Why does Renaissance Music Sound Different from Medieval Music?

Why does Renaissance Music Sound Different from Medieval Music
Why does Renaissance Music Sound Different from Medieval Music

Both of these periods of Western Musical history cover a considerable quantity of time and music. This includes dramatic evolutionary steps taken creatively during these periods, each of which contributed to the type of music being composed and performed. What I am aiming to do in this article is to outline a few of the significant differences between the Renaissance and the Medieval musical styles. In this way perhaps, I can establish what it is that makes the two periods distinct.

Why does Renaissance Music Sound Different from Medieval Music

The Medieval period of music chronologically precedes the Renaissance. It covers a tremendously long period of musical history from the fall of the Roman Empire (around 400AD), through to the early Renaissance that begins in the 15th Century. The Renaissance period then takes up the musical torch and runs from approximately 1450 – 1600. It is important to acknowledge that there was never a precise moment when one period of music stopped and the other began, but that these dates serve to mark the rough times when there was a significant cultural shift.

It is easy to see from these timeframes that the music from the Medieval Period covers a huge quantity of time. It also, understandably, covers a huge quantity of music that is too great to mention in any detail here. In spite of the often grim depictions of this period of history, the Medieval times were rich with cultural exchanges between the countries of Europe and further afield. Traveling musicians and poets known as Troubadours, are thought to have brought the influences of music from Turkey, Africa, and India to Europe during the high Medieval period or Middle ages (1100-1350). This had a profound impact on how music was performed and composed, contributing directly to the sound of the time.

Music during the Medieval period traveled from a broadly ‘monophonic’ sound towards a ‘polyphonic’. This means music that was initially only a single melody developing into music with three, four or five independent parts. What we often associate with the Medieval period is the sound of early sacred music known as Gregorian Chant. This is music composed in free rhythm, setting the Latin text from the Bible, sung only by men. This, by the 11th Century, had evolved into ‘organum’, in its various forms in which composers experimented with adding more ‘voices’. At first, this was in parallel motion, giving a very distinctive and haunting sound to the music of this period. Later the music became much more complex and fully polyphonic as we approach the Renaissance.

The instruments were dominantly voices during the Medieval period and as such a large amount of music from this time is vocal settings of the sacred Latin text. Instrumental music did not dominate the musical landscape in the way it did in the late Renaissance and into the Baroque, although instrumental music was not uncommon. Typical instruments of the time included rudimentary flutes and recorders, the dulcimer, the lyre, the rebec, and the lute, to name but a few. The sound then was from a few wind instruments but mostly string instruments that were plucked or strummed accordingly. These would have accompanied songs and may have added short solo sections to these more secular pieces.

The notation was under development during this long period. As such it is challenging to fully understand the rhythmic and harmonic conventions of these musicians. Much of the music would have been learned aurally, passing down from one generation to the next. ‘Modality’ began to be an established form of harmony giving a new and more expressive set of musical options for composers. Following on from the monophony and early polyphony, this establishment of modes gives a definite sound to the music of the time where emphasis increasingly was placed on seamless chordal progression alongside melodic flow.

As music moves towards the Renaissance, there is a dramatic change. Modality is now firmly established and there is a growth in new forms of secular music that balance the dominance of the sacred music of the Medieval. The Madrigal, (usually a secular, unaccompanied three or four-part vocal composition), became a popular musical form during the Renaissance. Opera, in its earliest incarnation, arrived during this period with the composer Monteverdi, creating a new art form that remains popular today. Courtly dances from the noble houses of Europe found their way into instrumental music. Common dance forms including the ‘pavane’, the ‘galliard’, the ‘allemande’, the ‘courante’ and the gigue all litter Renaissance music.

The polyphonic textures that were first explored during the Medieval period flourish in the music of the Renaissance. Palestrina, amongst many composers of the time, took the principles of polyphonic composition to completely new levels of sophistication especially in his sacred works. A whole vibrant movement evolved in the Renaissance reflecting the innovation, philosophy, and revolution of the age.

Music became richly expressive, with fresh exciting sonorities that were inconceivable in the earlier period of music. This was assisted in no small way by the development of new instruments. Even though the viol had established itself as a favorite string instrument of the day, with the support and encouragement of Catherine Medici, the violin took its place. This was a major turning point in musical history that defined the sound of music to come.

Also, the Renaissance saw changes in technology that allowed for instruments to become more refined. This meant that composers could extend the compositional boundaries further and create highly innovative works of immense complexity. Brass, woodwind, and percussion instruments were key instruments in the composer’s toolkit, leading to a very different sound world to that of the Medieval period.

Of the sacred forms of music, the Mass continued to be prevalent. The Masses of William Byrd are particularly significant to the Renaissance period as their setting of the sacred text seems to me to capture so many of the characteristics of the period. They are compositions that exemplify mastery of the late polyphonic style with extreme expressive beauty that does not detract from the importance of the words.

Both periods of music have much to explore and to enjoy. The Renaissance could not have existed without the immense amount of creativity and innovation that stemmed from the Medieval period. From monophony to polyphony, from the sacred to the secular, Medieval and Renaissance music offers a valuable window back in time to an age that shaped our world today.


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