Musical Composition, Theory and Songwriting/baroque


QUESTION: I play the piano and I am really interested in playing baroque music. The piano is really good for such music (although piano wasn't invented back then). I have a friend who play the drums. He would have problem playing baroque, I argued. We could play some shuffle/swing together if we want. Are there any baroque (or romantic) music for the drums or did they never really use drum instruments in those days? Rhythm in baroque music was obviously not the same as in more modern music. What is it with Bach's music that it doesn't work well with drum instruments? Does playing Bach using a metronome (I mean, for practice only) sound like a good idea? Or will it destroy the feel/rhythm that is needed for such music?

ANSWER: Dear Andrew,

Thanks very much for this interesting question. Yes, you are correct that the piano didn't exist during Baroque times but many pianists play Baroque music on the piano and I can see nothing wrong in that. The Canadian pianist Glenn Gould made some legendary recordings of Bach's keyboard works and he always used the piano. Percussion instruments were not used in the orchestral music of Baroque but were used in popular dance music. There was no music written specifically for percussion at that time. Of course, the modern drum kit didn't exist then but that doesn't mean to say that you cannot use a drum kit in a modern style performance of Baroque music. Some of Bach's music works well with a drum-kit because it has a very fixed tempo and it's also very rhythmic. Several well-known musicians have performed Bach's music in a modern style, notably Jacques Loussier (who adds double bass and drum kit to the original) and you can hear his work on YouTube. For example, listen to the treatment he gives the famous Prelude in C major:

The first 2 minutes are with the piano playing the music exactly as Bach wrote it with the addition of a jazzy double bass part. After 2 minutes, the drum-kit enters (quite dramatically!) and then we hear a section in which the pianist improvises on the Bach piece using the same chord progression. You can find more examples by this fine group on YouTube. Some baroque pieces will work better than others with percussion but perhaps you need to try experimenting.

It is often helpful to use a metronome in practising to make sure that you hold the tempo consistently. I think this is especially true in Baroque and Classical music. It is probably less helpful in romantic piano pieces such as those by Chopin where a fair amount of rubato is appropriate. Bach didn't use metronome marks in his music (it wasn't invented until 1814) and if you ever see them they've been added by an editor at a later date. Some people think that using a metronome during practising makes you play mechanically but I don't believe this is true. If a pianist has trouble keeping a regular beat (e.g. not continuously speeding up) then the metronome is very useful for practising.

I hope this helps a bit - if you want to get back to me, feel free to do so. In the meantime, I wish you well with your piano studies and hope that you manage to work something out with your friend who plays the drums.

Best wishes


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QUESTION: Interesting music. It must be really difficult to make Bach's music sound more jazzy.
I am interested in learning more about the music theory of classical keyboard music. Will studying music theory of other kinds of music actually help me? I know it will help me understand that kind of music but will it also help me understanding classical keyboard music? Let's say I would learn about pentatonic scales or something simmilar. Are pentatonic scales never used in classical keyboard music? Do you need to choose a specific genre when studying musc theory?

ANSWER: Hi Andrew,

Thanks for getting back to me. I think if someone is a jazz musician, making something sound more jazzy comes naturally. Jacques Loussier is of course a very competent musician with many years' experience. When you talk about "music theory" I assume that you're referring to subjects such as harmony, study of rhythms, counterpoint and so on. Studying these things will certainly give you a deeper understanding of music. There are many books on the subject but also several website that provide information about many aspects of music theory. Classical keyboard music uses much the same theoretical conventions as any other music of the period, so I think any study could be useful. I always recommend listening to as much music as possible. As you know, YouTube offers thousands of examples of classical keyboard music and I think it will be helpful if you can listen to as much as possible. I don't mean playing it in the background while doing something else, but listening and following the music at the same time. You can download many classical music scores. I often use this website:

If you listen for example, to Bach or Mozart keyboard sonatas with the music in front of you, it is quite a rich experience. I'd suggest printing out the music rather than following it on screen because you can then mark interesting bits you want to study and of course, you can take it to the keyboard and trying playing parts of it. This approach is good because it takes you direct to the music. You can use the theory web-pages to check out things that you don't understand.

Pentatonic scales do appear in classical music but usually only in parts of a melody. It was not until much later in musical history that composers used them for effect. The problem with them is that they have a rather bland sound and after a while simply become boring because the notes are very limiting.

As to a particular genre, many theory books will avoid this issue, except those specifically on jazz music. Theory books (and web sites) tend to be fairly general and tend to be quite basic. As music developed between the year 1600 to the present day there has been a general tendency to become more complicated in terms of harmony and rhythm, though there are many exceptions. Theory books address the more simple issues and may not be much use if you are studying early 20th century music, for example.

I am not sure whether this has helped. Maybe you'd like to use my personal email address at if you'd like to continue our discussion. I hope it's not too cold for you up there in Sweden. Although I'm from the UK, I now live in a much hotter part of the world.

Have a good day!

Best wishes


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QUESTION: When I search for piano blues lick it is very easy to find certain things that I can use for improvisation. It wasn't that easy to find certain things for baroque piano that can be used for imorovisation. Does that even exists and where do one find it?
Can you name one baroque piece with pentatonic scale in melody?
That pentatonic scale in the baroque era must have sounded a bit different from the modern one due to another tuning nowadays. Is that true?

Hi Andrew,

Yes, there are plenty of books (and websites) that give lots of examples of jazz improvisations, though professional jazz pianists would certainly not need to use them. They usually provide examples of phrases that fit certain chord patterns. In jazz this is a relatively easy because some jazz forms, e.g. a 12-bar blues, have a fixed harmonic structure. Many popular jazz songs use certain well-worn formulas too. All this comes from the jazz convention of musicians improvising over a particular chord progression, which is actually what happens in those Jacques Loussier recordings to which I referred.

In Baroque times this was not the custom. In fact, there were very few opportunities for players to improvise with the exception of the continuo. This word described an instrument (or group of instruments) that provided the foundation to the music and invariably consisted of harpsichord and cello. The cello part was written out in notation but the harpsichord part was usually given only the bass line and expected to improvise a suitable accompaniment. A system known as "figured bass" was used to indicate the harmonies, which in baroque times would have been generally simpler than those found today. However, the harpsichord player was expected to remain in the background and provide tasteful bits of melody to fill out the music. Only rarely (as in Bach's Brandenburg Concerto No 5) was the keyboard part written out in full.

As a result, there are no quick and easy formulas for Baroque improvising and keyboard players of the time needed to have a thorough knowledge of harmony. Bach was known for his skills as an improviser but of course, no record exists of his playing. However, he would almost certainly have improvised on a melody rather than a particular chord progression. I have not heard of any books on Baroque improvising but it would be a very specialist skill to develop (and a good many years of practice) if it is to sound authentically Baroque in style.

I am trying to recall a Baroque piece that uses a pentatonic melody but cannot think of any. I don't believe that any Baroque melody is totally pentatonic because (for complicated reasons) it would not allow the modulations of which Baroque composers were so fond.

The slightly different tuning and pitch used in the Baroque wouldn't sound dramatically different from what we have today. I have heard instruments tuned to "just" temperament (as opposed to the equal temperament that's used today) but the difference is very subtle indeed. It might not be noticed at all by a non-musician.

I hope this clears up some of the issues or at least steers you in the right direction!

Best wishes


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Dr Colin


I can answer questions from students of "classical" composing, arranging, notation problems and music theory, writing for instruments and voice and writing music for education. I can answer questions about orchestration but I do not cover questions about pop or rock music, pop song writing or electronic music.

I taught for many years in UK up to "A" level theory and composition. I have spent many years in music education, initially (like everyone else) as a teacher. Then I moved on to advisory work (teaching teachers!) and also lectured, giving many workshops for teachers in developing music education skills and techniques. For a time I worked as a teacher-lecturer at London University's Institute of Education and eventually worked full-time as a Music Education Adviser to schools in part of London, offering advice on music education and curriculum development.


I started composing music at the age 14 (it was mostly rubbish, since you asked) and now have a large number of compositions to credit as well as many publications, especially for instrumental music and choral music. I have also written several acclaimed works for large orchestra and choir. My work has been published particularly in the UK (under different names)(notably by Boosey & Hawkes, Novello, and Schott) but also in the USA and the Netherlands.

My music for elementary players (several publications) has been performed and broadcast worldwide. I am now retired from my previous job as Music Education Adviser. These days I spend most of my time composing and arranging. I am currently working on instrumental arrangements of world national anthems for my National Anthems website and also completing a suite of very easy piano solos and duets for elementary players. For many years I have used the music program "Finale" for all my music writing activities.

International Society for Music Education; Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts.

"The Times" Educational Supplement; "Hi-Fi News and Record Review". For several years, I used to write for many of the state music education periodicals in the US and I also wrote several influential articles on instrumental music teaching for "Music Teacher" magazine in the UK. (UK).

PhD(Hons); MA(Hons); FLCM (compositon) ARCM, LMusTCL,(music diplomas)

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