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What is Baroque Music?

Tricia Christensen
Updated Jan 28, 2024
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The Baroque period in music dates from approximately 1600 to 1750, and applies to most European compositions of that era. It was a shift from the previous Renaissance Period, which included Masses and Madrigals. Though some Baroque composers continued to produce masses, the emphasis was on developing counterpoint, with stronger rhythmic elements than music of the previous period, and greater stress on emotional content. The fugue, based on a central theme with gradual additions is most characteristic of this period.

The most easily identifiable of the Baroque composers is Bach. Bach’s works are mathematical masteries of point and counterpoint, and they are frequently studied for their sound mathematical principals. Bach is actually one of the later artists of the period, preceded nearly a full century by the early composers.

The earliest Baroque composers include Claudio Monteverdi, Jacopo Peri, and Gregorio Allegri. Some of the middle period composers are Jean-Baptiste Lully, Johan Pachelbell, and Henry Purcell. Including Bach, other late composers are Handel, Telemann, and Vivaldi.

Baroque music also introduced a very new trend that would be continued to later forms: the solo voice. Before this period, most vocal music would have been performed in choral arrangements. Though choral arrangements still existed, for the first time, music was written specifically for soloists. Handel’s Messiah for example, blends the choral arrangements and solos pieces, greatly enhancing the variety of the music.

Instrumental solos were also more common at this time. This is particularly noticeable in the work of Bach and Vivaldi. Vivaldi in particular, favored solo concertos for violinists, and he created some of the best and still most popular music for strings. Vivaldi is most easily recognized for The Four Seasons, which is actually four concertos, combined into a concert.

The Baroque period is also the last to truly feature the harpsichord, which would soon be replaced by the piano. To play harpsichord pieces on the piano will probably offend musical purists, as it lends a very different tone to a performance. However, harpsichords are not widely available and much of the compositions from this period, particularly at a student level, are performed with a piano.

There are several fundamental pieces that can help one study and understand the Baroque era. Opera is the invention of this period, with the first operas composed by Monteverdi and Cavelieri. Operas of this time generally took Greek myths for themes, and the most famous is probably Orfeo, a retelling of the story of Orpheus, composed by Monteverdi.

The Pachelbell Canon is an absolute must have for listening to Baroque. It is very familiar to modern listeners, as it enjoyed much usage in the 1980s after Robert Redford’s film, Ordinary People was released. It is often used in place of the Wedding March composed by Wagner. Most musicians simply detest this piece as they have had to play it so frequently, but yet, it is a great representation of period.

Any of Bach’s works, particularly his fugues, are a great place to start. Many recommend the Brandenburg Concertos . Bach was one of the only composers to write fairly exclusively for the church in Germany. There are so many excellent Bach pieces, it is difficult to recommend simply one, however, this wisegeek author must side with Bach’s variation of the 1642 hymn “Werde Munter,” by Johann Schop, which results in “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring,” a beautiful study in counterpoint.

The Four Seasons of Vivaldi, and Handel’s Messiah are both important representations of Baroque music. They are also without regard to period some of the best orchestral and choral music written. Additionally Handel’s Water Music is an important and much enjoyed piece.

An old orchestra joke revolves around the pun, “If it ain’t baroque, don’t fix it.” Orchestral music after this era clearly demonstrates the modernizing influence of Baroque. Even pop musicians owe their solo vocal performances to it. In other words, there is little to “fix,” as its forms are inventive, holistic, and absolutely delightful to listeners.

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Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a WiseGeek contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.
Discussion Comments
By anon283988 — On Aug 07, 2012

It must be pointed out that period names, like Baroque, though simultaneously applied to both visual art and music, do not imply a similarity in style. There is no similarity of style between visual art and music in any period, with the one slight exception of "Impressionism." Even in that case, it is misleading to imply a completely parallel style.

By anon274174 — On Jun 10, 2012

One of the things I love about the Baroque period of art is that it's the first major period where the focal point of the work is not necessarily in the center of the piece. In Renaissance times and times prior, the center of the work of art was also what was most important.

By anon127692 — On Nov 17, 2010

Thank you for writing the date published and the author! It makes things much easier when citing this. Great article, thank you!

By StreamFinder — On Sep 11, 2010

What are some really classic baroque piano pieces? I want to start learning about classical music, and would like to know what some of the "canon" pieces are to start off with.


By closerfan12 — On Sep 11, 2010

This gave a great over view of baroque classical music -- very helpful for teaching my little ones about this wonderful genre of music.

By rallenwriter — On Sep 11, 2010

I know many people find baroque music, not so mention baroque architecture, art, especially the classic baroque realism in painting, to be very oppressive since it's so "set".

However, I actually find it very restful. I really do feel that only when you have clearly defined parameters can you create truly unique and creative music and art.

Besides, isn't it comforting to know that the work will always resolve, always end on a harmonic note, etc, rather than having to deal with the feeling of incompleteness you sometimes get with other genres of music?

By anon86494 — On May 25, 2010

this helped me in school when i was studying baroque music!

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a WiseGeek contributor, Tricia...
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