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Music In The Age of Discovery

Musical Style

Peter Kun Frary


The Renaissance Style is characterized by expressiveness within well defined limits of clarity and balance: a harmonious succession of sounds. Here's a taste of the music of the Renaissance:

Lesson for Two Lutes (1:26) | Anonymous (c. 1600) | England

Renaissance Style

Sacred vocal music was polyphonic, sharing motives in a web of imitative counterpoint. However, the vocal range expanded to include the bass register, creating a full and rich sonority. Rhythm was marked by a fluid flowing rhythm in polyphonic styles. The a cappella choir of four or more voices was considered to be the ideal musical combination in Roman Catholic Churches and, eventually, served as a model for instrumental ensembles. A cappella (Italian) literally translates as "in chapel style," but means singing without instrumental accompaniment.

Secular songs were written for home entertainment and, thus, used vernacular text and tended towards lighter and simpler textures than sacred music. Near the end of the Renaissance, homophonic textures were increasingly employed in secular song.

Le Concert | Leonello Spada (1576-1622) | Amateur music making was common in merchant class homes.


The modern concept of harmony and chord progressions didn't exist during the Renaissance. Renaissance composers tended to think in terms of layers of melodic lines and, thus, harmony, especially in sacred polyphony, was the result of vertical combinations of voice parts. However, these vertical combinations were planned according to principles of harmonic consonance and melodic movement rather than by chance as in the Middle Ages.

Nevertheless, the seeds of modern chord progressions appeared in secular music of the late Renaissance (mid-16th century), especially in lute song and solo lute, guitar and vihuela music. The popular lute solo, Bianco Fiore (White Flower), written during the 16th century, exhibits clear chord progressions and homophonic texture:

Bianco Fiore (1:09) | Cesare Negri (c.1535-1605) | Italy

The Spanish musician Juan Bermudo, writing in his Declaración de Instrumentos Musicales (Osuna, 1555), discusses the strumming of chords by guitarists with disdain:

" is not desirable music and the ear is not made for them. The strummed villancicos do not have a very good basis in music..."

The first known chord method book, Guitarra Española y Vándola, was published in 1596 by Dr. Juan Carlo y Amat (1572-1664). However, it took a couple more generations of musicians—second half of the 17th century—for harmonic practices to be formalized into functional harmony, i.e., the basis of harmonic writing from about 1650 to 1900.

Guitar Chords 1598 | Dr. Juan Carlo y Amat (1572-1664) | Guitarra Española y Vándola. p. 34.


Sacred vocal music of the Middle Ages avoided displays of emotion and did little to dramatize lyrics. In contrast, Renaissance composers sought to express the meaning of the text through the music. Word painting, or musical illustration of lyrics, was frequently used. For example the phrase, "descend to the depths of hell" might use a descending scale into the bass register to dramatize the meaning of the lyrics.

Amor Sacro y Amor Profano | Titian (1490–1576) | Galleria Borghese

Here's an example of a secular part song, Mille Regretz, by the great Flemish composer Josquin des Prez. It's sung a cappella with four voices resonating in a straightforward polyphonic texture. Notice the deep bass, gently flowing rhythm and melancholy mood of the lines. The French text translates as "one thousand regrets to leave you and your fair face. My grief is such that my days shall soon be at end."

Mille Regretz (2:26) | Josquin des Prez (c. 1450-1521)

Rise of Instrumental Music

Vocal music dominated both sacred and secular music during the early Renaissance, with instruments chiefly relegated to accompaniment duties. However, the 16th century saw the development of idiomatic instrumental styles in lute, guitar and keyboard families. Initially instruments imitated the sound of vocal music, especially the SATB choir, playing intabulations, i.e., arrangements of vocal or ensemble pieces for keyboard, lute, or other plucked string instruments. The vocal piece heard above, Mille Regretz, was a popular intabulation. Soon instrumental writing developed its own style by employing techniques unique to instruments: fast scales, chord strums, arpeggios, rapid ornamentation, etc.

The Wedding at Cana (detail) | Paolo Veronese (1528–1588) | Louvre Museum

Dances and theme and variation forms were especially popular for instrumental writing. The Ground to Greensleeves is an example of the theme and variation form: the Greensleeves melody is presented in straightforward fashion and followed by variations on the stated theme. Each variation is the Greensleeves melody repeated but altered by adding running scales, arpeggios and new rhythms. Finally, the theme is restated at the end. Greensleeves was a popular household jam tune during the 17th century and sets of variations over a repeating eight measure bass line or "ground" were all the rage.

The Ground to Greensleeves (2:04) | Anonymous (c. 1600) | England

As we work through the genres and composers of the Renaissance, we'll take a closer look at the choral, solo song and instrumental music of this era.

Gates of Paradise | Lorenzo Ghiberti (1378-1455) | Florence, Italy

Gates of Paradise panel detail


a cappella, word painting, intabulation, theme and variation, Josquin des Prez

©Copyright 2018 by Peter Kun Frary | All Rights Reserved