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  • Chris Anderson

Musical Genres - Baroque

I thought it might be quite interesting to talk about the different genres, and indeed sub-genres that are played by the orchestra. Whilst we may not have played all the genres yet, it’s highly likely that at some point we will visit them. This will be an occasional series and will hopefully be interesting as well as useful!

Baroque Architecture

What Is Baroque?

Baroque is a French word meaning bizarre. It could also have derived from the Portuguese word “barroco” meaning oddly shaped pearl. In the non-musical world, the word was given to describe the ornate architecture of Germany and Austria during the 17th and 18th Century. Music borrowed the term to describe similar developments from about 1600 until around 1759.

It was a period in which harmonies developed alongside emphasis on contrast. For example, in opera interest went from recitative (plot driven) to aria (character driven). In church music the contrasts of solo voices, chorus, and orchestra were developed to a high degree. Instrumental music developed the sonata, suite, and concerto grosso.

The Birth Of The Orchestra

Until the Baroque period, music was largely played by soloists or small groups (Lutes, Viols, Violins, Harpsichords, flutes/recorders and voices were often used). Composers within the Baroque era would start experimenting with finding a fuller sound for each instrumental part. With the addition of brass this created the orchestra in its basic form.

There were also changes in the way that musical notation was used and different ways of playing the instruments were discovered. Musicians were expected to be accomplished in improvisation of both solo lines and accompaniment. A basso continuo (often harpsichord and lute, sometimes organ) would improvise chords and accompaniments using a figured bass part.


In life you have ornaments to decorate your mantelpiece (for example). In music an ornament decorates the music. This means that rather than playing a single note a musician would “twiddle” around it to make it more interesting. However, the use of ornamentation wasn’t purely decorative.

The piano wasn’t a thing until around 1700 so composers had to make use of the harpsichord (mainly). The harpsichord is an instrument which plucks the strings with a quill. The resonance of the instrument is limited so if a note needed to be held for longer the composer would use a trill (two often neighbouring notes played one after another in quick succession for a specific number of beats).


Whilst some of the instruments could play loudly or softly, it wasn’t often notated. Notation of dynamics were used from the late 1700’s. Musicians would often add their own dynamics. If a composer wanted a louder part in the music, they’d simply use more instruments. Conversely a quieter section would use fewer.

This technique is called terraced dynamics. In using this technique the volume of the music shifts abruptly from soft to loud and vice versa without any gradual crescendo or decrescendo. It is a technique that is still used today and perhaps surprisingly it appears frequently in Electronic Dance Music!


With the development of the orchestra composers were able to expand the size, range, and complexity of instrumental performance. They also established mixed vocal/instrumental forms. Polyphonic music became prominent and this dense, complex music became popular, particularly with the fugue.

Polyphony is a compositional device whereby multiple independent lines of music are performed at the same time. As a part of polyphony, counterpoint comes in to play. Counterpoint is the way melodic lines are combined, or handled. Polyphony is a hugely exciting thing to hear (and play).

Baroque Composers

The Baroque period is divided into three main sections: early, middle, and late. Many composers of the period appear in more than one section. Monteverdi is a key composer during the transition from Renaissance to Early Baroque. He wrote many madrigals and in his later life, Opera and Sacred Music.

In the Middle Baroque period we have Pachelbel (famous for his Canon in D) and Purcell (famous for his opera Dido and Aeneas). Then going from Mid to Late Baroque we have perhaps the most famous composers of the period - Vivaldi, JS Bach, Telemann, Handel, Albinoni, and Rameau. Their key works are perfect examples of the Late Baroque period.

This is a potted history of the Baroque period. There are numerous tomes on the period but I hope that this blog is interesting and encourages you to perhaps read more into it. There are many wonderful works to discover but my favourites are probably Bach’s Brandenburg Concerti, and Handel’s Music For Royal Fireworks.

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