The Music in the Renaissance Instruments, Characteristics, Periods

Before we start talking about music in the Renaissance we should know at the beginning of the 15th century it was dominated by the British music and the ones from the Northern Europe.

The music in the Renaissance was an essential part of the civil and religious life. The rich exchange of ideas in Europe, like the political, economic and religious events in the period from the 1400 to 1600 in base of some characteristics of the baroque, gave place to important changes in the composition styles, the methods for spreading music, the new musical genres, and the developed of instruments. The primary music of the first Renaissance was composed for being used by the church. It was a polyphony (a composition of multiple simultaneous harmonies), used for masses and motets in Latin, and it was indispensable for the churches and chapels of the court. Nevertheless, up to the ends of the 16th century, the sponsoring divided itself into a lot of areas: the Catholic Church, the protestant churches and tribunals. The passionate monarchy were the main source of income for the musicians.

renaissance musical instruments

Renaissance era instruments more used

Court of Burgundy

It was uniquely influential and it attracted a lot of musicians from all Europe. The most notorious of them all was Guillayme Du Fay (1397-1474), whose musical offer was varied and it included motets and masses for the services of the church and the chapel, plenty of which big musical structures was based on the existing Gregorian singing. Its amount of little modifications from the French poetry showed a melodic tenderness; sweet and ignored until its season. With his domain of the musical method in great scale, as well as his attention to the irreverent texts and surroundings, Du Fay prepared the scenery for the next generations of the renaissance musicians.

By the time of 1500, the European lyric music was subdued by the French and Spanish musicians, the most important one was Josquin Desprez (1450-1521). The same way that plenty signaled musicians on their season, Josquin traveled a lot around all Europe, working for clients of the service in Aix-en-Provence, to Paris, Milan, Rome, Ferrase and Condé-sur-L’Escaut. The exchange of musical ideas between France, the Netherlands and Italy gave place to what could be considered an international European style.

The polyphony or the multivoiced music with its fluid horizontal counterpoint style was being developed with difficulty. At the same time, the harmony based in a vertical predisposition of intervals, including thirds and sixths, was explored by its tenderness and aptitude, towards the end of it to accompany the vocal line. Josquin’s music resumed this tendencies, with the northern style making a complex polyphony, using canons, preexisting harmonies, and other composition structures without inconvenient mixed itself with the Italian inclination for establishing with geniality the words along with the harmonies that highlighted the poetry instead of hiding it with the complexity of it all. Josquin, just like Du Fay, mostly composed masses and Latin motets, in a never-ending plurality of styles. His irreverent production included adjusts of the courtesan French poetry, like D u Fay, but it also included arrangements of popular French songs, instrumental music, and Italian frottole.

With the start of the 16th century, there were a series of transcendental changes for the European music in the Renaissance, all made in 1501, the Venetian editor, Ottaviano Petrucci, published the first essential compilation of the polyphonic music, the Harmonice Musices Odhecaton A. His success over passed itself up to the music.

the was the most popular instrument in the renaissance home

Characteristics of renaissance music polyphonic technique

The editing of the instrumental music in the Renaissance

In France, Germany, England, and other countries, even before 1501, all the music should be copied by hand or well learned by ear. The music books were exclusive property of the religious establishments and the extremely wealthy courts and homes. After Petrucci, while this books were not cheap at all, it became possible for a considerably big number of people who had to learn to read music to acquire them.

Practically at the same time, the technology of the instruments conduct to the development of the viola da gamba, one with frets that was destined to be a string instrument. Passionate European musicians also advanced the flute, the lute, the recorder, the clave, the baroque organ, and other instruments.

The viola de gamba and the recorder worked well together in consorts o groups, and for making things easier for everyone, they were made in different sizes for playing the different lines. Petrucci’s and others’ publications provided this for the first time with the written music (in counterpoise to the improvised music that was performed by the professional musicians). The 16th century was witness of the progress of the instrumental music in the Renaissance like the canzona, ricercare, fantasia, as well as the alterations and compositions for the dance inspired in the counterpoint designed for the soloists and groups for equal as a really different and independent genre with its fashions separated by vocal forms and companioned dance.

The instruments presented in Duke Federico da Montefeltro de Urbino’s (1479-1482) studio signify his personal interest in the music and the part this one takes in the intellectual life of a well-mannered Renaissance man. The instruments were disposed next to multiple scientific artifacts, books, guns and many other that includes a portable organ, lutes, violins, cornetti, hunting horns, flutes, drums, a harp ring, clink, and more.

Since 1520 until ends of the 16th century, the musicians from around all Europe used the polyphonic language from Josquin’s generation in the investigation of the musical expression through the French and British song, Italian madrigal, German tenorlieder, Spain carol, as well as the sacred music.

The Reform and Counter Reformation affect in a direct way the sacred polyphony of this countries. The protestant revolutions (especially in the whole north of Europe) changed in their attitudes towards the sacred music. Said changes in the art included the introduction of hymns partially simplistic in German language (or choral) sung by the congregation of the Lutheran services. Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (1525/26-1594), chapel’s professor in the Cappella Giulia next to Saint Pete, in the city of Rome, is considered by many as the most iconic musician of the Counter Reformation of the sacred music from the high Renaissance. He counts with clear lines, plurality of textures, and a musically expressive reverence in his sacred texts. The British, catholic musician William Byrd (1540-1623) was above the two worlds, composing work and sending messages in Latin language to the Catholic Church.

The music in the Renaissance and the humanists of the 16th century studied

There were old Helenian pacts about the music that discuss the close relationship between music and poetry and in how way the music could touch the listeners’ feelings. Inspired by the traditional planet, Renaissance musicians used words of adjust for making the music bit by bit a little more tragic, like it is seen in the development of the Italian madrigal and later in the operas by Claudio Monteverdi (1577-1643). The adaptation of the Renaissance of a musician singing and accompanying himself with a string instrument, the most prominent of this new adaptations was exposed in an alteration of Orpheus’ theme, which appears in the Renaissance artworks of Caravaggio, as well as in Tizano’s “Venus and the lute player”.

Characteristics of the music in the Renaissance

The music in the Renaissance is similar to the feudal music, this is because they were produced a series of different changes, of which we can highlight the next characteristics of the Renaissance music:

Development of the polyphonic technique

 The polyphony reached high complexity in music in the Renaissance with the generalized used of the linguistic groups, with different postures and timbers. During this period, we can talk about the 4 voices that live even nowadays: bass, soprano, high and tenor.

Polyphonic-wise, there are 2 composing techniques that distinguish one another: one homophonic (where the voice move in a homogeneous way) and the other one counterpointing (where the voices move independently).

the renaissance music characteristics

The music of the renaissance period unique and different

Replacing the irregular rhythm

Due to the great complexity of the polyphony, one of the characteristics of the music in the Renaissance is the classification systems, which must be settled in metric terms, this allows to discard the free Gregorian rhythm, for marking the firm metrics of music in which the times of the duration of sounds are absolute.

The changes in the harmony

Composers start to present their works in the voice of thirds from different incorporated intervals, which weren’t used in the Feudal Era. This use of the third were the correct background for our current sonic system.

The music in the periods of the Renaissance

The period of the Renaissance corresponds to the 15th and 16th centuries, inside this we can highlight 3 important phases:

First Renaissance

It starts in the first half of the 15th century. It’s also named as the French-Spanish period thanks to the dukes of Burgundy who acted as tutors for a great group of characters who later turned into the most important artists of that time. Between the most prominent composers we can name Du Fay and Ockeghem. Later, most part of the music of this great authors was religious (motets and masses). During this first period of the Renaissance the composing technique called imitative counterpoint became very popular, and it consisted in trying to cast a theme or motive repetitively between the different voices.

High Renaissance

It corresponds to the second half of the 15th century, and the first half of the 16th century. French-Spanish musicians spread around all Europe, each country welcomed the new music and adapted to each style of composition. Due to this, there were created the called national styles. In Italy, the most captivating genre was the madrigal, in France the most popular development was centered in the chanson and in Germany the lied was officially the most popular one.

Low Renaissance

It matches to the second half of the 16th century. Italy was the most important country for the music in the Renaissance, the most interesting innovations can be labelled into the irreverent music. Nevertheless, the two most notable personalities of this time were Giovanni Pierluigi de Palestrina and Thomas Louis de Victoria. The most important genres were the masses and motets. We should also mention the Italian Claudio Monte Madrigal (he wrote 8 pacts) and he’s crucial for the birth of the Orpheus’ opera in 1607.

the music in the renaissance period

The music of the renaissance style medieval

Instruments of the musical Renaissance

Plenty of instruments were originated since the beginning of the Renaissance, others were changed or improved from instruments that existed in the past. Some has lived until our days, others have disappeared or have been recreated for making music from the era in the public scenarios. Just like in the modern times, the instruments of the musical Renaissance can be classified as brass, string, drums and wood wind.


Wind instruments

Hornpipe: Formed with a wooden tube and a double tongue (very similar to the oboes but in a bigger size). The tubes were also most commonly made of wood and plenty of them had decorations and figures. It was the most popular double tongue instruments of the Renaissance period.

Sweet flute or peak flute: Currently, it’s commonly used with educational ends. It was one of the most popular instruments of the Renaissance.

Cromorno: This instrument is made of wood, it has a double tongue that ends in the shape of a U (like the dulzaina)

Bagpipes: It’s believed that this was invented by the shepherds that thought about using a bag made of sheep’s or goat’s skin and it would give air pressure in a way that when its player takes a breathing, he only had to squeeze the bag hidden under his arm for continuing the tine. The mouth’s tube has a simple piece made of leather which circled around the extreme of the bag of the tuber and acts as a retention valve. The stick is located inside the large metal nozzle, known as vocal.

Recorder: The recorder is a common instrument that it’s still used nowadays, it’s frequently taught to the kids in the primary schools. Instead of a stick which uses a piece as a whistle, it uses a piece in form of a peak, because it is its primary source of sound. It’s usually made with seven holes for the fingers and one for the thumb.


Tambourine: It was originally a framed drum without the jingles glued to the sides. This instruments was quickly developed and took the name of tambourine during the feudal crusades, when it acquired the jingles. It can be usually find with only a cape of leather. It was made for the dancers to play it and for it to be easier for them to do so.

Jew’s harp: A forbidden instrument due to its silver built, and because of the great demand of silver during the 19th century in Austria, this was another reason for its illegalization. An instrument made of steel that produces sound using the forms of the mouth and from trying to pronoun the different vocals with the lips.


Trumpet slide: Similar to today’s trombone, except that instead of a section of the body sliding, just a tiny part of the body near to the nozzle and the very nozzle remain settled.

Cornet: Made of wood and it performed with the recorder, but it was blown like a trumpet. It is commonly made of various sizes, the biggest one called “the serpent”. The serpent became in practically the only cornet used in the beginnings of the 17th century while other ranges were replaced by the violin. It’s said that this is the Renaissance instrument closer to the human voice with the capacity of using the expression and dynamic.

Trumpet: The first ones didn’t have a valve and they were limited to the present tones in the series of harmonics. They were also made in different sizes. Even though they are commonly shown being used by angels, their use in church was very limited, with one noticeable exception being the music of the Venetian school.


Violin: This instrument, advanced in the 15th century, commonly had 6 strings. It was regularly played with a bow. It has similar structural qualities to the Spanish guitar, their main difference being the guitars bigger size.

Lute: It can be referred generally to any string instrument that has strings which are played in a parallel plane to the sound table, more specifically to any instrument of pulsed string with a neck (either it be with frets or without them). Or, more specifically, an instrument descending from the family of the European lutes.

renaissance music instruments

Lute instruments of the renaissance

Lira: Its built is very similar to a small harp, but it was played with a plectrum. Its strings varied depending of the season from 4, to 7, to 10. It was played with the right hand, while the left hand silenced the undesired notes. The new liras were modified for being played with a bow.

Wheel violin or Zanfona: In which the chains sounded due to a wheel on which the past above. Its functionality can be compared to the one of a mechanic violin, in which its bow (the wheel) is circled by a crank.

Irish harp or Clairseach: During the Feudal Era it was the most popular instrument of Ireland and Scotland. Due to its importance in the history of Ireland it is even in the Guinness etiquette, and it is even the national symbol of Ireland nowadays.


As you can see, the music in the Renaissance is an important part of the history since it has been a great era when there had been invented new instruments and discovering new sounds that have given plenty of benefits to the music, that’s why this period is so important.