Renaissance music became much different from the music of the Middle Ages. Melodies and harmonies changed. New forms of music developed because more music was being used for entertainment. Music also became a leisure activity for the upper classes. The invention of the printing press in 1439 helped to spread copies of music and music theory texts. This allowed more people to participate in music.
Changes in Renaissance Music
During the time of the Renaissance music changed in several ways. Composers used more variety in the range of the melodies, in the rhythm patterns, and in the harmonies. The use of 3rds and 6ths became much more popular. Also, the texture of the music was much richer – there were more independent melodic parts. Composers got better at blending all these melodies together. The writers of the music were more concerned about having the music flow freely and having pleasing chord progressions.
Sacred music was still in great demand. Composers continued to write masses and sacred choral music, but they added some new forms, like motets and chorales (hymns sung by the congregation). Secular music changed as well. It increased in popularity, and that required new forms of music. Composers were writing madrigals and chansons for vocalists, but there was a greater demand for instrumental music as well. So, composers developed the toccata and the prelude – new forms for instrumentalists to play. Operas became more and more popular as well.
Remember, during the Middle Ages, musicians figured out how to write music on paper to make it easier to teach the music to others. More changes in notation happened during the Renaissance. Composers were not using bar lines to divide the music into measures. The note values in use were longer – instead of using a quarter note to define one beat the composers used whole notes. Also, when they wrote out parts for instruments or singers, they did not write a complete score (a copy of all the parts together). They just wrote the individual parts. So, you could not look at one part and see what a different musician was supposed to be playing at the same time. And, composers did not always write the necessary sharps or flats in the music. The musicians just had to adjust, based on the way the music sounded.
Instruments of Renaissance Music
Renaissance music included four key groups of instruments. The brass section included instruments such as the slide trumpet, the cornett, the trumpet without any valves, and the sackbut, a forerunner of the trombone. The string family of the Renaissance period consisted of the viol, the lyre, the Irish harp, and the hurdy-gurdy. The string family also included the forerunners of the guitar and the mandolin, the gittern and the mandore. The woodwind family members were the shawm, the reed pipe, the bagpipes, the panpipe, the hornpipe, the recorders, and the transverse flute. The keyboard instruments of the time included various virginals and early harpsichords and clavichords.
Important Composers of Renaissance Music
Guillame Dufay – also included in the section on Early Music. He was the greatest composer of the 1400’s. He was one of the first to use the more pleasing melodies, harmonies, and phrasing of the early Renaissance.
Josquin des Prez – the greatest composer of the 1500’s. He was a very prolific composer and wrote music in all the different forms available at the time.
Palestrina – He believed that the flow of music was important. He thought that the melody of the music should have very few leaps. He also felt that music should contain limited amounts of dissonance, and that any dissonance should be resolved promptly. Listen to some music of Palestrina: Music of Palestrina
Giovanni Gabrieli – He was famous for using dynamics and for using specific lists of instruments in his works. He even used carefully chosen instruments and singers in more than two groups performing together. Listen to some Gabrieli: Music of Gabrieli
Claudio Monteverdi – He was known for being a key composer in the transition from the Renaissance to the Baroque eras of music. He was also the first great opera composer and was very effective at projecting human emotions in his music. Here you can listen to some Monteverdi: Music of Monteverdi
Carlo Gesualdo – He was the most experimental and expressive composer of the Renaissance. He was also famous for violently killing his wife.
Did you miss our previous look at the Music of the Middle Ages? Check it out here: Music of the Middle Ages
How about our look at Music of the Ancients? You can read that here: Music of the Ancients