Rather than a “correct way” there is a range of principles that should be followed when playing Baroque music.
Baroque music – contrary to Romantic music, for instance - is not a living tradition. It died a long time ago, so we can only make educated guesses as to what it should be like. It is a bit like being able to read and write a dead language, but having no idea how it was actually pronounced.

At the same time, even though there is a range of "correct" interpretations, there is also much that has just been shown to be incorrect.

Now, for the way to advance music, you create a new style! The way to advance music is not to play music of the past in a way that is fundamentally incorrect, but to compose new music. That has always been the case, even in Baroque times. J.S. Bach’s sons were not over impressed by their father’s style, so they invented the classical style. Beethoven was not happy with the classical style, so he invented romanticism. Even Liszt got tired of romantic music after a while and invented modern music.
This is perhaps the most important difference between Baroque music and the music that came afterwards. The purpose of music is not to please the ear or to entertain the audience – although in many cases it will display these side effects.

Music that has at its core the sole purpose of entertaining and pleasing the ear will have very little quality and last very little. Pop music is a good example of this, but there is nothing wrong with that except one should realize what music’s true function and true potential is.

Music is a language (or if prefer to be accurate, language is a music). As such its true purpose is to model the world in order to make it understandable to oneself and in order to communicate this model of the world to others. And this particular model goes beyond what ordinary language can model. So music is for speaking of things that cannot be spoken, to enlarge the limits of communication, to talk to oneself about that which cannot be talked about.

The Baroque musicians understood this very deeply, but such understanding has all but been lost. Music is no more a speech.

Or to put it in another way, imagine that you speak no Russian, but you overhear a conversation in Russian. You may find the sounds very beautiful and pleasing to the ear. And there is nothing wrong with that. But you will be missing the essence of Russian if you start believing that the whole purpose of that conversation is to please the ear. There is a meaning to the sounds, but it can only be conveyed to those who know the language.

Unfortunately, as I said, the tradition has been lost. At great pains researchers have been trying to recover it. Some of it has indeed been recovered, but much remains unknown, and sadly may never be known. There is no problem in playing Baroque music in whatever instrument, once you understand its essence, once you master its grammar, once you understand its speech. You will then be able to “speak” and convey its message. Unfortunately this is not what some famous pianists did. On the other hand there are a handful of pianists out there who understand the proper playing of Bach’s music.

I disagree that Baroque music should be played metronomically. The metronome had not even been invented! Baroque had many interesting similarities with Romantic period. They both thrived on excess (The Classic period – and what could be more symptomatic – brought us the metronome, and was a reaction against baroque excesses). I find impossible to believe that Scarlatti would play his lyric sonatas (e.g. K 213, K69, K208, K27) with a rigid, mechanical pulse. There is no evidence to suggest it, and the most compelling argument is the music itself. Play any of these sonatas metronomically and the music will sound dead, if there is any music in it at all. Moreover Scarlatti was an accomplished keyboard improviser, which again goes against the idea of a rigid pulse. In fact, since – on the harpsichord – you cannot accent notes dynamically, rhythmic accents must have been the current practice, right after embellishment. Unfortunately we have no recordings of the period, so at the end of the day it is all speculation.

"We all know how a foreign language is learned. By analogy, Baroque music is for us a foreign language, since we obviously do not live in the Baroque period. Therefore, as in the case of a foreign language, we must learn vocabulary, grammar and pronunciation—musical articulation, the theory of harmony, the theory of phrasing and accentuation. The simple application of these theories to the performance of music by no means implies that we are making music; this is simply spelling in tones. Even if the spelling is well and correctly done, we can only create music when we no longer need to think of grammar and vocabulary, when we no longer translate, but simply speak, in short, when it becomes our own natural speech. This is our goal. We must, therefore, learn the 'grammar' of old music. Unfortunately, uninformed musicians often undertake this task, for we constantly hear musicians who have only mastered the grammar of music, but, like linguistics professors with dust in their veins, simply translate music. However, we cannot blame the rules for this unhappy outcome, since we cannot do without them."

Bach’s music is abstract music: it can be played in any instrument (one would think that by now this argument should have been settled…). Bach himself transferred his pieces freely from one medium to another, plagarising himself countless times.

Most of his keyboard music was most likely not composed for the harpsichord, but for the clavichord, his favourite keyboard instrument after the organ. The clavichord like the piano, has a most definite response to touch, which the harpsichord lacks (you must use the registers in the harpsichord, rather than different touches). The reason Bach’s keyboard music was mostly performed in the harpsichord during his life time (and immediately after his death) is very simple. All you have to do is to play a clavichord. You will notice two things immediately: it is a very, very soft instrument. If you are standing 2 or 3 metres away from it, you will not hear anything! Second: it goes out of tune all the time. On the other hand, not only it allows dynamics controlled by touch (its range is probably from pp to pppp), as you can do all sorts of tricks, like bending notes and finger vibrato, which of course you cannot do with either a harpsichord or a piano.

Now why would anyone play Bach on the piano without dynamics? I do not recall anyone playing his instrumental (other than keyboard) music, or orchestral music, or choral music without dynamics… So why should one assume that he intended all of his music to be played with dynamics, except for his keyboard music?

Bach (and his contemporaries) did not indicate dynamic directions in their scores because it was the convention of the time to leave such matters to the performer.

So if you are playing Bach on the piano (or on the marimbas, for that matter – it sounds great!) you should and you must use all the resources of the instrument. If you want to play Bach on the piano and make the piano sound like a harpsichord, get yourself a harpsichord!



  1. "We all know how a foreign language is learned. By analogy, Baroque music is for us a foreign language, since we obviously do not live in the Baroque period. Therefore, as in the case of a foreign language, we must learn vocabulary, grammar and pronunciation—musical articulation, the theory of harmony, the theory of phrasing and accentuation."

    Hi Mr.Kant, great article. Do you have any tricks on how to learn the vocab,grammar,n pronunciation of Baroque music, esp Bach? what is the better approach in learning to play Bach practically? Thanks

    1. I learned piano without any help from anyone, I downloaded the videos and guide from one of the website, it teaches me step by step and it is easy to follow, within few months I learned piano like a master,
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  2. A very interesting article! I myself have often heard people say Baroque music must be played strictly in time and it was the idea that accentuation must be rhythmic on an organ or harpsichord that brought me to this article. Now, to research what exactly a clavichord is...

  3. The only person who could say ," the piece must be played absolutely like this...." is the composer of the piece.