Baroque Performance Basics

By Freiberg, Sarah | Strings, July 2001 | Go to article overview

Baroque Performance Basics

Freiberg, Sarah, Strings

Performing early music requires changes to your attitude and your ear

IN THE MAY/JUNE ISSUE'S SHOPTALK, I discussed how many musicians are recreating the sounds of earlier eras (read it on-line at To get closer to bygone composers, they play on the instruments of those times, using techniques the composers would have recognized. I described how modem or modernized instruments are reworked to make them appropriate for Baroque performance. In this issue, I will take a closer look at the Baroque approach to music. There are many treatises from the Baroque era that offer a glimpse into the Baroque outlook. Reared on Classical oratory (everyone read Cicero), musicians in the 17th and 18th centuries saw music as an outgrowth of speech. Music was rhetorical and, as such, was intended to elicit a variety of emotions, or affects. Variations in tempos, rhythms, note lengths, intervals, harmonies, and keys were all used for their emotional impact.

When you examine music from the Baroque era, try to discern the desired emotion. In general, slower rhythms and longer notes were meant to be more serious than their quicker counterparts. While the treatise writer Johann Mattheson mentions that small intervals show sadness and large ones joy, other writers went so far as to ascribe specific emotions for each and every interval. Dissonances highlighted tension-- filled emotions, while their consonant resolutions provided relief. We are now accustomed to half steps that are all the same (equal-- temperament tuning), This means that you can move easily from a piece in C major to another in F# major, and both will sound correct. But in the Baroque, a variety of tunings allowed for each key to have its own distinctive personality.

When playing Baroque music now, you should also be striving to achieve emotional variety with a range of bow strokes. The Baroque bow is not known for its sustaining qualities, but it can achieve an astonishing diversity of sounds and articulations. There are certain general rules that can help you gain bow-hand vitality. For example, the smaller an interval is, the more legato the stroke should be. However, you can highlight a leap with a more detached stroke. Look for flexibility in your arm, shoulder, and wrist joints. As violinist Robert Mealy tells his students, "Think of it as driving a small sports car instead of a big, expensive Cadillac. The Baroque bow can articulate much more deftly if you let it." Enjoy the small gestures that the bow can make, and remember that you are trying to emulate speech: don't forget the punctuation! The Baroque bow will naturally decrescendo as you pull a down bow, with a result that the up bow is weaker. Experiment with staying near the frog-the tip is generally not an advantageous place to be.

Not all notes were created equal in the Baroque; each measure had a hierarchy. Much of Baroque music is based on dances, so downbeats would of course be emphasized. In a triple meter, enjoy a weighty first beat in each measure, and lighten up on subsequent beats. In a 4/4 meter, the first beat should have the most emphasis, the third the next most, and the second and fourth beats should be very light indeed. In fact, the "rule of the down bow," in which every first beat was played with a down bow, persisted in France for generations. I like to think of Baroque music as governed by harmony rather than melody (which is not to say there aren't great melodies in the Baroque!). Revel in the dissonances, then lighten up on the consonant resolutions. Just as many sentences end with unaccented syllables, so do many Baroque musical phrases. Appreciate the fact that intervals are not all the same and play pure thirds. As a general rule, keep sharps low and flats high; they will fit the harmonies better.

Many popular works from the Baroque have been printed in modern editions. While these are often easy to read, they may also vary considerably from the original sources, particularly when it comes to matters of articulation. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Cite this article

Cited article

Citations are available only to our active members.
Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25,

Note: primary sources have slightly different requirements for citation. Please see these guidelines for more information.

Cited article

Baroque Performance Basics


Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

    Questia reader help

    How to highlight and cite specific passages

    1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
    2. Click or tap the last word you want to select, and you’ll see everything in between get selected.
    3. You’ll then get a menu of options like creating a highlight or a citation from that passage of text.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Citations are available only to our active members.
    Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

    1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25,

    New feature

    It is estimated that 1 in 10 people have dyslexia, and in an effort to make Questia easier to use for those people, we have added a new choice of font to the Reader. That font is called OpenDyslexic, and has been designed to help with some of the symptoms of dyslexia. For more information on this font, please visit

    To use OpenDyslexic, choose it from the Typeface list in Font settings.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Thanks for trying Questia!

    Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

    Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

    Buy instant access to save your work.

    Already a member? Log in now.

    Author Advanced search


    An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.