Baroque pop

Baroque pop (or baroque rock)[3] is a pop music subgenre[2] that fuses classical music, orchestral pop, rock, and Baroque music. It is identifiable for its use of contrapuntal melodies, functional harmony patterns, and dramatic or melancholic gestures.[1] The genre emerged in the 1960s after pop musicians and record producers began placing the harpsichord in the foreground of their arrangements. Other typical baroque pop instrumentation includes string sections, French horns, and oboes.

Baroque pop's mainstream popularity faded by the 1970s, partially because punk rock, disco and hard rock took over; nonetheless, music was still produced within the genre's tradition.[4] Philadelphia soul in the 1970s and chamber pop in the 1990s both incorporated the spirit of baroque pop[2] while the latter contested much of the time's low fidelity musical aesthetic.[5]


The Left Banke – "Walk Away Renée" (1966)
Writer Matthew Guerriri named "Walk Away Renée" the "quintessence" of baroque pop, citing its "elegantly jangling harpsichord".[6]

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In classical music, the term "Baroque" is used to describe the art music of Europe approximately between the years 1600 and 1750, with some of its most prominent composers including J. S. Bach and Antonio Vivaldi.[7] Much of the instrumentation of baroque pop is akin to that of the late Baroque period or the early Classical period, chronologically defined as the period of European music from 1690 to 1760 and stylistically defined by balanced phrases, clarity and beauty, using instrumentation similar to modern orchestras.[8]

Baroque pop, stylistically, fuses elements of rock with classical music, often incorporating layered harmonies, strings, and horns to achieve a majestic, orchestral sound.[2] Its prominent characteristics are the use of contrapuntal melodies and functional harmony patterns.[1] It was intended to be a more serious and mature outgrowth of rock music.[2] "English baroque" is used by journalist Bob Stanley to describe a subset that existed between 1968–73.[4][nb 1]


Precursors (early 1960s)

Starting in the 1960s, pop musicians and record producers like Phil Spector and the Beach Boys' Brian Wilson began placing the harpsichord in the foreground of their arrangements.[6] Harpsichords were widely available in recording studios, and had been used in popular music since as early as the 1940s, but it would not gain prominence until the 1960s.[6] One of the first pop rock hits to use a harpsichord was the Jamies' "Summertime, Summertime" (1958).[10] Later examples range from the Beach Boys' "I Get Around" (1964) and "When I Grow Up (To Be a Man)" (1965) to the Righteous Brothers "You've Lost That Lovin' Feelin'" (1964) and the Mamas & the Papas' "Monday, Monday" (1966).[6] The Boston Globe's Matthew Guerriri speculates that the harpsichord may have been desirable for its buzzing, stinging timbre, which suited "the treble-heavy pop soundscape" of the time.[6][nb 2]

The Beatles working in the studio with their producer George Martin, circa 1965

Slate's Forrest Wickman credits Wilson and the Beatles' George Martin as some of the men "most responsible" for the move into baroque pop.[11] Along with Burt Bacharach, Spector had melded pop music with classical elements before they were melded with rock.[12] Writer Andrew Jackson suggests that "the era of baroque pop" in which "rock melded with classical elements" was prefaced by the Rolling Stones ("Play with Fire", February 1965) and Brian Wilson (The Beach Boys Today!, March 1965).[12] Author Bob Gendron argues that, rather than assuming that the Beatles themselves instigated the link between their music and its classical components, it is more plausible that they were responding to various classical and baroque readings of their work, such as the 1965 album The Baroque Beatles Book, which reimagines their songs in a tongue-in-cheek Baroque setting.[13] The Beatles benefited from the classical music skills of Martin, who played a baroque harpsichord solo on the song "In My Life", released on their December 1965 album Rubber Soul.[14][nb 3] Author Joe Harrington noted that after its release, many "baroque-rock" works would soon appear.[14] Producer Tommy LiPuma believed: "Once the Beatles featured that harpsichord sound on 'In My Life,' pop producers began working it in."[10]

Emergence (mid to late 1960s)

The genre is traced to the United States and United Kingdom.[1] By early 1966, various groups began using baroque and classical instrumentation, described as a "baroque rock" movement by Gendron.[15] The Zombies' single "She's Not There" (1964) marked a starting point for British baroque pop. Stanley explains that the song "didn't feature any oboes but stuck out rather dramatically in 1964, the year of 'You Really Got Me' and 'Little Red Rooster'".[4] "She's Not There" would inspire New York musician Michael Brown to form the Left Banke, whose song "Walk Away Renée" (1966) is considered by Stanley to be the first recognizable baroque pop single.[4] Guerriri says that, in Britain, it "bridged the passage from rock into psychedelica for numerous groups: the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Zombies, [and] the Kinks."[6]

Gendron's "baroque rock" examples include "Walk Away Renée" with Spanky and Our Gang's "Sunday Will Never Be the Same" (1967), and the Stone Poneys' "Different Drum" (1967) – all of which used harpsichord and strings.[16][nb 4] Among the orchestral arrangements appearing on the Beach Boys' album Pet Sounds (1966), "God Only Knows" is considered "exquisite baroque pop" by The Sydney Morning Herald,[17] whereas The Record's Jim Beckerman called the song "baroque rock" in the same "retro instrumentation and elegant harmonies" vein as Procol Harum's "A Whiter Shade of Pale" (1967) and the Beatles' "Eleanor Rigby" (1966).[18][nb 5]

Stanley highlighted a strand of baroque pop he calls "English baroque", it being a combined simulacrum of the Zombies' album Odessey and Oracle (1968), Paul McCartney's contributions to The White Album (1968), Honeybus' single "I Can't Let Maggie Go" (1968), Scott Walker's chamber pop, and Crosby, Stills & Nash vocal harmonies.[4][nb 6]

Dissipation and revival (1970s–present)

The Irish band the Divine Comedy contributed to a baroque pop revival beginning in the 1990s[1]

The quaintness of baroque pop and the use of violins and classical guitar became the target of parody at the end of the psychedelic era.[20] In the 1990s, chamber pop would derive from the "spirit" of baroque pop, characterized by an infusion of orchestral arrangements or classical style composition. It is generally within an indie setting, and can be seen as a reaction to the lo-fi production that dominated in the 1990s.[5]


  1. A compilation, Tea & Symphony: The English Baroque Sound 1967-1974 (2007), features music that reviewer Stephen Thomas Erlewine says is mostly inspired by Paul McCartney, the Zombies, and Gilbert O'Sullivan.[9]
  2. In the 1960s, most recordings were monaural, and AM radio was the dominant form of musical consumption.[6]
  3. The instrument used was actually a piano recorded on tape at half speed.[10]
  4. Further listed are the Rolling Stone's "Lady Jane" (1966, harpsichord and dulcimer) and the Lovin Spoonful's "Rain on the Roof" (1967, harpsichord-sounding guitars).[16]
  5. "A Whiter Shade of Pale" has a baroque-style organ melody influenced by Bach pieces such as "Sleepers, Wake!" and "Air on the G String". Contrary to popular belief, however, the song is not a direct copy or paraphrase of any music by Bach, although it makes clear references to both pieces.[19]
  6. Stanley believes that this "lost corner of pop history" climaxed with the Beatles' 1967 album Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, "which mixed everyday lyrics with music hall and Edwardiana to create lysergically enhanced parlour music". One year later, he writes, the "predominant trend was to get hairier, heavier, more long-winded". English baroque survived for the next few years, during when record labels sought to capitalize on the nascent singer-songwriter movement by offering lavish string arrangements to unknowns; Nick Drake was one such beneficiary.[4]



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