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During the Baroque Era instrumental music became a feature rather than providing vocal accompaniment. The following characteristics provide a high level idea of Baroque music.
- Texture: Polyphonic music was developed with the emphasis on the Fugue during the Baroque Era, but significant compositions used homophonic writing where a melody is supported by an accompaniment. Homophonic music often consisted of a melody, continuo (harmonic instrument, such as lute, harpsichord), and basso continuo (cello, bassoon, double bass).
- Harmony: Baroque homophonic music solidified the concept of functional harmony that is still used in music today. Harmony was indicated by the Figured Bass, where numbers above a note in the bass line indicated the chord.
- Ornamentation: Baroque performers were expected to add ornamentation and embellishments to melodic lines. Basso continuo players improvised based on the harmony outlined by the figured bass. From an ornamentation/improvisation standpoint, there are many similarities between the expectations of Baroque and jazz performers!
- Affect: Composers often followed the Baroque Doctrine of Affections in which a single affect or mood is maintained throughout a piece or a movement.
- Form: Several instrumental forms developed during the Baroque Era and laid the foundation for other instrumental forms in later periods. Baroque instrumental forms include the Concerto Grosso (orchestra and featured small ensemble), the start of the solo Concerto (orchestra and soloist), the Fugue (defined style of polyphonic composition), Sonata da Chiesa and Sonata da Camera, Dance Suite, and the Opera Sinfonia (what we would call an Overture).
- Dynamics: Baroque music often employed terraced dynamics to match instruments like the harpsichord and organ. The same dynamic was used for an entire phrase or section to provide continuity. The following phrase or section could use a contrasting dynamic.
- Melody: Baroque melodies often allowed space for the performer to embellish with ornamentation or improvisation.
- Absolute and Program Music: Baroque music featured a combination of absolute and program music. While there are many pieces of absolute music with titles like Toccata and Fugue in d minor, there are also many descriptive pieces of program music, such as Water Music, The Goldfinch Concerto, and Coffee Cantata.