis on these two aspects in music. The notation includes numerals and symbols, which indicate intervals, chords, and non-chord tones, according to their placement above or below the bass note.
Orchestras in the modern period have accorded to tuning a note to the same frequency. However, the pitch, or a common note to which all musicians would tune was not uniform then. It changed with place and time. So, during those times, even the same notations could sound a little low- or high-pitched with every performer.

Genres of Music

The baroque period is when some newer musical genres are known to have evolved. The first three given below are genres that are predominantly known for their vocal aspect. The fourth and fifth mostly concern instrumental music.

1. Opera

This is a musical drama performed by singers and musicians, combining libretto (script) and music. In around 1637, Venice saw a different presentation of this art, no more limited to the courts, but in the form of a carnival or a season, for which people bought tickets. Baroque operas, specifically, depicted a blend of tragedy and broad comedy.
Reform in opera, associated with Metastasio (Pietro Antonio Domenico Trapassi), a librettist, gave rise to 'opera seria', a famous Italian opera style. It was known for its high tones and stylized performances. Singers gained fame through this style, as it gave them the opportunity for arias (elaborate solo singing).
The role of the hero in an opera used to be for this style. Castrato was the voice of the male vocalist, which used to be equivalent to a soprano, mezzo-soprano, or contralto. Carlo Maria Michelangelo Nicola Broschi or Farinelli and Francesco Bernardi or Senesino were the famous Castrati, and Faustina Bordoni was the popular female soprano voice then.
'Rinaldo' and 'Giulio Cesare' were composed by George Handel, to be performed in London. 'Opera buffa' is another genre featuring comedy, peculiar to these times, that was then known as Italian comic operas.
'Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria' and 'L'incoronazione di Poppea' are some operas composed by Claudio Monteverdi in the 1640s. This, he had created particularly for the Venetian theater.

2. Oratorio

Oratorio was a musical drama that did not have any costumes, scenery, or action. It involved a huge team of orchestra, soloists, and choir. The theme used to be religious. In fact, oratorio originally describes a prayer hall next to the church.
The emergence of oratorios is attributed to the magnificent acoustics of these spaces. Giocomo Carissimi, Antonio Vivaldi, and Alessandro Scarlatti used to compose music of this genre, which reached glorious heights through the works of Bach.
Handel is believed to have made this form popular in London, where people had no taste for Italian opera. 'Messiah', 'Israel in Egypt', and 'Judas Maccabeus' are a few classics that are listened to even today.

The oratorio has similarities with the 16th century genres of motet and madrigal repertoire.

3. Cantata

Instrumental accompaniment to the vocalist is what the cantata is known for. The word cantata literally means 'sung', which is the past participle of the Italian verb 'cantare', meaning 'to sing'. This genre usually is performed along with a choir. The services of the Lutheran Church required Cantatas to be performed. Musicians, including Johann Sebastian Bach and Dieterich Buxtehude, composed cantatas for the liturgy and for other occasions too.

4. Sonata

In contrast to singing (cantata), sonata from 'sonare' simply means 'to sound'. It is a piece that includes several movements. In the baroque period too, it referred to a work with several movements for one or more instruments, usually the violin. Bassocontinuo was a peculiar characteristic of a sonata.
During the mid-17th century, there were two kinds of sonatas: i) Church Sonatas: with alternate slow and fast tempo, they generally consisted of four movements (parts), and ii) Chamber Sonata: these had a series of dances that went along with and were similar to the movements in a composition. 
Arcangelo Corelli's church sonatas were further built upon by Sebastian Bach, Georg Philipp Telemann, and George Handel. It was in the late baroque era that sonatas were designed for keyboard instruments. Along with these solo sonatas for harpsichords and organs, famous pieces include those for violins and cellos too.

5. Concerto

A concerto is made of three parts, or movements. It stems from the Italian concertare, meaning 'to join together or unite'. Earlier forms included a union of vocals, instrumentals, or both. The highlight of the performance, later, was to be a solo instrument (a piano, violin, cello, or flute), which was accompanied by an orchestra. 
Concerto grosso, which evolved alongside the concerto, had a few instruments grouped together (instead of a solo) that were accompanied by an orchestra. Concertos were mostly sacred compositions; Claudio Monteverdi's creations are a perfect example. Heinrich Schütz has left a beautiful collection of sacred concertos by the name 'Kleine geistliche Concerte'.

Baroque Musicians

Musicians of the baroque era mostly hailed from Italy and Germany. Claudio Monteverdi, Girolamo Frescobaldi, Arcangelo Corelli, and Domenico Scarlatti were some of the Italian musicians from these times. Jean-Baptiste Lully, François Couperin, Jean-Philippe Rameau, and Marc-Antoine Charpentier belonged to France. Johann Sebastian Bach, Heinrich Schütz, Georg Philipp Telemann were from Germany. Henry Purcell was one famous name from England.
Although baroque music was criticized in the immediate future, it is now that music composers and enthusiasts are appreciating this particular style of art. Besides undertaking research to understand more about this era, some are also known to have purposefully designed and tuned few musical instruments that could sound baroque. Interesting!

 Rujuta Patil

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