Baroque Music

Baroque MusicHave you ever enjoyed listening to some of Handel’s Messiah, or perhaps his Water Music? How about Vivaldi’s Four Seasons? Or Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos? Or Pachelbel’s Canon? If so, you have enjoyed some great Baroque music. The era of Baroque music lasted from about 1600 – 1750 A.D.

Characteristics of Baroque Music

Many scholars have called Baroque music ordered, ornate, and increasingly emotional. Baroque music also had a certain grandeur and elegance. Baroque composers believed that music was a powerful tool of communication and expression. Many consider this era of music the richest and most diverse of music history. The music of the Baroque era emphasized a single melody and a bass line. An entire piece of music reflected a single mood. Composers became more interested in the sounds of individual instruments.

Musical Changes in the Era of Baroque Music

One thing that changed considerably during the Baroque Era was the orchestra. Wind instruments were added to the orchestra, the size of the orchestra increased, and the overall sound of the orchestra changed as well.

The idea of figured bass, or basso continuo, changed the way musicians wrote and understood music. Basically, figured bass was a way of musical shorthand for composers. The composer wrote the bass notes (the lowest notes), and possibly a melody. The bass notes had additional number markings that indicated what chords to play along with the bass note. The bass players and the melody line were fairly easy to follow – the rest of the players had to do a lot of improvising. You might think of figured bass as an early form of a lead sheet. This changed the way composers and keyboard players worked with chords. It allowed composers to put down a minimum amount of information on their scores. It also helped composers write music faster. This also gave performers more artistic freedom.

Another important change during the Baroque Era was the development of major and minor keys, or the concept of Equal Temperament. Prior to this each octave was divided into 19 separate tones. This included specific different tones for things like F# and G♭. (If you find those two notes on a keyboard today, they are played by the same key.) Music and science came together and divided the notes of an octave into 12 equal divisions. Today we call these divisions half-steps. This allowed instruments to play in many different keys and still be in tune with themselves. Bach promoted this new concept by writing his Well-Tempered Clavier (or Keyboard). The book consisted of sets of two pieces for each of the 24 major and minor keys now available.

Baroque music also gave us the concept of counterpoint – the ultimate set of rules for music composition, Counterpoint has to do with how the different lines of music in a piece relate to each other, both melodically and rhythmically. The Baroque idea of counterpoint blended a mathematical manipulation of a melody with great artistry. And Johann Sebastian Bach was definitely the Baroque master of the art of counterpoint.

Instrument Changes in Baroque Music

One of the major instrumental changes related to the harpsichord. Harpsichords were keyboard instruments, but they had major limitations. Plucked strings produced the sound of a harpsichord. They went out of tune easily. Also, they could not vary their dynamics much. You could play them loud, or soft, but not both. So, in 1700 Bartolomeo Cristoforo invented the piano-forte, the precursor to our modern piano. The piano-forte (which meant soft-loud) could play both loud and soft. Instead of being plucked, little hammers hit the strings of the new piano-forte. So if you changed how hard the hammers hit the strings, you could change the volume.

Another big change in instruments came in the string family. The modern violin took precedence over the viol (viola da gamba). The modern violins produced a bigger sound and had better projection than the viols. This was also the time period of the three most famous violin makers: Giuseppe Guarneri, Nicolo Amati, and Antonio Stradivari.

Key Composers of Baroque Music

Many famous composers came from the Baroque Era. You ought to be familiar with many of them. Here is a list of some of the best-known composers from the Baroque.

Pachelbel – Music of Pachelbel

Vivaldi – Music of Vivaldi

Monteverdi – Music of Monteverdi

Corelli – Music of Corelli

Johann S. Bach – Music of Bach

Handel – Music of Handel

Frescobaldi – Music of Frescobaldi

Domenico Scarlatti – Music of Scarlatti

Couperin – Music of Couperin

Lully – Music of Lully

Rameau – Music of Rameau

Telemann – Music of Telemann

Purcell – Music of Purcell

Quantz – Music of Quantz

Buxtehude – Music of Buxtehude

Take some time to listen to some music from the Baroque Era. Let me know what you think – do you like it? This era gives a great foundation for all the music that comes after it.

Did you miss our looks at earlier music eras? Check them out here: Renaissance MusicMusic of the Middle AgesMusic of the Ancients


Renaissance Music

Renaissance MusicRenaissance music became much different from the music of the Middle Ages. Melodies and harmonies changed. New forms of music developed because more music was being used for entertainment. Music also became a leisure activity for the upper classes. The invention of the printing press in 1439 helped to spread copies of music and music theory texts. This allowed more people to participate in music.

Changes in Renaissance Music

During the time of the Renaissance music changed in several ways. Composers used more variety in the range of the melodies, in the rhythm patterns, and in the harmonies. The use of 3rds and 6ths became much more popular. Also, the texture of the music was much richer – there were more independent melodic parts. Composers got better at blending all these melodies together. The writers of the music were more concerned about having the music flow freely and having pleasing chord progressions.

Sacred music was still in great demand. Composers continued to write masses and sacred choral music, but they added some new forms, like motets and chorales (hymns sung by the congregation). Secular music changed as well.  It increased in popularity, and that required new forms of music. Composers were writing madrigals and chansons for vocalists, but there was a greater demand for instrumental music as well. So, composers developed the toccata and the prelude – new forms for instrumentalists to play. Operas became more and more popular as well.

Remember, during the Middle Ages, musicians figured out how to write music on paper to make it easier to teach the music to others. More changes in notation happened during the Renaissance. Composers were not using bar lines to divide the music into measures. The note values in use were longer – instead of using a quarter note to define one beat the composers used whole notes. Also, when they wrote out parts for instruments or singers, they did not write a complete score (a copy of all the parts together). They just wrote the individual parts. So, you could not look at one part and see what a different musician was supposed to be playing at the same time. And, composers did not always write the necessary sharps or flats in the music. The musicians just had to adjust, based on the way the music sounded.

Instruments of Renaissance Music

Renaissance music included four key groups of instruments. The brass section included instruments such as the slide trumpet, the cornett, the trumpet without any valves, and the sackbut, a forerunner of the trombone. The string family of the Renaissance period consisted of the viol, the lyre, the Irish harp, and the hurdy-gurdy. The string family also included the forerunners of the guitar and the mandolin, the gittern and the mandore. The woodwind family members were the shawm, the reed pipe, the bagpipes, the panpipe, the hornpipe, the recorders, and the transverse flute.  The keyboard instruments of the time included various virginals and early harpsichords and clavichords.

Important Composers of Renaissance Music

Guillame Dufay – also included in the section on Early Music. He was the greatest composer of the 1400’s. He was one of the first to use the more pleasing melodies, harmonies, and phrasing of the early Renaissance.

Josquin des Prez – the greatest composer of the 1500’s. He was a very prolific composer and wrote music in all the different forms available at the time.

Palestrina – He believed that the flow of music was important. He thought that the melody of the music should have very few leaps. He also felt that music should contain limited amounts of dissonance, and that any dissonance should be resolved promptly. Listen to some music of Palestrina: Music of Palestrina

Giovanni Gabrieli – He was famous for using dynamics and for using specific lists of instruments in his works. He even used carefully chosen instruments and singers in more than two groups performing together. Listen to some Gabrieli: Music of Gabrieli

Claudio Monteverdi – He was known for being a key composer in the transition from the Renaissance to the Baroque eras of music.  He was also the first great opera composer and was very effective at projecting human emotions in his music. Here you can listen to some Monteverdi: Music of Monteverdi

Carlo Gesualdo – He was the most experimental and expressive composer of the Renaissance. He was also famous for violently killing his wife.

Did you miss our previous look at the Music of the Middle Ages? Check it out here: Music of the Middle Ages

How about our look at Music of the Ancients? You can read that here: Music of the Ancients

Music of the Middle Ages

Welcome back, music history friends – let’s look at the music of the Middle Ages. The early music of this time probably would not excite you very much. You would probably think it was quite boring. Gregorian Chant or Plainsong was the main music of this time.  The music changed so much that by the end of the Middle Ages the music was much more familiar to us. So, let’s see what changed.Music of the Middle Ages

Changes in the Sound of the Music of the Middle Ages

Middle Ages music started as monophonic music – music that was sung in unison. There were no chords, no harmony, no instruments playing with the singers. The only sound was the melody – everyone in the choir sang the same notes. And all the music was memorized – no written music, remember? Because almost all the music was sung in the church, and because it took so long to learn all the music, the church decided to start a singing school for younger boys. That way by the time the boys grew up they would know the music and could continue in the choir. Only problem – boys can’t sing as low as most grown men. So, the choir director had the boys sing the same note as the men, but an octave higher. Now you had two lines of music – still both lines were singing melody, but one line sang higher and the other sounded lower. Here is a link to what monophonic Gregorian Chant sounded like:

And this gives us polyphony – music with more than one vocal line. Over time someone got adventurous and wondered what would happen if he changed some of the notes. What if the lower voices continued to sing their part, but the higher voices sang just four or five notes higher than the melody line? They tried it, and evidently, they liked what they heard. They called this sound “organum” because they thought it sounded like the organ. (Remember – the ancient Greeks and Romans had organs.) And then they added another part – a drone sound lower than the melody. A drone sound is just the same note sounding throughout the entire piece. It was terribly boring to sing the drone part! Eventually the choir director had an instrument (like the organ or the psaltery) play the drone part. Here is an example of early organum music:

By the 1100’s music got another big change. A musician/composer named Pérotin started writing song with 3 or 4 musical lines. He wrote music with chords and three or four part harmonies. No one had done that before!

Changes in Music Notation of the Middle Ages

When the Middle Ages started, performers memorized all their music. If you were in the choir, you had to listen to other people sing the music and learn it from them. Definitely not an efficient way to learn music! Choir directors were looking for a better way to teach music!

The idea of writing music started with notations called neumes. Neumes were small markings above the words of the song to give some instruction to the singers. The neumes would show the correct way to pronounce the words of the song. They would give the singer some basic idea about whether the notes of the song went higher or lower. But basically, the neumes would just remind the singer of the songs they had already learned.

Breakthrough!! Shortly after 1000 A.D. Guido de Arezzo, an Italian musician, got some ideas. He was tired of trying to teach new choir members how to sing all the songs they needed to know. It just took too long – like 10 years! He had to come up with a new system. He standardized  the way musicians wrote neumes and made them easy to read and understand. Then he began to write the neumes on sets of four horizontal lines – like a staff with just four lines. The position of the neume on the set of lines gave a pitch position – whether the sound should move higher or lower. The French musician, Pérotin, came up with a written way to indicate rhythm. Now the choir members could learn their music by reading it from paper instead of learning it just by listening. And as the music got more complex, it became even more important to have a way to learn the music faster.

Changes in Music Creation in the Middle Ages

Being able to write music on paper changed the way musicians “wrote” music. Before this, if a person came up with a new song he would sing it over and over to everyone he knew. Then they would sing it repeatedly to people they knew, hopefully without changing the song at all. But now a person could think of a new song, write it on paper, pass the paper around, and people could learn it exactly the way the composer wrote the song. Being able to write the music down also allowed musicians to write more complex music. Now composers had a way to claim ownership of their music. They could sing their names on the paper with their music.

Musical Instruments of the Middle Ages

Most of the instruments we are familiar with today did not exist in the Middle Ages. But some of the “ancestors” to our modern instruments were available. Musicians had several different pipes (wind instruments). The bagpipes were around during the Middle Ages. There were also many stringed instruments: the dulcimer, the psaltery, the hand-held harp, the lute, and the viol. Sometimes a group of instrumentalists played together to entertain at a banquet or to provide music for dancing. They did not use groups of instruments to accompany singers.

Important Composers of the Middle Ages

Hildegard von Bingen, a German woman born in 1098, was one of the earliest named composers. She was also a scientist and a diplomat. People today still perform some of her music. Here is a link to some of her music:

Pérotin was a French composer from the 1100’s. He experimented with chords, written notation for rhythm, and placing neumes on a set of four lines to show pitch.

Guillaume de Machaut wrote music with repeating pitch-sequences and duration-value sequences (melodic and rhythmic patterns). His music was much more complex than composers before him. This is what his music sounded like:

John Dunstable’s contribution to composition was the concept of chords, especially triads. He is known as the father of the triad.

Guillame Dufay took all these new ideas for musical compositions and put them all together. He wrote music that had an identifiable melody, harmonious chords, a logical chord progression that led to a satisfying ending, and an organized rhythm structure. His music would sound familiar to you. Here, in the music of Dufay, you can see how the music changed since the beginning of the musical era:

So, by the end of the 1300’s almost all the important elements of western music had been discovered. Musicians found a way to write music on paper. They progressed from just a single melodic line to multiple voices layered together, their music contained organization and structure. The basic foundation of western music had been created.