Music Theory in the Renaissance

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Music Theory in the Renaissance


For most of the Renaissance, music was also considered a branch of the sciences. From the early medieval period onward music had been designated as one of the four mathematical branches of the quadrivium, the curriculum used by secondary schools as a prerequisite for entrance into the university. The issues that had been identified by the early medieval philosopher Boethius in his treatise, Fundamentals of Music, continued in the early Renaissance to dominate questions concerning music as a science. In the Fundamentals, written around 500 c.e., Boethius concentrated on the pitches and musical intervals, and he treated knowledge of the mathematical proportions in music as a way to attain virtue. His work transmitted some ancient musical theory to the Middle Ages, and it did so relying, in particular, on the ideas of Pythagoras. Pythagoras had treated the proportions of musical scales as revealing the entire order that underlay the human soul as well as the physical universe. Thus the study of music, as championed by Boethius's treatise, laid great stress on identifying the underlying rationale behind Creation. In 1500 Boethius' treatise was still the essential starting point for any student hoping to undertake the study of music as a part of the quadrivium, although the body of theoretical texts written from the vantage point of music as a science had grown enormously during the fifteenth century.

Revival of Antiquity.

This great flowering of theory had its inspiration in the efforts of humanists working mostly in Italy, who scoured European monastic libraries in search of ancient musical texts and imported many of these works from the Byzantine Empire, the descendant of ancient Rome in the Eastern Mediterranean that fell to the Turks in 1453. Some of the many musical texts that came to be known in new Latin translations were those of Ptolemy, Euclid, Aristides Quintilianus, Aristotle, and Plato. While many theorists in the fifteenth century tried to remain faithful to the Pythagorean tradition, the sheer variety of ideas about music that circulated at the time prompted reassessment. The chief debates among musical theorists continued to revolve around issues of pitch and tuning, harmony, and how these related to the human mind, the body, and the physical universe. But ancient philosophers like Plato had also taught that the musical forms, particularly the various modes, produced moral effects in their listeners. Renaissance musical theoreticians, then, became fascinated with stories from ancient literature that warned about and celebrated music's effects on the individual. They frequently quoted a legend about Pythagoras, who had allegedly calmed a violent youth by changing a piper's tune, or Alexander the Great who had been stirred to battle by a song written in the Phrygian mode. In trying to understand the power of ancient music, Renaissance theorists soon realized that an insufficient understanding of the pitches and tuning systems of ancient music hampered their efforts. They recognized that medieval musical theory had merely associated the eight modes that had flourished in medieval plainsong—the Dorian, Phrygian, and so forth—with the similarly named modes of the ancient world. Johannes Gallicus (1415–1473), who worked in tandem with humanists in the city of Mantua, was the first to discover that a vast difference separated the Greek systems of music from medieval plainsong. His work inspired a number of subsequent musical theorists to try to recover a firmer understanding of the various scales, modes, and tuning systems that underlay ancient music.


introduction: In 1477, Johannes Tinctoris, a Flemish music theorist, published his Book on the Art of Counterpoint, a mostly technical manual that treated harmony and polyphony. In his foreword to the work, however, Tinctoris dressed up his ideas by considering the arguments for and against the music of the spheres. This belief, held by some in the Renaissance from ancient inspiration, taught that there was a relationship between the sounds the heavenly bodies made as they moved through heaven and the harmonies that existed on earth. The most dedicated of this camp believed that music should be studied for the changes that it might accomplish on earth and in the stars. Tinctoris discounts such a position and instead sides with Aristotle, who insisted that heavenly bodies made no sound as they moved through space.

Now, therefore, among other things, I have decided to write out at length, for the glory and honor of His Eternal Majesty, to whom by this counterpoint, as is ordered in the Psalm, is made a joyful and fitting praise, and for the benefit of all students of this noble art, those few things I have learned from careful study about the art of counterpoint, which is brought about through consonances that, according to Boetius, rule all the delight of music.

Before I explain this, I cannot pass over in silence the many philosophers such as Plato, Pythagoras and their successors, Cicero, Macrobius, Boetius, and our own Isidore, who believe that the spheres of the stars revolve under the rules of harmonic modulation, that is, by the concord of different consonances.

But although, as Boetius says, some assert that Saturn is moved with the deepest sound and, taking the remaining planets in proper order, the moon with the highest, while others, however, conversely attribute the deepest sound to the moon and the highest to the stars in their movement, I adhere to neither position. On the contrary, I unshakeably agree with Aristotle and his commentator, together with our more recent philosophers, who most clearly prove that there is neither real nor potential sound in the heavens. For this reason I can never be persuaded that musical consonances, which cannot be produced without sound, are made by the motion of heavenly bodies.

Concords of sounds and melodies, therefore, from whose sweetness, as Lactantius says, the pleasure of the ears is derived, are brought about, not by heavenly bodies, but by earthly instruments with the cooperation of nature. To these concords, also, the older musicians, such as Plato, Pythagoras, Nichomachus, Aristoxenus, Philolaus, Archytas, Ptolemy and many others, even including Boetius, most assiduously applied themselves, but how they were accustomed to arrange and put them together is only slightly understood at our time. And, if I may refer to what I have heard and seen, I have held in my hands at one time or another many old songs of unknown authorship which are called apocrypha that are so inept and stupidly composed that they offended our ears rather than pleased them.

source: Johannes Tinctoris, The Art of Counterpoint (1477). Trans. Albert Seay (n.p.: American Musicological Society, 1961): 13–14.

Musical Aesthetics.

Until 1550 much of the musical theory that flourished as a result of these questions was highly technical and mathematical in nature. The scholarly interest in rediscovering the precise pitch relationships or intervals that had existed in ancient music had little impact on musical practice. Most of these figures pursued the theory that the mathematical study of pitch provided a way to illuminate the universal harmonies they believed inspired music's beauty as well as its power to stir the senses and perfect the soul. But while frequently arid and theoretical, the ferment this scholarship produced can be seen in the debate that occurred between two of the most distinguished theoreticians of the mid-sixteenth century: Gioseffe Zarlino (1517–1590) and Vincenzo Galilei (1530–1590).

Zarlino Controversy.

Zarlino had been trained by the most distinguished musician in early sixteenth-century Italy: the Flemish composer Adrian Willaert, who was at the time choirmaster of St. Mark's Cathedral in Venice. Zarlino himself succeeded his teacher in that position. In his work, The Art of Counterpoint (1558), Zarlino credited Willaert with reintroducing a sophisticated style of musical composition inspired by the ancients, and he rejected the music of the Middle Ages as barbaric. Like those who had come before him, Zarlino associated the relationship of pitches with numerical ratios, and he accepted as a given that the ancients had understood the underlying mathematical nature of music. Although his Art of Counterpoint survived as a practical manual on the techniques of counterpoint that composers used well into the seventeenth century, his theoretical perspectives on ancient music were soon to be challenged by one of his most prominent students, Vincenzo Galilei. A patrician, Galilei had studied with Zarlino in Venice during the 1560s, and he continued to nourish his interest in ancient music throughout the rest of his life. Galilei's correspondence with another scholar, Girolamo Mei, undermined his faith in Zarlino's conclusions about ancient music. Mei showed Galilei that Greek music had been single-toned or monophonic rather than polyphonic, and thus it could not serve as a ready guide for modern harmony or counterpoint, the original aim of Zarlino's The Art of Counterpoint. As he combed through the historical record, Mei found no evidence that polyphony and counterpoint had existed in European music before the early fifteenth century. The Greeks, Mei showed, had actively rejected polyphonic music because they believed it diluted the emotional effects of a piece to allow several different melodies and pitches to play at the same time. In 1581, Galilei published his Dialogue on Ancient and Modern Music, a work in which he publicized many of Mei's historical insights and thus threw into question the suitability of ancient theory in the practice of contemporary music. Galilei also examined the ways in which the instruments of his time were tuned, and he showed that none of the tuning systems then in use followed the numerical relationships advocated in the works of the Greeks. The specific tuning of any instruments, he argued, was subjected not to an underlying set of natural and mathematical laws but to the ear itself, which became used to hearing tones in a certain way. According to Galilei, scales, polyphony, the modes, and tuning systems were all mediated by culture and thus had no relationship to universal or cosmic harmonies. His work thus opened up the possibility of viewing the final arbiter of "good" and "bad" music according to mere considerations of taste, a strikingly relativistic notion among the musical theorists of the day. At the same time Galilei did not question that moderns might learn from the ancients, for he included a plea in his work for music that was monodic, that is, which consisted of a single melodic line accompanied by a simple orchestration.


While the debate raged between supporters of Zarlino and Galilei, Galilei played an important role in attempts to revive an historically accurate style of Greek performance. Since the early 1570s, the theorist had been involved in a circle of music connoisseurs and scholars that met in the home of his patron, Vincenzo Bardi in Florence. This group, which later became known as the camerata ("circle"), examined many topics in literature, science, and the arts. Out of this coterie developed the first attempts to fashion recitative. At its origins, recitative was intended to be a naturally expressive vocal line with changes in pitch, rhythm, and tempo that mirrored the text being recited. Galilei himself experimented with recitative, setting to monodic lines selections from Dante's Divine Comedy. His example inspired the poet Ottavio Rinuccini and the composer Jacopo Peri, who wrote the earliest forms of opera in the final years of the sixteenth century.


Growing out of the tradition of the quadrivium, the musical science of the Renaissance encompassed the study of the harmonies, intervals, and proportions of music as a branch of the mathematical sciences. Little change was evident in the musical theory produced in Europe until the later fifteenth century, when humanist-trained scholars began to realize that many previously accepted ideas about ancient music were inaccurate. At this time they ransacked libraries in search of ancient musical texts and imported Greek works from Byzantium, translating these works into Latin, and somewhat later into Italian. From this vantage point, they were now more widely read and studied. Questions continued, though, about the precise harmonic intervals and pitches that had governed ancient music, as many Renaissance theorists believed that these might provide some clues to the relationships that underpinned all Creation and which governed music's relationships to the human body, mind, and spirit. At the same time a definite shift in emphasis is evident in many of the works of musical theory published in the later sixteenth century. In the debate between Gioseffe Zarlino and Vincenzo Galilei, aesthetic questions, rather than mathematical issues, dominated the discussion. In these disputes Galilei promoted the notion that ancient music's power had resided in simple melodic lines, lines that emphasized the text and that possessed the power to move people's hearts and emotions, rather than in mathematical harmonies. He and other thinkers promoted a new art, the recitative, that gave greater weight to words than to harmony, and they attacked many of the polyphonic forms like the madrigal that were then in use. Galilei's own work, however, had set up the human ear as the final arbiter of taste in music, and thus supporters of the madrigal and other polyphonic forms popular at the time were able to counter that these genres were capable of stirring the emotions and of ennobling their listeners. Polyphony did not die out as a result of the innovations of later Renaissance theorists like Galilei and Mei, but recitative and other monodic forms were to be integrated into the early Baroque opera and other musical forms and consequently to enrich the musical choices available to later European composers.


introduction: Gioseffe Zarlino (1517–1590) was the most important musical theorist in Europe before the seventeenth century. In his works he decried the music of the Middle Ages as barbaric and instead insisted that his own period, guided by the ancients, had been successful in recovering true musical practices. For Zarlino, music was comparable to natural law, and aesthetic tastes were to be subjected to certain universal laws that reigned in the cosmos. In the following excerpt he uses such logic to recommend techniques to singers, reminding them that they are to execute the demands and notes set down by the composer.

If music is the science of singing well or of forming good melody … as St. Augustine defines it, and aims at nothing else, how can we include a composition that contains such errors and is so disordered as to be unsupportable to the eye, not to mention the ear, among those that serve this end? …

The composer will seek, therefore, to make his parts easily singable and formed of beautiful, graceful, and elegant movements. Then his listeners will be delighted with them rather than offended.

Matters for the singer to observe are these: First of all he must aim diligently to perform what the composer has written. He must not be like those who, wishing to be thought worthier and wiser than their colleagues, indulge in certain divisions … that are so savage and so inappropriate that they not only annoy the hearer but are ridden with thousands of errors, such as many dissonances, consecutive unisons, octaves, fifths, and other similar progressions absolutely intolerable in composition. Then there are singers who substitute higher or lower tones for those intended by the composer, singing for instance a whole tone instead of a semitone, or vice versa, leading to countless errors as well as offense to the ear. Singers should aim to render faithfully what is written or express the composer's intent, intoning the correct steps in the right places. They should seek to adjust to the consonances and to sing in accord with the nature of the words of the composition; happy words will be sung happily and at a lively pace whereas sad texts call for the opposite. Above all, in order that the words may be understood, they should take care not to fall into the common error of changing the vowel sounds, singing a in place of e, i in place of o, or u in place of one of these; they should form each vowel in accord with its true pronunciation. It is truly reprehensible and shameful for certain oafs in choirs and public chapels as well as in private chambers to corrupt the words when they should be rendering them clearly, easily, and accurately. For example, if we hear singers shrieking certain songs—I cannot call it singing—with such crude tones and grotesque gestures that they appear to be apes … are we not compelled to laugh? Or more truthfully who would not become enraged upon hearing such horribly, ugly counterfeits?

source: Gioseffe Zarlino, The Art of Counterpoint. Trans. G. Marco and C. Palisca (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1968): 110–111.


D. J. Grout and C. V. Palisca, A History of Western Music. 5th ed. (New York: Norton, 1996).

A. E. Moyer, Musica Scientia: Musical Scholarship in the Italian Renaissance (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1992).

C. V. Palisca, Humanism in Italian Renaissance Musical Thought (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1985).

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Music Theory in the Renaissance

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