Madrigal: Definition & History

Madrigal: Definition & History
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  • 0:03 Definition of Madrigal
  • 0:27 Early History
  • 1:37 Characteristics
  • 3:55 Social Functions and Decline
  • 4:58 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Alisha Nypaver

Alisha is a college music educator specializing in historic and world music studies.

Did you ever wonder what kind of music people enjoyed during the Renaissance? Meet the madrigal, one of the most popular musical genres of the sixteenth century, and learn about its history and characteristics.

Definition of Madrigal

A madrigal is a secular vocal genre of music that was very popular during the Renaissance Era (1450 - 1600 CE). The lyrics were based on poetry, and they were usually performed a cappella and in polyphonic texture. Madrigals are often credited with popularizing the musical technique of word painting.

Early History

The word 'madrigal' actually has two meanings. The 'old-school' madrigal style began as a poetic form from the 14th century. Some musicians decided to write music to accompany these poems, and voila! The musical madrigal was born. However, this early madrigal was generally only found in the homes of the wealthy and never really caught on. Around the year 1415, people stopped writing them, and nearly everyone forgot about them soon after that.

A hundred years or so later, in the 1520s, a new kind of Italian madrigal began popping up, and it was significantly different from the old-fashioned style of madrigals. The new style had more current lyrical content, featured interlocking vocal parts that were fun to sing, and was generally more accessible to rich and poor alike, all of which contributed to its popularity. Everyone seemed to love composing, singing, and hearing these Italian songs, which were usually based on themes of love and romance. Before long, the madrigal craze had taken over Italy and eventually spread all the way to England.


One of the first madrigal artists to reach today's equivalent of 'platinum' record status was Jacques Arcadelt. His first book of madrigals, published in 1539, was so popular that it became the top-selling madrigal collection of the entire Renaissance era (1450 - 1600 CE). Arcadelt's madrigals are considered to be classic representations of the new Italian madrigal style. Written for four singers, his madrigals alternated between two kinds of musical textures: homophonic and polyphonic.

Homophonic texture consists of one voice singing melody while the other voices sing supporting sounds called harmony. Polyphony, on the other hand, consists of at least two voices who are both singing different melodies at the same time. This combination of two or more melodies at once creates a rich, thick sound that people loved, and soon nearly everyone was writing polyphonic madrigals. Most madrigals were written to be sung a cappella, or without instruments. This made them easy for almost anyone to perform, which helped contribute to their popularity.

Madrigals also focused on telling a story. To increase the dramatic impact of that story, madrigal composers came up with a technique called word painting. Word painting, or text painting, is an attempt to musically represent the lyrics of a song. For example, if the lyrics included the word 'descending,' the musical notes might also descend in pitch. This created a more unified and emphatic performance that Renaissance musicians and audiences loved. In fact, so many madrigal composers used this technique that an instance of word painting came to be known as a madrigalism.

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