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Main Difference in Baroque and Classical Music

The birthplace of J.S. Bach.
G. Jagemann/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The term “classical music” is often used to refer to all European music from the 1600s to the present. This may be due in part to the fact that many listeners simply distinguish between rock, country, jazz and classical music. The truth is that European music falls into different musical styles, each with their own defining characteristics. Baroque music and Classical music are both part of the European tradition. The two traditions overlap to some degree, but there are essential differences between them.

Historical Periods

Musicologists divide European music into distinct historical periods or eras. The traditional categories are Medieval Music (1150 to 1400), Renaissance Music (1400 to 1600), Baroque Music (1600 to 1750), Classical Music (1750 to 1830), Romantic Music (1830 to 1920) and Contemporary Music (1920 to the present). One of the essential differences, therefore, between Baroque and Classical Music is the historical difference. They represent different eras in the history of European music. Each historical musical period is a reflection of the overall historical, cultural, social and intellectual context that produced the music. The Baroque period immediately followed and built upon the Renaissance. Human creativity and ingenuity flourished during the Baroque period. It was a revolutionary time in the sciences, literature, medicine, exploration and music. The Classical period was equally significant in its cultural contributions.

Baroque Music Characteristics

Baroque music introduced a number of musical techniques and ideas. Chief among these was the sophisticated use of polyphony in musical composition and “basso continuo.” Polyphony consists of simultaneous melodies or musical voices. Medieval and Renaissance music used polyphony, but Baroque composers such as J.S. Bach gave polyphony a much more prominent role in their compositions. Basso continuo is a compositional technique that emphasizes the bass line. Baroque music is built from the bottom up. Composers would write a bass line and numbers next to the bass line to indicate the intervals above the bass notes. One of the most distinguishing characteristics of Baroque music is that it is fluid and continuous. The musical compositions contain few pauses. The melodies tend to be long and flowing. Classical music, on the other hand, is made up of several smaller movements that make up the work as a whole. Finally, one of the most distinguishing characteristics is improvisation. Baroque performers were expected to add their own improvisational ideas as they played a piece.

Classical Music Characteristics

One of the essential characteristics of Classical music is the use of dynamic contrasts in the music. Classical music tends to be far more dramatic than Baroque music. Strong contrasts in tonality, rhythms, and dynamics are used for dramatic effects. A change in tone, rhythm increases or decreases tensions and expectations in the listener. In Baroque music, the same rhythm is maintained for the entirety of a musical movement. Rhythmic transition, however, are one of the defining characteristics of Classical music. The tempo stays the same, but the rhythmic interplay and transitions between the voices create a different mood. Classical music also makes use of more sophisticated harmonies. A simple melody is introduced and becomes more and more articulated on its musical journey as it searches for its key. Classical music, unlike Baroque music, emphasizes key changes.

Famous Composers

J.S. Bach (1685 -1750) was the dominant composer of the Baroque era. His fugues and cantatas epitomize the Baroque aesthetics and principles of composition. Other influential composers of the Baroque era include Vivaldi (1678 -1741), Monteverdi (1567 -1643) Handel (1685 -1759) and Corelli (1653- 1713). The great composers of the Classical era include Haydn (1732-1809), Mozart (1756-1791) and Beethoven (1770 -1827). Haydn is considered the first composer of the Classical era, Beethoven is seen as a bridge between the Classical era and the Romantic era.

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