Renaissance Music Timeline

Handwritten score for "Ave Virgo", by Guillaume Dufay.
Original score: Guillaume Dufay/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY 3.0

The Renaissance or "rebirth" was a period from 1400 to 1600 of significant changes in history including music. Moving away from the medieval period, where every facet of life, include music was church-driven, you begin to see that the church was starting to lose some of its influence. Instead, the kings, princes and other prominent members of the courts were beginning to have an impact on the direction of music.

Popular Music Forms

During the Renaissance, composers took known musical forms from church music and secularized them. Forms of music that evolved during the Renaissance included the cantus firmus, chorale, French chansons, and madrigals.

Cantus Firmus

Cantus firmus, which meant "firm chant," was commonly used in the Middle Ages and was strongly based on the Gregorian chant. Composers dropped the chants and instead incorporated secular, folk music. Another reform, composers would flip the "firm voice" from being the usual bottom voice (of the Middle Ages) to either a top or middle part.


Before the Renaissance, music in church was usually sung by the clergy. The period saw the rise of the chorale, which was a hymn that was meant to be sung by a congregation. Its earliest form was monophonic, which then evolved into a four-part harmony.


The French chanson is a polyphonic French song that was originally for two to four voices. During the Renaissance, composers were less restricted to the formes fixes (fixed form) of chansons and experimented on new styles that were similar to contemporary motets (sacred, voice-only short song) and liturgical music.


An Italian madrigal is defined as polyphonic secular music that was performed in groups of four to six singers who sang mostly love songs. It had served two principal roles: as a pleasant private entertainment for small groups of skilled amateur musicians or as a small part of a large ceremonial public performance. Most of the earliest madrigals were commissioned by the Medici family. There were three distinct periods of madrigals.

Significant Dates Event and Composers
1397-1474 The lifetime of Guillaume Dufay, a French and Flemish composer, popular as a leading composer of the early Renaissance. He is known for his church music and secular songs. One of his compositions, "Nuper Rosarum Flores" was written for the consecration of Florence's great cathedral, Santa Maria del Fiore (Il Duomo) in 1436.
1450 - 1550 During this period composers experimented with cantus firmus. Known composers during this period were Johannes Ockeghem, Jacob Obrecht, and Josquin Desprez.​​
1500-1550 Experimentation with French chansons. Known composers during this period were Clément Janequin and Claudin de Sermisy.
1517 Protestant Reformation sparked by Martin Luther. Significant changes occurred to church music such as the introduction of a chorale. It was also the period when the Psalms of the Bible were translated into French and then set to music.
1500 - 1540 Composers Adrian Willaert and Jacob Arcadelt were among those who developed the earliest Italian madrigals.
1525-1594 The lifetime of Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, known as the high Renaissance composer of Counter-Reformation sacred music. During this period Renaissance polyphony reached its height.
1550 Catholic Counter-Reformation. The Council of Trent met from 1545 to 1563 to discuss complaints against the church including its music.
1540-1570 In the 1550s, thousands of madrigals were composed in Italy. Philippe de Monte was perhaps the most prolific of all madrigal composers. Composer Orlando Lassus left Italy and brought the madrigal form to Munich.
1548-1611 The lifetime of Tomas Luis de Victoria, Spanish composer during the Renaissance who composed mainly sacred music.
1543-1623 The lifetime of William Byrd, leading English composer of the late Renaissance who composed church, secular, consort and keyboard music.
1554-1612 The lifetime of Giovanni Gabrielli, known composer in Venetian high Renaissance music who wrote instrumental and church music.
1563-1626 The lifetime of John Dowland, known for his lute music in Europe and composed beautiful melancholic music.
1570-1610 The last period of madrigals was highlighted by two reforms, madrigals would take on a lighter tone incorporating more whimsy, and madrigals once a small, intimate performance, would be concertized. Known composers were Luca Marenzio, Carlo Gesualdo, and Claudio Monteverdi. Monteverdi is also known as the transitional figure to the Baroque music era. John Farmer was a popular English madrigal composer.