What are some recommendations for performing Baroque music? My studio professor seems to think that I can improvise in the Baroque style as easily as breathing -- which is sadly not true.

The specific piece I'm performing is Marcello's Oboe Concerto in D minor (public domain score at this link at the Petrucci Music Library).

I am looking for help with the second movement.

  • By improvise, do you mean adopt a baroque style or actually deviate from the written notes and improvise music? Nov 9, 2012 at 14:06
  • The movement in question has straight 8th notes in a slow quarter = 60 meter. So hitting all of the notes listed, but adding more in between. ... is that a clear way to describe it? I know what I mean, but I'm not sure it's how I want to describe it!
    – user3169
    Nov 9, 2012 at 15:58
  • 1
    Perfectly clear! I've heard that sort of ornamentational improvisation used in Handel's Messiah. Thanks for the clarification! If I'm not mistaken, that sort of improvising includes the addition of grace notes, turns and trills. Best of luck! Nov 9, 2012 at 16:55
  • @user3169 As Kristina mentioned, that would be Ornamentation. And yes, it can be learned. There are a few tips and tricks but it's sort of in the range of improvisation because it is up to your discretion; certain things work in certain passages. Bach's music is a good ground to test this on, by the way.
    – psosuna
    Apr 3, 2018 at 23:33

3 Answers 3


Learning to improvise in the style that Baroque musicians used at that time is quite a deep field of study. It's what we call "historically-informed performance practice."

If you have a score that has the originally-published markings for turns, trills and ornaments, then there are specific rules on what notes to play. There is certainly room for a little improvising and using your own phrasing, but if you want to play like a Baroque musician (well, as well as we can tell from scholarship after 300 years) then you need to find a textbook resource for Baroque ornamentation.

The appropriate places in a Baroque score where you can more purely improvise are at cadenzas, which are usually performed at the end of a section where there is a fermata for the accompaniment and the soloist is allowed to "cut loose".

I happen to be friends with a college professor whose specialty is Baroque oboe. I'm going to ask him if he has any specific textbook references for Baroque ornamentation. If he gives me any, I'll post them here.

I would also suggest that you look for recordings that you know to be in Baroque historically-informed performance style, and listen to how the soloist ornaments their playing. If you can listen to a sample of the recording online, you can spot a Baroque performance because it won't be in standard A=440 tuning. Modern musicians who play Baroque instruments tune down one half-step or even a whole step for early Baroque, because that is near the tuning that people used 300 years ago. So although it's written in D minor, a historically-informed recording will be played on instruments that sound like they are playing the piece in D-flat minor or E-minor according to your tuning fork.

  • Thank you! That sounds like good advice. Also, thanks for the edit of the question.
    – user3169
    Nov 10, 2012 at 23:04

Actually, that is a yes-yes. Research notes inegales for more information about the practice of purposefully "un-equalling" equally written note values for expressive effect. Baroque musicians were fond of employing double dotting and playing even figures unevenly.

Jazz is a descendent of Baroque music. Where do you think some of our earliest jazz styles came from? New Orleans. And what was one of the influential styles present in old New Orleans? The French Baroque and its improvisation conventions.

  • So you are drawing a comparison between notes inegales and jazz swing rhythm? I hadn't thought of that. I see your point! I think it was more of a coincidence rather than a logical evolution, though.
    – user1044
    Mar 3, 2013 at 22:13

Improvisation is a skill that has to be learned and practiced, just like any other musical skill.

You can start with rhythmic variations of short phrases. For example, if a phrase contains consecutive sixteenth notes, then play a mix of eighth and sixteenth notes, possibly inserting a few quarter notes at resolution points.

You can also use the same rhythm of the phrase and change the order of notes.

Experimentation is the key. The great thing about music is that whatever we do with it, no-one gets hurt:)

I hope this helps.

  • You've evidently never heard of a trombone suicide. :P
    – Luke_0
    Nov 9, 2012 at 15:34
  • I get the feeling that changing the rhythm of, using your example, straight 16th notes to a mix of 8th and 16th would be a no-no in Baroque, but I could be wrong. But for jazz improv etc. I think that's excellent advice. Thank you!
    – user3169
    Nov 9, 2012 at 15:59

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