One of the defining characteristics of Baroque music is the basso continuo, or figured bass, which you can think of as a piece’s rhythm section. The harpsichord and cello often play this continuo role together (although any bass and chord-producing instruments can do it), creating what in rock is called the song’s bottom line or in jazz, the groove: the note pattern that creates the feeling of continuous motion. In the continuo, the harpsichord, as a chord-producing instrument, accompanies the bass line with a chord series that thickens—or harmonizes with—the bass line. The continuo is sometimes called figured bass because the composer would simply write chord figures below the musical staff and let the musician figure out how to realize the harmony. Once the continuo is realized, the foundation is laid for the violin or other solo instrument to play the melody line on top of it.
The rise of classical music, with its cleaner textures, shorter melody lines, and quickly shifting dynamics, left little space for the continuo. Whether it’s really accurate or not, I like to think of jazz and rock ensembles as resurrecting the continuo in a new and cool way.
No doubt music theorists would quickly disabuse me of this notion, but until they do, I think of the basso continuo as the part of Baroque music that makes it groovy or cool, which I know are not terms you hear associated with Baroque music. But maybe they should be.
In any case, a great example of the basso continuo is in the 3rd movement of Corelli’s Violin Sonata No. 1 in D Major, Op. 5. (Thanks to a Columbia University site for pointing this out.) The movement is in the clip below. It’s 57 seconds long. Listen as the harpsichord and the cello (which is harder to hear) ground the song with the bass line while the violin plays the melody line on top of it.—Nabob, On Baroque
More on the basso continuo
“Theory of Music” blog: