Texture and Instruments of Medieval and Renaissance Music

Early Musical Instruments

kathykonkle / Getty Images

During the Middle Ages, the musical texture was monophonic, meaning it has a single melodic line. Sacred vocal music, such as Gregorian chants, was set to Latin text and sung unaccompanied. It was the only type of music allowed in churches, so composers kept the melodies pure and simple. Later on, church choirs added more melodic lines to Gregorian chants.

The Texture of Medieval Renaissance Music

The addition of more melodic lines to the Gregorian chants created polyphonic texture, meaning it has two or more melodic lines.

During the Renaissance, the church had less power over musical activity. Instead, the Kings, Princes and other prominent members of the courts had more influence. The size of church choirs grew, and with it, more voice parts were added — this created music that sounded richer and fuller. Polyphony was widely used during this period, but soon, music also became homophonic.

Composers wrote pieces that shifted between polyphonic and homophonic textures. This made the melodies more complex and elaborate. Many factors contributed to the change of musical texture during these periods. The influence of the Church, a shift in musical focus, the change in the status of composers, the invention of printing and religious reformation were some of the factors that contributed to these changes.

Instruments Used in Medieval and Renaissance Music

During the Middle Ages, most of the music was vocal and unaccompanied. The church wanted to keep music pure and solemn because it was less distracting. Later on, musical instruments such as bells and organs were allowed in church, but it was mainly used to observe important days in the Liturgical calendar. Traveling musicians or minstrels used musical instruments as they performed on street corners or courts. The instruments they used include fiddles, harps, and lutes. The lute is a pear-shaped string instrument with a fretted fingerboard.

During the Renaissance period, most of the musical activity shifted from the church to the courts. Composers were more open to experimentation. As a result, more composers used musical instruments in their compositions. Instruments that produced softer and less bright sounds were preferred for indoor events. Louder and more brilliant-sounding instruments were preferred for outdoor events.

Musical instruments used during this period include the cornett, harpsichord, and recorder. A musical instrument called shawm was used for dance music and outdoor events. The shawm is the predecessor of the oboe.


Kamien, Roger. Music An Appreciation, 6th Brief Edition.