A history of Baroque music features. The Baroque period gave birth to major changes in music in terms of structure, harmony, melodic content, texture and timbre. In particular opera, the concerto and oratorio were all established as emerging composition forms. Vivaldi and J.S Bach were pivotal in advancing the concerto, whilst G.F Handel made a huge impact on the development of opera. At the same time, with the increasing complexities of musical content, there was a need for better made instruments to allow musicians to handle the increasing technical demands of the repertoire. String instruments in particular developed greatly during this time, with makers such as Stradivari and Guineri fronting the development of the modern day violin. With this marriage of new genres and technical advancements in instrument manufacture, composers experimented with far more virtuoso and technically challenging writing than ever before.


The major distinguishing feature between Renaissance music and Baroque music was the role of melody and bass. Whereas in Renaissance music, the bass line normally had the same musical texture as the melody, in Baroque music, the bass line played a much more dominant role in shaping the structure of tonality. This was a time when the key signature system was being developed and as such, music was composed from the bottom up, with the basso continuo leading the way in the various keys and modulations the composed chose to use. Melodic lines were often contrapuntal, with two or more melodic lines running in a linear horizontal fashion or in canon. Polyphonic contrapuntal writing was highly fashionable during this era and the resulting effect was usually one of thick complex linear textures underneath fast virtuosic melodic lines that stretched the technical capabilities of the performer. Within the writing itself, performers were expected to improvise and embellish the melodic lines with appropriate ornamentation. In fact, well-known musicians often gained huge recognition based on their virtuosic improvisation and ornamentation skills.


Counterpoint literally means ‘point against point’ and this was the dominant feature in how harmony was utilized in the baroque period. This was a time when the key signature system was being developed and as such, music was composed from the bottom up, with the basso continuo leading the way in the various keys and modulations the composer chose to use. What resulted was largely polyphonic writing, where two or more independent melodic voices were unified harmonically. Polyphonic writing can be seen throughout music Baroque music, particularly that of Bach, Monteverdi, and Vivaldi. In fact, the pace of the modulations and chromaticism within the music were quite fast. Generally speaking, pieces of music during this era were characterised by only one fixed emotion or expression, usually dominated by whatever religious text or aesthetic it was attached to, therefore there would be many twists and turns of harmony to keep the momentum and expressive theme constant.


The harpsichord and cello were hugely important in Baroque music. The two together were called the Basso Continuo and in the music, it was written as figured bass. The harpsichord originated some time before the baroque period but only came to the fore during this time. The earliest record of the instrument dates from 1440, when it was commonly known as the clavisimbalum. The reinvention of the harpsichord we know today started during the Baroque period .

The violin also played a major part in baroque music. During this era, major changes in the way the violin and other string instruments were utilised in music were occurring. In Italy, violins were beginning to replace viols, which were played with the bow under the string. The advance in the construction of the violin meant that composers started to focus on music specifically for the violin as a solo instrument. The Italian composer Vivaldi was particularly influential in promoting the violin as a virtuosic solo instrument. The baroque version of the instrument is quite different to the modern day violin. Firstly, the shape of the violin differs in terms of the neck, the fingerboard and the bridge size. Often the instrument was without a chin rest and certainly no shoulder rest was used. The strings were made from sheep gut and the baroque bow was quite different to the modern day Tourte bow.

In the woodwind section, recorders were replaced with the oboe and flute and the brass section was introduced to include trumpets on occasion. In the percussion section, the kettle drums were widely used but at this point there were no timpani or other percussion instruments used.

The Dance Suite

Much of Baroque music was composed for a particular social function. These can be loosely divided into religious functions such as Church ceremonies and special religious occasions, and social functions such as private dinner parties, chamber music concerts, functions within Royal households or from patrons of particular composers. At this point in time, music was still very much functional and fitted to a specific occasion rather than being written for the sake of art. Composers were still employed by either the Church or by royal patrons and their work was full-time and mirrored either the religious calendar or the social calendar.

Much music written for social occasions was actually dance music. During the Baroque era, society in Europe placed great emphasis on social dance events to conduct business relationships and family affairs such as finding suitable husbands or wives to continue the family name. Knowing how to dance was high priority for the middle and upper classes and great attention was paid to learning to dance and social etiquette. This was particularly important for women and finding a suitable husband with the right financial and social credentials was paramount. There were many types of dances during the late Baroque era, some being common Europe-wide, whilst others like the Sarabande were more prominent in certain countries.


Whilst earlier Renaissance music exhibited more homophonic textures, with single-line melodies and some chordal accompaniment, composers of the baroque era began to experiment with different textures. Generally, baroque music features more polyphonic or contrapuntal writing, meaning that there are multiple melodies and musical lines going on at the same time. The sound is therefore more ‘busy’ and complex than homophonic writing. In addition, composers experimented with contrasts in texture throughout pieces of music. It was common to go from a few solo instruments, to utilising the whole orchestra or choir.


The use of ornamentation became very popular in the baroque period. This was for a variety of reasons, but mainly because the instruments of the time were still evolving and generally their sounds decayed quite quickly Therefore it was necessary to utilise ornamentation of long held notes to allow the sound to continue. Harpsichord players did this frequently, often embellishing notes with very complex and virtuosic ornamentation. The more skillful the player, the more ornamentation they would play. Often, the player would have only the skeleton score and figured bass to play from and would improvise the ornamentation they used. Timing therefore, could be quite fluid and a sense of rubato or ‘artistic license’ was common.

Dynamic contrasts

Dynamics (the volume at which the music is played) were being experimented with during the baroque period far more than in the renaissance era. Of particular importance in the baroque era were the notion of terraced dynamics – dynamics that altered very abruptly or had gradual changes through crescendos and decrescendos. This was particularly common in choral music where word-painting using dynamics added to the meaning and the drama of the words sung. As instrument mechanics improved throughout the era, dynamics were easier for musicians to accomplish.


One of the major features of the baroque period was the development of musical forms and structures which became the backbone of large-scale and small-scale works.

For more information on the early Baroque period click here.