May 20

The MyMusicTheory Guide to Music; Part 4 – Baroque Music


Baroque Music 1600-1750

During the Renaissance period, many composers had experimented with the old modal system by adding in accidentals wherever they thought they sounded good. When modes are followed strictly, each one has its own unique flavour (because each one uses a different pattern of tones and semitones). As more and more pieces began to be peppered with flats and sharps outside the notes dictated by the mode, the various modes became indistinguishable from one another, and eventually just two of the modes came to dominate – the Ionian and the Aeolian.

Today we call the Ionian mode the “Major” and the Aeolian “Minor”, and so was developed the key system we use today.


Texture and Form

Many new musical forms were also invented during this time. Most importantly, the Baroque era saw the advent of Opera. In vocal music, several composers decided that weaving together many voices made it difficult to understand the words being sung, and they developed a style called monody, in which a single voice would be accompanied by an instrumental bass line and chords.

In instrumental music, new forms include the Suite (a set of dances), the Sonata and Concerto (pieces for a solo instrument/s with accompaniment),  and the Fugue (an intricate technique involving combined multiple strands of melody sung at different pitches).

The first known opera was written by Jacopo Peri, but most of it is now lost. The earliest opera which still exists as a complete manuscript is “Euridice” by Peri and Caccini. Opera quickly became a hugely popular musical form in Italy, and thanks to the genius of Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643), opera soon spread across Europe as an exciting new musical spectacle. Monteverdi appealed to the masses by cleverly combining aspects of both the old and new styles of music. Here’s an excerpt from Monteverdi’s “Orfeo”, probably the most important opera of this era:

I chose this clip because the production is so beautiful! The male and female solos here are an example of monody, and are in quite a different style to the choral section at the end of the clip.

Henry Purcell (1659-1695) lived approximately half way through the Baroque era. Purcell was English, and contributed hundreds of compositions to the English musical heritage, many of which are still performed today. One of his most exquisite songs is “When I am Laid in Earth”, from his opera “Dido and Aeneas” (can you spot the mistake in the score?!)

This song is built on a ground bass, which is simply a bassline which is repeated several times underneath a varying melody. The ground bass in this clip can be seen in the lower part from bar 10.

Towards the second half of the Baroque era, you’ll find a lot more composers whose names are familiar to you – Bach, Handel and Vivaldi all fit into this era. By this time, composers had established the major/minor key system which we know today, and were exploring many other new avenues such as the development of instrumental music. Until now, vocal music had dominated; in the Baroque era instrumental music became equally important, for the first time in musical history.


In this period, the violin family (including the viola and cello) made their debut. The oboe was developed from the Renaissance shawm, and the harpsichord became a popular household keyboard instrument. The recorder, lute and trumpet remained widely used, and another new development was the combining of these instruments into an orchestra.

Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741) was a virtuoso violinist and composer. Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons” are four violin concertos – pieces written for a violin solo with accompaniment. Whereas today we call a piece a “concerto” if it is for a solo instrument and orchestral accompaniment, back in Vivaldi’s day, the type of accompaniment was more flexible; the “Four Seasons” accompaniment was written for a string quartet and basso continuo. A basso continuo was most often played by a harpsichord and cello, but other instruments could be used depending on who was around at the time to play! (See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Basso_continuo#Basso_continuo for more about basso continuo).


J.S. Bach (1685-1750) was one of the most prolific composers ever, writing hundreds of compositions for both voice and instruments, religious and secular. Bach consolidated the “new” major/minor key system, by writing music in all possible keys – something which had never been done before, due to tuning restrictions. Bach’s “Well-Tempered Clavier” comprises two sets of 24 preludes and fugues, written for the keyboard (meaning the harpsichord or clavichord, as the piano had not yet been invented!) in each of the possible major and minor keys.



Baroque music usually displays a lot of continuity. A piece often has one “mood” – happy or sad, and does not swing from one emotion to another. Likewise, rhythms are repeated throughout the piece, and snatches of melody recur again and again. If there is variation, it usually comes as a complete contrast, not as a gradual process.  A sad section of music might be followed by a happy one, a loud section by a quiet one, a legato section by a staccato one. But these changes happen abruptly, and are contained within a new section of music, lasting several bars.

With the death of JS Bach in 1750, a new era in music began to evolve. This era has lent its name to the whole spectrum of serious art music, which shows just how important it is – 1750 is the beginning of classical music.



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