Renaissance music

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Periods of European art music
Medieval   (500–1400)
Renaissance (1400–1600)
Baroque (1600–1760)
Common practice
Baroque (1600–1760)
Classical (1730–1820)
Romantic (1815–1910)
Modern and contemporary
20th-century (1900–2000)
Contemporary (1975–present)
21st-century (2000–present)

Renaissance music is European music written during the Renaissance. Defining the beginning of the musical era is difficult, given the gradually adopted "Renaissance" characteristics: musicologists have placed its beginnings from as early as 1300 to as late as the 1470s.



Style and trends

"The School of Athens" by Raphael



Northern Europe

The increasing reliance on the interval of the third as a consonance is one of the most pronounced features of early Renaissance European art music (in the Middle Ages, thirds had been considered dissonances: see interval). Polyphony, in use since the 12th century, became increasingly elaborate with highly independent voices throughout the 14th century: the beginning of the 15th century showed simplification, with the voices often striving for smoothness. This was possible because of a greatly increased vocal range in music – in the Middle Ages, the narrow range made necessary frequent crossing of parts, thus requiring a greater contrast between them.

The modal (as opposed to tonal) characteristics of Renaissance music began to break down towards the end of the period with the increased use of root motions of fifths. This later developed into one of the defining characteristics of tonality.


Principal liturgical forms which endured throughout the entire Renaissance period were masses and motets, with some other developments towards the end, especially as composers of sacred music began to adopt secular forms (such as the madrigal) for their own designs.

Common sacred genres were the mass, the motet, the madrigale spirituale, and the laude.

During the period, secular music had an increasing distribution, with a wide variety of forms, but one must be cautious about assuming an explosion in variety: since printing made music more widely available, much more has survived from this era than from the preceding Medieval era, and probably a rich store of popular music of the late Middle Ages is irretrievably lost. Secular music included songs for one or many voices, forms such as the frottola, chanson and madrigal.

Secular vocal genres included the madrigal, the frottola, the caccia, the chanson in several forms (rondeau, virelai, bergerette, ballade, musique mesurée), the canzonetta, the villancico, the villanella, the villotta, and the lute song. Mixed forms such as the motet-chanson and the secular motet also appeared.

Purely instrumental music included consort music for recorder or viol and other instruments, and dances for various ensembles. Common genres were the toccata, the prelude, the ricercar, the canzona, and intabulation (intavolatura, intabulierung). Instrumental ensembles for dances might play a basse danse (or bassedanza), a pavane, a galliard, an allemande, or a courante.

Towards the end of the period, the early dramatic precursors of opera such as monody, the madrigal comedy, and the intermedio are seen.

Theory and notation

According to Margaret Bent (1998), "Renaissance notation is under-prescriptive by our standards; when translated into modern form it acquires a prescriptive weight that overspecifies and distorts its original openness."

Ockeghem, Kyrie "Au travail suis," excerpt

Renaissance compositions were notated only in individual parts; scores were extremely rare, and barlines were not used. Note values were generally larger than are in use today; the primary unit of beat was the semibreve, or whole note. As had been the case since the Ars Nova (see Medieval music), there could be either two or three of these for each breve (a double-whole note), which may be looked on as equivalent to the modern "measure," though it was itself a note value and a measure is not. The situation can be considered this way: it is the same as the rule by which in modern music a quarter-note may equal either two eighth-notes or three, which would be written as a "triplet." By the same reckoning, there could be two or three of the next smallest note, the "minim," (equivalent to the modern "half note") to each semibreve. These different permutations were called "perfect/imperfect tempus" at the level of the breve–semibreve relationship, "perfect/imperfect prolation" at the level of the semibreve–minim, and existed in all possible combinations with each other. Three-to-one was called "perfect," and two-to-one "imperfect." Rules existed also whereby single notes could be halved or doubled in value ("imperfected" or "altered," respectively) when preceded or followed by other certain notes. Notes with black noteheads (such as quarter notes) occurred less often. This development of white mensural notation may be a result of the increased use of paper (rather than vellum), as the weaker paper was less able to withstand the scratching required to fill in solid noteheads; notation of previous times, written on vellum, had been black. Other colors, and later, filled-in notes, were used routinely as well, mainly to enforce the aforementioned imperfections or alterations and to call for other temporary rhythmical changes.

Accidentals were not always specified, somewhat as in certain fingering notations (tablatures) today. However, Renaissance musicians would have been highly trained in dyadic counterpoint and thus possessed this and other information necessary to read a score, "what modern notation requires [accidentals] would then have been perfectly apparent without notation to a singer versed in counterpoint." See musica ficta. A singer would interpret his or her part by figuring cadential formulas with other parts in mind, and when singing together musicians would avoid parallel octaves and fifths or alter their cadential parts in light of decisions by other musicians (Bent, 1998).

It is through contemporary tablatures for various plucked instruments that we have gained much information about what accidentals were performed by the original practitioners.

For information on specific theorists, see Johannes Tinctoris, Franchinus Gaffurius, Heinrich Glarean, Pietro Aron, Nicola Vicentino, Tomás de Santa María, Gioseffo Zarlino, Vicente Lusitano, Vincenzo Galilei, Giovanni Artusi, Johannes Nucius, and Pietro Cerone.

Composers of the Renaissance—timeline

Early Renaissance music (1400–1467)

This group gradually dropped the late Medieval period's complex devices of isorhythm and extreme syncopation, resulting in a more limpid and flowing style. What their music "lost" in rhythmic complexity, however, it gained in rhythmic vitality, as a "drive to the cadence" became a prominent feature around mid-century.

Middle Renaissance music (1467–1534)

In the early 1470s, music started to be printed using a printing press. Music printing had a major effect on how music spread for not only did a printed piece of music reach a larger audience than any manuscript ever could, it did it far cheaper as well. Also during this century, a tradition of famous makers began for many instruments. These makers were masters of their craft. An example is Neuschel for his trumpets.

Towards the end of the 15th century, polyphonic sacred music (as exemplified in the masses of Johannes Ockeghem and Jacob Obrecht) had once again become more complex, in a manner that can perhaps be seen as correlating to the stunning detail in the painting at the time. Ockeghem, particularly, was fond of canon, both contrapuntal and mensural. He composed a mass in which all the parts are derived canonically from one musical line.

It was in the opening decades of the next century that music felt in a tactus (think of the modern time signature) of two semibreves-to-a-breve began to be as common as that with three semibreves-to-a-breve, as had prevailed prior to that time.

In the early 16th century, there is another trend towards simplification, as can be seen to some degree in the work of Josquin des Prez and his contemporaries in the Franco-Flemish School, then later in that of G. P. Palestrina, who was partially reacting to the strictures of the Council of Trent, which discouraged excessively complex polyphony as inhibiting understanding the text. Early 16th-century Franco-Flemings moved away from the complex systems of canonic and other mensural play of Ockeghem's generation, tending toward points of imitation and duet or trio sections within an overall texture that grew to five and six voices. They also began, even before the Tridentine reforms, to insert ever-lengthening passages of homophony, to underline important text or points of articulation. Palestrina, on the other hand, came to cultivate a freely flowing style of counterpoint in a thick, rich texture within which consonance followed dissonance on a nearly beat-by-beat basis, and suspensions ruled the day (see counterpoint). By now, tactus was generally two semibreves per breve with three per breve used for special effects and climactic sections; this was a nearly exact reversal of the prevailing technique a century before.

Late Renaissance music (1534–1600)

In Venice, from about 1534 until around 1600, an impressive polychoral style developed, which gave Europe some of the grandest, most sonorous music composed up until that time, with multiple choirs of singers, brass and strings in different spatial locations in the Basilica San Marco di Venezia (see Venetian School). These multiple revolutions spread over Europe in the next several decades, beginning in Germany and then moving to Spain, France and England somewhat later, demarcating the beginning of what we now know as the Baroque musical era.

The Roman School was a group of composers of predominantly church music in Rome, spanning the late Renaissance and early Baroque eras. Many of the composers had a direct connection to the Vatican and the papal chapel, though they worked at several churches; stylistically they are often contrasted with the Venetian School of composers, a concurrent movement which was much more progressive. By far the most famous composer of the Roman School is Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, whose name has been associated for four hundred years with smooth, clear, polyphonic perfection.

The brief but intense flowering of the musical madrigal in England, mostly from 1588 to 1627, along with the composers who produced them, is known as the English Madrigal School. The English madrigals were a cappella, predominantly light in style, and generally began as either copies or direct translations of Italian models. Most were for three to six voices.

Musica reservata is either a style or a performance practice in a cappella vocal music of the latter, mainly in Italy and southern Germany, involving refinement, exclusivity, and intense emotional expression of sung text.

The cultivation of European music in the Americas began in the 16th century soon after the arrival of the Spanish, and the conquest of Mexico. Although fashioned in European style, uniquely Mexican hybrid works based on native Mexican language and European musical practice, appeared very early. Musical practices in New Spain continually coincided with European tendencies throughout the subsequent Baroque and Classical music periods. Among these New World composers were Hernando Franco, Antonio de Salazar, and Manuel de Zumaya.

In addition, many composers observed a division in their own works between a prima pratica (music in the Renaissance polyphonic style) and a seconda pratica (music in the new style) during the first part of the 17th century.


In the late 16th century, as the Renaissance era closed, an extremely manneristic style developed. In secular music, especially in the madrigal, there was a trend towards complexity and even extreme chromaticism (as exemplified in madrigals of Luzzaschi, Marenzio, and Gesualdo). The term "mannerism" derives from art history.

Transition to the Baroque

Beginning in Florence, there was an attempt to revive the dramatic and musical forms of Ancient Greece, through the means of monody, a form of declaimed music over a simple accompaniment; a more extreme contrast with the preceding polyphonic style would be hard to find; this was also, at least at the outset, a secular trend. These musicians were known as the Florentine Camerata.

We have already noted some of the musical developments that helped to usher in the Baroque, but for further explanation of this transition, see antiphon, concertato, monody, madrigal, and opera, as well as the works given under "Sources and further reading."

For a more thorough discussion of the transition to the Baroque specifically pertaining to instrument music, see Transition from Renaissance to Baroque in instrumental music.

Instruments of the Renaissance

Many instruments originated during the Renaissance; others were variations of, or improvements upon, instruments that had existed previously. Some have survived to the present day; others have disappeared, only to be recreated in order to perform music of the period on authentic instruments. As in the modern day, instruments may be classified as brass, strings, percussion, and woodwind.


Brass instruments in the Renaissance were traditionally played by professionals. Some of the more common brass instruments that were played:

  • Slide trumpet: Similar to the trombone of today except that instead of a section of the body sliding, only a small part of the body near the mouthpiece and the mouthpiece itself is stationary. Also the body was an S-shape so it was rather unwieldy, but was suitable for the slow dance music which it was most commonly used for.
  • Cornett: Made of wood and was played like the recorder (will be mentioned at greater length later on) but blown like a trumpet. It was commonly made in several sizes, the largest was called the serpent. The serpent became practically the only cornetto used by the early 17th century while other ranges were replaced by the violin. It was said to be the closest instrument to the human voice with the ability to use dynamics and expression.
  • Trumpet: Early trumpets had no valves, and were limited to the tones present in the overtone series. They were also made in different sizes. Although commonly depicted being used by angels, their use in churches was limited, a prominent exception being the music of the Venetian School. They were most commonly used in the military and for the announcement of royalty. Period trumpets were found to have two rings soldered to them, one near the mouthpiece and another near the bell.
  • Sackbut (sometimes sackbutt or sagbutt): A different name for the trombone, which replaced the slide trumpet by the end of the 15th century. Sackbuts were used almost exclusively in church music and faced behind the player.



As a family strings were used in many circumstances, both sacred and secular. A few members of this family include:

  • Viol: This instrument, developed in the 15th century, commonly has six strings. It was usually played with a bow. It has structural qualities similar to the Spanish vihuela; its main separating trait is its larger size. This changed the posture of the musician in order to rest it against the floor or between the legs in a manner similar to the cello. Its similarities to the vihuela were sharp waist-cuts, similar frets, a flat back, thin ribs, and identical tuning. This is the predecessor of the modern-day violin, viola, and violoncello (cello).
  • Lyre: Its construction is similar to a small harp, although instead of being plucked, it is strummed with a plectrum. Its strings varied in quantity from four, seven, and ten, depending on the era. It was played with the right hand, while the left hand silenced the notes that were not desired. Newer lyres were modified to be played with a bow.
  • Irish Harp: Also called the Clàrsach in Scottish Gaelic, or the Cláirseach in Irish, during the Middle Ages it was the most popular instrument of Ireland and Scotland. Due to its significance on Irish history it is seen even on the Guinness label, and is Ireland's national symbol even to this day. To be played it is usually plucked. Its size can vary greatly from a harp that can be played in one's lap to a full-size harp that is placed on the floor
  • Hurdy gurdy: (Also known as the wheel fiddle), in which the strings are sounded by a wheel which the strings pass over. Its functionality can be compared to that of a mechanical violin, in that its bow (wheel) is turned by a crank. Its distinctive sound is mainly because of its "drone strings" which provide a constant pitch similar in their sound to that of bagpipes.
  • See main article: Lute.


Some Renaissance percussion instruments include the triangle, the Jew's harp, the tambourine, the bells, the rumble-pot, and various kinds of drums.

  • Tambourine: In the early ages the tambourine was originally a frame drum without the jingles attached to the side. This instrument soon evolved and took on the name of the timbrel during the medieval crusades, at which time it acquired the jingles. The tambourine was often found with a single skin, as it made it easy for a dancer to play. The skin that surrounds the frame is called the vellum, and produces the beat by striking the surface with the knuckles, fingertips, or hand. It could also be played by shaking the instrument, allowing the tambourine's jingles to "clank" and "jingle".
  • Jew's harp: An instrument often known for its historical purpose for men "serenading" their sweethearts,[citation needed] It even went to the extent of being repeatedly banned for its "endangerment on female virtue",[citation needed] it is also believed that it was banned because of its construction of silver, and due to the great demand on silver in the 19th Century Austria this was another reason for its outlawing. A steel instrument that produces sound using shapes of the mouth and attempting to pronounce different vowels with ones mouth. The loop at the bent end of the tongue of the instrument is plucked in different scales of vibration creating different tones.

Woodwinds (aerophones)

The woodwind instruments (aerophones) use a column of air vibrating within a pipe that has little holes along it to generate vibration with the airflow through the pipe and control the length of the sound waves produced by the vibrating air. A player could create this air column by using a few different methods. The first is blowing across a mouth hole (as would be done with flutes). The second is blowing into a mouthpiece with a single reed (as would be found with the clarinet or saxophone) or a double reed (which is used with oboes and bassoons).

The woodwind instruments of the Middle Ages are not the same as modern day woodwinds. They were more eccentric and exotic. For example, you would find that modern woodwinds fit the natural position of the hand. Woodwinds in the Renaissance used simple holes drilled in the instrument.

  • Shawm: A typical oriental shawm is keyless and is about a foot long with seven finger holes and a thumb hole. The pipes were also most commonly made of wood and many of them had carvings and decorations on them. It was the most popular double reed instrument of the renaissance period; it was commonly used in the streets with drums and trumpets because of its brilliant, piercing, and often deafening sound. To play the shawm a person puts the entire reed in their mouth, puffs out their cheeks, and blows into the pipe whilst breathing through their nose.
  • Reed pipe: Made from a single short length of cane with a mouthpiece, four or five finger holes, and reed fashioned from it. The reed is made by cutting out a small tongue, but leaving the base attached. It is the predecessor of the saxophone and the clarinet.
  • Hornpipe: Same as reed pipe but with a bell at the end.
  • Bagpipe/Bladderpipe: Believe to have been invented by herdsmen who thought to use a bag made out of sheep or goat skin and would provide air pressure so that when its player takes a breath, the player only needs to squeeze the bag tucked underneath their arm to continue the tone. The mouth pipe has a simple round piece of leather hinged on to the bag end of the pipe and acts like a non-return valve.

As an aside, the reed is located inside the long metal mouthpiece, known as a bocal.

  • Panpipe: Designed to have sixteen wooden tubes with a stopper at one end and open on the other. Each tube is a different size (thereby producing a different tone), giving it a range of an octave and a half. The player can then place their lips against the desired tube and blow across it.
  • Transverse flute: The Transverse flute is similar to the modern flute with a mouth hole near the stoppered end and finger holes along the body. The player blows in the side and holds the flute to the right side.
  • Recorder: The recorder is a common instrument still used today, often taught to children in elementary schools. Rather than a reed it uses a whistler mouth piece, which is a beak shaped mouth piece, as its main source of sound production. It is usually made with seven finger holes and a thumb hole.

See also

Sources and further reading

  • Atlas, Allan W. Renaissance Music. New York: W.W. Norton, 1998.
  • Baines, Anthony, ed. Musical Instruments Through the Ages. New York: Walker and Company, 1975.
  • Bent, Margaret. The Grammar of Early Music: Preconditions for Analysis. In Tonal Structures of Early Music, ed. Cristle Collins Judd.
  • Bessaraboff, Nicholas. Ancient European Musical Instruments. 1st. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1941.
  • Brown, Howard M. Music in the Renaissance. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1976.
  • Fenlon, Iain (editor) (1989). The Renaissance: from the 1470s to the End of the 16th Century. Man & Music. 2. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall. ISBN 9780137734177. 
  • Gleason, Harold and Becker, Warren. Music in the Middle Ages and Renaissance (Music Literature Outlines Series I). Bloomington, IN: Frangipani Press, 1986. ISBN 0-89917-034-X
  • Judd, Cristle Collins, ed. Tonal Structures of Early Music. New York: Garland Publishing, 1998. ISBN 0-8153-2388-3.
  • Reese, Gustav. Music in the Renaissance. New York: W.W. Norton, 1954. ISBN 0-393-09530-4
  • Munrow, David. Instruments of the Middle Ages and Renaissance. London: Oxford University Press, 1976.
  • Ongaro, Giulio. Music of the Renaissance. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 2003.
  • Strunk, Oliver. Source Readings in Music History. New York: W.W. Norton, 1950.
  • Orpheon Foundation, Vienna, Austria

External links

Modern Performance

This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article "Renaissance music". Allthough most Wikipedia articles provide accurate information accuracy can not be guaranteed.

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