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Music History

What is The Baroque Musical Period?

November 23, 2023
The Concert, 1623 by Gerrit van Honthorst Courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington

Baroque refers to a style of architecture, music, and art that developed in Europe during the 17th and 18th centuries; it includes a wide range of stylistic variations, but is chiefly characterized as exuberant, ornate, and lavish. In painting and sculpture, the style often featured high contrast, deep color palettes, and expressive movement. In music, it’s known for its grand and dramatic energy as well as highly stylized ornamentation.

The French word baroque and the Portuguese word barroco were used in reference to imperfect pearls. In the 18th century, the term was applied to music; it was originally not intended as a compliment, suggesting that the work was flawed and unpleasant to listen to.

Notable Traits of Baroque Music

Compositional Decisions

Baroque music embraced trills and other ornamentation, and improvisation was a defining feature of the era. Musicians did not play completely off-score; instead, they followed established stylistic conventions to elaborate on the written notes. Such ornamental techniques mirror the dramatic and highly detailed modes of expression found in other art forms of the time.

Opera, which rose in prominence during the Baroque era, exemplifies the grand artistic aspirations of the period. Operatic singers also improvised ornaments, mirroring the sounds and techniques used by instrumentalists. Beyond sound, operas offered a lavish visual experience, sometimes even delighting courts with fireworks.

Basso Continuo

Basso continuo is a structure in which a continuous bassline and chord progression are written into a composition. This was a nearly ubiquitous technique in Baroque music—so much so that if it is absent in a piece, it often has symbolic reason, such as demonstrating fragility.


The harpsichord and organ were the preferred keyboard instruments during this period. Though it appears a bit like a modern piano, the harpsichord plucks its strings instead of striking them with hammers. An early version of the piano called a fortepiano rose in prominence over the harpsichord during the later Baroque era. The fortepiano’s primary innovation was striking its strings with hammers, increasing the instrument’s dynamic range.

Baroque orchestras were much smaller than modern ones, which have a larger number of musicians and a wider variety of instruments. This created an intimate experience for listening to music.

A Few Prominent Composers and Notable Compositions of the Era


Vivaldi: Concerto in F minor for Violin, Strings, and Continuo, RV 297, Op. 8, No. 4, “Winter” from The Four Seasons

Antonio Vivaldi (1678–1741)

The Italian composer and virtuoso violinist Antonio Vivaldi is best known for a set of violin concertos called The Four Seasons. Many of his compositions were written for the music ensemble of girls and young women at the orphanage where he taught. Vivaldi wrote more than 500 concertos as well as 46 operas and 90 sonatas.

Handel: Trio Sonata in A major for Flute, Violin, and Continuo, Op. 5, No. 1

George Friedrich Handel (1685–1759)

Handel was a German-born composer who spent many years in Italy and eventually became a naturalized British citizen. His compositions include 42 operas, 25 oratorios, over 120 cantatas, trios and duets, and 12 organ concertos, among other works. Handel’s oratorio Messiah remains one of his most cherished works.

Bach: Brandenburg Concerto No. 5 in D major, BWV 1050

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685–1750)

Bach, commonly regarded as one of the greatest composers in history, wrote an enormous amount of vocal and instrumental music for sacred and secular contexts. Just a small fraction of his many influential works are the Mass in B minor, the St. Matthew Passion, the Brandenburg Concertos, The Art of Fugue, and The Well-Tempered Clavier. Bach was such a monumental figure that the Baroque musical period is widely considered to have ended with his death.