Western Civ

Research Report
Web Resources



    Composers in the Renaissance were idealized as geniuses.   Countries created some of the first academies and universities to train young musicians.  The developments shaped during these ages shaped what we today call, music theory. 

The Lute


Historical Background

    The dark ages changed much of the thinking of the Renaissance.  The sudden change in climate reversed what made the High Middle Ages great.  The plague ravaged Europe.  Devout catholics were killed yet others live on.  Having most of your fellow man killed of can aid in losing faith from the church. 

    The plague destroyed feudalism in Western Europe, thereby changing politics, and giving power to the serfs.  The church’s influence was waning, leaving kings, nobles and serfs struggling for power.  When a terrible, society crushing event passes, people just want to move on.  The plague was over, and the Renaissance was born. 

Research Report

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    Composers from the Renaissance mostly came from the same place in northern France.  Burgandy would supplied Europe with the most famous composers including John Dunstable, Guillaume Dufay, Gilles Binchois, Johannes Ockeghem, Antoine Busnois and Josquin des Prez. 

    The Renaissance altered the thought that musicians were tradesmen.  This, however, doesn’t mean that musicians led an easier life than before.  “The musician had no more opportunity and no wider possibility of advancing himself than had the minstrels of preceding centuries.” (Goldron 30)  Only a few rare musicians got rich by playing.  The only way would be to get an exclusive job playing for a high nobleman or king.

    Many instruments were used including harps, bagpipes, recorders, and violins but the most popular instrument by far was the lute.  The lute was a direct production of the Renaissance.  A versatile instrument and an ancestor of the guitar, the lute was used in England the most.  It could be played with a plectrum (pick) or the fingers for the ultimate soft sounding romantic sound.  The classical guitar and acoustic guitar today are both used to attain this romanticism.  The lute was used for both comedies and tragedies both and was often incorporated into the play itself.

    Many developments during the Renaissance molded music theory.  Early notation used the neume system.  It was flawed; only pitch intervals were given between notes.  Mannered notation came next and allowed all notes to have a rhythmic duration.  Later came tablature.  Tablature used letters and numbers instead of note-heads.  It was also capable of giving rhythmic duration by means of additional signs.  Most keyboard music and all lute music were written in tablature.

    Gutenburg is accredited to inventing the movable type in Europe in 1450.  Ottaviano Petrucci was a Venetian who (using Gutenburg’s press) was the first to use the movable type to publish a printed collection of music.  By 1528 music publishers were everywhere in Europe.  Josquin Des Prez was the first to be printed (Knighton 15).  Now Europe has a printing press and musical notation but no kind of copyright system.  Musical pieces were sometimes copied over a thousand times.  If one publisher came out with a best-selling book of music, it was copied by everyone and distributed without any consequence.  It seems that musicians’ rights were just about as good as they are now.  Given that there is a lawsuit between some infuriated musicians and Napster (the online music sharing program).

    The Renaissance had three characteristics that were change from earlier times: humanism, individualism and secularism.  “The desire to write a kind of music inspired by words…. marks the influence of the humanists” (Brown 3).  Prior to the Renaissance anonymity was frequently used.  The rebirth gave artists a sense of pride and they wanted their name on great works of art.  Also, before the Renaissance, “as a general rule, every musician was a church musician” (Goldron 30).  The Renaissance introduced a distinction between church musicians and musicians that wrote secular songs.  This, again was influenced by the humanist movement (Goldron 30)

    Musicians brought a new train of thinking with them.  Musical melodies would imitate natural speech rhythms.  Vertical thinking rivaled old logic foundations.  Modes replaced old thinking of tonal scales.  Chromatics explained notes that were “outside the scale”.   A composer did not write with future generations in mind, but only for the immediate enjoyment.  Composers figured that musicians later on would adapt their music to the trends popular at that time, not go back and play old songs.


Historical Significance

    Renaissance music had an influence on many generations to come.  Modern music theory had origins in the Renaissance.  Music enriched plays and the first secular music came from the Renaissance.  Chromatics, as used during the Renaissance, is used today in classical, and some rock and roll (Mainly in the soloist pieces).  The method of writing lute music, tablature, is the primary form of guitar and drum notation today.  Modes were the starting points for making melodies and still taught in music theory classes today.  Phrygian, Lydian, Dorian, and Ionian are four of the seven total modes.  As an example Stevie Ray Vaughan’s Crossfire uses E Phrygian as the rhythm guitar line.  Music developments during this time molded what today’s musician’s think about and eventually write about. 



Brown, Howard Mayer.  Music in the Renaissance.  Prentice-Hall, Inc.  Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, 1976.

Carpenter, Nan Cooke.  In the Medieval and Renaissance Universities.  Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.  Norman, Oklahoma, 1958.

Companion to Medieval and Renaissance Music.  Ed. Knighton, Tess and David Fallows.  Schrimer Books.  New York, 1992.

Goldron, Romain.  Music of the Renaissance.  H.S. Stuttman Company, Inc. 1968. 

Tomlinson, Gary.  Music in Renaissance Magic.  The University of Chicago Press Chicago, Illinois, 1993


Web Resources

“Music of the Renaissance.”  Sept. 10,2000. 

“Renaissance Music Webring” Aug. 19, 1997. 

“Center for the History of Music Theory and Literature.” 

“Medieval and Renaissance Instruments.” 

“Music Hall” 

created by: jason harwig