Dance Music of the Renaissance: History and Forms

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  • 0:06 Purposes of Dance
  • 1:10 Dance Music
  • 2:38 Dance Forms
  • 5:23 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Liz Diamond-Manlusoc

Liz has taught music for K-12 and beyond. She holds a master's degree in Education Media and Design Technology.

Long before the Harlem shake, swing dancing and even the waltz, there was Renaissance-style dance music. Learn about the music behind the dance, and how dance influenced the future of music.

Purposes of Dance

Don't deny it; you know you love to dance. Even if you're not a great dancer, when you hear that sweet beat thumpin', it's hard to stay still. The groove-worthy pairing of music and dance has been around forever, and aside from making one feel happy, it had significant social purpose during the Renaissance period. Like dancing today, dance in the Renaissance period was often done for entertainment. However, it was also considered a social expectation. Royal court stewards were constantly dancing to prove their worth. In fact, to be taken seriously as a cultivated person, you were expected to have great dance skills. Dancing was often done in pairs, and as such, it was a natural component of courtship. So, it was important to dance properly if one didn't want to be single forever.

Dance Music

It's a fair assumption that dancers need music; it helps the dancers carry a steady beat, provides emotional impact, and confirms that the dancers are not just wiggling around from some nasty rash. At the beginning of the Renaissance, dance music was primarily instrumental arrangements of popular vocal works. The music was often performed by harpsichordists, lutenists, or instrumental groups. As the period progressed, dance and dance music grew increasingly more intricate. Instrumental music started being written exclusively for dances, using specific rhythms to guide the dancers' steps.

One of the most famous collections of instrumental music, called Danserye, was written by composer Tielman Susato in 1551. The collection featured songs to accompany several dances, each composed with the dance choreography in mind. This concept of a set of pieces played in succession was revolutionary, and the concept influenced instrumental music composers through the next two musical periods.

Dance Forms

The music written for dances was tailored to the performance of the dance, with rhythms mirroring the movement of the dancers. The steps of the dances also required specific forms. To keep things interesting, a few commonalities developed, such as paired dances. This is different than dancing as a pair. Paired dances meant a slow dance and a fast dance, danced in succession. Typically, the first dance used a two-beat count, like 1-2-1-2, and the second dance used a three-beat count, like 1-2-3-1-2-3.

Two of the most significant paired dances were the pavane and the galliard. The pavane was a slow, stately, processional-style dance in two-beat time, while the galliard was brisk, lively dance with skips and jumps in three-beat time. To accommodate the dancers, the music reflected each accordingly, with the pavane sounding slow and steady and the galliard having a bouncier feel.

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