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Characteristics of Baroque Music

Characteristics of Baroque Music

The word baroque comes from the Italian word barocco meaning bizarre. However, when describing the music of the Baroque period, a better definition might be exuberant.

The Baroque period lasted from about 1600 to 1750. The death of J.S. Bach, the Baroque’s greatest composer, marks the end of the period.

Some of the characteristics of the Baroque are as follows:

The Basso Continuo (Figured Bass): Figured Bass is a sort of musical shorthand that provides a framework for playing the bass line of the piece. The bass parts were usually played by the string bass along with either the harpsichord or the organ, which also played an improvised chord part. While most of the orchestra played parts that were written out note-by-note, the basso continuo was simply sketched out in a Figured Bass notation.

One mood throughout the entire piece: This is called the Doctrine of Affections. Composers in the Baroque period attempted to communicate pure emotion in their music. There was nothing autobiographical in their compositions, meaning that a composer never tried to write a “happy” song because he was happy that day. Rather, they were trying to write music that perfectly expressed the range of human emotions.

Important String sections: During the Medieval period, the human voice was the predominate instrument and nearly all music was written for voice. Gregorian chants had no accompaniment. The motets and madrigals of this period had some accompaniment, usually an organ or harpsichord. However, Baroque composers began giving greater attention to the violin, viola, cello and string bass and wrote many pieces that brought these instruments to the forefront of the orchestra.

Modes were replaced by the Major/Minor key system: Medieval music was written in modes that did not allow for changes from one mode to another. If a song started in Mode 1, it ended in Mode 1 with no possible way to shift to Mode 2. With the invention of the Major and Minor key system, it became possible for composers to modulate from one key to another related key.

Many different forms are used (e.g. Binary, Fugue): Chants, motets and madrigals were written in a single form and allowed for very little variations. Baroque music was a time of experimentation and expansion. Composers began writing pieces in many forms, most of which followed some kind of fast-slow-fast format. Binary music was two forms, fast and slow. Fugues were complex and complicated variations on a single melody that build organically from that single melody into rich and varied musical tapestries.

Many types of music, e.g. The Chorale, Opera, the Dance Suite: Prior to the Baroque period, most music was written exclusively for use in religious services. Some these pieces, the masses, were formed in such a way to allow for very little experimentation or variation. As the Baroque progressed, musicians began writing more and more religious music for use in services other than the mass. Secular music, pieces written either for royalty and the courts or for the general public, became popular during the Baroque period. Baroque composers wrote thousands of pieces for both sacred and secular use.

Energetic rhythms (Exuberance), long melodies, many ornaments, contrasts (especially dynamics, but also in timbres): The music of the Medieval period; chants, motets and madrigals, was mostly slow and fairly uniform in style and mood. The voice still dominated as the main instrument, with a few harpsichords and organs thrown in as accompaniment. That changed dramatically in the Baroque as composers began experimenting with new rhythmic structures, long complicated melodies, trills and other musical ornaments and a wide variety of contrasts, both dynamically (volume) and in the timbre, or texture, of the music.
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