Musical Renovation of the Renaissance


During the fifteenth, sixteenth, and seventeenth centuries, a great revival of art and culture took place in Western Europe known as the Renaissance (Webster’s 1213).

The Renaissance represents a transitional phase between the Middle Ages and modernity. Its primary attribute was a cultural shift away from religion and towards secularism; its primary effect on music was a shift away from harmonically open, perfect textures–such as those produced by fourths and fifths–towards harmonically fuller, consonant textures–such as those produced by thirds and sixths (Forney and Machlis 97).

Harmonic textures using thirds and sixths remains the norm today, and harmonic textures using fourths and fifths, though still used, are done so sparingly.  

The music appreciation book, The Enjoyment of Music, suggests that the date range for the Renaissance (as it pertained to music) was from 1450 until 1600 (96). A slightly varying date range is given by The Norton/Grove Concise Encyclopedia of Music, which suggests 1430 until 1600 (667).

In any case, the Renaissance may be said to have begun about the mid-fifteenth century and to have lasted until about the early seventeenth century.

The rest of this lecture explains how and why the Renaissance happened, describes the character of Renaissance music, and introduces some prominent Renaissance musicians.

The Birth of Humanism

The rediscovery of ancient Greek and Roman texts was the fuel that fed the Renaissance fire.

Medieval Christians already knew about Aristotle, and they had even fused his teachings with Christian doctrine and produced a philosophy called Scholasticism. But they did not know about many other Greek and Roman writers, such as Cicero, Quintilian and many others, whose intellectual material lay hidden for centuries in ancient manuscripts.

The main idea unearthed in these ancient texts came to be called humanism, which was a system of thought that focused on the human capacity for ethical standards through rational thinking.  

Basically, humanism stipulated that people are capable of discovering truths about the world for themselves without the aid of celestial guidance. Humanism also stipulated that real life is more important than vague notions about the afterlife (Burkholder, Grout, and Palisca 143).


These intellectual developments lead to the spread of secularism and (eventually) to the scientific revolution (Webster’s 694).

Humanism also had its affect on music and its place within academia. Prior to the Renaissance, music was categorized as one of the measuring arts along with math and astronomy.  After this time, however, music was categorized as one of the fine arts along with rhetoric, painting, and sculpture (Taruskin 550).

As one might imagine, this category shift had profound effects on the character of Renaissance music.

The Nature of Renaissance Vocal Music

Renaissance vocal music was marked by smooth polyphony and flowing melodic lines. These characteristics came about slowly during the Renaissance with early music of that period not yet shedding its medieval stylings (Norton/Grove 666).

This is true for any era: it’s not like the musicians were waiting for midnight on January 1st, 1449 to totally revamp their style. Such things as style shifts take time–usually centuries.

During the Renaissance, polyphonic vocal music reached an apex of compositional sophistication. Scarcely any vocal music produced before or since can rival it in scale, scope, and sheer complexity. In fact, it seems that Renaissance composers were devising their vocal configurations for the sole purpose of bewildering other composers and counterpoint masters.

The complexity was born of an increase in the number of voices: Renaissance vocal music expanded the three-voice texture (common during the Middle Ages) to include four, five, and six voice textures (Burkholder, Grout, Palisca 156).

In order to make sense with so many voices, Renaissance composers employed two techniques for combining their melodic lines: imitation and homophony.

Imitation was the practice of borrowing melodic fragments from one voice for use in another voice so as to construct rounds and canons; homophony was the practice of voices moving in lockstep with one another so as to construct block harmonies (Norton/Grove 666).

A combination of these two technique is on display in Guillaume Dufay’s “Kyrie” from his Missa L’homme arme (The Armed Man Mass). In this piece, when the voices are moving one after the other, Dufay is employing imitation, and when the voices are moving alongside one another, Dufay is employing homophony.

Missa L’homme arme (and most sacred Renaissance music) was organized by the use of a cantus firmus. Which is to say, Dufay’s L’homme arme mass employed one melody from which to derive the imitation and homophony of all others.

As it happens, he used a secular melody for this mass. But for many other masses and motets, Dufay used Gregorian chant melodies and other sacred sources. The cantus firmus was almost always used as the tenor voice. Therefore, this part of the music is sometimes called the tenor (Larousse 99).

A mass composed using this strategy is called a cantus firmus mass.

Guillaume Dufay

Dufay (c.1397-1474) was born in Cambrai, France; he obtained a university education, became an ordained member of the clergy, and had a successful international music career (Taruskin 281 and 441).

He is significant to music history because of the quality of his output and because of the fame he achieved during his lifetime.  Less of an innovator than a skilled technician, Dufay worked within the existing forms of the time by composing masses, motets, and rondeaus (Norton/Grove 235).

A sin to music history is the fact that most of Dufay’s later works–the ones composed with his full musical maturity–are lost to posterity (Norton/Grove 235).


Despite this loss, much of his output is intact and available for musicologists to study. There are about eight complete masses, twenty single movement masses, thirty motets, and sixty other works that exist by Dufay (Norton/Grove 235).

In 1474, Dufay grew ill. While on his deathbed, he requested a performance of one of his motets, but he died before arrangements could be made. His tombstone, which possessed a sculpture of his profile, was lost for centuries until it turned up in the mid-nineteenth century covering a nearby well. The headstone is now in a French museum (Guillaume Du Fay para 10).

The Nature of Renaissance Instrumental Music

Instrumental music also expanded during the Renaissance. The main outlet of which was the consort, a small, mixed ensemble consisting of flutes, viols, and cisterns (Norton/Grove 181).

Most instrumental music of the Renaissance was secular and meant to accompany dances (Forney and Machlis 111).

The popularity of these dances and other forms of instrumental music was brought about by the burgeoning publishing industry.

Since publishing made printed music readily available, many amateur musicians played the popular dance styles of the day, which were compositional formats meant for solo instrument or small ensemble that included the pavane, the saltarello, the galliard, and the allemande.

Each kind varied stylistically and originated from a different country. For example, the galliard originated in France, the saltarello in Italy, and the allemande in Germany (Forney and Machlis 113).

These various dance types were usually played by unspecified ensembles often consisting of a ramshackle configuration of shawms, sackbuts, cornettos, flutes, and tabors.  

The galliard, “La dona,” from a collection of dances published in 1551 called Danserye by Tielman Susato (1515-1571) is representative of this sort of music (Burkholder, Grout, and Palisca).

Publishing the Renaissance

Music publishing became ascendant during the Renaissance. The availability of printed manuscripts initiated an increase in the number of amateur musicians (Burkholder, Grout, and Palisca 163).

Printer Ottaviano Petrucci (1466-1539) is the most important early publisher of music. His manuscripts were celebrated for their beautiful and accurate presentation (“Ottaviano Petrucci” para. 7).

Petrucci was the first to publish using the nascent technology of movable type. His manuscripts required three layers of printing: one for the staves, one for the notes, and one for further details. Hisa process was enormously sophisticated, and his products were amazingly clean and thorough.

Petrucci printed many masses and motets as well as many pieces of instrumental music including the very first publication of lute tablature. Tablature is a specialized form of notation inherent to fretted instruments such as the lute, mandolin, and guitar.

Historians suggest that Petrucci’s excellent editions aided the spread of polyphonic music throughout Western Europe during the Renaissance (Norton/ Grove 613).



The Renaissance changed music in three ways: (1) printing brought about economic incentives that resulted in more people producing music; (2) the rediscovery of ancient texts prompted musicians to re-examine old ideas about form and beauty; and (3) imitative counterpoint and homophony became the standard textures of liturgical music (Burkholder, Grout, and Palisca 164).

Works Cited

Burkholder, P.J., Grout, D.J., Palisca, C.V. A History of Western Music. 9th ed. W.W. Norton and Company: New York. 2014. Print.

Forney, K., and Machlis, J. The Enjoyment of Music. W.W. Norton and Company: New York. 2007. Print.

Larrousse / The Larousse Encyclopedia of Music. Edited by Hindley, Geoffrey. The World Publishing Company: New York 1971. Print.

Norton / The Norton/Grove Concise Encyclopedia of Music. Edited by Sadie, Stanley, and Alison Latham W.W. Norton and Company: New York 1994. Print.

Taruskin, R. Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century. New York: Oxford University Press. 2010. Print.

“Guillaume Du Fay.”  Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. Web. 18 Sep. 2016. Web.

Webster’s New World College Dictionary, Fourth Edition. Edited by Michael Agnes. IDG Books Worldwide, Inc. 2000. Print.

“Ottaviano Petrucci.” Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. Web. 1 Nov. 2015. Web.


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