Medieval and Renaissance Musical Texture and Instruments

16th Century Harpsichord
16th Century Harpsichord. De Agostini/G. Nimatallah/Getty Images

During the Middle Ages, musical texture was monophonic, meaning it has a single melodic line. Sacred vocal music such as Gregorian chants were 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 one or more melodic lines to the Gregorian chants. This 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 was 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 status of composers, the invention of printing and religious reformation were some of the factors that contributed to these changes.​​​

Musical Instruments Used

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.

More Information

  • Medieval Music Timeline - Music during the Middle Ages is characterized by the beginning of musical notation as well as polyphony. During this time, there were two general types of music styles; the monophonic and the polyphonic. In order to fully understand how music evolved during the Medieval period, look at the timeline of events.
  • Composers of the Middle Ages - During this period, there were several composers and musicians who largely contributed to how music evolved.
  • Renaissance Music Timeline - This period brought about many changes in the way music was created and perceived. To fully grasp the changes that occurred in music during this period, read this timeline.
  • Composers of the Renaissance Period - This period signifies the rebirth of classical learning and an increased patronage of music. Here are some of the notable composers during the Renaissance period.

Also read about the rise of secular music and music forms of the Renaissance.

Some glossary words that may be associated with the Middle Ages and the Renaissance include the following:

  • Mass ordinary - Refers to the 5 Latin text (Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, and Agnus Dei) that are sung during mass. These texts remain the same for every mass.
  • Organum - A type of medieval music that has polyphonic texture achieved by adding harmonies to chants.
  • Word painting - A technique used by composers wherein they illustrate words through music (i.e. changing pitches, tempo, rise and fall of melodic lines, etc.).


    Music An Appreciation, 6th Brief Edition, by Roger Kamien © McGraw Hill