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Classical Music Periods- Baroque

The Characteristics of Baroque Music

Handel’s Harpsichord. The great bulk of the repertoire for harpsichord was composed during its first historical flowering, the Renaissance and Baroque eras.


Baroque music and art (painting, architecture, literature, etc.) tend to be embellished to a great extent. It was known for its grandiose, dramatic, and energetic spirit but also for its stylistic diversity. Comparing some of musical history’s masterpieces to a negative description- misshapen pearl- might sound unreasonable. Nonetheless, for the 19th century critics who applied this term, the music of J. S. Bach and Handel’s era seemed to be overly ornamented/exaggerated. Nowadays, “baroque” is just a convenient catch-all concept. It presents one of the most significant music periods in western music history. Even though they overlap in time, the Baroque period could still be grouped into three phases: early(1580 A. D. — 1630 A. D.), middle(1630 A. D. — 1680 A. D. ), and late(1680 A. D. — 1730 A. D.) periods.

“A belief in music as a potent tool of communication.”

Baroque Instruments were quite different from modern ones.

The main philosophy in this period is from the Renaissance(1400/1450 A.D. –1600 A.D.) interest in ideas existing in ancient Greece and Rome. There is a commonly-held belief for people there that music was a powerful medium for communicating and connecting with other people, it could arouse emotions in its listeners. As a result of the revival of the ideas, composers became aware of the potential power of music, and started to belief that their own musical compositions could have similar or identical influences if they correctly emulated ancient music.

In 1605, the Italian composer C. Monteverdi defined “first” and “second” practices: First, harmony and counterpoint took precedence over the text; second, the need to express the meaning of the words surpassed any other concern. In baroque period, it is the spirit of the second one — using the music to communicate — eventually rose to a dominant position.

The realities of patronage.

It cannot be ignored that the probability of composing and distributing music depends on the living conditions of the musician himself.

Nowadays, musicians are quite free to compose according to their personal vision and thoughts for musical art. Nevertheless, baroque musicians were actually conditioned to some extents by the fact that they were employed by political or religious institutions or by some powerful nobles who was of the highest social groups, and the music works had been commissioned and paid for by those ones. Therefore, the production might be strongly linked to those ones’ needs. For example, a great number of cantatas composed by J. S. Bach does not derive simply from his own inspiration, but from the liturgical intends of the Leipzig church which had employed him.

The characteristics of Baroque music.

  1. Tonality

Something worth mentioning is the adoption of tonality, specifically, major-minor tonality. The Baroque period witnessed the creation of tonality, which is an organized system of tones. It is a system based on hierarchy. In tonality, the tonic is the “home base” chord in a key. And other chords and tones are with varying degrees of importance. This kind of major-minor Key system/relationships only came to be in the Baroque period (around 1600.) Before that, music was modal (church mode).

Some of Church Modes
Tonality in C major with chord progressions (functional Harmonies)

“Tonality is an organized system of tones (e.g., the tones of a major or minor scale) in which one tone (the tonic) becomes the central point for the remaining tones. In tonality, the tonic (tonal center) is the tone of complete relaxation, the target toward which other tones lead.”

— — (Benward, Bruce, and Marilyn Saker. 2003. Music: In Theory and Practice, Vol. I, seventh edition. New York: McGraw Hill)

Baroque music is more fluid and continuous, and their melodies tend to be long and flowing. The new interest in music’s dramatic and rhetorical possibilities led to a wealth of new sound ideals in the Baroque period.

2. Contrast as an necessary element in musical compositions.

Contrast is an necessity in a Baroque drama composition. The difference between piano and forte, solo and orchestra ensemble, different instruments and timbres all play important roles in a great number of Baroque works. Composers also started to be more precise about instrumentation, sometimes appointing specific instruments on which a piece should be played rather than allowing the performers to choose by their willingness. Instruments like the trumpet as well as violin grew in popularity.

3. Monody, polyphony, counterpoint, and the emergence of the basso continuo ( also known as Figured bass ,Thorough Bass).

Monody: Style of accompanied solo song consisting of a vocal line, which is frequently embellished and simple. (From TheFatRat piano cover)

Monody: The most innovative feature of the baroque music was the adoption of the monody with accompaniment and the basso continuo. Early Baroque composer’s primary goal in monodic composition was to have the music obey the rules of the natural rhythm and meaning of the text. This was a reaction to the complex polyphony of late Renaissance choral music. The text in late Renaissance choral music was sometimes obscured by the independent going of the different melodies. This singing melodic line was accompanied by the bassline and improvised chords of figueed bass instrument pair sparsely. The progress of monody was one of the distinguishing properties of early Baroque practice.

Polyphony: The term comes from the Greek words poly, which means “many/multiple”, and phonic is for “sound/voice”. Because the other two main types of texture, homophonic and monophonic texture, only deal with one melody line at one time, polyphony is considered more sophisticated and dense. The most famous example in polyphonic texture is Pachelbel’s Canon (refers to the following figure).

Pachelbel’s Canon: mm. 15–18.

Polyphony is commonly associated with Baroque and Renaissance music, as well as the music of the Baroque late period composer J. S. Bach. It’s the simultaneous combination of two or more tones or melodic lines.

Usually, polyphony would be related to counterpoint, which is a mixture of distinct melodic lines. Melodies are composed alongside one another to create polyphonic texture that contains contrapuntal technique phrases. The sound effects are like the instruments are imitating one another. This will sometimes happen through the entire piece, sometimes only for part of it.

Counterpoint: The history of Counterpoint begins with the first elaborate forms of “Ars antiqua” (Ancient Art) and “Ars nova” (New Art). With the creations of the Franco-Flemish school, counterpoint’s variety and complexity of the techniques reached their peak and formed the basis of polyphony in the Renaissance. Counterpoint was the art of superimposing multiple monodic parts and creating effects of tension and relaxation. It’s a combination of two or more different tunes played at the same time, like the game/conversation between the various independent voices. J. S. Bach’s work represents the apex of a rich counterpoint elaboration inserted in a harmonic-tonal system.

Basso continuo provides the harmonic structure of the music by supplying a bassline and a chord progression. The phrase is often shortened to continuo, and the instrumentalists playing the continuo part are called “the continuo group.”
Basso continuo provides the harmonic structure of the music by supplying a bassline and a chord progression. The phrase is often shortened to continuo, and the instrumentalists playing the continuo part are called “the continuo group.”
Basso continuo provides the harmonic structure by supplying a bassline and a chord progression. The phrase is often shortened to continuo, and the instrumentalists playing the continuo part are called “the continuo group.”

Basso continuo: The Basso Continuo, also translated in Thorough Bass, remained a standard practice until the end of Baroque music period, that’s why this period is also known as the “Age of the Thorough Bass”. The practice of it is one kind of musical notation in which the melodies and bass lines are written out and the harmonies are indicated by abbreviated with certain numbers. These numbers are actually the intervals between notes on keyboard instruments. In previous musical periods, a piece of music tended to have a single melody, perhaps with an improvised accompaniment, or several melodies played at the same time. Until the Baroque period, the fundamental concept of melody and harmony began to receive attention. As part of the effort to imitate ancient music, composers began to pay less attention on the sophisticated polyphony (which dominated the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries), and concentrate more on a single singing melodic line with a more purified accompaniment, or simple with monody. With the emphasis on a single melody and bass line, came the practice of basso continuo (a method of musical notation in which the melody and bass line are written out and the harmonic filler indicated in a type of shorthand.) Because basso continuo remained standard practice until the end of the Baroque period, the era is sometimes known as the “age of the thorough bass.”

Concerning music theory, the more widespread of Basso Continuo represents the developing significance of harmony as the linear underpinnings of polyphonic compositions. Harmony is the derivative of contrapuntal compositional techniques, and figured bass is a representation of these commonly used harmonies. Composers began to care about harmonic progressions, and also adopted the augmented fourth (so-called tritone), which was perceived as “the chord of evil”, to create dissonance. The use of harmony directed towards tonality marks the shift from the Renaissance into the Baroque period. This led to the idea that chords, instead of notes, could provide a feeling of closure — one of the fundamental ideas that became known as tonality.

Other Features

  • Homophony — music with one melodic voice and rhythmically similar accompaniment (this and monody are contrasted with the typical Renaissance texture,polyphony)
  • Dramatic musical forms like opera, dramma per musica
  • New instrumental techniques, like tremolo and pizzicato
  • The da capo aria “enjoyed sureness”.
  • The ritornello aria — repeated short instrumental interruptions of vocal passages.
  • The concertato style — contrast in sound between groups of instruments.
  • Extensive ornamentation

Musical forms

The opera, oratorio, and cantata were the most significant new vocal compositional forms. For instrumental music, sonata, concerto, and overture rose to prominence. While forms and styles from earlier times were still employed (motet or particular dances, etc.), the intention and desire in music as a rhetoric form sparked the development of these new genres, particularly in the area of singing. Many of these compositions related to Baroque periods came out of this new dramatic impulse, especially opera, oratorios and cantatas. As to instrumental compositions, the notion of contrast and the desire to compose more large-scale works gave rise to the emergence of concertos, sonatas and suites.


Instrumental: Chorale composition, Concerto grosso, Fugue, Suite, Allemande, Courante, Sarabande, Gigue, Gavotte, Minuet, Sonata, Sonata da camera, Sonata da chiesa, Trio sonata, Partita, Canzona, Sinfonia, Fantasia, Ricercar, Toccata, Prelude, Chaconne, Passacaglia, Chorale prelude, Stylus fantasticus


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