I've seen many musicologists compare the Basso Continuo of the Baroque Era to the Jazz Rhythm Section, an analogy which I think is valid and understandable. Here's one reference (of many) that I pulled up now in a quick search (Ignore the vast generalization about improvisation in the Baroque Era - that's a different issue.):

Basso Continuo: Definition & Instruments

Jazz is not the first musical genre to celebrate improvisation nor is it the first to feature a rhythm section to keep an ensemble's performance together. During the Baroque, a period of music history that lasted from 1600-1750, musicians were almost as free to improvise on their melodies as jazz musicians are today.

The Baroque equivalent of the jazz rhythm section was the basso continuo. The term refers to a continuous bass line in a Baroque piece, with harmonies improvised on top of it

Question: Did the Basso Continuo of the Baroque eventually "evolve" into the Jazz Rhythm section, making it the "great-great-great grandson" of the Basso Continuo?

Or, maybe this relationship is better thought of as "Convergent evolution"? The independent evolution of similar features in species of different lineage - like the wing of the bird and the wing of the bat? I.e. - the musical requirements of both genres, although separated by 200 years or so in time and due to no apparent historical connections between the two, fostered the concept of a "rhythm section" to ensure coherence and continuity in their respective styles of music.

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    One starting point to answer this would be to ask "did the early jazz performers ever listen to classical music?" My suspicion would be "no", but I don't have any evidence to back that up. There was no equivalent of Continuo in the nearest things to "classical" that they might have listened to - i.e. popular songs, worship music, marching band music. etc. Don' forget that even J S Bach's music was not heard at all for more than a century until it was "rediscovered" - and most of the music by early classical composers like Haydn was never played in public for even longer than that.
    – user19146
    Commented Sep 26, 2017 at 1:01
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    The basso continuo was history around 1800. Early Jazz music didn't emerge from blues, gospel, ragtime etc. much before 1900. And I'm pretty certain that practically none of its inventors listened to recordings or performances of baroque music very much. Commented Sep 26, 2017 at 7:16
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    If it evolved from B.C. there would be a chain that could be traced between the two. I don't think there is one, although I'm sure musos have improvised over solid lines for ever, and now, we call it jazz.
    – Tim
    Commented Sep 26, 2017 at 9:47
  • @alephzero - I don't think they'd have to listen to it. The music itself contains the information - the product of accumulated knowledge that's become idiomatic.
    – Stinkfoot
    Commented Sep 26, 2017 at 16:21
  • @KilianFoth - see my comment above to alephzero.
    – Stinkfoot
    Commented Sep 26, 2017 at 17:06

3 Answers 3


Started as a comment, but too long:

This is more of a philospohical point here, but I suppose you could make the point that, while the jazz rhythm section didn't evolve directly from the baroque basso continuo, in more indirect sense, it did. Many of the harmonic and melodic elements of jazz music owe themselves to 19th century European music, which in itself was influenced by baroque music with basso continuo. In that sense, while the practice of performing with an improvised rhythm section doesn't have a continuity from the baroque basso continuo to the jazz rhythm section, music which can readily be conceived of as "the melody, the bassline, and the chords", does owe itself to the musical tradition which the practice of basso continuo, in part, helped foster.

In that sense, while the jazz rhythm section may not have "evolved" from the basso continuo, it's also not strictly accurate to say that it was an "independent" evolution. Conceptualising music as a melody accompanied by "chords" (which is not even close to a universal perspective), almost begs for an improvised rhythm section to come about. The practice of basso continuo must surely have played a part in that musical perspective spreading throughout the west, if you have musicians sitting down reading what essentially amounts to "chord charts" and playing them it's surely inevitable that that will affect the way that they view and therefore write music.

And interesting follow up to this would be, at what point did this modern view of music being made up of "the melody and the chords" become commonplace, and what were the factors in that (did the practice of basso continuo spring up from this, or did it influence this, or both?).

Another thing that might be worth investigating is the use of improvised chordal accomaniment in European folk music traditions. How recently, for example, did Irish music incorporate chordophones playing chords against Irish melodies: is this a modern innovation or one that goes back 100s of years? I'n not sure, but I have definitely heard (in a talk by john batiste and wynton marsalis IIRC) that Irish music had an influence on jazz as it developed in New Orleans. So that might be an avenue worth investigating.

  • Many of the harmonic and melodic elements of jazz music owe themselves to 19th century European music, which in itself was influenced by baroque music with basso continuo... - That is exactly what I was thinking: There was a trickle-down effect and it wasn't necessarily conscious - but it happened. Modern music is characterized so much by homophony, a style which began in the Baroque period and naturally leads to something like the Basso Continuo and it went on from there, even though the B-C in 'classical music' disappeared. You haven't documented things well but IMO your ideas are correct.
    – Stinkfoot
    Commented Oct 6, 2017 at 20:50
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    @Stinkfoot you're not wrong that I haven't documented my ideas very well with examples, and the truth is the ideas I've presented above could definitely do with some "meat on the bones" so to speak.I haven't approached the answer to this question with the necessary rigour to reach definitive conclusions, but hopefully at least I've pointed out what some of the "right questions to ask" might be to explore the subject in more detail. A pleasure to contribute to such an interesting question :)
    – Some_Guy
    Commented Oct 7, 2017 at 13:04

I would also point out that, if one studies the realization of figured bass according to historical practices, it becomes clear that giving 18th-ct musicians the bass line and figures did not result in music that sounded like "melody + chords," if by chords you mean homophonic triadic blocks. The whole point of the figures -- and the musicianship behind them -- was that they gave enough information to reconstruct the counterpoint of the inner voices that the composer intended. In fact, composers in the 18th century learned to compose by solving ("figuring out") figured-bass puzzles called partimenti. If you knew your stuff, you could take a well-engineered bass line -- even with NO numbers -- and create, on the fly, an elegant little piece that used imitation, motives, etc. See http://faculty-web.at.northwestern.edu/music/gjerdingen/partimenti/aboutParti/beginnersGuide.htm if you want to see some partimenti and learn more about them.


There is a common fallacy that 'music evolves', from the crude simplicity of Baroque counterpoint to the pinnacles of Brian Ferneyhough's New Complexity or a Hans Zimmer film score. Simply stating the idea reveals it as laughable of course! But all artists have the opportunity of 'standing on the shoulders of giants' and borrowing whatever they wish. The most stupid thing an artist can do is proclaim his complete originality and disdain for all that came before.

There you are. A slight contradiction already. You can make almost any thesis work as a discussion point. Here's mine. Yes, continuo has similarities with a jazz rhythm section. Yes, the extemporised decoration applied by a Baroque or early Classical performer, or the deeper techniques of variation and synthesis (not THAT sort of synthesis) in a composed development section have obvious similarities with jazz improvisation. And you could write a good essay comparing the two. But I don't think the seed spread from one tradition of improvisation to the other in any conscious way, or that the early (or, sadly, many current) jazz musicians knew much of musical history.

  • 'standing on the shoulders of giants' and borrowing whatever they wish - to draw an analogy to evolution, I think that is sufficient. Call it a form of 'natural selection' - the best/most popular/most useful approaches and styles persist . in any conscious way... knew much of musical history - I don't think it's dependent on those particular musicians knowing anything. The information can be encoded in the music itself, even though nobody playing it knows its derivation. I can listen to contemporary rock and say 'that's Jimi Hendrix he's playing' -but the guitarist doesn't know that.
    – Stinkfoot
    Commented Sep 26, 2017 at 16:31
  • crude simplicity of Baroque counterpoint - Art of the Fugue doesn't sound like crude simplicity to me... I suppose that's part of what you meant by laughable.
    – Stinkfoot
    Commented Sep 26, 2017 at 22:17

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