Baroque Period Music: Beginner’s Video Guide (Part 2)

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Today we’ll continue the discussion on Baroque Period Music that we started last week. Here’s a link to Part 1 of that discussion if you missed it.

In part 2 of this video, we’ll take a look at the finer points of Baroque music – specifically the topics of tonality, counterpoint and instrumental music in the Baroque era.

Let’s jump into it!

Baroque Period Music: Tonality

We take tonality for granted nowadays, because it’s just the way music is. Well unless you’re listening to some crazy jazz. Tonality is a musical system based on hierarchy – there’s one tone that’s way more important than all the others – the tonic.

The tonic is the “home base” chord in a key. So say you’re jamming in the key of C major, the most important tone would be – you guessed it – C major. And then, in tonality, there are other chords and tones with varying degrees of importance.

Here’s a fancier definition of tonality, which I love:

Tonality is an organized system of tones (e.g., the tones of a major or minor scale) in which one tone (the tonic) becomes the central point for the remaining tones. In tonality, the tonic (tonal center) is the tone of complete relaxation, the target toward which other tones lead. (Benward, Bruce, and Marilyn Saker. 2003. Music: In Theory and Practice, Vol. I, seventh edition. New York: McGraw Hill)

Tonality, specifically major-minor tonality, only came to be in the Baroque era, around 1600. Before that, music was modal.

We won’t spend too much time discussing modal music, but the gist of it is this – there were 8 scales in the Renaissance, also referred to as “church modes”. Our modern and tonal scales always have the same pattern of tones and semitones, but modes don’t work like that. Each mode has its own unique pattern of tones and semitones.

From Wikipedia

An example of modes

To give you an example, the Dorian mode would go something like this:

D – E – F – G – A – B – C – D

In the Dorian mode, the semitone occurs between the 2nd and 3rd note, and the 6th and 7th note. Neither major or minor scales in our modern tonality have a pattern like that.

Mixolydian mode might look like this:

G – A – B – C – D – E – F – G

Again, this pattern of tones and semitones isn’t similar to what we use nowadays.

Shift from Modality to Tonality

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The eventual shift from modal music to tonal music involved many factors, but one of the main reasons Western music evolved in that direction is that it became much easier to form chords and harmonies with actual key signatures. Creating harmony in modes is quite a bit more challenging, and less logical.

Modes worked great for the melodies of Middle Ages and Renaissance church music.

In the Baroque era, the world experienced huge leaps in fields like math and science, and rationality was becoming a favored trait. We had Galileo and the telescope, discovering that the Earth wasn’t the center of the universe. We had Newton and gravity. We had the Catholic church’s decline of power and control. It only makes sense that music would also begin leaning in a more rational direction.

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Music shifting toward tonality opened up new doors for greater complexity that would never have been possible without it. Modality is still used today – like in Jazz, non-Western music and some post-modern music in the 1900s. And it still has its place. But considering 99% of songs you hear on the radio, and play on the piano, are based on tonality, it is crucially important.

Baroque Period Music: Counterpoint

One concept which tends to be completely foreign to our modern ears is that of counterpoint. Counterpoint literally means “point against point”, and is a musical writing style where there are two or more parts played simultaneously, often involving imitation.

Counterpoint wasn’t a new concept in the Baroque era – it was absolutely heard in the Renaissance – but it advanced and evolved to its highest degree in this time, partly due to the development of tonality.

The master of counterpoint himself was, and you probably guessed this, Bach. We’re going to listen to a few examples of Bach’s counterpoint, to give you a better idea on how it sounds, and how bizarre it tends to be to our modern ears.

Counterpoint is a major feature in almost all intermediate and advanced Baroque keyboard music, so understanding it is absolutely critical to being able to not only play it, but also appreciate and enjoy it.

Let’s listen to a few seconds of Bach’s first Invention in C major. I want you to try to focus equally on both parts – your ears will probably gravitate to the right hand melody, but try to split your focus to the imitating left hand part. It’s a challenge, but it’s really cool.

So that’s not so bad, right? Well inventions are nice because they only have two different melodic lines at the same time. Fugues, Sinfonias and Fantasias are all examples of counterpoint that involves 3 or more parts, which is much more difficult – and interesting – to listen to.

Let’s take a listen to his first fugue in C major for keyboard – you’ll hear the main theme by itself, then joined by a lower imitation, and then finally finished with a third imitation. It’s tough to pick out all the voices, but it’s a little easier if you’ve got sheet music in front of you.


scroll to around 2:00 to hear the beginning of the fugue

Baroque Period Music: Instrumental Music

In the Baroque period, instrumental music became a genre within itself, used more than just for dancing. People would play and listen to instrumental music just for fun, and because of this, it grew much more interesting and complicated.

In the Renaissance, musical parts weren’t usually written for specific instruments. Nowadays, we have violin music for violins, piano music for pianos, and so on. But back then you’d have a generic part written for whatever instrument you’d like.

In the Baroque era, instrumental writing became more idiomatic – that is, more specified. Composers would write with a specific instrument in mind.

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Many instruments with narrow ranges or limited expressive capabilities fell out of favor, like the shawm, which were replaced by oboes. Other instruments, like the violin, soared in popularity and edged out other string instruments in the viol family.

Basically, the louder and more expressive an instrument was, the more it was generally favored in the Baroque era. This meant that the instrument’s ability to imitate the human voice was greater.

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On the subject of keyboards, harpsichords started being developed in the Renaissance and become higher quality, as well as more common, in the Baroque period – but it was made obsolete by the invention of the much more expressive piano near the beginning of the Classical period.

The clavichord was another common keyboard instrument – it was so little and quiet that it was mainly used for compositional purposes at home.

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Organs were also quite popular in this time, and culminated with the work of Bach – when Bach died, so died with him the organ’s popularity, falling in favor of the piano (like the harpsichord).

Conclusion

Baroque period music was characterized by intensity, as well as innovation. Instrumental music grew to new heights of complexity, and the genre of opera was born. Form and structure grew increasingly important as people began to favor rationality and logic.

Learning to play Baroque music can be extremely rewarding, but often requires a bit of backstory to properly appreciate it. I hope this video and post has allowed you to understand the Baroque period better than you did before, and perhaps it’s even piqued your curiosity enough to continue digging into the facts, which were just lightly touched on today.

xo,
Allysia

Allysia has been teaching piano in Canada for nearly a decade, and has her Grade 10 RCM certificate. She especially enjoys nerding out to music history and theory. When she’s not making videos or teaching, she’s reading, writing, and jamming in a rock band.

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