Overview Of The Renaissance Music Period

The history of Western classical music can be divided into six main time periods. The Renaissance period is the second of these, linking the Medieval era, which came before, and the Baroque period that was to follow.

This guide will outline some of the era’s history, musical characteristics and important composers, to give you a deeper understanding of the Renaissance period. We’ll also provide some YouTube links to relevant pieces so that you can get to know the sound of the music a little better.

The Renaissance Music Era

Renaissance literally means “rebirth”.

The musical Renaissance period lasted from 1400-1600AD and was a time of huge growth and development, with music becoming more expressive, varied and complex.

Composers had more freedom to write as they pleased and technological developments meant that their music could reach more people.

Social Change

Religious music was still ubiquitous in the Renaissance period, but the church’s decline in influence meant that composers gained more artistic freedom and were allowed to write creative music for its own sake.

There had been a recent revival of interest in ancient cultures, and composers began to take inspiration from the art and mythology of Ancient Greece and Rome, as well as from astronomy and mathematics.

When primitive ways of notating music were developed in the Medieval period, composers were then able to document and share their pieces more easily, but they still had to be time-consumingly written out by hand.

However, the invention of the printing press in 1439 allowed for much more widespread distribution, leading to a rich exchange of ideas across Europe.

Furthermore, the growth of a bourgeois class (a cultured upper-middle class) meant that there was now a ready-made audience for written music, as music education flourished and increasing numbers learnt to read music.

Much more music from this period survives in comparison to the Medieval era.

Church and Secular Music

Renaissance Musicians

Religious choral music was dominant at the beginning of the Renaissance period, with much of it building upon the polyphony (music which has two or more simultaneous independent melodic parts) that developed at the end of the Medieval period.

Motets and masses were two common examples of this, with the latter forming part of the church’s liturgy.

Sacred and secular styles began to influence each other: the madrigal (traditionally an unaccompanied non-religious song for a number of voices) was adopted as a church form, while secular composers began to write motets.

At the beginning of the Renaissance period opportunities for secular composers were limited, with most employment coming via the courts (households and residences of sovereigns), which hired musicians as performers, teachers and composers.

But secular music increased in popularity as time went on, and composers could now take commissions from wealthy amateurs, whilst the new printed music also provided financial opportunity.

The Protestant Reformation also meant that now both Catholic and Protestant churches required music for their respective services.

Secular music was largely vocal, but the period saw the development of instrumental music in its own right.

This was no longer music for dancing or accompaniment, for example, but pieces to be listened to seriously.

This was in keeping with a general shift in the Renaissance period towards the idea of creating art for art’s sake.

William Byrd’s Fantasia (an instrumental imitation of a motet) is an example of this:

William Byrd – “Fantasia”

Secular song forms included:

  • Lied (German)
  • Frottola (Italian)
  • Chanson (French)
  • Madrigal (Italian)
  • Villancico (Spanish)

Opera, a combination of theatre and vocal music that would become incredibly popular over the following centuries, developed in Italy at the end of the Renaissance period.

Jacopo Peri’s Dafne is considered by many to be the very first opera.

Composed around 1597/1598, it was an attempt to revive the style of the Classical Greek drama.

Harmony and Style

The modal harmonic system of the Medieval period – music based on scales, or modes – remained in place at the beginning of the Renaissance era.

The rules for counterpoint (the relationship between simultaneous interdependent musical lines) became more complicated and strict regarding which intervals are considered consonant and which are dissonant.

Intervals of a third and a sixth began to be used, and this led to the first use of triads – three-note chords which underpin much Western music today.

Aside from the strict rules surrounding counterpoint, composers had much more freedom to be expressive.

Many now tried to include emotion in their music, and this was aided by a much greater vocal range in comparison to the Medieval period, and much greater variety in elements like rhythm and form. 

Accidentals started being added to the church modes, and the modal approach gradually started to be replaced by functional tonality (the key-centre based harmonic system that would govern music for the next few hundred years), with a focus upon chord progressions, minor and major tonality and root movement based on the circle of fifths.

This led the way towards the common practice harmony that would be established fully in the Baroque period.

Richer textures started to emerge, with composers utilising four or more independent parts. Increasingly they would try to make these parts blend together, with imitation a key device that was used to help achieve this.

The late-Renaissance era work of composers like Gregorio Allegri and Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, written for large choral groups, is grand and intricate.

Palestrina – Kyrie, Missa Papae Marcelli

Notation and Theory

Musical scores were not yet in common usage, so Renaissance pieces were only notated in individual parts.

Barlines were not yet commonplace, and note values were generally much longer than we would see today.

Semibreves and breves were the primary rhythmic units, rather than crotchets and minims, so a piece of music written during this time would look very different to a modern piece.

Renaissance Composers

Composers from Northern France and the Low Countries, where the courts were particularly supportive of the arts, dominated the beginning of the Renaissance era.

Later on, Italy grew in prominence, producing many notable composers.

Artists from elsewhere also moved to the country, and it was in Italy that many of the Baroque period’s first innovations would begin.

Important Renaissance composers include:

  • Josquin des Prez (1450/55-1521) – a Frenchman who wrote both secular and sacred works
  • Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (1525–1594) – an Italian composer of religious works, and a famous exponent of the Roman School
  • Thomas Tallis (1505 – 1585) – one of England’s greatest composers, best known for his choral works
  • Guillaume Du Fay (1397–1474) – Franco-Flemish composer and music theorist
  • Orlande de Lassus (1530–1594) – Franco-Flemish composer of polyphonic music

Here is a vocal piece by des Prez:

Ave Maria – Josquin des Prez

Instruments of The Renaissance

Many instruments used in the Renaissance era were precursors to modern instruments, with some of them developing into new forms around this time.

Brass instruments included the trumpet, which at this point had no valves and was used extensively in the military, and the sackbut, an early version of the trombone which replaced the slide trumpet.

The viol, or viola da gamba, was a six-stringed instrument that was played with a bow whilst it rested on the floor, similarly to a modern day ‘cello.

The lyre was another member of the string family: similar to a miniature modern-day harp, it was strummed with a plectrum rather than plucked with the fingers.

A lyre

The shawm (a wooden, double-reeded pipe), the transverse flute and the recorder were commonly played woodwind instruments, while popular keyboard instruments included the harpsichord, clavichord and virginal.

Technological developments in instrument making gave ensembles access to larger ranges and increased textural variety, while ensembles also grew in size.

Pieces became more challenging and were now written for specific instruments for the first time.

Conclusion

So, that concludes our look at the Renaissance period.

We’ve learnt about how music moved forward from the Medieval period, developing in complexity and variety, before new technology and a new approach to harmony paved the way for the Baroque period.

We hope that it will prove useful and informative for you, and that it might inspire you to listen to more wonderful sounds by the likes of Palestrina, Byrd and des Prez.

Dan Farrant

Dan Farrant

Dan Farrant, the founder of Hello Music Theory, has been teaching music for over 10 years helping thousands of students unlock the joy of music. He graduated from The Royal Academy of Music in 2012 and then launched Hello Music Theory in 2014. Since then he's been working to make music theory easy for over 1 million students in over 80 countries around the world.

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