Forms of Music During the Renaissance Period


The Renaissance began in the late 14th century in Italy and ended shortly after the invasion of Italy by the combined forces of France and the Holy Roman Empire in 1527, by which time it had spread to both of these countries and England, ushering in a period of cultural and artistic renewal. Musically, composers and musicians experimented with new methods that presaged the advances of the Baroque era.

International Music

  • One of the major characteristics of music during the Renaissance was an increasingly international range of influences, as performers and composers traveled across Europe seeking stylistic inspiration in foreign arrangements. For example, Italian church musician Josquin des Prez, whose compositions dominated the latter half of the 15th century, incorporated innovations acquired during his visits to France and the Low Countries, effortlessly weaving elements of French courtly love poetry, Northern polyphony and Italian melody into his 18 masses and almost 100 motets, creating church music that could rival any secular music then being produced.

The Rise of Instrumental Music

  • Although instrumental music had been performed during the High Middle Ages, often the music was improvisational, and composers left no record of it. That composers increasingly wrote down their music for instruments during the 1500s suggests the prominent role that this form of music was beginning to take, though for the moment vocal music still took precedence. Music for instruments unaccompanied by voices emerged out of the dance music of the period but soon gained popularity in settings both sacred and secular. The development of instruments like the viol, harpsichord and recorder around this time facilitated a love for music among the masses, who practiced and played with enthusiasm.

Church and Choral Music

  • During the High Middle Ages, Gregorian chant was the dominant musical style in the Catholic Church, and the organ the dominant instrument. The advent of the Renaissance in Italy saw the emergence of several important musical innovators, such as des Prez, who made intricate use of polyphony, a form of music weaving together of several melodic lines simultaneously. Musically, the High Renaissance reached its apex in Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, whose use of counterpoint influenced the music of Johann Sebastian Bach.

Popular Music

  • During the Italian Renaissance, music became a favorite pastime even among those who were not professional musicians. Artist and biographer Benvenuto Cellini wrote how, during the warm summer months, his friends in Florence would gather in the streets to sing for public entertainment. During the 15th century, hundreds of universities sprung up devoted exclusively to the study of music. In Naples and Venice, so many children living in orphanages, or "conservatori," were given musical instruction that the word became used in English to denote a school of music.

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  • Will Durant: The Story of Civilization, Volume 5: The Renaissance: A History of Civilization in Italy from 1304-1576 AD

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