BAROQUE MUSICAL TERMS
This document contains definitions and background information about
the most important terminology pertaining to music of the Baroque
period of Western Musical History. Most of these terms are words of
Italian origin, since many of the musical developments of the Baroque
period originated in Italy.
One of the most significant musical developments in the Baroque
period was the development of Opera.
Opera is a performing art that combines music and theater. In an
opera, singers, accompanied by an orchestra, perform a dramatic
work (a play) that combines a text, (sung words) called a libretto,
with a musical score.
Opera incorporates many of the elements of spoken theatre, such as
acting, scenery, and costumes and sometimes also dance.
In Baroque opera, the action of the story is usually told in musical
sections called Recitatives in which the singers “recite,” or speak on
pitch, accompanied by the Continuo instruments. A recitative
passage is generally followed with an aria, accompanied by the
orchestra, in which a character typically sings about how they feel in
reaction to the action of the story.
The stories of Baroque opera were usually about mythological
characters, and figures in ancient history, such as kings and
military heroes. The lives of ordinary people were not the subjects of
opera in the Baroque, as they were in later periods of musical history.
Opera originated at the end of the 16th century in Italy and soon
spread through the rest of Europe.
Continuo, also known as Basso Continuo, is a kind of musical
accompaniment used in the Baroque period. Basso Continuo is an
Italian musical term that means "continuous bass." In Baroque music,
the Continuo is played by a keyboard instrument and another bass
instrument such as Cello, Violone (an old form of the string bass) or
Bassoon. The keyboard instrument is normally a Harpsichord, or, if
it is being played in a church, an Organ.1
(Other instruments were
sometimes also used.)
In the Baroque period, the Continuo is a very important component of
most instrumental chamber and orchestral music, as well as most
choral and solo vocal music.
After the Baroque period, the use of the Harpsichord and Continuo
dwindled, except in operatic Recitatives, which were often still
accompanied by Harpsichord in the Classical and early Romantic
An Aria is a vocal work (song), usually with orchestral
accompaniment, for a solo voice, in an opera, oratorio or cantata.
In the Baroque and Classical periods, arias are usually preceded by
Recitatives that are usually accompanied by the Continuo
In the Baroque period, arias are usually composed in the “Da Capo
4. Da Capo Aria
A Da Capo Aria is an aria that has the form “A-B-A,” in which “A” is
the opening section that is later repeated and “B” is a contrasting
section, often slightly slower in tempo and in a related minor key.
During the Baroque period, the Da Capo Aria was the predominant
form for arias in operas, oratorios and cantatas.
“Capo” is an Italian word that means “head” or “top,” so the term
“Da Capo” is also a musical direction to the performer that means
from [that is, “go back to”] the top.
The Da Capo Aria is in ternary form, meaning it is composed of
A Movement is a self-contained section of a larger musical work,
such as a Suite, Concerto, or Concerto Grosso.
Concerto is an Italian term for a large musical composition for a solo
instrument with orchestra accompaniment. Concertos usually
have three movements. The first and third movements usually have
a fast tempo, while the middle movement is usually slow.
In Italian, the plural of “concerto” is “concerti” and this term is
sometimes used in English, along with the more commonly-used
The solo concerto became one of the most important musical forms
of the Baroque period and its popularity continued through the
Classical and Romantic periods through to the current day.
7. Concerto Grosso
The most common type of concerto in the early Baroque period is the
the Concerto Grosso, which is a concerto for a group of solo
instruments and a small orchestra. “Concerto Grosso” is an Italian
term that literally means “big concerto.”
The popularity of the Concerto Grosso form declined after the
Baroque period, and the genre was not revived until the 20th century.
The solo concerto, however, has remained a vital musical force from
its inception to this day.5
A Cadenza is a solo passage for the soloist in a concerto, or
sometimes in other works that are usually performed in a "free"
rhythmic style, often allowing for virtuosic display. In a concerto, the
cadenzas usually occur near the ends of movements, during which
time the orchestra or other accompaniment is tacet (silent).
Cadenzas developed during the Baroque period and this technique
continued through the Classical and Romantic periods to the current
An Oratorio is a large-scale musical work for orchestra and voices,
typically a narrative on a religious theme, performed without the use
of costumes, scenery, or action. Well-known examples in include
Bach's Christmas Oratorio and Handel's Messiah.4
As a musical form, the Oratorio has its roots in Renaissance
Dialogue Motets and the Latin Religious Dramas of the Medieval
period. Oratorios continued to be a popular musical form with some
composers in the Classical Period and beyond.
A Cantata is a vocal composition with instrumental or orchestral
accompaniment, typically in several movements, often involving a
choir and/or one or more solo voices.
The cantata was a very popular musical form in the Baroque period,
with both sacred (religious) and secular (non-religious) varieties. The
Italian term “Cantata da Chiesa” (Church Cantata) is sometimes used
to describe religious cantatas. The Italian term “Cantata da Camera”
(Chamber Cantata) is sometimes used to describe secular (non-
Johann Sebastian Bach composed more than 200 cantatas, most of
which are religious cantatas. In many respects, Bach’s cantatas
represent a high point in the choral, vocal and orchestral music of the
Cantatas usually consist of multiple sections or movements, though
there are some Cantatas that consist of only one movement.
Cantatas usually consist of a variety of movements including one or
more recitatives, arias, duets, choruses, or chorales. Most of Bach’s
choral cantatas conclude with a 4-part chorale.
Musical Examples: Cantatas
Johann Sebastian Bach:
Cantata No. 51, “Jauchzet Gott in Allen Landen”
Sacred Cantata for solo soprano, solo trumpet, orchestra & continuo
“Su le Sponde del Tebro” (On the banks of the Tiber River)
Secular (non-sacred) Cantata for solo soprano, solo trumpet,
orchestra & continuo
11. Basso Ostinato
A Basso Ostinato is a phrase, motive, or theme that is repeated over
and over again in the bass line, serving as a principal structural
element of a musical work.
“Ostinato” is an Italian word that means “obstinate” or “stubborn.”
In music, Ostinato is so-named because of the repetitive aspect.
In English, Basso Ostinato is also known as Ground Bass.
12. Terraced Dynamics
During the Baroque period, some composers occasionally used an
effect called Terraced Dynamics. This means that the volume of the
music stays the same for a period of time, then there is a sudden shift
to a different dynamic level that is louder or softer. While there are
typically no gradual changes in dynamics in Baroque music, subtle
changes in dynamics (volume) usually do take place within a musical
phrase for expressive purposes.
Terraced Dynamics developed in part because the primary keyboard
instrument of the Baroque period, the Harpsichord, could only be
played in one of two modes, loud (forte) or soft (piano).3
Ritornello is an Italian musical term that describes a recurring
passage in Baroque music for an orchestra or chorus. The Ritornello
Form consists of an opening musical passage, usually performed by
a full ensemble, alternating with a contrasting passage by one or
more solo instruments, as follows:
Ritornello / Solo 1 / Ritornello / Solo 2 / Ritornello (etc.)
14. Program Music
Program Music is instrumental music associated with a story or
other extra-musical idea, such as Antonio Vivaldi’s cycle of concertos,
The Four Seasons. Program music has its roots in the Renaissance
period and while there are occasional notable instances of program
music in the Baroque and Classical periods, it was in the Romantic,
Impressionist and Modern periods that program music became an
important musical phenomenon.
The term “Program Music” refers to instrumental music that tells a
story or depicts a scene, as opposed to vocal music, which almost
always tells a story because of the text that is being sung.
The opposite of Program Music is Absolute Music.
15. Variation Form
The Variation Form is an important musical form in which a melodic
unit is repeated in a series of variations, with changes in the
melody, harmony, rhythm, dynamics, or timbre.
The Variation Form originated in the Renaissance period and it
reached a high point during the Baroque period in such works as J.S.
Bach’s Goldberg Variations.
The Variation Form remained an important musical form through the
Baroque, Classical, Romantic and Modern periods, to the present
A great deal of 20th
century Jazz music uses Variation Form
and techniques. Jazz improvisation is based on the concept of the
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