Characteristics of Renaissance Music

The “Renaissance” which translates as “Rebirth,” was the period of remarkable innovation and discovery from 1400 to 1600. It consisted of polyphonic texture, new instruments, tonal music, incorporating dissonance, and blending as opposed to contrasting.

Medieval and Renaissance comprise the first and second halves of what we call Western music’s early period. In those 200 years, music that already existed developed.

With its polyphonic sound, clearer structure, and increased emphasis on rhythmic order, it evolved from the characteristics of medieval music. This includes modal tunes, solo singing, and singing in the church. There are two types of music in the Renaissance; one is sacred music, and the other is secular.

Characteristics of Renaissance Music – At a Glance

  • The main characteristics of Renaissance music are texture, new instruments, tonal music, risk-taking, and blending.
  • Instruments used in Renaissance music: Medieval Fiddle, Viol, Hurdy Gurdy, Renaissance guitar lute, Lyre, Recorder, Reed Pipe, Hornpipe, Bagpipe, Panpipe, Trumpet, Cornett, Tambourine, Jew’s Harp, and more.
  • Famous Renaissance music composers: Josquin des Prez, Carlo Gesualdo, Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, and Claudio Monteverdi.

Characteristics of Renaissance Music

1. Texture

The new texture of polyphony developed through the Organum, before becoming the most important form. This was known as Motet, at the end of the medieval period.

The polyphonic texture of the Motet was generated through the inclusion of extra melodic lines on the Medieval Organum. This was a very simple clausulae form compared to Motet.

The musical texture of the early Middle Ages was monophonic. This meant that there was one melodic line. Vocal music for religious purposes was traditionally sung unaccompanied over Latin text. To ensure that their melodies were basic, composers had to adhere to the rules of church music.

Organum form became melodious when church choirs began to add extra melodic lines. As a result, a new form that is called Motet was born. As church choirs expanded in size, more voices were added, resulting in a deeper, more lush sound. But, homophonic music was also popular at that time.

During these centuries, a variety of innovations and reforms influenced the musical texture. As a result, the melodies became increasingly intricate and even difficult to understand.

2. New Instruments

The Renaissance produced many instruments. Some of them were newborn inventions, and some were variations or improvements of existing instruments.

The rising desire for music as a form of entertainment extended to homes, where families began to sing and dance for fun. Families started owning small keyboards, clavichords, and strings, such as lute, viol, fiddle, Celtic harp, and lyre.

Indoor events necessitated the use of instruments that generated a more muffled and subdued sound. For outdoor events, louder and brighter instruments were desired.

Richer households would have private concerts by great musicians. More composers began to incorporate musical instruments into their works. Music during the time required instruments of varied sizes for different portions of the texture to ensure a consistent sound. Finally, the harpsichord was invented in the 16th century.

Instrument makers then were among the earliest to use one-piece construction for the winds. The cornett and recorder were some of the wind instruments during this period. The shawm (predecessor of oboe), and reed pipe (ancestor of clarinet and saxophone) were traditional instruments.

Strings, woodwinds, brass, and percussion instruments are still used to categorize musical instruments.

3. Tonal Music

Tonal relationships between Renaissance polyphony are familiar to Baroque, Classical, and Romantic listeners. This is because pitch classes and triads are the primary tonal elements. They were indistinguishable from each other.

Tonal music is the opposite of modal music that uses “modalities” instead of “Major and/or minor tonalities”.

Secular music like the chanson, madrigal, and German showed the use of major and minor tonality. The court system was at the foundation of all secular music. The musicians were able to play their songs thanks to their financial help.

Renaissance-era secular music was more adventurous. Lots of feeling was conveyed through these modes’ harmonies. The work they accomplished laid the groundwork for the future use of major and minor keys.

4. Risk-Taking

Risk-taking characteristic comes from the confident Renaissance composers. They used the interval of the third which was dissonant and considered unpleasant.

Renaissance music continued to push limits and include periods of dissonance as new styles evolved during the 16th century.

Because the third is what gives chords their Major or Minor tone, more emotional depth in music towards this period was achieved. In the 15th century, whole triads were popular. Increased usage of Major and minor feel helped artists develop expression and personality. This was done via composition or articulation and performance.

The musica reservata style of a cappella in Italy and Germany is characterized by strong chromaticism and embellishment. These risk-taking factors were very welcomed by Baroque composers and listeners.

5. Blending

Blending melody lines, as opposed to contrasting, is another characteristic of Renaissance music.

Via the use of imitation, the melody can be expanded and amplified. It also acts as a blending factor throughout a composition.

Polyphonic music reached a new level of complexity in the late medieval period. Renaissance composers were able to control this impulse by favoring basic melodies and harmonies.

Composers of the Renaissance employed harmony, discarding medieval music’s focus on shell harmony (the root note and the fifth note). In the Renaissance period, true harmony (a root note, a third note, and a fifth note) replaced shell harmony.

Sequences were not used in Renaissance melody-making. Fugue as a larger form of imitation is another feature of Renaissance music. It has remained prominent in Western music for centuries.

A compositional method called fugue was formed by a smaller pattern called imitation. It was used in Renaissance music to blend many musical layers, unlike in medieval music where the levels contrasted.

Instruments used in Renaissance music


  • Medieval Fiddle (violin before its evolution)
  • Viol ( Viola da Gamba)
  • Lira da Braccio (larger and more stringed version of violin)
  • Hurdy Gurdy (string instrument that works with a wheel mechanism)
  • Renaissance Guitar
  • Lute (an ancient string instrument similar to a guitar)
  • Lyre

Renaissance Harp


  • Recorder
  • Transverse Flute
  • Shawm (predecessor of oboe)
  • Reed Pipe (predecessor of clarinet and saxophone)
  • Hornpipe
  • Bagpipe
  • Panpipe


  • Trumpet
  • Slide Trumpet
  • Cornett
  • Sackbut


  • Tambourine
  • Jew’s Harp

Famous Renaissance music composers

Josquin des Prez was regarded as a master of polyphonic vocal secular music. He was able to combine several distinct lines of melody to express human emotions.

Carlo Gesualdo had one of the most unique musical languages. He incorporated dissonance and chromaticism in his madrigals and sacred compositions.

Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina had an important role in the development of counterpoints in Renaissance music.

In Claudio Monteverdi’s late Renaissance secular music, you can hear the emotional expressions. You can also spot the progression of new harmonies.


The Renaissance was a time of rebirth. The music that emerged during this period had many distinguishing characteristics. Polyphonic texture opened the door to classical music.

Many instruments that we use today took their standard shapes. When the church partially lost its power, composers could take risks. As a result, tonal music with Major and minor feelings was born. Blending melody lines empowered the polyphonic effect.

Brian Clark

Brian Clark

I’ve been a writer with Musician Wave for six years, turning my 17-year journey as a multi-instrumentalist and music producer into insightful news, tutorials, reviews, and features.

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