Notation and Intepretation in the Baroque Era – Part 1

Notation and Interpretation in the Baroque Era – Part 1

Most of the problems related to the performance practice stems from how the music was notated leading to the misunderstanding of the notation.  In the Middle Ages, only notes and rhythms were expected to be specified. By the 16th Century, composers had written the text exactly how it was intended including accidentals. They however, did not specify which instruments or voices until the 17th Century and neither did they specify the dynamics and expressions marking until the 18th Century.

The metronome was not invented until the 19th Century and hence there is no absolute way to specify the exact tempo. Any of the expression marks like the ‘ hairpin’,                  metronome marks or other expressions marks are being added or edited by editors.


  • One of the issues is that the way accidentals were notated. Sharps usually cancelled the flats and likewise until about 1700, and it was unwise to assume that accidentals in Baroque Era lasted to the end of the bar like in the modern way.
  • Performers were expected to add accidentals according to the rules of what was casually called musica ficta (a term used in European music theory from the the late 12th Ceuntry to about 1600 to describe pitches, either notated or added a the time of performance that lies outside the system of the true music) until the middle of 17th
  • Flats are often need to avoid tritone (augmented 4th or diminished 5th), meanwhile in order to prevent minor final chords, sharps are required to raise leading notes in ending cadences.


  • The crotchet beats gradually made its way during the century. There was a misunderstanding as in how and why music was written with bar lines.
  • Scores were nearly always regularly barred often in two-minum beats but single parts were not usually barred until after 1650.
  • Bar lines were there for alignments purposes but not for emphasizing stresses. For this reason, modern editor usually retain these bar lines in modern editions.
  • Hemiolas are often found in the triple time, a trick that refers to three beats of equal value in the time normally displaced by two beats across two bars when they fall generally at the end before cadences and should not be heavily stressed – 1 2 3 / 1 2 3


  • It is necessary to convey the desired tempo in an appropriate note values and time signatures.
  • 3/4 means three crotchet beats in a bar but is played faster while 6/4 has ‘six Crotchets in a bar and the is usually brisk in speed such as Gigues or Passipied.
  • Later in the 18th Century, it became common to use a faster note values in 3/8, 6/8 and 12/8. The tempo must have likely been elevated as a 6/4 in the the 17th Century was an equal standing speed as the 6/8 in the 18th  Century
  • In Italian terms, generally Adagio, Grave, Largo mean very slow; Allegro, Vivace and Presto mean fast, brisk and swift. Bearing in mind that tempo marking during that period described mood. Therefore,
    • Adagio – At ease
    • Grave –Serious
    • Largo – Large and Broad
    • Andante – Walking
    • Allegro and Vivace – Lively or Cheerful.

According to the English Dictionaries in the 1720s and 30s, it described that Largo is ‘one degree faster than Grave and two degree faster than Adagio’. In broad terms, tempos were generally faster in the early  18th Century than it was in the later times and less noticeable difference between the slow and fast tempos. Choice of tempo depends on the type of solo instruments used, type of music, the acoustic as well as the harmonic rhythms.  The more frequent change of chords on every quavers require slower tempos than a piece with only one or two chords in a bar.

Tempo Rubato is where a passages are being anticipated for an earlier time and bestowed upon subsequently. The strict time is not observed but rather free and expressive. Rubato is applied primarily in Fantasia, Tocccata, Preludes, Partitas in the 17th Century solo passages such as in trio sonatas and vocal music.







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