Historical context

Let's for example consider Toccata and Fugue in D minor, BWV 565 (click here to enjoy). It was composed at the very beginning of the 18th century in Germany. At that time:

  • Architecture of concert rooms was not as sophisticated as today as our knowledge of the physics of sound and of materials was not as advanced as it is today.
  • Our ability to measure the frequency of sound was mainly based on the human ear (I think but might be wrong)
  • There were not even 500 million people on earth (from this graph) and maybe about 10 million people in Germany (vaguely estimated by extrapolation from this graph) and maybe 90% of them were peasants and the others were from the clergy, working in the army or performing many different functions. It leaves very few musicians. Also, social mobility and life expectancy were extremely low compared to today, which does not help for recruiting good musicians.
  • Players could not travel from city to city as easily as they do today.

Overall, it feels to me like the conditions (buildings and instruments) for playing were probably not ideal and more importantly it feels like there were probably not a lot of good musicians around.

Note that I randomly considered a country and a period of history but I am happy to take any insights about the quality of baroque (or even medieval) music you can give me.


How did baroque music sound at the time?

Did it sound like the orchestra at my local high school practising in a classroom with old instruments or did it sound just as good as when the New York Philharmonic is playing in the 21st century?

I realize the answer is likely somewhere in between these two extremes and it may be hard to 1) know the answer and 2) correctly describe what were the main differences but if you can give me a vague idea, that'd be great!

  • 9
    If you're specifically intrested in baroque organ music as per your example, it probably wouldn't have sounded vastly different. Cathedrals haven't changed much, and neither have organs. A quick google tells me my local cathedral organ was built in the 17th century, though it has recently had a refit. Commented Oct 23, 2017 at 21:59
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    The example you gave has beeen played by Hannes Kästner on the Schuke-organ in the Thomaskirche in Leibzig. The very same place and instrument Bach played that tune himself. Just a couple of years earlier. One caveat: the organ has been renovated in the meantime. Commented Oct 24, 2017 at 4:10
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    In general, instruments of the time worked well enough at what they were intended to do. The unclear factor is what the expected/usual level of proficiency with them was. As an example, J.S. Bach produced a new, highly complex cantata each Sunday for years, usually on very short notice, and his reconstructed workflow didn't leave time for more than rudimentary rehearsals. Bach scholars openly admit that they cannot tell how well the student singers and players coped with them. Commented Oct 24, 2017 at 9:31
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    Your whole statistical analysis (the population of the earth, life expectancies, etc.) seems wrong to me. I bet that almost all professional classical musicians today spent a huge amount of their lives, every year since youth, practicing, and they all sound better than typical high school orchestras. So if Renaissance musicians also spent huge amounts of their lives, every year since youth, practicing, they probably also sounded better than our typical high school orchestras, even if they were few in number.
    – Chaim
    Commented Oct 24, 2017 at 14:42
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    There’s also a selection issue. Only small numbers of people at any time in history were professional players of serious music. These are people identified in youth as particularly talented, whom society will eventually be eager to hear. But large numbers of high school students get to play today, not because we want to hear them play, but because we’re willing to let them play because that experience might be valuable for them. They’re not vetted as thoroughly.
    – Chaim
    Commented Oct 24, 2017 at 14:43

3 Answers 3


There are numerous groups such as The Academy of Ancient Music who perform baroque music using instruments constructed in the same way as baroque instruments (or in a few cases with genuine baroque instruments!). If you want to find out how it would have sounded, buy their music!

As far as the quality of musicians goes, there are many factors against your hypothesis.

  • Every educated person was expected to be able to play at least one musical instrument to a competent standard; and since the gentry did not have day jobs, they had plenty of free time for practise.
  • Amongst the middle and lower classes, music was one of the few ways to social-climb, in a highly stratified society.
  • Without recorded music, the way to have music around you is for you and your friends and family to play yourselves. Before recorded music, there was a general culture that everyone sang, and everyone could play something or clap along. This is where folk music came from.
  • It's wrong to assume that folk music is less complex, or that folk musicians are less talented. Musicianship doesn't generally pay well compared to a regular job, and it does generally require you to travel. Collectors such as the Lomaxes provided ample evidence of the quality of musicianship from people who never thought of it as a career.
  • The most important years for learning to play an instrument are in your childhood, so a lower life expectancy is not really a problem.

  • Added later with hindsight: One thing to remember is that baroque players were closer in ability to a modern rock band than to a modern classical orchestra. The basic melodies and counterpoint were scored, but every player was also expected to be able to improvise backing where necessary as well, in the same way as a guitar player today jamming over a chord sequence, and the "continuo" part (usually on harpsichord) was always improvised. Lead players were expected to be able to improvise solos too. Whilst a certain level of improvisation is required for grade 8 on the classical syllabus, it is very much a neglected skill, and it's not at all unusual to find highly-trained classical musicians who cannot improvise well. This would make them extremely poor baroque musicians. On the other hand, for example, the twin-guitar lines of Thin Lizzy or Wishbone Ash and the ability of those guitarists to improvise solos would entirely suit them to baroque musicianship.


In many respects technological progress in music has been less about the very best sounding better than about it becoming more and more feasible to produce "good" sounds at lower and lower cost.

In terms of equipment, keep in mind that Stradivarius violins (et al.) were constructed at about that time, so it was possible for people to construct instruments then that sound as good as any do today. I don't see any reason why a well constructed and well maintained organ in the 17th/18th century would sound any worse than a more modern one. Though perhaps this is like the ship of Theseus, this recording of the world's oldest playable organ sounds just fine to me:


and, aside from the effects of recording, probably sounds pretty much like it would have 500 years ago.

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    Good point regarding instruments. I seem to have overlooked the technical progress of instruments. I also did not realize stradivarius were that old. +1. The question of the "quality of musicians" remain.
    – Remi.b
    Commented Oct 23, 2017 at 22:04
  • @Remi.b I didn't address it since it would be conjecture but consider this: BC has about 4 million people, if you had the resources to pick the best musicians of them, and put them together, don't you think you could form a good sounding chorus or orchestra? The question is whether the places that Bach worked were effective at drawing in the very best people. I tend to believe that they were, but probably someone with more biographical/historical info could better address the degree to which his churches served as magnets for the very best.
    – Dave
    Commented Oct 23, 2017 at 22:07
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    @Dave at the very least it wouldn't have equal temperament; Likely not even a Werckmeister variant, which I personally find to sound significantly different from any well-tempered tuning. See e.g. terryblackburn.us/music/temperament/stoess.htm "There is evidence that equal temperament was known in China as early as the 5th century, BC. It was introduced into western music early in the 16th century with [...] into general use around 1854 in conjunction with the evolution of the modern piano [...]" - The sound fragment you include sounds like equal temperament to me
    – sehe
    Commented Oct 24, 2017 at 1:24
  • Wow... That is an amazing video. Slightly chilling, hearing an organ from so long ago being played (and amazing of course)
    – Ethan
    Commented Oct 24, 2017 at 8:21
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    About the quality of musicians: one only has to look at the incredible virtuousity of folk musicians in poor cultures around the world to see that there's no reason to assume that musicianship is better in a high school orchestra than in an orchestra at a European court in the Baroque. Especially when you consider that professional musicians back then didn't spend lots of time on YouTube or Twitter. Commented Oct 24, 2017 at 10:17

We can get some insight from how Bach adapted his compositions for different instruments, presumably in response to the availability (or lack of it) of suitable players. For example, cantata BWV 69 Lobe den Herrn, meine Seele, a secular reworking of 69a. From Julian Mincham's commentary, my emphases:

... the tenor aria of the earlier work became one for alto in the later version with violin and oboe replacing the original flute and oboe da caccia obbligati [...]

Might the reason have been that there was no tenor available capable of singing the aria in the later version? This seems highly unlikely. The same individual would almost certainly have sung the demanding tenor line in the opening chorus and if he was capable of that, he would surely not have baulked at the aria.

A more likely explanation is that Bach did not have a capable flautist available. It is known that in his early Leipzig years he enjoyed the services of at least one virtuoso flute player, the evidence of which is to be found in many arias and choruses, particularly in the second cycle. If he could not call upon an adequate player for C 69 he would have had to rethink the whole layout of the aria: which is precisely what he did. This argument is strengthened by the fact that nowhere else in C 69, not even in the opening chorus, are flutes called upon.

No working composer is going to compose music that can't be played. So it's reasonable to suppose that everything Bach wrote could be played to a standard he found acceptable by the forces he had available. Given the technical difficulty of parts he wrote to play himself (eg the harpsichord 'cadenza' in Brandenburg 5), we can get an idea of the skill level he would have expected from a skilled player, and we can compare the parts he wrote for when a skilled player was available versus when just the 'standard' orchestra was present.

Given that your hypothetical high school orchestra probably doesn't have a virtuoso flautist in it (or indeed any other virtuoso instrumentalist), we can conclude the performance would have been closer to the professional standard of today, than the amateur standard of today. Of course, for stylistic reasons the NY Phil sound different anyway!

  • You weren't joking about that harpsichord cadenza.... Bach must have been an absolute beast! youtube.com/watch?v=vMSwVf_69Hc youtu.be/_V7oujd9djk?t=334
    – Some_Guy
    Commented Sep 22, 2018 at 12:53
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    I included 2 links because I couldn't decide which performance to include; the second has HIP instruments and perhaps a more "musical" interpretation, but the in the first the harpsichordist plays it like it's a shred metal solo which is just glorious. To quote a commenter: "no human being alive can listen to 3:42 and tell me that's not Bach just showing off what a stud he was on his brand new fancy harpsichord."
    – Some_Guy
    Commented Sep 22, 2018 at 13:00

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