ESTA – Baroque Style: some thoughts.


Baroque music is built on the freedom that exists between a reactive bass line (basso continuo) and the melody line(s) it supports. The music is always conversational, requiring interaction and reaction between the upper melody parts – e.g. in a trio sonata or Concerto Grosso – and between the upper parts and the bass line. Composers and performers in the baroque were deeply schooled in rhetoric and so music is always designed to express a clear emotional message. This is known as the affect and a performer needs to understand the affect in order to produce an informed and effective performance.


Understanding the affect comes from being able to decode the written and unwritten messages in the music. In baroque music the printed or written score contains only the bare bones of the information and performers were expected to add nuance, ornamentation and phrasing/articulation to reinforce the affect.



An understanding of harmony is crucial in producing a convincing performance. Not only does the harmony underpin the formal structure of the piece but it also creates the tension/release that gives the music its expressive shape. Some questions to ask are:

  1. Tempo: In choosing the appropriate tempo look at any tempo or expressive instructions (with the caveat that they might mean something different to their meaning nowadays!) and then at the 'harmonic rhythm'. How many harmony events are there in the bar/phrase? Then the figuration in the melody, especially when working out how fast something should go.
  2. Emphasis: where are the dissonances and consonances? Where is the top of the phrase?
  3. Direction: where is the bass-line heading to? Tension and release of a phrase.



In music that was often consciously or unconsciously informed by dance, hierarchy in the bar is extremely important. Composers and performers would have known how a courante differed from a bourrée and would have adjusted the accents accordingly. Although specific rules differed from country to country some general rules are:

  1. Each strong beat to be played with a down bow. So 1st and 3rd beats in a 4/4 bar and 1st beat in a 3/4 bar.
  2. A dissonance in a suspension should be played with a down bow.
  3. The strong beat of a syncopation should be played with a down bow – often meaning a fast retake.
  4. Weak beats and upbeats to be played up bow. So in a minuet for example, usually down up up, down up up.



Thoughtful articulation is vital to baroque style. Non-informed performance tends to be much more legato and have less shape (partly to do with the bow)

  1. Notes adjacent to each other to be played smoothly and notes further apart (i.e. separated by intervals) to be played with a lifted stroke and more energetically. The further apart the shorter they get, unless overruled by the affect.
  2. Slurs: always imply a diminuendo
  3. Syncopations: an anticipation of a strong beat so the note prior to the syncop would be short long.
  4. In any passage with sequence or repetition, vary shape, dynamics, articulation and add ornamentation perhaps.
  5. Find textural and dynamic contrasts based on register, repetition, etc



Ornamentation was integral to musical understanding in the baroque period and players were expected to know where to add it. There are some basic rules:

  1. Ornamentation adds to the affect and should not upset the mood or overcomplicate the texture
  2. You should still be able to hear the underlying melody despite the added notes.
  3. Trills are de rigueur and always appear at cadences. They pretty much always start on the upper note.
  4. You can add appoggiaturas to trills – the longer the more expressive.
  5. Good ornamentation is always based on a thorough understanding of harmony. See above.
  6. Vibrato is an ornament in music of the baroque. Use it as a colour and NOT as pepper shaken indiscriminately over the whole meal!


There is no substitute to listening in order to achieve a working stylistic understanding. Reading about the theory, listening to it in action and then putting it in practice is not only instructive but really good fun. Remember, despite all the writing and the recordings, there is no right and wrong. There is no such thing as truly ‘authentic’ because we simply don’t know what they actually sounded like. In my opinion the best thing we can aspire to is to be informed, thinking and open-minded.

Copyright Simon Jones. Please seek permission before copying this material.

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