What Does Baroque Music Sound Like?

July 10, 2006

The origins of classical music span a millennium and the range of styles and instruments reflect that immense span of development. 

There are six distinct periods of classical music -- all with very different sounds. Whether it is the dramatic voices of a Gregorian chant or the melodic violins of Vivaldi, there is something for everyone.

Medieval (476 AD – 1400)

Only a small portion of the music of the Middle Ages survived. Written primarily for the church, what we have today consists mainly of plainsong liturgical music, with Gregorian chant as the largest part.

Though liturgical music dominated, some secular songs were passed down from this time, mainly with the subject of courtly love.

When you listen to medieval music, you will hear polyphony, which means multiple melodies all played or sung at the same time. You will also notice the presence of long melodies.  

Since most medieval music was played in cathedrals, composers made use of the long reverberations and the unique acoustics of these grand spaces.

Listen to a clip of Gregorian chant.

Renaissance (1400-1600)

As Europe began to focus on the expansion of knowledge and science and on a renewed interest in Greek and Roman antiquity, music changed as well.  Further, the invention of the printing press enabled the wide circulation of musical compositions.

Composers began to write music for the aristocracy, such as the Medici in Tuscany, as opposed to writing only for the church. Composers Tallis, Monteverdi, Desprez, Palestrina, and Dufay were the standouts.

The Renaissance marked:

  • A greater use of polyphony
  • Simplified parts and smoother harmony
  • The lute as the instrument of choice.

A significant contribution to music occurred during the Renaissance. A group of intellectuals and musicians, the Florentine Camerata, ushered in the practice of singing dramatic text. You will recognize it today as opera. Listen to a clip from Monteverdi’s Orfeo

Baroque (1600 to 1750)

Baroque, a term originally applied to the art and architecture of the time, means overly elaborate or ornate. Baroque music was filled with musical flourishes either through improvisation or by composer’s design.

Most Baroque music features:

  • A basso continuo played by a harpsichord and a bassoon. Basso continuo  is the practice of writing out the bass part.
  • A continuo filled in with chords
  • Flutes with a soft tone; Baroque flutes are wooden.
  • Use of monody – a single melodic line
  • Woodwinds consisting of only the bassoon and oboe.

If you like Bach, Handel, Vivaldi, Albinoni, Pachelbel, or Telemann, then you like Baroque music. Listen to a clip of Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons

 Classical  (1750 to 1830)

Though the term “classical” is used today to describe all orchestral music, Classical is specifically the musical period of the late 18th, early 19th century.

Music of the Classical period is characterized by:

  • Simpler, more balanced melodies
  • Symmetrical structures
  • The piano replacing the harpsichord as the prominent solo instrument

Prominent classical composers include Beethoven, Schubert, and Haydn.

Musical great Mozart also composed during this time. Listen to a clip from Mozart’s Requiem in D Minor

Romantic (1820-1900)

During the Romantic period, music becomes more expressive and emotional. The Romantic period is also marked by the:

  • Addition of new instruments to the orchestra, such as the piccolo, bass clarinet, and the trombone
  • Longer works, sometimes as long as an hour and a half
  • More prominence given to wind instruments
  • Harmonies with rarely used chords. Dissonance is more prevalent
  • The rise of the virtuoso

Famous composers of the time include Schumann, Chopin, Mahler, Tchaikovsky, Verdi, Puccini Mendelssohn, Berlioz, Brahms, Liszt, Fauré. Beethoven, Dvořák, Strauss, and Schubert.

Listen to a clip of Chopin’s Nocturne Op. 15 No 2

20th Century (1900-2000)

The 20th century was a time of experimentation and great change brought on by the advent of electronic instruments and new forms of media.

You can recognize 20th century music because of its:

  • Complex rhythms and more prominent percussion
  • Abstract melodies and increased dissonance
  • Varying degrees of control over form – from highly controlled or, conversely, as a result of improvisation.

20th century composers include: Stravinsky, Shostakovich, Boulez, Ravel, Prokofiev, Schoenberg, Messiaen, and Glass. Listen to a clip from Philip Glass’s Closing

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