What is Baroque Music? - Definition, History, Characteristics & Composers

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  • 0:02 Baroque Music
  • 0:45 History
  • 1:55 Characteristics
  • 3:08 Baroque Composers
  • 4:17 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Kevin Newton

Kevin has edited encyclopedias, taught middle and high school history, and has a master's degree in Islamic law.

Emerging from the Renaissance, Baroque music was perhaps the most openly innovative musical period to date in Western history. Full of melodies and even some improvisation, this style that began to fight the Reformation would lead to the birth of opera.

Definition of Baroque Music

Baroque music is a heavily ornamented style of music that came out of the Renaissance. While it is often considered to be part of the era of Classical music, it is important to note that Baroque predated the Classical period: the Baroque period lasted from 1600 until 1750, while the Classical period spanned 1750-1820.

The genre gets its name from the Portuguese word for 'broken pearl,' which is a particularly apt way of describing this style of music. Heavily instrumental at both the highest and lowest notes, Baroque music regained popularity in the late 1800s and has been played ever since.

History of Baroque Music

With the great innovations of the Renaissance also came new instruments and new ways of building those instruments. Most notable of these were the pianoforte, a precursor to the modern piano, as well as the truly superior violins built by the Stradivari family. No matter the instrument, a greater span of music was now available, and composers were eager to take advantage of it.

Additionally, 1600 marked a period of social upheaval in Europe. The Roman Catholic Church, once unified in much of Europe, was split by the Protestant Reformation, which created various Protestant denominations throughout Northern Europe. The Catholic Church, seeking to regain its former reach, soon was encouraging musicians and composers to write work that could appeal to the masses.

However, the Baroque period was not merely about religion. Indeed, it was this period of musical history that saw the birth of one of the greatest genres in the Western canon, the opera, which combined music with drama. Other types of composition, such as the concerto, sonata and cantata, were also created during this period.

Characteristics of Baroque Music

Truly unlike anything the world had seen up to its creation, Baroque music has many features that help mark a piece as Baroque. Three important features are the focus on upper and lower tones, the focus on layered melodies and the increase in orchestra size.

  1. Baroque composers focused heavily on upper and lower tones, or on the parts to be played by bass and soprano. This often left those musicians who played in between those ranges to improvise their own work.
  2. Baroque compositions also focused heavily on layered melodies, which meant that the same notes would often be repeated throughout a composition, albeit played by different musicians. As a result, music that was originally written to teach how to play an instrument soon was as popular as concert pieces.
  3. The various parts in a given piece of music now meant that the size of orchestras grew substantially during this period. Composers required multiple violins in many pieces, for example. Further, the types of instruments available also made this growth of orchestra size inevitable.

Baroque Composers

Some of the most famous composers in history emerged during the Baroque period. Three in particular worthy of note are Bach, Handel and Monteverdi.

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