Renaissance Music

The Renaissance Music Period covers the time from c.1400 – 1600.
We are going to look at the key features of Renaissance music, including its composers, the typical instruments used, the sacred and secular forms and how it laid the foundations of change for the musical periods that followed.

The Renaissance

The word “Renaissance” is a French term meaning “rebirth”.
It is used to describe an age of new discoveries and exploration from c.1400-1600.
This period was a time of great political and social upheaval – events such as the Protestant Reformation had a huge impact upon the life in the Western world.
There was also an increase in humanistic thought, which challenged the supremacy of the church.
It was also a time of great development in music and the arts. New styles and techniques developed, whilst there was also a “rebirth” of interest in ancient culture as artists and composers often drew on inspiration from Ancient Greece and Rome.
Renaissance musicians painting

Secular and Sacred Renaissance Music

You will often see the music of the Renaissance period divided into “Sacred” and “Secular”.
Whilst this division has its limitations, it is quite a helpful way of gaining an overview of the period.

Sacred Music

Early Renaissance music was dominated by the Latin Mass due to the supremacy of the Catholic church.
As a result, the sacred music was mostly polyphonic masses and motets in Latin for use in church.
Modal counterpoint was the dominant composition technique (probably due to its close relationship with liturgical plainchant).

Have a listen to these 2 examples of Renaissance sacred music:

Lamentations I by Thomas Tallis

Thomas Tallis imagePlay Thomas Tallis Lamentations I recording
(Performed by The Tudor Consort ( CC BY 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons)

Credo from 4-part mass by William Byrd

William Byrd imagePlay William Byrd Credo recording
(Performed by Ensemble Morales ( CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons)

Although there was a steady movement away from the church as humanistic thought increased, churches remained very important places for training musicians and singers.
As the period went on and the Protestant Reformation gathered pace, music was written for use in Protestant churches – i.e. not in Latin and not determined by the structure of the Catholic Mass.

Secular Music

Secular music in the early Renaissance was very dependent upon the courts, which could finance and support musicians.
Secular songs, such as the chanson, the madrigal and the German Lied (pronounced “Leed”) were very popular.

Have a listen to this madrigal by Monteverdi:

Cruda Amarilli by Monteverdi

Claudio Monteverdi imagePlay Monteverdi cruda amarilli performance
(From the Fifth Book of Madrigals, 1st piece: Cruda Amarilli. Performed by MIT Chamber Chorus, Cutter. CC BY 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons)

As the period progressed, the secular music pushed the boundaries a bit more and laid the foundation for functional harmony (major and minor keys). Composers tried to get increasing emotion into the pieces.
Secular Renaissance music was mostly vocal music, but instrumental music in its own right developed (instead of just being accompaniment for vocals or dance accompaniment). e.g. fantasia and variations.
Popular vocal genres also influenced composers who used simplified basslines which highlighted a smaller number of closely related harmonies. This laid foundation for the more complex chord progressions of the Baroque era.

Have a listen to this piece by Josquin Des Prez called Mille Regretz.
You can see from the lyrics how emotive the subject is and how this depth has been captured in the music:

Mille Regretz by Josquin Des Prez

Original French:
Mille regret de vous abandonner
Et d’eslonger vostre facce amoureuse
Jay si grand dueil et paine douloureuse
Quon me verra brief mes jours definer

English Translation:
A thousand regrets at deserting you,
and leaving behind your loving face,
I feel so much sadness and such painful distress,
that is seems to me my days will soon dwindle away.

Mille Regretz by Josquin Des Prez

(Performed by Collegium Vocale
used under Creative Commons License 3.0)

Renaissance Composers

Early Renaissance composers mostly came from northern France or the Low Countries because of the strong court system, which supported musicians in these regions..
In the late Renaissance, Italy became an increasingly important musical centre.
Here are some of the most well known Renaissance composers:

Early Renaissance Composers:

Guillaume Du Fay (1397-1474) – wrote music for church based on existing Gregorian chant.
John Taverner (1490-1545)
Thomas Tallis (1505-1585) – composed music during the reigns of 4 monarchs!! (Henry VIII, Edward VI, Mary I and Elizabeth I). His masterpiece is Spem in Alium – “Sing and Glorify”, which has 40 separate parts.

Later Renaissance Composers:

Allegri (1582-1652) and Palestrina (1525-1594) – both produced vast choral works.
William Byrd (1543-1623)
Monteverdi (1567-1643) – his operatic works were inspired by the classical world, closely relating poetry and music and using music to stir up emotions.

Renaissance Instruments

The Renaissance was a time of great invention and this had a major impact on music in the form of new instruments.
The main instruments associated with Renaissance music are:

Sackbut (a trombone-like instrument)

sackbut image


lute image

Viol da gamba

viola da gamba image

Keyboard instruments such as harpsichord and organ

Renaissance keyboard image

Typical Features of Renaissance Music

There are a number of typical features to listen out for in Renaissance music:

  • Modes – Renaissance music retained the medieval system of modes
  • Polyphony – different melodic lines played by different instruments/voices at the same time
  • A strong sense of structure and textural integration.
  • Imitative part writing (but moving away from the strict rules of canon).

Renaissance Sheet Music

The invention of the printing press in c.1440 had an enormous impact on the Western musical world (and society in general!). It enabled music to be copied much more easily and so sheet music became more common.
Renaissance notation has some similarities with modern day scores.
Have a look at this example:

An original Renaissance Music Manuscript

Renaissance sheet music image
However, you can see that there were some notable differences in Renaissance sheet music:

  • no barlines,
  • mostly used semibreves,
  • only single lines of polyphony shown on the sheet music (no overall scores combining different parts).

The distribution of sheet music through the use of the printing press meant that pieces could be performed more widely and techniques could be studied.

I hope this has given you a basic overview of the period and some helpful recommended listening.