How do I recognise Baroque style?

There are many defining features of Baroque style, but perhaps the easiest way to recognise it is by listening to the instruments.

The harpsichord was the main Baroque keyboard instrument, as the piano we know today was only developed much later. Therefore, if you can hear a harpsichord, it’s probably a good indication that the music is from Baroque times. Other popular Baroque instruments that soon went out of fashion were the recorder (probably a familiar sound!) and string instruments that used gut (yes, real animal gut) strings rather than metal ones. The metal strings we hear today provide a much brighter sound, and so if you hear an unusual, dull string sound it’s another clue that it might be Baroque.

Aside from instruments, there are other devices used by composers that characterize the period.

If you can hear more than one melodic line at the same time, often carefully interweaving each other, this is called a ‘contrapuntal texture’ and is typical of Baroque style. By the Classical period, this had gone out of fashion and it was much more common to hear a ‘homophonic texture’ (melody and accompaniment).

Another typical feature of Baroque music is the use of ‘terraced dynamics,’ which means that the changes from loud to soft (or vice versa) are sudden rather than gradual. Gradual dynamic changes are rarely heard in Baroque music.

Finally, if you listen to a Baroque melody you will often hear ‘ornaments,’ which are little flourishes (groups of fast notes) that decorate the melody and make it more interesting. They are not essential to the music and are often improvised.

During the Baroque period, composers were employed by the church or very rich patrons. This meant that they had to stick to a huge amount of rules to ensure they kept their jobs. Therefore, Baroque music was not wildly experimental and so if you hear any dramatic or unexpected moments in the music, you’ve probably got the wrong style!

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