A Quick Start Guide to Playing Baroque Music

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Pachelbel Canon

Johann Pachelbel

Not sure what Baroque music is exactly? Uncertain about how to approach it musically? Do you know the particular musical characteristics that are the essence of Baroque style? This post is not a music history lesson, but it will give you the information you need to play this kind of music with understanding and style.

First, the facts

I promised this wouldn’t be a history lesson, but some basic facts about the Baroque era will help you.

The term “baroque”  is usually applied to music composed between 1600 and 1750 (the year of Bach’s death). Famous composers of the Baroque era include Bach, Corelli, Handel, Vivaldi and Rameau. Perhaps the most familiar of baroque harp requests? Pachelbel’s Canon in D.

The harp has its own place in the Baroque era. It was in widespread use, and due to the limited availability of instruments, was often used as a substitute for the harpsichord. Handel wrote his harp concerto for the triple-strung harp.

Musical compositions of this time share a number of characteristics, and once you recognize these, you can practice this music more efficiently and play it with more understanding.

Baroque musical essence

Clarity

One of the most recognizable quality of baroque music is its clarity. This music sparkles and shines in an Allegro tempo. Even in a Largo or Lento there is a simplicity that lets the melody reveal itself with transparency.

Practice tip: work for technical precision and clean execution

Character

Baroque era music is usually composed in relatively short forms like movements related to dance forms: gavotte, minuet, sarabande. It is important to keep the character of these movements consistent from beginning to end. While each piece will have dynamic and texture changes, the essential musicality of the piece will reflect a unified vision.

Practice tip: Make sure you have a clear idea of the piece and of its form.

Harmonic patterns

You will often find repeating harmonic patterns in music of this era. Pachelbel’s Canon is an extreme example of this, but you can find harmonic patterns of shorter length in much baroque music.

Practice tip: Discover these harmonic patterns. Use them as guides in your practice and let them shine in performance.

Contrasting dynamics

Often baroque composers (including Bach) did not mark dynamics in their scores, leaving the interpretation largely to the performers. But the characteristic dynamic scheme of baroque music is the abrupt alternation of loud and soft, with the soft dynamic often highlighting an echo of the louder figure.

Practice tip: Make your dynamic contrasts clear, sharp and immediate.

Counterpoint

I would love to give you a longer explanation of counterpoint, but for our purposes here one sentence will do. Counterpoint is essentially the combination of two melodic lines. Rather than being driven by chord progression, baroque music is driven by melody. The horizontal dimension is of prime importance.

Practice tip: Look for the melodic phrasing. Make every phrase sing, with a nicely shaped arch.

Ornamentation

If you’ve ever been stumped by the myriad symbols for trills and turns, you are not alone. But ornamentation is a topic for another day…

Do you have a favorite Baroque piece or composer?

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