Renaissance Music

It should be pretty obvious that music written during the Renaissance era falls under the broad category of Renaissance music. Since there is no exact beginning or exact ending of the Renaissance era some music considered as Renaissance music by some will not be considered by others.


The general consensus (see above) is that Renaissance music starts in the early 1400’s and ends sometime around the end of the 1500’s or the beginning of the 1600’s. The popular Baroque music style did not begin until nearly 100 years after the beginning of the Renaissance.

The rise of Humanism during the Renaissance was reflected in many aspects of life during that time and music was one of those affected areas. A lot of factors seem to have influenced the music of the time. Primarily is the Humanism was a big influence. As people learned more about their ancestry and of the heritage of Rome and Greece there was a sort of common bond beginning to be felt in society. Industries were growing rapidly which put more people in societies middle class (also known as the bourgeois class). Religion continued to be a major factor in Renaissance life. The Catholic church during the Renaissance remained influential and the Protestant Reformation was also a factor in peoples lives.

As the middle class grew, people became more interested in music as entertainment. Fortunately the availability of music and musical theory was more prevalent because of the invention of the printing press (Gutenberg). The arguably biggest change was the increased popularity of what is now known as polyphony. With Polyphony the musical groups became larger. With more instruments there was a demand that the instruments blend together and sometimes enhance the listening pleasure of the vocals as well as the individual instruments.

With the invention of the Gutenberg press it was easier to get musical theory as well as things like chansons and motets to more people. A chanson generally refers to a lyric-driven French song. They are usually polyphonic and secular as well. Male chanson singers were referred to as a “chanteur” and a female chanson singer was called a “chanteuse”. When a larger collection of chanson singers got together they were referred to as chansonnier.

The word Motet first came into use in the 14th century and is derived from middle French. A motet is a polyphonic choral composition on a sacred text. In most cases motets are performed without any musical accompaniment.

Polyphonic practices eventually progressed into a fluid style of music and was most popular in the second half of the sixteenth century. Popular composers like Palestrina, Lassus, Victoris and Byrd all used the polyphonic style.

Churches were a popular way to experience the Polyphonic style of music and greatly expanded the new music style. Singers and composers became popular and were highly sought after throughout Europe. With Italy being an extremely popular place for the composers and singers. These new polyphonic composers and singers were hired in particular by churches. The popularity spread and eventually large cities like Venice became centers for the new style of music. A sort of backlash against the polyphonic style was when the popularity of opera began increasing, especially in Florence and is considered an attempt to harken back to and resurrect the music of ancient Greece.

Secular music meshed with religious music and religious music meshed with secular music. Music started to become a way of personal expression. The old ways of writing and singing music gave way to a more expressive way of music with fewer constraints on things like range, form, rhythm and harmony.

Chansons (see definition above) and madrigals began their spread throughout Europe. A madrigal is a secular, non religious music composition. Traditionally madrigals are vocals only with no instrumental accompaniment.

Not only did the music style change but new types of musical instruments were invented too. The violin and guitar were developed during this time. The new sounds of new instruments gave composers more latitude in the music writing. The brass section as we know it today also came into being during this time (bassoon and trombone).

In music, a triad is a set of three notes that can be stacked in thirds. The term “harmonic triad” was coined by Johannes Lippius in his “Synopsis musicae novae” in 1612. (1612). The sound of full triads became more and more common. Religious music lost much of its influence as the music changed. The breakdown of the ‘church music’ gave way to the new musical expression that was popular for the next three hundred years.

Music became more diverse and expressive during the Renaissance. Today you can easily find secular and religious compositions from that era.

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