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What is historically informed performance practice?

There are many different approaches to interpreting baroque music. In this resource, we explore a historically informed approach. This involves using, where possible, 'period' instruments and bows, as well as using historical sources to inform decisions about the expressive elements of a piece.

Baroque instruments and bows

Professionals who perform baroque music in a historically informed way use instruments and bows set up as we think they would have been in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. They often play at a different pitch from modern concert pitch (usually, but not always, a semitone lower) and tune keyboard instruments (such as harpsichords or organs) slightly differently from the modern way of tuning a piano.

Major differences between modern and baroque instruments

There are several differences between modern and baroque stringed instruments and bows.

Baroque instruments have a straighter neck, a lower bridge, and a shorter fingerboard than their modern equivalents, and use gut strings. They also have a lighter bass bar and sound post. Players of violins and violas tend not to use a chin-rest or shoulder-rest, and cellists play without a spike. The differences give the instruments a characteristic sound and require a slightly different technique (for example, players hold the instruments differently and rely more on the natural resonance of the instrument, using open strings and first position more often than players of modern instruments).

Baroque bows are convex in shape (unlike modern bows, which are concave), are generally lighter and slimmer than modern bows, and are balanced nearer the frog. Down-bows are naturally stronger than up-bows, and the variation in tension over the length of the bow gives a natural diminuendo to a down-bow. To maximise the baroque bow's characteristics, players often employ different bowing and articulation from that used with a modern instrument and bow.

In this video, former OAE violinist Catherine Mackintosh demonstrates the differences between baroque and modern instruments and bows.


In this video, OAE violinist Henrietta Wayne explores the evolution of the bow, and demonstrates bows from different periods of history.

Other aspects of baroque performance practice

Using period instruments, pitch and tuning (or temperament) is only one part of historical interpretation. Our approaches to tempo, rhythm, phrasing, articulation, dynamics and ornamentation are also informed by history. We gather information to guide our interpretation from the many 'treatises' or instruction books written by baroque composers and performers and from clues hidden within the music itself. We refer to some of these treatises throughout this resource, for more information about them, visit our further reading section.

What if I don't have a baroque instrument or bow?

Although the instruments and bows of the eighteenth century often lend themselves naturally to the historically informed techniques we explore within this resource, it is possible to reproduce the techniques with a modern instrument and bow.

In the past, baroque bows were very expensive. These days, more affordable bows are available, making them more accessible for students. It is possible to play a modern violin with a baroque bow. If you wish to explore baroque performance practice in some depth, it would be very worthwhile investing in a relatively inexpensive baroque bow. Contact us for more information: info@ncem.co.uk .