The Baroque period – which lasted, approximately, from 1600-1750 – was a time of various stylistic and theoretical developments in the realm of classical music. Of particular significance was the birth of the orchestra, the development of opera and the establishment of the Common Practice era, which governed the rules of harmony and structure for the next few hundred years.
Similarly, technical innovations allowed for the invention of a number of new instruments which would feature in these new ensembles and styles of music, although some of these were adaptations or relatives of instruments that existed in the preceding Renaissance era. Composers now began to write idiomatic music for the first time: pieces that were composed with specific instruments in mind, taking into account their unique sounds, ranges and tonal qualities.
In this article we’ll take a look at some of the key instruments that played the beautiful, ornate music of the Baroque period. And while some of these might look strange or unfamiliar, others will be instantly recognisable, as modern versions of many of these instruments are still played today.
Baroque Keyboard Instruments
To begin, we’ll look at some of the types of keyboard instruments that were popular in the baroque period.
Johann Sebastian Bach, one of the greatest composers of the baroque era, wrote a plethora of works for the Harpsichord, which are characterised by intricate, interweaving lines.
It looks rather like a piano but has a distinctive, rather twangy tone, which is one of the archetypal sounds of the Baroque period.
This is due to the strings being plucked by a trigger mechanism (whereas the strings are hit with a hammer mechanism on the piano).
Meanwhile, the clavichord – a smaller, quieter relative of the harpsichord – was popular for use at home.
Here’s a video of the harpsichord so you can hear its unique sound.
Another type of keyboard instrument that was very popular during the baroque era was the Pipe Organ, a large instrument which is commonly found in churches.
Bach, Handel and a number of other composers wrote extensively for it with the baroque period being known as the ‘Golden Age’ for the pipe organ.
It creates sound in a very different way from the harpsichord with pitches produced when pressurised air is driven through pipes of various sizes.
They are made in a huge different range of sizes with some organs having only 12 or so pipes to larger ones having thousands of pipes that are built into the building itself.
It also can sustain notes much longer than its other keyboard counterparts with the sound remaining constant when a key is played.
The Pianoforte, an early version of the modern piano, was invented by Italian instrument maker Bartolomeo Cristofo around the turn of the 18th Century.
Cristofo worked to invent it due to the other keyboard instrument’s lack of control over the dynamics they could create.
This is how it got its name: the pianoforte which literally is translated to ‘softloud’ due to it being able to play at different volumes.
Despite being classed as a string instrument it can also be considered a percussion instrument.
This is because rather than plucking the strings like the harpsichord does, the pianoforte uses hammers to strike the strings to create the sound just like a dulcimer.
Despite first being invented in the baroque era, they did not become popular until during the Classical period where composers wrote for it extensively.
Baroque Stringed Instruments
Next, we’ll take a look at some of the popular string instruments in the baroque era.
A number of Baroque string instruments are still in use today.
Violins, violas, cellos and double basses all featured in a Baroque orchestra, albeit with some minor differences.
One such difference is the materials that the strings were made of.
During the baroque period, string instruments would use gut strings (which were often made of animals intestines), rather than the synthetic ones used on modern instruments found today.
Viols (Viola da Gamba)
Instruments from the Viol family (sometimes known as Viola da gamba) resemble members of the violin family, with the bass viol looking particularly like a cello.
But they differ in a number of ways: they have between five and seven strings and all viols are held upright, rather than under the chin like violins and violas.
They are no longer commonly seen apart from in some period groups.
Baroque Guitar and Lute
The Guitar – which in the Baroque period generally had five strings, but was otherwise similar to a modern acoustic guitar.
It took the place of the renaissance lute which was hugely popular for people to play at home.
Baroque guitars were used to play the basso continuo (which we’ll look at later in this article).
The Lute was also another very popular plucked string instrument, which was often used for vocal accompaniment.
Baroque Brass Instruments
Now we’ll take a look at some of the brass instruments that were commonly used during the baroque era and how they differ from their modern day counterparts.
Natural Trumpet and Horn
Unlike their modern equivalent, Natural Trumpets do not have valves, meaning that they can only play notes from the harmonic series.
In Baroque music they are often used to symbolise royalty or heavenly majesty.
Similarly, the Natural Horn, was a valveless ancestor of the modern French horn.
The Sackbut had existed since the Renaissance period, evolving out of the slide trumpet (or the tromba da tirarsi) but gradually became known by its English name: the trombone.
They often accompanied a church choir alongside cornetts (wooden pipe-like instruments – not to be confused with a cornet, which is a type of modern trumpet).
The Serpent is one of the most distinctive-looking members of the Baroque brass family.
A large instrument that plays in the bass register, it has a snake-like shape, is made of leather-covered wood, and has finger holes like a woodwind instrument.
Despite this, it is considered part of the brass family due to its cup-style mouthpiece; in fact, it is an ancestor of the modern-day tuba.
Now we’ll look at a few of the wood instruments that were used during the baroque period.
Most of these you’ll recognise but a couple you might not.
The Recorder, which remains popular today, was often used to suggest pastoral scenes in Baroque music with composers like Telemann and Vivaldi utilising its high pitched sound to evoke birdsong.
Like the pipe organ we looked at earlier, the baroque era is quite often considered the ‘golden age’ of the recorder before falling out of favour during the classical and romantic eras.
Sometimes referred to as a Transverse (meaning sideways-blown,) the Baroque Flute is closely related to the modern flute.
The main difference between the two is the materials used in their construction
Nowadays flutes tend to be made out of metal but during the Baroque era they would have been made from wood.
Bassoon and Oboe
The Bassoon, a double reed instrument, was invented around this time, gradually supplanting its relatives and fellow double reed instruments the Dulcian and the Rackett (also known as the ‘sausage bassoon’!), as was the oboe, which was sometimes called the Hautbois.
The Chalumeau, a predecessor of the clarinet, was also in use.
Musette de Cour
Next, we have a rather odd instrument: the Musette de Cour, an instrument that came out of France towards the end of the 1500s.
It’s like a cross between an oboe and the bagpipes, possessing both a double reed mouthpiece and a pair of bellows.
At its peak of popularity, it was often used in chamber music but also used extensively in operas but fell out of favour after the french revolution.
The last family of instruments we’ll look at is the percussion section.
Also known as kettledrums, the Timpani started to become an orchestral staple during the Baroque period.
They were typically used in military bands with trumpets and were known to even be carried on horseback!
Timpani were usually came in twos and were tuned to the tonic and the dominant but composers like Haydn had as many as 7 in some classical pieces.
They feature in the opening of Monteverdi’s innovative opera Orfeo, while Johann Fischer uses their deep, booming sound to great effect in his Symphony With Eight Obbligato Timpani:
Castanets are a type of hand percussion that are now most commonly associated with Spanish flamenco music.
But, during the baroque era, they were commonly used in dances, notably by the composer Jean-Baptiste Lully.
Literally meaning ‘continuous bass’, the Basso Continuo formed an integral part of baroque ensembles, with a role not dissimilar to a rhythm section in later styles of music like jazz.
It does not have a fixed instrumentation, but would feature at least one instrument capable of playing chords – such as a keyboard, harpsichord, organ, guitar or lute – and one or more low-register instruments such as cello, double bass, bass viol or bassoon.
Musicians in the Baroque era were expected to be competent improvisers.
The players of chordal instruments in the basso continuo would use figured bass notation – where the harmony is implied by numbers placed above a written bass line – to improvise an accompaniment part.
The Baroque Orchestra
The orchestra – a large instrumental ensemble and a foundation of the Western classical tradition – was born in the Baroque period, as composers began to experiment with larger groups with multiple players on each part to attain a fuller sound.
However, the orchestra initially had no fixed instrumentation and was much smaller than a modern day version.
It would often be directed from a keyboard.
Here’s an example of Jean-Baptiste Lully’s Dances For The Four Seasons which is played by a small Baroque orchestra:
We hope you’ve found this guide to the instruments of the Baroque period illuminating.
While some items – such as the recorder, the trombone and the violin – will be familiar to all music lovers, others, like the serpent and musette du cour, for example – probably look a little strange!
Others are still commonly played but in a slightly different form, like the flute, which is now made of metal rather than wood.
Thankfully, it is now possible to hear recordings and performances of the beautiful music of the Baroque period played on faithfully recreated period instruments.