top of page
  • Chris Anderson

Music Revision - Music Periods - Renaissance

The previous blog covered the medieval period. Now we look at the renaissance period.

It’s A Date

From a musical perspective the renaissance period covers the 15th and 16th centuries.

The period can be subdivided into three main parts however unlike the medieval period which has names and dates, the divisions here are by rough dates. Each period has a composer of note which I’ll discuss a little later on in this blog.

1397 - 1474 is the first period

1420’s/1450’s - 1521 is the second

1520’s - 1594 - is the final period where the transition into the baroque period begins.

Music To My Ears

As with the medieval period liturgical music in the form of masses and motets were used. However, composers started to adopt non-religious music for religious use. Music was also becoming more varied in range, rhythm, harmony, form, and indeed notation.

The music used in masses during this period were monophonic and polyphonic. There were three main types of mass:

Cyclic Mass - A musical setting of the Ordinary of the Roman Catholic Mass. A common theme was shared within the movements (Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, and Agnus Dei).

Paraphrase Mass - A musical setting of the Ordinary of the Mass that is an elaborated version of a pre-existing melody (this is known as a cantus firmus), usually chosen from plainsong or some other sacred source.

Imitation Mass - Also known as a Parody Mass (though rarely), this is a musical setting of the Mass and uses multiple voices of another pre-existing piece of music (motet or secular chanson) as part of its melodic material.

Non-religious (secular) music started to be widely distributed largely thanks to the invention of the printing press in around 1440. Secular music genres included German Lied, French Chanson, and Italian Madrigal. Instrumental music included the toccata, prelude, and canzona. Dances played by instrumental groups included the basse danse (a gliding, slow moving dance), pavane (a slow processional dance), allemande (a duple moderate tempo dance) usually coupled with, a courante (a triple metre dance).

Towards the end of the renaissance period there were early dramatic precursors of opera such as monody (a solo vocal style with instrumental accompaniment), madrigal comedy (groups of madrigal songs telling a story), and the intermedio (an Italian spectacle of song and dance usually performed in-between the acts of a play).

Building On Foundations Laid

While still being extremely simple, renaissance notation was a little more detailed than medieval notation. Only individual parts were notated (scores are extremely rare), and bar lines weren’t used. The primary beat was the semibreve. Musicians would be highly skilled in interpreting what little music there was, so the use of accidentals (sharps, flat, and naturals) would not have been used very much.

Much of the music would have been based on modes. The melodic lines would blend rather than contrast. Harmony was more concerned with the smooth flow of music and the progression of chords.


Renaissance music encouraged the use of larger ensembles and sets of instruments that would blend across the whole vocal range would be required. A lot of the medieval instruments were still in use.


Organ - Large church organs would be used, as would a small reed organ called a regal.

Slide Trumpet - Photo from Wikipedia

Slide Trumpet - Similar to today’s trombone except that the body was S-shaped, and only a small part of the body (near the mouthpiece) would move. It was commonly used in slow dance music.

Three cornetts - Picture from Wikipedia

Cornett - A wooden recorder type instrument but has a cup mouthpiece like a trumpet.

Renaissance Trumpet

Trumpet - The trumpet has actually been around for centuries and they found two in the tomb of Tutankhamun. The renaissance trumpet like its predecessors had no valves (similar to a bugle). They came in different sizes.


Viol - Developed in the 15th century, it had six strings and was usually played with a bow.


Lyre - A small harp strummed with a plectrum. They would have four, seven, and ten strings (depending on the era). The right hand would play the notes, while the left hand would dampen strings not needed/wanted.


Gittern - An early form of guitar.


Mandore - An early form of mandolin.

Jew’s Harp - It is a small frame an produces sounds using shapes of the mouth. Modern Jew’s harps are made from metal. The pictures (from Wikipedia) show an early Jew's harp and a painting of a young man with a Jew's Harp by Dirck van Baburen.


Shawm - A keyless instrument about twelve inches long. It has seven finger holes and a thumb hole. Usually made from wood and often highly decorated with carvings. It was a double reed instrument, an early version of the oboe.


Bagpipe/Bladderpipe - Believed to have been invented by herdsmen who used a bag made of goat or sheep skin. Similar to the bagpipes we know today the bag gets inflated and the bag gets squeezed to make the note sound. The different notes would be made by covering and opening holes on the pipe.


As mentioned above there were three composers who are usually used to show the different periods of renaissance.

Guillaume Du Fay (1397 - 1474) - Franco-Flemish composer - Early Renaissance

He composed masses, motets, hymns, rondeaux, ballades. Many of his compositions were simple settings of chants.

Josquin des Prez (1450/1455 - 1521) - Franco-Flemish composer - Middle Renaissance

He is regarded as the greatest composer of the age. He had a mastery of technique and expression.

Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (c.152 - 1594) - Italian composer - Late Renaissance

Primarily known for masses (105+) and motets (250+), madrigals (140+), hymns (70+), and magnificat (35+).

8 views0 comments


bottom of page