Baroque vs. Classical Music – Key Differences Explained Simply

Author: Richard Clyborne | Updated: | This post may contain affiliate links.

To many musicians in popular styles like rock, baroque and classical music can seem boring, old-fashioned, and stuffy. But what if I told you that you can learn lots of new musical techniques and ideas from “old” music that are beneficial to the music you play every day?

Baroque and classical music – two eras with distinct styles of music – may sound identical to an untrained ear. But with some guidance through their composition and history, you will be able to hear the differences and get inspired in no time!

What to Know Before Looking at Baroque and Classical Music

When learning about music history, it’s necessary to look at the historical and social contexts that made music flourish. Music is never made in a vacuum, so we shouldn’t treat it like an isolated phenomenon. This doesn’t have to make music history boring – actually, this makes everything more interesting!

Rather, it brings a human connection to everything we listen to. When we see history as a deeply human story instead of “facts and figures,” we connect to the timeless motives, ambitions, and feelings of other people.

I will focus on the musical elements of both eras, but mentioning historical context will help make sense of their elements.

Second, “Uppercase Classical” and “lowercase classical” are actually two different ideas (an unfortunate result of languages being annoying). “Classical” music is a specific era of music history, whereas “classical” refers to “art” music made with an academic bent.

Why mention this? Because although “baroque music” is distinct from “Classical music,” it is still considered general “classical music.” Whenever I say “classical” in this article I will be referring to the specific era.

The Baroque Era: A Time of Artistic and Technological Innovation

Baroque music started in Europe around 1600 and lasted until 1750. This is twice as long as the classical era, and there are several reasons for this.

First, European governments were dominated by the church and long-held traditions still dictated everyday life. Being a good citizen meant you were a Christian and content in the class you were born into. Most likely, you didn’t go to school and were a peasant.

Second, technology was improving. While there wasn’t a boom in new musical ideas overnight, this contributed to a fertile age of new instruments, music styles, and sounds.

Lastly, you need to know the “Baroque Era” was more than music. It was a large artistic movement that affected everything from painting to architecture, and all the arts influenced each other.

Now you might be thinking, “why do I care about all this?” The answer is simple – this all had a direct influence on baroque music.

Baroque art was obsessed with grand, dramatic subjects. Artists didn’t paint old boots like Van Gogh, they wanted HUGE DRAMATIC INTENSE COLORFUL spectacles of wars and emotional faces (those uppercase words are meant to illustrate the drama!)

Baroque music reflected this grandeur in every facet. Melodies were full of energy, often with fast sixteenth notes jumping and leaping all over the page.

Think of the stereotypical opera singer spending thirty seconds on one word and you’re probably thinking of baroque music. Just imagine a powdered wig and giant hoop-dress and the image is complete!

The violin had just been invented, and other instruments standardized (meaning multiple instruments could be manufactured to sound just like each other). For the first time, grand pieces of music could be written for large groups of musicians. More musicians, more styles, more drama!

Since solo singers and violins were the fad, everyone was obsessed with solo pieces (either truly solo or accompanied.) This contributed to the complex melodies even more.

The music underneath the melody was just as important, especially the “basso continuo.” This was a walking bassline complementing the melody’s movement, often in the opposite direction.

The harmony in between was often plunked away with simple accompaniment on harpsichord or violins. A similar comparison could be made to the plucked bass and comping piano sounds of a cool jazz band from the 1950s.

Lastly, the overall philosophy of baroque music was summed up in the “Doctrine of Affections.” According to this idea, a piece of music should dramatically reflect one key mood. Because Europe was ruled by the church, biblical narratives provided many of the dramatic stories.

Influential baroque composers include Handel, Vivaldi, and J.S. Bach. Handel wrote the “Hallelujah Chorus,” and Vivaldi wrote the “Four Seasons,” used often in popular media. J.S. Bach, though overlooked in his time, is widely regarded as the greatest composer in history.

The Classical Era: When Europe Was Quickly Changing

When 1750 came around in Europe, everything changed. The Enlightenment served as the catalyst for everything that happened. Intellectuals began appreciating science and logic more than religious traditions, resulting in revolutionary ideas and secularization.

Increased secularization fueled a new interest in ancient civilizations, which flourished during the age of “classic thought” (hence the classical era’s name.) Being “hip” meant you were interested in ancient Roman values regarding beauty, such as simplicity and balance.

Just like the baroque era, these changes had a direct impact on music. As a reaction to the grandeur of baroque music, Classical music was light and simple. Science and classic Roman ideas made musical form and order extremely important.

In a sense, classical musicians thought baroque music was boring and wanted to start over with different rules. Think of it a bit like rock music: when everyone got bored of sixties rock, British punk bands broke into the scene, threw away all their Beatles records and started over with three chords.

Between baroque and classical music, melodies might be the difference you hear first. Classical melodies are simpler. They are easy to hum, easy to remember, and don’t skip around as often. They’re always broken down into phrases of the same length, and the phrases often complement each other.

Similarly, classical harmony is simpler than baroque. Chords might change less often, or even last for several bars. Bass and accompaniment are mixed together, often in one or two note repeating figures like “Alberti bass” (just look it up and you’ll recognize what I’m talking about!)

Brand new kinds of pieces emerged in the classical era as well, most notably the symphony and sonata. Inspired by the balance and symmetry of ancient art, each style had rigid rules for harmony, sections, and melodies.

Lastly, advances in technology allowed for new forms of expression with musical instruments. The modern piano was a huge deal because pianists could play both loud and quiet, something a harpsichord could not do. As a result, classical pieces explored multiple sounds and moods in a single piece.

Several important composers during the classical era were Haydn, who invented the symphony, and Mozart, a prodigy at writing well-balanced melodies. Beethoven was also extremely important, and bridged the transition between the classical era and the romantic era that followed.

Conclusion

To the informed ear, baroque and classical music sound very different. Summarized shortly, baroque music emphasized drama and grand emotions through a philosophy based in tradition.

In contrast, classical music emphasized simplicity and order through a philosophy based in social change. If you have trouble remembering everything, just think “Baroque Big, Classical Catchy.”

As stated earlier, modern pop musicians can still learn a lot from these old styles of music.

For example, if you think about it, there are actually quite a few similarities between baroque music and modern popular music. Both are arranged around chord progressions and often propelled by bass movement. In fact, Charles Mingus said, “I’ve never met a jazz cat who didn’t like baroque music!”

The best artists know how to borrow the best ideas from diverse sources. Richie Blackmore, the guitarist of iconic heavy rock band Deep Purple, openly copies melodies from Bach. Charles Mingus, who I just quoted, often praised the simplicity of Mozart.

Even Eddie van Halen’s fret-tapping can be seen as a modern equivalent to classical Alberti bass! The list goes on and on. If these giants can re-interpret baroque and classical ideas, why can’t you?

Listening Recommendations

Baroque:

Any piece from Handel’s Messiah. My favorite is “Worthy is the Lamb Who Was Slain” because of the extended ending.

“Chaconne in D Minor” and “Erbarme Dich” by J.S. Bach.

Classical:

The Second Movement of Haydn’s Surprise Symphony.

The First Movement of Beethoven’s Third Symphony.

Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik for orchestra music and his Sonata No. 16 for piano.

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About Richard Clyborne

Richard is a guitar player and music producer from Denver, CO. Apart from touring extensively with his band, he has briefly worked as a session musician and recorded at several prominent recording studios across Colorado.

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