Baroque Music (1600-1750)

It was during the 17th Century that the system of modes finally crumbled away. By adding accidentals the Major/Minor key system developed. The 17th Century also saw the invention of several new forms and designs, such as:

The orchestra started to take shape, mainly in the strings, and the violins became the dominant instrument, and most important in orchestras.

Composers of the Period

Composer Nationality Composer Nationality
Vivaldi Italian Handel German
A. Scarlatti Italian Couperin French
D. Scarlatti Italian Lully French
Corelli Italian Rameau French
Monteverdi Italian Purcell English
Bach German    


A monody is a single voice line supported by an instrumental bass line, upon which chords were constructed. The voice line followed the natural speech rhythms of the words. This style of writing for the voice (half singing and half reciting) became known as recitative. All the composer wrote down beneath the melody was a bass line to be played by a low stringed instrument, such as a cello. This was called the 'basso continuo', but the composer expected another continuo player on harpsichord, organ or lute, to build up chords upon the bass line. As these chords had to be improvised, the player had to be very skillful. Figures below the notes indicated which chords to play. This is called a figured bass.

Early Opera

The first opera was written in 1597, called 'Dafne', and was composed by Peri. It had choruses, dances and instrumental pieces, all done by a small orchestra. It contained music and drama (i.e. Music-Drama). The first truly great opera was composed by Monteverdi in 1607, and was called 'Orfeo'. The music heightens the dramatic impact. The music and drama blend together well. There was a lot of instrumental ritomello (Italian for return, and means when a section returns). Before each verse of the aria (song), we hear an instrumental ritornello.

The Italian Overture

Scarlatti's operas often began with an overture in three sections: quick, slow, quick. This was the Italian Overture. Scarlatti designed the arias in his operas in da capo form, i.e. ABA. Another name for this is ternary form.

The French Overture

Lully's operas began with a French Overture.. slow, quick, slow. This is the other way round to an Italian Overture.

Baroque Opera in England

The one great English opera of the 17th Century is 'Dido and Aeneas', and was composed by Purcell.


Born about the same time as opera, this vocal music was at first very similar to operas. (They had arias, choruses and recitatives) They were acted out with scenery and costumes. The main difference was that an Oratorio was based on a sacred story. Eventually oratorios ceased to acted out, and were given musical presentation only. Handel's Messiah, Samson, Israel and Egypt are all Oratorios.


A passion is a special oratorio telling the story of Christ's crucifixion. Besides recitatives, arias and choruses, Bach also included settings of chorales (German hymn tunes.)


Bach composed more than 200 church cantatas (cantata means sung, sonata means played). These are for soloists and choruses, accompanied by orchestra and continuo, and are like miniature oratorios. A fine example is Number 140, by Bach, based upon the chorale, 'Sleepers, Wake'.

Instrumental Music

During the Baroque period, instrumental music became equally as important as vocal music.


A fugue is a contrapuntal piece, based upon the idea of imitation. It is usually written in 3 or 4 parts, called 'voices', and these are referred to as Soprano, Alto, Tenor and Bass. The detailed structure of a fugue can be rather complicated. The entire piece grows mainly from a single brief tune of strong musical character. This is called the subject. Then it is repeated by the other voices in turn each at its appropriate pitch. The most famous collection is the 48 preludes and fugues by Bach.

The Chorale Prelude

These are usually for organ, and most of them were composed in Germany. It is based on a chorale, could be in Fugal style, or a set of variations.

The Suite

A suite is a collection of dances for one or more instruments. Many were written for harpsichord. They contain:

  1. A German Allemande, in 4/4 time, at a moderate speed.
  2. A French Courante, in 3/2 time, at a moderately fast speed (the Italian version is a Corrente).
  3. A Spanish Sarabande, in a slow triple time.
  4. A Gigue, usually in compound time

However, before or after the Gigue a composer might introduce dances such as the minuet (in 3 time, a slow and stately waltz), a bourde, a gavotte or a passepied. Sometimes a suite began with a prelude (opening piece).

The pieces were usually in the same key, and in binary form (AB). French composers, however, often wrote in Rondo form (ABACADA etc.)

Baroque Sonatas

Sonata means sounded (to be played.) Many Baroque sonatas were for two violins and continuo (usually cello and harpsichord.) Composers called these trio sonatas (There are only three music lines - the harpsichord plays the figured bass.) A violin was sometimes replaced with a flute or an oboe. There were two types:

  1. The Sonata da camera (Chamber sonata: camera is Italian for chamber). These were meant to be played in people's homes. The continuo would be played by harpsichord or lute.
  2. The Sonata da chiesa (Church sonata: chiesa is Italian for Church). These were played in churches. The continuo was played by organ. These were far more serious than chamber sonatas.

Purcell, Corelli, Bach, Handel, Scarlatti and Couperin all composed sonatas.

The Concerto Grosso

The word concerto means get together. The idea of opposition and contrast led to two contrasting groups of instruments: A small group of soloists (Usually two violins and a cello), called the concertino, and an orchestra of strings called either the ripieno or the tutti (meaning everyone).

The Solo Concerto

This grew out of the Concerto Grosso, and has a single instrument solo, and a string orchestra. There are solo sections and tutti sections. The quick movements were often in ritomello form: Tutti 1, Solo 1, Tutti 2, Solo 2, Tutti 3, etc.

Vivaldi wrote more than 500 concertos, both concerto grossos and solo concertos, his most famous being 'The Four Seasons'.

The Orchestra

During the Baroque period, the orchestra started to take shape. The string section became a self-contained unit. To this composers would add other instruments in ones and twos: Flutes, Recorders, Oboes, Bassoons, Horns, and occasionally trumpets and kettle drums.

There was still a continuo. There was a lot of contrast, especially in the dynamics. Sometimes there were also echo effects.

The Main Characteristics of Baroque Music

  1. The Basso Continuo (Figured Bass).
  2. One mood throughout the entire piece.
  3. Important String sections.
  4. Modes were replaced by the Major/Minor key system.
  5. Many different forms are used (e.g. Binary, Fugue)
  6. Many types of music, e.g. The Chorale, Opera, the Dance Suite.
  7. Energetic rhythms (Exuberance), long melodies, many ornaments, contrasts (especially dynamics, but also in timbres)
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