Popular Music During the Renaissance

Two major forms of music dominated the Renaissance scene from the 1400s to the 1600s. Both forms had various subsets and developed primarily because of their connected influence and relationship with each other. There was a basic divide of religious music and secular music even though both heavily influenced the other over the course of the period.

Religious (Sacred) Music


The religious music of the era consisted of largely of masses and motets. These types of music were only ever used in a church setting but were varied and rich and helped develop later genres in the future. Common types were the mass, motet, madrigale spirituale, and the laude.


Masses being polyphonic had two or more melody lines. Masses were made up of five sections: Kyrie, a prayer of mercy; Gloria, praising God; Credo, a confession of faith; Sanctus, a song about God’s holiness; and Agnus Dei, a song requesting salvation, peace, and mercy. As the era of the Renaissance progressed into what is now known as the high Renaissance, after the Protestant Reformation, the music of the masses had become highly embellished due to secular influence.


Motets were extremely popular during the Renaissance. Motets were polyphonic and used three or four voices blended together. This music was set to sacred Latin texts, or on a fixed melody like a chant. These were written for use in religious services or as a part of a mass and sung in Latin.


While most forms of religious music were composed and performed for and by the church, madrigale spirituale were madrigal like pieces of music with sacred lyrics instead of secular. These were often performed in circles of aristocratic amateurs in private houses, academies, and courts of noblemen. Typically, madrigale spirituale were acapella pieces but occasionally were accompanied by instruments.


During the Renaissance, the Lauda or laude or lauda spirituale was the most important non-Latin sacred song in Italy. It is often associated with Christmas and thus is sometimes considered the equivalent to the English carol, the French novel, or the Spanish villancico.


Secular Music


The secular music of the Renaissance was used in the courts or performances. There were several different types but two common and distinct ones were the secular chanson and the dance madrigal.


Chansons were written polyphonic to contribute to popular or courtly poems. They commonly consisted of three voices and one instrument. They were particularly favored in the French court.


Madrigals were secular dance numbers! Madrigals originated in Italy in the early 1500s. This music was set to short, lyrical love songs and were popular during the 16th century. This genre also consisted of instrumental dance music. Louder instruments were used for outdoor performances and softer instruments were used for civic and indoor occasions. Themes of madrigals included current events, humor, politics, and satire. Madrigals flourished particularly well among the aristocrats.


There was a wide range of style in the forms of music in the Renaissance and over the span of the era, music changed and developed widely. Renaissance music set the course for the next era of music due to the explorations that took place in the Renaissance.

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