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3.2: Music of the Renaissance

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    Characteristics of the Renaissance Music include: steady beat, balanced phras- es (the same length), polyphony (often imitative), increasing interest in text-music relationships, Petrucci and the printing of music, and a growing merchant class singing/playing music at home. Word painting was utilized by Renaissance composers to represent poetic images musically. For example, an ascending me- lodic line would portray the text “ascension to heaven.” Or a series of rapid notes would represent running.

    Art music in the Renaissance served three basic purposes: (1) worship in both the Catholic and burgeoning Protestant Churches, (2) music for the entertainment and edification of the courts and courtly life, and (3) dance music. Playing musical instruments became a form of leisure and a significant, valued pastime for every educated person. Guests at social functions were expected to contribute to the eve- ning’s festivities through instrumental performance. Much of the secular music in the Renaissance was centered on courtly life. Vocal music ranged from chansons (or songs) about love and courtly intrigue to madrigals about nymphs, fairies, and, well, you name it. Both chansons and madrigals were often set for one or more voices with plucked-string accompaniment, such as by the lute, a gourd-shaped instrument with frets, raised strip on the fingerboard, somewhat similar to the modern guitar.

    A madrigal is a musical piece for several solo voices set to a short poem. They originated in Italy around 1520. Most madrigals were about love. Madrigals were published by the thousands and learned and performed by cultured aristocrats. Similar to the motet, a madrigal combines both homophonic and polyphonic tex- tures. Unlike the motet, the madrigal is secular and utilizes unusual harmonies and word painting more often. Many of the refrains of these madrigals utilized the text “Fa La” to fill the gaps in the melody or to possibly cover risqué or illicit con- notations. Sometimes madrigals are referred to as Renaissance Fa La songs.

    A volume of translated Italian madrigals were published in London during the year of 1588, the year of the defeat of the Spanish Armada. This sudden public interest facilitated a surge of English madrigal writing as well as a spurt of other secular music writing and publication. This music boom lasted for thirty years and was as much a golden age of music as British literature was with Shakespeare and Queen Elizabeth I. The rebirth in both literature and music originated in Italy and migrated to England; the English madrigal became more humorous and lighter in England as compared to Italy.

    Renaissance music was mostly polyphonic in texture. Comprehending a wide range of emotions, Renaissance music nevertheless portrayed all emotions in a bal- anced and moderate fashion. Extreme use of and contrasts in dynamics, rhythm, and tone color do not occur. The rhythms in Renaissance music tend to have a smooth, soft flow instead of a sharp, well-defined pulse of accents.

    Composers enjoyed imitating sounds of nature and sound effects in their com- positions. The Renaissance period became known as the golden age of a cappella choral music because choral music did not require an instrumental accompaniment.

    Instrumental music in the Renaissance remained largely relegated to social purposes such as dancing, but a few notable virtuosos of the time, including the English lutenist and singer John Dowland, composed and performed music for Queen Elizabeth I, among others.

    Dowland was a lutenist in 1598 in the court of Christian IV and later in 1612 in the court of King James I. He is known for composing one of the best songs of the Renaissance period, Flow, my Teares. This imitative piece demonstrates the melancholy humor of the time period. Dowland’s Flow, My Teares may be heard at For more information on Dowland, and lyrics to Flow My Tears, go to flow-my-tears-annotated.

    The instruments utilized during the Renaissance era were quite diverse. Local availability of raw materials for the manufacture of the instrument often deter- mined its assembly and accessibility to the public. A renaissance consort is a group of renaissance instrumentalists playing together. A whole consort is an ensemble performing with instruments from the same family. A broken consort is an ensem- ble comprised of instruments from more than one family.

    Instruments from the Medieval and Renaissance may be found at: www.

    3.4.1 style overview

    Medieval Music

    • Mainly monophony
    • Majority of the music’s rhythm comes from the text
    • Use of perfect intervals such as fourths, fifths, and octaves for cadences
    • Most music comes from the courts or church
    • Music instruction predominantly restricted to the church and patron’s courts

    Renaissance Music

    • Mainly polyphony (much is imitative polyphony/overlapped repetition—please see music score below)

    • Majority of the music’s rhythms is indicated by musical notation

    • Growing use of thirds and triads

    • Music – text relationships increasingly important with the use of word painting

    • Invention of music publishing

    • Growing merchant class increasingly acquires musical skills

    This page titled 3.2: Music of the Renaissance is shared under a CC BY-SA 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Clark, Heflin, Kluball, & Kramer (GALILEO Open Learning Materials) via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.