Renaissance music

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Musicians, ca 1600

Renaissance music is vocal and instrumental music written and performed in Europe during the Renaissance era. Consensus among music historians – with notable dissent[Like whom?] – has been to start the era around 1400, with the end of the medieval era, and to close it around 1600, with the beginning of the Baroque period, therefore commencing the musical Renaissance about a hundred years after the beginning of the Renaissance as it is understood in other disciplines. As in the other arts, the music of the period was significantly influenced by the developments which define the Early Modern period: the rise of humanistic thought; the recovery of the literary and artistic heritage of Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome; increased innovation and discovery; the growth of commercial enterprises; the rise of a bourgeois class; and the Protestant Reformation. From this changing society emerged a common, unifying musical language, in particular the polyphonic style (this means music with multiple, independent melody lines performed simultaneously) of the Franco-Flemish school, whose greatest master was Josquin des Prez.

The invention of the printing press in 1440 made it cheaper and easier to distribute music and musical theory texts on a wider geographic scale and to more people. Prior to the invention of printing, songs and music that were written down and music theory texts had to be hand-copied, a time-consuming and expensive process. Demand for music as entertainment and as a leisure activity for educated amateurs increased with the emergence of a bourgeois class. Dissemination of chansons, motets, and masses throughout Europe coincided with the unification of polyphonic practice into the fluid style which culminated in the second half of the sixteenth century in the work of composers such as Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, Orlande de Lassus, Thomas Tallis and William Byrd. Relative political stability and prosperity in the Low Countries, along with a flourishing system of music education in the area's many churches and cathedrals allowed the training of large numbers of singers, instrumentalists and composers, these musicians were highly sought throughout Europe, particularly in Italy, where churches and aristocratic courts hired them as composers, performers, and teachers. Since the printing press made it easier to disseminate printed music, by the end of the 16th century, Italy had absorbed the northern musical influences with Venice, Rome, and other cities becoming centers of musical activity, this reversed the situation from a hundred years earlier. Opera, a dramatic staged genre in which singers are accompanied by instruments, arose at this time in Florence. Opera was developed as a deliberate attempt to resurrect the music of ancient Greece (OED 2005).

Music was increasingly freed from medieval constraints, and more variety was permitted in range, rhythm, harmony, form, and notation; in the Renaissance, music became a vehicle for personal expression. Composers found ways to make vocal music more expressive of the texts they were setting. Secular music (non-religious music) absorbed techniques from sacred music, and vice versa. Popular secular forms such as the chanson and madrigal spread throughout Europe. Courts employed virtuoso performers, both singers and instrumentalists. Music also became more self-sufficient with its availability in printed form, existing for its own sake. Precursor versions of many familiar modern instruments (including the violin, guitar, lute and keyboard instruments) developed into new forms during the Renaissance. These instruments were modified to responding to the evolution of musical ideas, and they presented new possibilities for composers and musicians to explore. Early forms of modern woodwind and brass instruments like the bassoon and trombone also appeared; extending the range of sonic color and increasing the sound of instrumental ensembles. During the 15th century, the sound of full triads (three note chords) became common, and towards the end of the 16th century the system of church modes began to break down entirely, giving way to the functional tonality (the system in which songs and pieces are based around musical "keys"), which would dominate Western art music for the next three centuries.

From the Renaissance era, notated secular and sacred music survives in quantity, including vocal and instrumental works and mixed vocal/instrumental works. An enormous diversity of musical styles and genres flourished during the Renaissance, these can be heard on recordings made in the 20th and 21st century, including masses, motets, madrigals, chansons, accompanied songs, instrumental dances, and many others. Beginning in the late 20th century, numerous early music ensembles were formed. Early music ensembles specializing in music of the Renaissance era give concert tours and make recordings, using modern reproductions of historical instruments and using singing and performing styles which musicologists believe were used during the era.


One of the most pronounced features of early Renaissance European art music was the increasing reliance on the interval of the third (in the Middle Ages, thirds had been considered dissonances, and mostly perfect intervals were used, such as the perfect fourth and the perfect fifth). Polyphony – the use of multiple, independent melodic lines, performed simultaneously – became increasingly elaborate throughout the 14th century, with highly independent voices (both in vocal music and in instrumental music). The beginning of the 15th century showed simplification, with the composers often striving for smoothness in the melodic parts, 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 to distinguish the different parts. The modal (as opposed to tonal, also known as "musical key", an approach developed in the subsequent Baroque music era, ca. 1600–1750) characteristics of Renaissance music began to break down towards the end of the period with the increased use of root motions of fifths or fourths (see the "circle of fifths" for details). An example of a chord progression in which the chord roots move by the interval of a fourth would be the chord progression, in the key of C Major: "D minor/G Major/C Major" (these are all triads; three-note chords). The movement from the D minor chord to the G Major chord is an interval of a perfect fourth, the movement from the G Major chord to the C Major chord is also an interval of a perfect fourth. This later developed into one of the defining characteristics of tonality during the Baroque era.

The main characteristics of Renaissance music are (Fuller 2010):

  • Music based on modes.
  • Richer texture, with four or more independent melodic parts being performed simultaneously. These interweaving melodic lines, a style called polyphony, is one of the defining features of Renaissance music.
  • Blending, rather than contrasting, melodic lines in the musical texture.
  • Harmony that placed a greater concern on the smooth flow of the music and its progression of chords.

The development of polyphony produced the notable changes in musical instruments that mark the Renaissance from the Middle Ages musically, its use encouraged the use of larger ensembles and demanded sets of instruments that would blend together across the whole vocal range (Montagu n.d.).


Principal liturgical (church-based) musical forms which remained in use throughout the Renaissance period were masses and motets, with some other developments towards the end of the era, especially as composers of sacred music began to adopt secular (non-religious) musical forms (such as the madrigal) for religious use. The 15th and 16th century masses had two kinds of sources that were used, monophonic (a single melody line) and polyphonic (multiple, independent melodic lines), with two main forms of elaboration, based on cantus firmus practice or, beginning some time around 1500, the new style of "pervasive imitation", in which composers would write music in which the different voices or parts would imitate the melodic and/or rhythmic motifs performed by other voices or parts. Four main types of masses were used:

Masses were normally titled by the source from which they borrowed. Cantus firmus mass uses the same monophonic melody, usually drawn from chant and usually in the tenor and most often in longer note values than the other voices (Burkholder n.d.). Other sacred genres were the madrigale spirituale and the laude.

During the period, secular (non-religious) 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 was music that was independent of churches, the main types were the German Lied, Italian frottola, the French chanson, the Italian madrigal, and the Spanish villancico (Fuller 2010). Other secular vocal genres included the caccia, rondeau, virelai, bergerette, ballade, musique mesurée, canzonetta, villanella, 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 recorders or viols and other instruments, and dances for various ensembles. Common instrumental genres were the toccata, prelude, ricercar, and canzona. Dances played by Instrumental ensembles included the basse danse (It. bassadanza), tourdion, saltarello, pavane, galliard, allemande, courante, bransle, canarie, and lavolta. Music of many genres could be arranged for a solo instrument such as the lute, vihuela, harp, or keyboard, such arrangements were called intabulations (It. intavolatura, Ger. Intabulierung). 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[edit]

Ockeghem, Kyrie "Au travail suis," excerpt, showing white mensural notation.

According to Margaret Bent: "Renaissance notation is under-prescriptive by our [modern] standards; when translated into modern form it acquires a prescriptive weight that overspecifies and distorts its original openness" (Bent 2000, p. 25). 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 (e.g., added sharps, flats and natural that change the notes) were not always specified, somewhat as in certain fingering notations for guitar-family instruments (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 correctly, even if the accidentals were not written in, as such, "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 parallel fifths or alter their cadential parts in light of decisions by other musicians (Bent 2000, p. 25). It is through contemporary tablatures for various plucked instruments that we have gained much information about which 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 – timeline[edit]

Orlando Gibbons Michael Praetorius John Cooper (composer) Thomas Campion John Dowland Carlo Gesualdo Philippe Rogier Giovanni Gabrieli Luca Marenzio Giovanni de Macque Tomás Luis de Victoria Luzzasco Luzzaschi William Byrd Giaches de Wert Andrea Gabrieli Orlande de Lassus Claude Le Jeune Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina Cipriano de Rore Jacob Clemens non Papa Claude Goudimel Pierre de Manchicourt Hans Newsidler Thomas Tallis Christopher Tye Cristóbal de Morales Constanzo Festa John Taverner Adrian Willaert Thomas Crecquillon Nicolas Gombert Clément Janequin Philippe Verdelot Antoine Brumel Antonius Divitis Antoine de Févin Martin Agricola Pierre de La Rue Jean Mouton Heinrich Isaac Josquin des Prez Jacob Obrecht Alexander Agricola Loyset Compère Antoine Busnois Walter Frye Johannes Ockeghem Guillaume Dufay Gilles Binchois John Dunstable Leonel Power Oswald von Wolkenstein

Early period (1400–1470)[edit]

The key composers from the early Renaissance era also wrote in a late Medieval style, and as such, they are transitional figures. Leonel Power (ca. 1370s or 1380s – 1445) was an English composer of the late Medieval and early Renaissance music eras. Along with John Dunstaple, he was one of the major figures in English music in the early 15th century (Stolba 1990, p. 140; Emmerson and Clayton-Emmerson 2006, 544). Power is the composer best represented in the Old Hall Manuscript, one of the only undamaged sources of English music from the early 15th century. Power was one of the first composers to set separate movements of the Ordinary of the Mass which were thematically unified and intended for contiguous performance, the Old Hall Manuscript contains his mass based on the Marian antiphon, Alma Redemptoris Mater, in which the antiphon is stated literally in the tenor voice in each movement, without melodic ornaments. This is the only cyclic setting of the mass Ordinary which can be attributed to him (Bent n.d.). He wrote Mass cycles, fragments, and single movements and a variety of other sacred works.

John Dunstaple (or Dunstable) (ca. 1390 – 1453) was an English composer of polyphonic music of the late medieval era and early Renaissance periods. He was one of the most famous composers active in the early 15th century, a near-contemporary of Power, and was widely influential, not only in England but on the continent, especially in the developing style of the Burgundian School. Dunstaple's influence on the continent's musical vocabulary was enormous, particularly considering the relative paucity of his (attributable) works, he was recognized for possessing something never heard before in music of the Burgundian School: la contenance angloise ("the English countenance"), a term used by the poet Martin le Franc in his Le Champion des Dames. Le Franc added that the style influenced Dufay and Binchois — high praise indeed. Writing a few decades later in about 1476, the Flemish composer and music theorist Tinctoris reaffirmed the powerful influence Dunstaple had, stressing the "new art" that Dunstaple had inspired. Tinctoris hailed Dunstaple as the fons et origo of the style, its "wellspring and origin."

The contenance angloise, while not defined by Martin le Franc, was probably a reference to Dunstaple's stylistic trait of using full triadic harmony (three note chords), along with a liking for the interval of the third. Assuming that he had been on the continent with the Duke of Bedford, Dunstaple would have been introduced to French fauxbourdon; borrowing some of the sonorities, he created elegant harmonies in his own music using thirds and sixths (an example of a third interval is the notes C and E; an example of a sixth interval is the notes C and A). Taken together, these are seen as defining characteristics of early Renaissance music. Many of these traits may have originated in England, taking root in the Burgundian School around the middle of the century.

Because numerous copies of Dunstaple's works have been found in Italian and German manuscripts, his fame across Europe must have been widespread. Of the works attributed to him only about fifty survive, among which are two complete masses, three connected mass sections, fourteen individual mass sections, twelve complete isorhythmic motets and seven settings of Marian antiphons, such as Alma redemptoris Mater and Salve Regina, Mater misericordiae. Dunstaple was one of the first to compose masses using a single melody as cantus firmus. A good example of this technique is his Missa Rex seculorum. He is believed to have written secular (non-religious) music, but no songs in the vernacular can be attributed to him with any degree of certainty.

Oswald von Wolkenstein (ca. 1376-1445) is one of the most important composers of the early German Renaissance. He is best known for his well-written melodies, and for his use of three themes: travel, God and sex.

Gilles Binchois (ca. 1400–1460) was a Netherlandish composer, one of the earliest members of the Burgundian school and one of the three most famous composers of the early 15th century. While often ranked behind his contemporaries Guillaume Dufay and John Dunstaple by contemporary scholars, his works were still cited, borrowed and used as source material after his death. Binchois is considered[by whom?] to be a fine melodist, writing carefully shaped lines which are easy to sing and memorable. His tunes appeared in copies decades after his death, and were often used as sources for Mass composition by later composers. Most of his music, even his sacred music, is simple and clear in outline, sometimes even ascetic (monk-like). A greater contrast between Binchois and the extreme complexity of the ars subtilior of the prior (fourteenth) century would be hard to imagine. Most of his secular songs are rondeaux, which became the most common song form during the century, he rarely wrote in strophic form, and his melodies are generally independent of the rhyme scheme of the verses they are set to. Binchois wrote music for the court, secular songs of love and chivalry that met the expectations and satisfied the taste of the Dukes of Burgundy who employed him, and evidently loved his music accordingly. About half of his extant secular music is found in the Oxford Bodleian Library.

Guillaume Du Fay (ca. 1397 – 1474) was a Franco-Flemish composer of the early Renaissance. The central figure in the Burgundian School, he was regarded by his contemporaries as the leading composer in Europe in the mid-15th century (Planchart n.d.) Du Fay composed in most of the common forms of the day, including masses, motets, Magnificats, hymns, simple chant settings in fauxbourdon, and antiphons within the area of sacred music, and rondeaux, ballades, virelais and a few other chanson types within the realm of secular music. None of his surviving music is specifically instrumental, although instruments were certainly used for some of his secular music, especially for the lower parts; all of his sacred music is vocal. Instruments may have been used to reinforce the voices in actual performance for almost any of his works.[citation needed] Seven complete Masses, 28 individual Mass movements, 15 settings of chant used in Mass propers, three Magnificats, two Benedicamus Domino settings, 15 antiphon settings (six of them Marian antiphons), 27 hymns, 22 motets (13 of these isorhythmic in the more angular, austere 14th-century style which gave way to more melodic, sensuous treble-dominated part-writing with phrases ending in the "under-third" cadence in Du Fay's youth) and 87 chansons definitely by him have survived.[citation needed]

Portion of Du Fay's setting of Ave maris stella, in fauxbourdon. The top line is a paraphrase of the chant; the middle line, designated "fauxbourdon",(not written) follows the top line but exactly a perfect fourth below. The bottom line is often, but not always, a sixth below the top line; it is embellished, and reaches cadences on the octave.About this sound Play 

Many of Du Fay's compositions were simple settings of chant, obviously designed for liturgical use, probably as substitutes for the unadorned chant, and can be seen as chant harmonizations. Often the harmonization used a technique of parallel writing known as fauxbourdon, as in the following example, a setting of the Marian antiphon Ave maris stella. Du Fay may have been the first composer to use the term "fauxbourdon" for this simpler compositional style, prominent in 15th century liturgical music in general and that of the Burgundian school in particular. Most of Du Fay's secular (non-religious) songs follow the formes fixes (rondeau, ballade, and virelai), which dominated secular European music of the 14th and 15th centuries, he also wrote a handful of Italian ballate, almost certainly while he was in Italy. As is the case with his motets, many of the songs were written for specific occasions, and many are datable, thus supplying useful biographical information. Most of his songs are for three voices, using a texture dominated by the highest voice; the other two voices, unsupplied with text, were probably played by instruments.

Du Fay was one of the last composers to make use of late-medieval polyphonic structural techniques such as isorhythm (Munrow 1974), and one of the first to employ the more mellifluous harmonies, phrasing and melodies characteristic of the early Renaissance (Pryer 1983). His compositions within the larger genres (masses, motets and chansons) are mostly similar to each other; his renown is largely due to what was perceived as his perfect control of the forms in which he worked, as well as his gift for memorable and singable melody. During the 15th century he was universally regarded as the greatest composer of his time, an opinion that has largely survived to the present day.

Middle period (1470–1530)[edit]

1611 woodcut of Josquin des Prez, copied from a now-lost oil painting done during his lifetime

In the early 1470s, music started to be printed using a printing press.[citation needed] Music printing had a major effect on how music spread, for not only did a printed piece of music reach a larger geographic region and audience than any hand-written or hand-copied manuscript ever could, it did so far more cheaply as well. Also during the sixteenth century, a tradition of famous makers developed for many instruments, these makers were masters of their craft. An example is the Neuschel family of Nuremberg, for their 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 increased exploration of detail in painting at the time. Ockeghem, particularly, was fond of canon, both contrapuntal and mensural, he composed a mass, Missa prolationum, 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. Palestrina was partially reacting to the strictures of the Council of Trent, which discouraged excessively complex polyphony as it was thought that it inhibited the listener's understanding of the text. Early 16th-century Franco-Fleming composers 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 (a single melody line supported by accompanying chords), to underline important text or points of articulation in a piece. 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. Suspensions, in which a note is held over ("suspended") until it leads to a dissonance with the other voices, which is then resolved, ruled the day (see counterpoint). By the 16th century, the 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 period (1530–1600)[edit]

San Marco in the evening. The spacious, resonant interior was one of the inspirations for the music of the Venetian School.

In Venice, from about 1530 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. While best known as a prolific composer of masses and motets, he was also an important madrigalist, his ability to bring together the functional needs of the Catholic Church with the prevailing musical styles during the Counter-Reformation period gave him his enduring fame (Lockwood, O'Regan, and Owens n.d.)

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.[citation needed]

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.[citation needed]

In addition, writers since 1932 have observed what they call a seconda prattica (an innovative practice involving monodic style and freedom in treatment of dissonance, both justified by the expressive setting of texts) during the late 16th and early 17th centuries (Anon. 2017).


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[edit]

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.


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.

Medieval instruments in Europe had most commonly been used singly, often self accompanied with a drone, or occasionally in parts, from at least as early as the 13th century through the 15th century there was a division of instruments into haut (loud, shrill, outdoor instruments) and bas (quieter, more intimate instruments) (Bowles 1954, 119 et passim). Only two groups of instruments could play freely in both types of ensembles: the cornett and sackbut, and the tabor and tambourine (Burkholder n.d.).

At the beginning of the 16th century, instruments were considered to be less important than voices, they were used for dances and to accompany vocal music (Fuller 2010). Instrumental music remained subordinated to vocal music, and much of its repertory was in varying ways derived from or dependent on vocal models (OED 2005).


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.
  • Trumpet: Early trumpets had no valves, and were limited to the tones present in the overtone series. They were also made in different sizes.
  • Sackbut (sometimes sackbutt or sagbutt): A different name for the trombone (Anon. n.d.), which replaced the slide trumpet by the middle of the 15th century (Besseler 1950, passim).



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.
  • 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 in 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.
  • Gittern and mandore: these instruments were used throughout Europe. Forerunners of modern instruments including the mandolin and guitar.
  • See main article: Cittern.
  • See main article: Lute.
  • See main article: Harpsichord.
  • See main article: Virginal.


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

  • Tambourine: The tambourine is a frame drum. 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 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)[edit]

Woodwind instruments (aerophones) produce sound by means of a vibrating column of air within the pipe. Holes along the pipe allow the player to control the length of the column of air, and hence the pitch. There are several ways of making the air column vibrate, and these ways define the subcategories of woodwind instruments. A player may blow across a mouth hole, as in a flute; into a mouthpiece with a single reed, as in a modern-day clarinet or saxophone; or a double reed, as in an oboe or bassoon. All three of these methods of tone production can be found in Renaissance instruments.

  • 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.
Renaissance recorders
  • 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, 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 during the Renaissance period. Rather than a reed it uses a whistle 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[edit]


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  • Anon. n.d. "What's with the Name?". website (accessed 14 October 2014).
  • Atlas, Allan W. Renaissance Music. New York: W.W. Norton, 1998. ISBN 0-393-97169-4.
  • 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, [second edition], edited by Cristle Collins Judd,[page needed]. Criticism and Analysis of Early Music 1. New York and London: Garland, 2000. 9780815336389 ISBN 9780815323884. Reissued as ebook 2014. ISBN 978-1-135-70462-9.
  • Bent, Margaret. "Power, Leonel". Grove Music Online, edited by Deane Root. S.l.: Oxford Music Online, n.d. (accessed June 23, 2015).
  • Bessaraboff, Nicholas. Ancient European Musical Instruments, first edition. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1941.
  • Besseler, Heinrich. 1950. "Die Entstehung der Posaune". Acta Musicologica, 22, fasc. 1–2 (January–June): 8–35.
  • Bowles, Edmund A. 1954. "Haut and Bas: The Grouping of Musical Instruments in the Middle Ages". Musica Disciplina 8:115–40.
  • Brown, Howard M. Music in the Renaissance. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1976. ISBN 0-13-608497-4.
  • J. Peter Burkholder. "Borrowing." Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online. Retrieved September 30, 2011.
  • Emmerson, Richard Kenneth, and Sandra Clayton-Emmerson. Key Figures in Medieval Europe: An Encyclopedia. [New York?]: Routledge, 2006. ISBN 9780415973854.
  • Fenlon, Iain, ed. (1989). The Renaissance: from the 1470s to the End of the 16th Century. Man & Music. 2. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall. ISBN 978-0-13-773417-7. 
  • Fuller, Richard. 2010. Renaissance Music (1450–1600). GCSE Music Notes, at (14 January, accessed 14 October 2014).
  • 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.
  • Lockwood, Lewis, Noel O’Regan, and Jessie Ann Owens. n.d. "Palestrina, Giovanni Pierluigi da." Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online. Retrieved September 30, 2011.
  • Montagu, Jeremy. "Renaissance instruments". The Oxford Companion to Music, edited by Alison Latham. Oxford Music Online. Retrieved September 30, 2011.
  • Munrow, David. Notes for the recording of Dufay: Misss "Se la face ay pale". Early Music Consort of London. (1974)[full citation needed]
  • Munrow, David. Instruments of the Middle Ages and Renaissance. London: Oxford University Press, 1976.
  • OED. "Renaissance". Oxford English Dictionary (3rd ed.). Oxford University Press. September 2005.  (Subscription or UK public library membership required.).
  • Ongaro, Giulio. Music of the Renaissance. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 2003.
  • Planchart, Alejandro Enrique. "Du Fay, Guillaume". Grove Music Online. (s.l.: Oxford Music Online, n.d.; accessed June 23, 2015).
  • Pryer A. 1983. "Dufay". In The New Oxford Companion to Music, edited by Arnold[full citation needed].
  • Reese, Gustav. Music in the Renaissance. New York: W.W. Norton, 1954. ISBN 0-393-09530-4.
  • Stolba, Marie (1990). The Development of Western Music: A History. Dubuque: W.C. Brown. ISBN 9780697001825. Leonel Power (c. 1375–1445) was one of the two leading composers of English music between 1410 and 1445. The other was John Dunstaple. 
  • Strunk, Oliver. Source Readings in Music History. New York: W.W. Norton, 1950.
  • Orpheon Foundation, Vienna, Austria

External links[edit]

Modern performance