Music, Instrumental

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Music, Instrumental

During the Renaissance, more music was composed for voices than for instruments. In fact, almost no written instrumental music exists from before 1500. However, there is ample evidence that highly skilled musicians played a wide variety of instruments throughout the period. Music historians have used surviving pieces of sheet music, as well as other sources, to learn about the different forms and styles of instrumental music played during the Renaissance.


Written music from the Renaissance suggests that the instrumental repertory—that is, the types of music performed on instruments—remained much the same throughout the period. Improvisation and embellishment seem to have played a large role in the art of playing an instrument. Improvisation means making up tunes or parts of tunes on the spur of the moment. Embellishment involves adding musical flourishes to an existing melody. Some written music appears to be for instruments alone. Other pieces were probably composed for voices with instrumental accompaniment.

Repertory. Throughout the Renaissance, instrumentalists performed several types of dance music. The earliest known sources of written music for instruments include dances called estampies. These pieces have several sections of irregular length, with each section repeated. Most written dance pieces from the 1400s were also irregular in form. This fact suggests that if simple, regular dance music existed at this time, no one bothered to write it down. Collections from the 1500s include various types of elaborately composed dances, arranged in groups of three. In the late 1500s, English composer William Byrd wrote several complex instrumental pieces based on earlier forms of dance music.

Perhaps the most common type of instrumental music during the Renaissance was the intabulation. This was an instrumental version of a piece of music originally composed for several voices. Composers often altered the original works, making the lower "voices" simpler and the upper ones more complex. Around 1530 abstract pieces called fantasias became common. These were often very similar in form to the vocal pieces known as motets*, making them hard to distinguish from intabulations. By the end of the 1500s, however, the fantasias had taken on a distinct style of their own. Composers wrote fantasias for lute*, for keyboard, and for groups of melody instruments (such as flutes).

Composers also adapted chants—early pieces of religious vocal music with a single melody line—for groups of instruments. They generally placed the melody, with its relatively long notes, in the lower range. Above this ran a high harmony line, known as a descant. The descant was usually fast and complex and often had little relation to the melody. Playing this type of piece was one of the main functions of the organ in Renaissance churches.

To illustrate the different ways of adding a descant to a given melody line, composers produced pieces called fundamenta. The earliest fundamenta were for organ, but several printed books from the late 1500s showed how solo wind or string players could improvise on a melodic line. The fundamenta became the basis for a new musical form, the set of variations. In this form, a composer took a basic theme and altered or embellished it to create several different versions. First found in Spanish music, variations remained relatively rare until the late 1500s, when the form became popular among keyboard composers in England.

In the early 1500s a type of music called the prelude began to appear in keyboard and lute books. These pieces were usually very short and often served merely to set the key, or pitch, of a longer instrumental piece that followed.

Improvisation and Embellishment. Few records exist of the improvisations done by musicians of the 1400s. The available sources suggest that instrumental groups of the time mostly performed dance pieces called bassadanzas, which featured long notes in the tenor range. During the process of learning and rehearsing one of these pieces, some of the musicians probably developed separate melody lines that they played against the main tune. At the time, musicians relied largely on memory in performing, so playing without written music would not have posed too great a challenge for them.

The earliest written sources on the art of improvisation are manuals dating from the later 1500s. They explained how performers could ornament melodic lines. Lute and keyboard sources from the late 1500s also contain a large number of notes instructing the player to add ornamentation.

Instruments and Voices. It is not clear how often instruments were used to accompany vocal music. No pieces of polyphonic music (that is, music that combines several different melody lines) from the 1400s and earlier mention any instrument. However, most songbooks of the 1300s and 1400s supply text only for the highest line of music in each piece. This fact suggests that the lower lines may have been for instruments rather than voices. On the other hand, a number of descriptions of music from the 1400s state clearly that singers performed all the lines, while no descriptions exist of voices and instruments working together until about 1475. Also, the history of musical instruments seems to suggest that most instruments of the time were not suitable for taking part in polyphonic music.

These facts led musical scholars of the 1980s to conclude the polyphonic songs of the early Renaissance had involved only voices and not instruments. However, that idea is probably not accurate. Some instruments of the time—including the harp, the lute, and certain wood-winds—were capable of playing complex melodic lines. Also, in many songs, the lines that have text match the notes to the words, while the lower voices follow a completely different structure. If instruments played these lower lines, it would explain why they did not need to match the text.


Musical historians have gained most of their knowledge about Renaissance instrumental music from written sources. Sheet music of the period appears in several different types of notation, or tablature. The system of tablature in a piece of written music often indicates what instruments were used to play it.

Keyboard Tablature. The earliest known musical manuscripts that are clearly for instruments are all in a form called keyboard tablature. They show several different melody lines on a single page, with no accompanying text. Many of these manuscripts contain some type of letter notation in addition to the musical notes. The only surviving musical document from before 1400 is a fragment of a score that has the upper line in a musical staff with notes, with the rest of the score written in letters to represent the note names. Although no other pieces like it have survived, the notation within the text is fairly consistent, suggesting that the document—known as the Robertsbridge Fragment—was not the only one of its kind, and that instrumental music was already a well-established tradition.

The Robertsbridge Fragment contains three pieces that appear to be dances and three intabulations. Similar types of music appear in sources from the 1400s. The first substantial Renaissance manuscript in keyboard tablature dates from northern Italy in the early 1400s. Known as the Faenza Codex, it contains nearly 50 pieces, mostly versions of French and Italian songs, with some dances and pieces of church music. Another large source, the Buxheim Organbook, dates from the mid-1400s in southern Germany. This book contains over 250 pieces, as well as a long series of examples of musical embellishments.

Although these documents all appear in a form commonly known as "keyboard" tablature, it is not clear that they were actually written for the keyboard. The Faenza Codex, for example, contains several passages of overlapping "voices" that would be almost impossible to perform on a single keyboard instrument. The only specific information about instruments in any of these early sources is a statement above one of the pieces in the Buxheim Organbook, which describes it as "for stringed instruments or also for organ." Overall, it seems likely that many types of instruments could have used these early "keyboard" sources.

The first music that is clearly for keyboard instruments dates from the early 1500s in England. Composers such as William Byrd produced a body of music for the virginal, a type of small harpsichord. These pieces are musically ambitious and technically challenging, and they seem to reflect a style that is unique to the keyboard.

Lute Tablature. Unlike early keyboard pieces, early lute tablature leaves no doubt about its purpose. It includes instructions for the player on where to finger the strings, making the pieces unusable for any instrument other than the lute. Although lutes are known to have existed in western Europe as early as the 1200s, lute tablature did not appear until the late 1400s.

The earliest substantial body of European lute music appears in a series of lutebooks printed in Venice from 1507 onward. Over the course of the 1500s, more than 200 lutebooks were published—much more than any other form of instrumental music. Much of this early lute music requires great technical skill on the part of the musician. All the early collections of lute music focus on the same few genres. They include simple dance music, intabulations, preludes, fantasias, and accompaniments for vocal songs.

By the 1530s, the lute had become the leading instrument of the Renaissance. Famous lute players earned high praise for their skill. A number of these musicians left large collections of their works for lute. Around 1523, a series of popular printed lutebooks in Germany started a tradition of music that was much easier to play. These works appear to have reached a large audience.

Ensemble Sources. Many pieces of Renaissance music appear in ordinary staff notation, making it unclear whether they were written for voices or instruments. However, some musical manuscripts have little or no text added to the music, suggesting that these pieces were for groups of instruments rather than for voices. Documents of this type became much more common around 1480. For example, a set of three songbooks published in Venice in the early 1500s contains almost 300 pieces, nearly all without text beyond a few opening words.

Many of the songs from these three books survive in other versions with text, suggesting that they were originally written for voices. Others, however, seem designed specifically for instrumental groups. Unlike earlier works for instruments, these pieces weave melody lines together in a clear, structured pattern. This suggests that the instrumental style of the 1400s, which relied heavily on improvisation, was giving way to more established forms.

This more formal style, however, does not appear to have taken root. After about 1510, most published works for instrumental groups are either very simple dance pieces or fantasias. Partbooks—sets of books that contain the music for only one instrument in each—were also common at this time. The most striking partbooks from the Renaissance are two manuscript sets from the 1550s and 1560s, which seem to have belonged to wind players at the royal court of Denmark. These two sets of manuscript contain over 300 pieces, including church music, motets, and various types of nonreligious songs.

(See alsoDance; Music; Music, Vocal. )

see color plate 15, vol. 4

* motet

sacred musical work for several voices, usually performed without instruments

* lute

guitarlike stringed instrument with a rounded back

Fantastic Forms

The word fantasia is a general term referring to a type of abstract instrumental piece, similar in form to the motet. Composers used several more specific words for different types of fantasias. The canzona, for example, was similar in style to the French chanson, or song. The ricercar, from an Italian word meaning "to seek again," repeated a theme in a systematic manner. The tiento, by contrast, was more relaxed in design than a formal fantasia. Keyboard fantasias were often called toccatas, from the Italian word for "touched."

Musical Terms


—high harmony line


—adding flourishes to a melody


—abstract instrumental piece


—making up tunes on the spur of the moment


—instrumental version of a vocal piece


—combining several different melody lines


—types of music performed


musical notation


—different versions of a basic theme

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Music, Instrumental

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