Instrumental Music of the Renaissance: Instruments, Compositions & Dance

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  • 0:07 The Rise of Instrumental Music
  • 2:08 Instumental Music for Dance
  • 2:58 Lute Songs
  • 3:45 New and Developing Instruments
  • 4:56 Compositions for Instruments
  • 6:20 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.

Before the Renaissance, vocal music was king, but in the 16th century instrumental music was on the rise. In this lesson, you'll learn about the top five factors that influenced the rise of instrumental music during the Renaissance period.

The Rise of Instrumental Music

Although instrumental music had been around for centuries, it wasn't usually on the top of a composer's list of favorites. During the Renaissance period, about 1450-1600, music came to the forefront as an important part of education, and with this, instrumental music finally earned a place of high regard. Prior to this time, vocal music was far more important, and instruments were used as an accompaniment, rather than as a main focus. But, near the end of the period, instrumental music was at the forefront of every composer's mind. In the short period of roughly 150 years, five major factors occurred to make this happen: the new importance of playing instruments, the popularity of dancing, the versatility of the lute, the invention of new instruments and the experimentation of composers.

As noted earlier, instrumental music did exist before the Renaissance period. However, it played a different role. During the Late Middle Ages and early Renaissance, the instruments played along with the vocal part of a song, playing literally the same notes. The instrument was not seen as a key component, but more as a friendly guide, so the singers didn't sing too much off key. This was most often an organ, a lute, or a viol, which was a six-stringed instrument played with a bow, kind of like a cross between a guitar and a violin.

Later, as philosophical attitudes shifted toward the arts and education, instruments became more valued. Composers and performers began having instruments accompany the vocals, playing their own supporting background parts instead of playing exactly the same as the vocalists. Some instrumentalists even forwent the singers and played vocal music in small groups.

Instrumental Music for Dance

Instrumental music had always been important for dancing, and this trend continued in great proportions during the Renaissance. Dancing was important socially, and as time progressed, more and more intricate dances were developed. As such, they needed more intricate dance music, complete with many instruments. In fact, new genres were created for dancing with specific stylistic characteristics, such as the rhythm or the pacing. Two popular dances were the pavane and the galliard. They were often played together, as a slow and a fast dance, respectively. This small idea of pairing slow and fast songs was the forerunner of new complex forms that would appear later in the Baroque period.

Lute Songs

But, not everyone could afford a whole group of musicians just for a dance or some musical entertainment. And unless you were rich, it also wasn't something you could just keep in your own home. So, many turned to the lute as a source of music. The lute is a pear-shaped string instrument that is strummed or plucked. It was not a new instrument at the time, but became very popular because of its versatility. Composers liked that it could play both melodically and harmonically, and pieces started being written specifically for the lute during the 16th century. The lute is regarded as the most popular instrument of the time, and it is even referenced in Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew.

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