Music Forms and Styles of the Renaissance

Portrait of the Composer Josquin des Prez, c. 1610. Artist: Anonymous
Portrait of the Composer Josquin des Prez, c. 1610. Heritage Images/Getty Images / Getty Images

In Italy during the Renaissance, a new philosophy called "humanism" developed. The emphasis of humanism is on the quality of life on earth, much different from earlier beliefs that life should be viewed as a preparation for death.

By this time the influence of the Church on the arts grew weak, composers and their patrons were ready for new artistic ideas. Flemish composers and musicians were summoned to teach and perform in Italian courts and the invention of printing helped spread these new ideas.

Imitative Counterpoint

Josquin Desprez became one of the most important composers of this period. His music was widely published and appreciated in Europe. Desprez wrote both sacred and secular music, focusing more on motets of which he wrote over a hundred. He utilized what is known as "imitative counterpoint," wherein each voice part enters successively using the same note patterns. Imitative counterpoint was used by French and Burgundian composers in writing chansons, or secular poems set to music for instruments and solo voices.


By the 1500s, the simplicity of earlier madrigals was replaced by more elaborate forms, using 4 to 6 voice parts. Claudio Monteverdi was one of the leading Italian composers of madrigals.

Religion and Music

Religious Reformation occurred in the early half of the 1500s. Martin Luther, a German priest, wanted to reform the Roman Catholic Church. He spoke to the Pope and those holding positions in the church about the need to change certain Catholic practices. Luther also wrote and published 3 books in 1520. Sensing that his pleas were left unheard, Luther sought the help of princes and feudal lords which lead to a political uprising. Luther was one of the forerunners of Protestantism which eventually led to the founding of the Lutheran Church. Luther kept certain elements of the Latin liturgy in his religious services.

Other Protestant denominations were established as a result of the Reformation. In France, another Protestant named John Calvin sought to eliminate music from worship. In Switzerland, Huldreich Zwingli likewise believed that music should be removed from worship as well as holy images and statues. In Scotland, John Knox founded the Church of Scotland.

There were changes within the Catholic Church as well. A need for simpler melodies that did not overpower the text were sought. Giovanni Perlugi de Palestrina was one of the prominent composers of this time.

Instrumental Music

By the second half of the 1500s, instrumental music began to take shape. The instrumental canzone made use of brass instruments; music for keyboard instruments such as the clavichord, harpsichord, and organ were also written. The lute was widely used at that time, both to accompany singing and for instrumental music. At first, only instruments of the same family were played together, but eventually, mixed instruments were used.