Music Genre Analysis: The Baroque Period (1600 – 1750)

The Baroque period as defined by Huchinsons Dictionary of Music (p.302) is “Music of the period following the Renaissance and before the classical period, lasting from about 1600 to the deaths of Johann Sebastian Bach and George Frederic Handel in the 1750s”.
This was a time where music really swelled in its complexity and dimension, a time that saw several important forms develop, many of which are still employed today. These include but are certainly not limited to:

  • Tonality (the establishment of major and minor scales / key signatures)
  • The birth of Opera and Orchestras
  • Counterpoint (two or more melodies happening simultaneously)
  • Basso Continuo / Figured Bass (providing a harmonic structure to music)

These major changes to the structure and style of the music that had preceded the period will be explored later in this blog, but initially lets look at what the world was like (primarily in Western Europe), at this time that provided an environment for such monumental advancements.

The Political Landscape

The 17th century was a period of unrest and uncertainty politically, a time of great conflict and war, not just in Europe but across the globe. Church and State were still very much aligned however many of the intellectuals of the time were about to challenge this alliance. In France, Louis XIV was on the throne and was a firm exponent of the ‘Divine right of king’s’, essentially the belief that he had been ordained by God bestowing him the right to treat his subjects as he pleased (and he did). Charles II of England thought this a great example to follow and the kings of Spain and the Dutch were no better. Constant war racked the region in a play for territory and power. The most notable and one of the most bloody in history with 8 million casualties, the ’30 years war’ (which was in fact a series of conflicts), was however not begun over sovereignty, but religion. Protestants and Roman Catholics head to head over what essentially is a similar belief system. These were violent times where rape and murder were a part of everyday life and the political elite wielded power absolutely.


The battle was on in earnest for new territories and the riches these lands afforded the explorers and their King. The Dutch had founded and annexed Indonesia hungry for the spices it possessed and had also begun to colonise the ‘Cape Colony’ (now Sth Africa). This region offered an endless supply of slaves and a strategic point to stop competitors from advancing around the Cape to the riches of Asia. New Amsterdam (now New York), was settled in 1624 and the Puritans had also arrived to colonise the Americas via Massachusetts in 1620.

Scientific Advances

Sir Issac Newton

During the preceding period of the Renaissance, technological advancements had given rise to a new desire to question the long held beliefs regarding the world we lived in and this continued into the Baroque Period evolving into somewhat of a revolution. Notable proponents of this period include Galileo who would later become known as the ‘father of science’ and would through the use of his telescope famously advance ‘Heliocentrism‘, the theory that the planets (including Earth), revolved around the sun. This was in direct conflict with the Roman Catholic Church who claimed that Earth was the centre of the universe and landed him in a cell for the rest of his life. Sir Issac Newton had also pioneered the discovery of gravity and the three laws of motion during this time which formed the basis of modern physics today. Whilst Galileo had used the telescope to propose his heliocentric view of our solar system, scientists were also using similar technology (microscopes), to explore living cells and the discovery of the human circulatory system was another notable advancement of the Baroque period.

Art and Literature

“In the arts, Baroque is a period as well as the style that used exaggerated motion and

‘Harmenszoon van Rijn’ by Rembrandt

clear, easily interpreted detail to produce drama, tension, exuberance, and grandeur in sculpture, painting, literature, dance, and music” (New World Encyclopedia). Up until this point in Western Europe, artists had generally been in the employ of the Church or nobility and art was usually of a religious nature and limited to depictions of biblical events, Saints and Kings. Now was a time to lose this formal, static style and broaden the scope of what could and should be painted. Painting in particular became more focused on capturing normal subjects in everyday pursuits although religious art and sculpture remained a strong theme. Notable painters included Rembrandt, Caravaggio and Diego Velázquez who was the leading artist in the court of Philip IV of Spain. Perhaps the most renowned of artists (a painter but better known for his sculptures), was Gian Lorenzo Bernini who is responsible for some of the most recognisable sculptures in Rome. The famous novel by Jonathon Swift ‘Gulliver’s Travels’ was also written during the Baroque, transposing the excitement of the age of discovery and lifting the reader out of the mundane. Other notable authors were John Milton (‘Paradise Lost’), and  Miguel de Cervantes (Don Quixote).


Perhaps the architecture of the period best emulates the decorative, ornate and exuberant style that we will shortly explore in the music of the times. The sheer extravagance of the design trends were such that the buildings of the Baroque were almost giant sculptures. Harbison (2011, p.14) explains, “It is often argued that Baroque architecture becomes painterly, seeking fluidity and indistinctness much more feasible in flickering brushwork than solid stone”. Particularly evident on the interior of some of the grander buildings of the church and nobility is the ‘overuse’ of gold gilding and other complex embellishments that is typical of the time and was such to demonstrate the wealth, power and prestige of whomever commissioned the build. Some of the more famous architectural wonders of the period are St Peters Basilica (Vatican), The Palace of Versailles (France) and Les Invalides (Paris). A typical example of the ornate and almost gaudy architecture of the day, St Johns Cathedral in Malta, appears below.Hauptaltar_der_St._John_s_Co-Cathedral

To the Music of the Baroque Period!

Just like the architecture and art of the period, Baroque music was energetic, expressive and emotional. It was exuberant, complex, full of drama and heavily ornamented. It sought throughout any given work to convey or ‘affect’ only one single emotion, unlike the Classical periods to follow where a listener may experience sheer joy followed by absolute morbidity in one concerto. Up until this era, musicians were generally employed only by the church, court or a nobles estate and their presence was a sought after symbol of social status for their employer. Having a personal virtuoso to compose music specifically to glorify your wealth and power was the privilege of the elite and until the Baroque period developed further, only the rich could enjoy this culturally enriching pursuit. Monumental changes were at hand however (technological advances in equipment and Opera), which were to see quality music (not just a wandering minstrel lute in hand passing through your town), slowly become more accessible to the general populace.

The Rise of Instrumental Music

Instrumental music in the Baroque period was to become a genre of its own. It is easy for us to assume that instrumental music has always been with us throughout history and to a degree this is indeed true, however in Western Europe instrumental music had always served a specific functionality, dancing. Much of the music before this period was still focused around the vocals which nearly always carried the melodic content. This period saw the listener begin to just enjoy music and the emotions it would bring forth, the instrumental music without a vocal accompaniment had now become interesting enough on its own. There are a several reasons for this development and they centre around the improved quality of the instruments and the style of the music itself that these technological advancements made possible. This period also introduced ‘Idiomatic’ writing whereby composers were writing music specifically for individual instruments. Up until the Baroque, the different musicians would all receive the same score and adapt it to their specific instrument.

Instruments popular in the Baroque

Several key instruments are fundamental to the period and when you hear them you can almost guarantee that the piece is Baroque. Other instruments faded away or were superseded by newer versions at this time also. All the links below feature the actual Baroque versions of the instruments rather than the versions of them we know today. Additionally, following these links will allow you to hear how the instruments sounded.

  1. Harpsichord: This early relative of the modern piano was used almost exclusively in the Baroque period. Its tone is quite brash and tinny and it is unable to carry expressive emotive crescendos and decrescendos as the piano which came after it could. This is really a result of the action of the instrument in that the notes are plucked rather than struck by the hammer.
  2. Pipe Organ: A grand instrument really only ever found in churches, the pipe organ was loud, imposing and in contrast to the harpsichord capable of much more expressive delivery. It was however quite inaccessible and as a result its popularity waned in the 1750’s coinciding with the death of Johan Sebastian Bach who will always be known as the consummate virtuoso of the pipe organ writing most of the famous music synonymous with the instrument.
  3. The Strings: The improved violin with is ability to play quick melodies was to rise to prominence in the string family during the Baroque but the cello and viola can also be heard regularly and these were often accompanying each other. The use of guitar was also widespread and the older but much loved lute (less expensive and therefore more accessible to many), was an instrument heard often.
  4. Wind instruments: The oboe started the period as the preferred instrument in the family but by 1700 had been overtaken in popularity by the newer and more dexterous Clarinet. The modern version of the ancient recorder still widely used was during this time completely redesigned for use as a solo instrument. The Bassoon was also popular and the Baroque trumpet (smaller, higher pitched and lighter in tone than today’s brassier sounding instrument), was a feature in many pieces along with the French horn. The ancestor of the modern day flute was also cherished by listeners.
  5. Percussion: The only percussive instrument featured in the period and only really used in the first orchestras and operas was the Timpani.

Baroque Style and Sound

Obviously there are no recordings of this music from the actual era, but as the music was well documented and we still have the instruments used, we can make accurate representations as to the sound and style. The music by and large was rhythmically very steady, very little slowing down or speeding up and this reverts back to the periods idea of only ever trying to convey a single emotion in a particular piece. The melodic style was one of sudden contrasts in key (major to minor especially). The melody rarely stopped, continuously moving with one melody after the next and often folding back onto itself. A very disjunctive style, the melodies featured a great deal of jumping around with the use of polyphonic textures running in multiple places or operating in parallel. As a result, sometimes notes would clash but as harmonies were moving so quickly, this would only be heard for a split second. Very ornamented and decorative, baroque style features an abundance of ‘trills’ or additional notes above and below the pitch of the primary melody line.

Dynamically like the art of the day, this genre features high contrasts and rich drama although rarely was any dynamic expression mark greater than ‘piano’ (soft), or ‘forte’ (loud), suggested in compositions of the time. Rather than using subtle transitions in dynamics, Baroque style tended to feature sharp changes between loud and soft however these changes were quite unassuming in terms of dynamic range. This technique was coined as ‘terraced dynamics’ at the time as was representative of the changes in geography of a vineyard or rice field on a hillside.

Key to the style of the period were three important shifts in how music was composed:

  1. Modality replaced by Tonality
  2. Counterpoint style &
  3. Basso Continuo


Probably the largest contribution of the period was the shift from Modes to key signatures (Major and Minor scales and chords). To this point only modes had been used and were devised primarily for the use of vocal religious music.image003These modes were replaced by a new system based on hierarchy where certain tones were inherently more important than others. This monumental change in thinking would lead to more complex compositions. Markedly, more intricate harmonies using this methodology were now possible and music became richer and denser aesthetically. Essentially music had mirrored the science of the day which was moving to a more logical and rational view of the world

Hierarchy of tones in C major and C minor

Modal scales are still used in the fusion music of today where musicians are seeking an alternative sound, Jazz has always used these modes and much of the eastern music still employs this methodology however for the most part, we still see tonality as the foundation of all popular music today.

Counterpoint Style

The Oxford Dictionary describes counterpoint as “The technique of setting, writing, or playing a melody or melodies in conjunction with another, according to fixed rules”. This new technique was employed in earnest during this period where there was usually two or more melodies happening simultaneously. Early examples of this style included the ’round’ and ‘Canon’ but the most complex of counterpoint style was definitely the ‘Fugue’ (three or more independent melodies), perfected by the most famous composer of the time J.S Bach. Have a listen to a very simple example below and see if you can identify the independent melodies present (two in this piece). The tendency for someone in our era is to place more importance on the highest melody as this is how most modern music is played, but if you listen carefully you will note the independent melodies present both of which can work without the other.

Basso Continuo (Figured Bass)

In contrast to counterpoint, another style ‘Basso Continuo’ was developed during the Baroque which is much more familiar with our modern ears as it (unlike counterpoint), is still the basis of our popular music today. The premise of this style was that a lower toned instrument (often a cello or bassoon), would play a bass accompaniment whilst other instruments would improvise around in the higher registers to form the melody. It is easy to listen to Baroque music and see it as very technical, formal and structured, however musicians of the day had to be great improvisers and have a superior understanding of the theory, scales and chord structures of the Tonality system. This was due to the way the music was originally written which was in this technique called ‘figured bass’. Only the bass line would feature as a note on the clef and solo musicians FontSampleFiguredBass would have to improvise unique melodic patterns around this information and the tone numbering system you see above. This resulted in very gifted musicians during the Baroque who had to be able to improvise and do so with other accompanying instruments effectively to create the complex, exuberant pieces we hear today.


The Baroque was surely a time of great advances in all the arts and sciences. The music of the time was unlike its predecessor ‘The Renaissance Period’ being more energetic, expressive and emotive. Technically, the music was much more complex and saw the rise of instrumental music as a genre of its own no longer just accompanying dancing and no longer requiring vocals to ensure popularity. Whilst we have not discussed it here, The Baroque also heralded the arrival of Opera brought into being by the intellectual group the ‘Florentine Camerata’, and also gave birth to the first orchestras. Music had become bolder, louder and the the introduction of the Tonality system was to shape all other music to follow. As a classically trained pianist, the baroque period pieces were always the most challenging however my favorite to play, mostly due to my love of counterpoint. Please find examples below of some of the more famous Baroque works that you may know to give you a renewed sense of the wonder and beauty that this period gifted the world of music.

I. Handel, Arrival of the Queen of Sheba – The Sixteen

Vivaldi, The Four Seasons, Spring (La Primavera), 1st movement

J.S. Bach – Toccata and Fugue in D minor BWV 565

Hallelujah – Choir of King’s College, Cambridge live performance of Handel’s Messiah

Alessandro Scarlatti: Toccata for harpsichord in G minor

J.S. Bach – Prelude & Fugue BWV 847 in c minor by Nathalie Matthys

BACH BWV 1001, played on the 13 course lute by Xavier Díaz-Latorre

Johann Sebastian Bach – Harpsichord Concerto No.1 in D minor, BWV 1052 – I. Allegro

George Frideric Handel’s – Water Music


Helicon, Publishing. Hutchinson Concise Dictionary of Music, Helicon Publishing, 1995.

Baroque in the Arts quote courtesy of Retrieved 30/10/2017

Harbison, Robert. Reflections on Baroque, Reaktion Books, Limited, 2011. ProQuest

Issac Newton portrat courtesy of Retrieved 29/10/2017

St Johns Cathedral image courtesy of Retrieved 29/10/2017

Church Modes image provided courtesy of Retrieved on 31/10/2017

Key Hierarchy image provided courtesy of Retrieved on 31/10/2017

Oxford definition of Counterpoint retrieved on 31/10/2017

Figured Bass image courtesy of Retrieved 01/11/2017


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s