Music History: Renaissance Music

Following the Medieval Era’s end around 1400, the Renaissance Era lasted for about two centuries. Historians tend to disagree on when exactly Renaissance music became standard, but it wasn’t until many decades after Renaissance art and literature started that music began to change. Like the visual and literary arts, Renaissance music reflected characteristics of human development including humanism (a philosophical and ethical belief that values human agency and the ability to improve through reason and logic; the exploration of new ideas), the recovery of Ancient Greek and Roman art and literature, increased innovation, economic growth, and the Protestant Reformation.

*Side note: there is so much to cover about the Renaissance that I won’t be able to talk about it all in this post. Expect future posts on important composers and works in depth.

Renaissance Music

The overall musical style of this era has its roots in Medieval music: polyphony (music with multiple, independent melodic lines). However, like throughout all of history, technology changes resulted in new musical ideas. In 1440 came the printing press. This revolutionized the public distribution of music, as it allowed for more music to be printed and shared at a lower cost. Because more people had access to printed music, polyphony developed into a complex form of music known as counterpoint (a set of established rules for setting multiple melodies against each other; basically an established technique for writing polyphony) as composers wanted to smooth out the sound between all of the voices.

In the Renaissance Era, music began to shift away from the melodic/rhythmic/harmonic constraints of Medieval music. It became a form of personal expression. Secular and sacred music exchanged compositional techniques, and many of the instruments we know today saw their beginnings in the Renaissance. And one of the most important musical developments was the increased usage of functional tonality: harmonies we use today, such as the major and minor keys. Music slowly changed from plainsong to three-part major or minor harmony. Because of the increasing dependence on third intervals and fuller harmonies, diatonic chord movement started developing (diatonic chords are triads – three-note chords – built specifically in each key signature).

Sacred Music

Renaissance masses grew out of Gregorian chant. Josquin des Prez, one of the most influential Renaissance composers, was known (and is still known) for his masses. Read more about him here, and listen to an example of his music below. Take note of the major and minor harmonies (through the use of the third interval) as compared to Gregorian chant. 

The motet is a choral composition based on Latin text that began in Medieval times. Unlike the mass, the motet is a short, sacred work that could be used in any church service. Renaissance motets had singable melodies, the harmonies were smooth and predictable, and imitation – one voice imitating another – was key. Listen to Ave Maria, a motet by our friend Josquin des Prez:

Another famous Renaissance sacred music composer was Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina. He composed over 500 sacred works during his life, and was influential in the development of counterpoint. Read more about him here. The video below is a compilation of five-voice motets composed by Palestrina. 

Secular Music

Now let’s talk about the madrigal. A madrigal is an unaccompanied partsong (a song with multiple voice parts, such as SATB or any combination of voice parts) set to poetry, usually about love. Composers took the words very seriously, and aimed to create music that described what the words were saying. This is known as word painting, and it sometimes resulted in dissonance instead of harmony (which is one of the key differences – besides lyric topic – between the madrigal and the motet). The following is an example of a madrigal composed by Thomas Weelkes, an English composer who lived during the end of the Renaissance. 

And check out this madrigal by Carlo Gesualdo, an Italian composer who had a hard life (read more here); the dissonance in the music surely demonstrates that. His compositions are known for their chromaticism, which is seen as ahead of his time. 

Instrumental music also grew and developed. The upper class and aristocracy favored the consort, a Renaissance term meaning an instrumental ensemble, and many genres of dance music were popularized (such as the pavane, allemande and bassadance to name a few; read more here). At this point in time, vocal music was still considered more important than instrumental. However, the growth of the consort and the increasing ability for instruments to play difficult music allowed for more instrumental compositions (this is especially important leading into the Baroque Era, the musical time following the Renaissance). Listen to this example of a Renaissance consort recreated with period instruments (musical instruments made in the same way that they were made in the past so the music will sound authentic):

This video is an example of a galliard (a lively, complicated, couples dance) played on a lute. Read more about the composer, Anthony Holborne, here

Virginal made by Hans Ruckers, 1583

One newly popular musical instrument was the virginal, a keyboard instrument similar to the harpsichord. As composing instrumental music became more favored, keyboard music and virginal playing increased.The toccata and prelude were two popular keyboard genres created in the Renaissance. A toccata is a virtuosic piece meant to show off the skill of the performer. The prelude has its roots in Renaissance organ playing as a sort of preface introducing the music that is to come.

The following video is an example of the keyboard music of the time. William Byrd was an English composer who lived during the transition from Renaissance to Baroque; read more about him here.

As instrumental music became more popular and tonal harmonies became the standard, music was never the same. All of these factors helped usher in the Baroque Era, and they are still characteristics we see in music today.

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