May 18

The MyMusicTheory Guide to Music; Part 3 – The Renaissance


Renaissance Music 1400-1600AD


Medieval music saw a huge change in music style, from the simple one-line melody of plainchant, to the blending of two or more voices in polyphony. During the 1400s, education and learning became widespread throughout Europe, and the new era of blossoming of ideas in science, medicine and the arts was named the “Renaissance”, which means “rebirth”. But rebirth of what exactly?

The Renaissance started in Italy. The Italians had started trading with the Arab peoples, who happened to have wonderful rich libraries containing the texts written by the ancient Greeks, such as Plato and Aristotle. Until this time, the works of the ancient Greeks had not been seen in Europe, so even though they were already thousands of years old, they contained fascinating new ideas. The “rebirth” is about bringing those ideas back to life, and the interest that they spawned helped to develop many new ideas and to encourage education in general. Many of the oldest universities date back to this era.

In music, composers were becoming much more experimental. Instead of sticking to just fourths, fifths and octaves for harmony, the interval of the third became widely used. Composers also became more inventive with trying out different musical forms, and improvements in musical instrument technology meant that instrumental music started to become much more widespread.

In the 15th century, music was printed on a press for the first time. (Previously it had always been written or copied out by hand). This meant that the spread of ideas could happen a lot more quickly and be spread further afield. So let’s begin to explore some Renaissance music!


In Medieval music, the composer would contrast each vocal line separately, making several independent strands of music. The Renaissance composer, on the other hand, tried to blend each line together, focusing on all parts at the same time. Composers used a technique called “imitation”, whereby each player/singer would play/sing a similar refrain one after the other. Instead of only concentrating on the melodic aspect of music, Renaissance composers took more interest in harmony, or how the individual voices/parts worked together to produce chords.

An early Renaissance composer was Johannes Ockeghem (died 1497), who was born in Belgium and died in France. Listen to his “Kyrie” from Missa Prolationum (a church Mass). Notice how the voices blend together beautifully:

About half way through the Renaissance period we find the composer John Taverner (not to be confused with John Tavener, who is a modern composer!) Here’s part of a Mass written by Taverner; notice how more complicated the vocal parts are compared to Ockeghem’s. Taverner was an influential English composer, who died in 1545.

Finally, perhaps the most important late Renaissance composer was Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina. Palestrina (1525-1594) was an Italian composer who excelled in writing beautiful religious music. Palestrina’s music was still based on the old modal system (rather than today’s major/minor system), and he always wrote the words to his music in Latin. He wrote a total of 105 masses, and his best known work is the “Missa Papae Marcelli”, which took him three to four years to write. One characteristic of Palestrina’s music is that he made sure any dissonant harmonies occured on the weak beat of a bar.


The recorder, flute, trumpet, lyre and tambourine were popular instruments which were still around from Medieval times.

In the string family, a new invention was the viol, a six-stringed instrument played with bow and held between the legs. Viols came in various sizes, as you can see in the picture.

In the wind family, the shawm was popular. The shawm was a double-reed instrument which was a precursor to the oboe.


During the Renaissance period music remained modal, that is, built on modes rather than the major/minor key system we use today. Towards the end of the era, composers began to introduce “accidentals” into their music – extra sharps or flats which broke out of the original fixed mode. This was the beginning of a new era – the beginning of diatonic music, which is the system predominantly in use today. Diatonic music blossomed in the Baroque era, which is our next port of call in our history of “classical” music!





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  1. JIMMY

    One of the images in this blog, namely the one at the bottom of the texture section of it labelled Missa Papae Marcell Sanctus – Palestrina, brings a question into my mind:

    According to standard interpretation, what’s the difference between the 4/2 and 8/4 time signatures??

    For 3/2 and 6/4, the grade 4 section of this site clearly says that 3/2 is ONE-and-TWO-and-THREE-and (just like 3/4 only different in that each note duration is replaced by the note twice as long; e.g. any quarter note in 3/4 becomes a half note in 3/2.) In contrast, 6/4 is ONE-two-three-FOUR-five-six, meaning that stress is on the first and fourth beats. This means 6/4 is like 2 measures of 3/4.

    However, this site has absolutely no info on the difference between 4/2 and 8/4. Look at http://www.mymusictheory.com/grade2/lessons/10-barlines-a-time-signatures.html and see the score under the Difficult Time Signatures section. The text under it is first asking if it is 8/4, then explaining that the correct answer is 4/2. But this is the ONLY reference to the 8/4 time signature on the entire site. There are no other references to 8/4 even in the grade 5 section. Anyone know the general difference between 4/2 and 8/4??

    1. admin

      Hi Jimmy – the site has no direct reference to 8/4 because it’s not a time signature which is in general use and is not on the ABRSM syllabus at all. I don’t personally know of any pieces in 8/4 time, although according to http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_musical_works_in_unusual_time_signatures#8.2F4 there are some in existence. Most time signatures have a basic beat of 2, 3 or 4 beats per bar. Only in modern times have composers been more experimental, and the use of 8/4 would be because there are 8 crotchets in a bar but the actual number of beats or repeated phrase lengths would be something irregular, for example you might want to use a rhythm which is two dotted minims plus a minim, for example. If there were four equal beats in the bar, then 4/2 would be the correct time signature to use.
      The MyMusicTheory site follows the requirements of the ABRSM syllabus to the letter, and this time signature is well beyond what is asked for at grades 2 and 4, even at grade 8 it is unlikely to be seen!

  2. Jocke

    Thanks for the article!
    I dont quite understand what is stated in the last section though. “Diatonic” music is composed whenever you use both half- and whole steps. The opposite would be “chromatic” wich basically no style utilizes except maybe modern experimental ones. So I dont get the claim that it was created in those days and were to be evolved during the baroque.

    1. Victoria

      Hi Jocke,
      From the Medieval times through to the end of the Renaissance period the music was modal, not diatonic (and not chromatic either). All music is built from tones and semitones, so it’s not really a useful way of defining diatonic music. The difference is this:

      There were 8 basic modes, which are equivalent to the scales which are produced if you play an octave on the piano starting from each white note (and not playing any black notes). So C-C (which is now called C major) produces the pattern of tones/semitones which is TTSTTTS.
      But if you start on D and play up to D on the white notes, the pattern is TSTTTST. Start on E and you get a different pattern. Each of the modes had a different pattern of tones and semitones.

      In the diatonic system, if you make a scale from D you can choose the major or minor, but the pattern is the same for D major as it is for C major. All the major scales have the same pattern, and all the minor keys share the same pattern.
      Diatonic and chromatic are only “opposite” in the modern sense.

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