Tapia's Gold

The instruments of Renaissance music

Musical instruments have been in use for millennia, but their place in the music of the Middle Ages and Renaissance was often sharply defined and restricted. In the view of the Mediæval church, the human voice was an instrument created by God, and thus more able to sing His glories than instruments created by people. Because of this view, sacred music was predominantly vocal music.

Instrumental music already had a long history, and in some cultures was at least as important as vocal music, but popular instrumental music especially suffered from being regarded as "pagan". Inasmuch as many folk tunes likely predate the spread of Christianity, this was not an unreasonable view.

During the Middle Ages, instrumental music was most often an accompaniment: it accompanied voice, it accompanied dance, it accompanied ceremony, and it accompanied war. Only toward the end of the Renaissance did instrumental music "for its own sake" become common, and even the people of that era might have been astonished at the crowds attending concerts in the age of Beethoven or even Mozart.

Music in the early Middle Ages was largely monophonic. When several instruments played together, they probably took turns, or else played in unison or in octaves. As polyphony developed, so did the idea of a musical ensemble: instruments chosen because they blended well. Especially among the wind instruments, there were two types of ensembles, loud (haut) and soft (bas), the French terms referring to the volume, rather than the pitch as they do today. The basic loud instrument was the shawm (even today, people characterize them as loud), and the group also included dulcians, sackbuts, tabor pipes, and trumpets. Loud instruments were seldom played indoors except in large halls. Soft instruments, such as recorders, crumhorns, and racketts, were ordinarily played indoors. Cornettos, flutes, and serpents could play with either loud or soft ensembles.

Recorders and flutes


Many people think recorder when they hear "Renaissance", and all the instrumentalists of Tapia's Gold play the recorder at one time or another, but the recorder was only one of many instruments of that period. In fact, there are more recorders in existence now than in all of history prior to 1900, because of a revival of the instrument in the early part of this century and its widespread use in schools.

Like many instruments of the time, recorders came in various sizes, to match different "voices" of part-music (which began as vocal music). Modern recorders come in soprano, alto, tenor, and bass, as well as less common sizes above soprano and below bass, but all of them are pitched an octave above the corresponding range of the human voice (so that a tenor recorder plays the same notes as a soprano singer). This is because recorders have fewer harmonics than many other wind instruments, and so sound lower. The Recorder Home page, by Nicholas Lander of West Australia, is the basic source on the web for information about recorders.

[musician playing pipe and tabor]

The tabor pipe is similar to a recorder, but has only three holes for the fingers of one hand. It is played at the same time as the tabor, a small drum, in an early version of the "one-man band". Because tabor pipes are played by taking advantage of higher harmonics, their sound is very shrill. These instruments are featured at Pipe and Tabor, The Morris Instrument

Another common Renaissance instrument was the flute - not the metal keyed flute of today, but a wooden flute with no keys, or sometimes a key for the lowest note. The modern instrument most like the Renaissance flute is the Irish wooden flute. Another flute-like instrument, unchanged from the Renaissance, is the fife.

Reed instruments


Most of the reed instruments of the Renaissance were of the double-reed type, like the modern oboe, rather than the single-reed, like the modern clarinet. The basic reed instrument was the shawm. It was the most common loud band instrument, and was used for the sorts of things that brass instruments would be used for today. [dulcian]Its development had been heavily influenced by the middle eastern zurna, encountered by Crusaders generations before. Shawms came in several sizes; the tenor and bass instruments were called bombardes or Pommern. The modern oboe developed from the shawm.

Tenor and bass shawms were very long instruments. To make them more convenient, in the late Renaissance they were built with the bore doubled back on itself. This instrument, forerunner of the modern bassoon, was called the dulcian. As the name implies, they have a somewhat sweeter sound than shawms, but they are also loud instruments. [rackett]Softer versions with cylindrical bores were called sordunes.

By folding the tube even more, as many as nine times, one gets the rackett, a very short instrument with a deep sound. Although our modern word "racket" comes from the name of this instrument, it has a soft sound similar to a deep kazoo.

All the preceding reed instruments had open reeds, but the crumhorn had its reed enclosed in a "windcap" with a hole that the player would blow into. [crumhorn]Crumhorns make a buzzing sound very unlike any modern instrument. They came in several sizes, and were popular for consort music, especially in Germany. No modern instrument is descended from the crumhorn, although the bagpipe practice chanter [bagpipe](which has no bag) works on a similar principle. The Crumhorn Home page, also by Nicholas Lander, is a good reference.

Bagpipes have been in use in various parts of Europe, North Africa, and western Asia for at least three millennia. During the Renaissance, bagpipes were used primarily for popular or folk music, but were taken as a "serious" musical instrument in some countries.

"Brass" instruments


Modern brass instruments, like trumpets, trombones, and tubas, have cup-shaped mouthpieces and valves or slides. In the Renaissance, valves hadn't been invented, and instruments with cup mouthpieces weren't necessarily made of brass. The most familiar instrument was the sackbut, ancestor of the trombone. Trombones have larger bells and wider tubes than sackbuts, but are otherwise little changed in the past 500 years. Many modern "sackbuts" are actually cut-down trombones.

Another brass instrument was the natural or valveless trumpet. Unlike a modern trumpet, the natural trumpet plays all the notes only at the highest harmonics. In the Renaissance it was used mainly for war and for fanfares, but in the later Baroque period virtuoso players used it in concertos and other complex music.


The cornetto or zink was made of wood, but modeled on an older, more primitive horn made of an actual goat's horn. The cornetto has finger holes, somewhat similar to a recorder, but plays with a cup mouthpiece smaller than that of a modern French Horn. Its sound is said to blend well with the human voice.

Cornettos came in several sizes; the largest, or bass, was developed at the end of the sixteenth century for accompanying singers in churches. It is called a serpent because of its curving shape. Serpents were common band instruments throughout the Baroque and Classical periods, but were eventually replaced by tubas.

Other instruments

[musician playing viola da braccia]

Viols were important instruments throughout the Renaissance and well into the Baroque period. They are superficially like violins, and played with a bow, but they have six strings rather than four, and frets, as well as a somewhat different sound. Two common sizes were the viola da braccia, held over the arm (braccia is Italian for "arm") and the larger viola da gamba, held between the legs (gamba is Italian for "leg") Other bowed instruments were played in folk music.

Besides the tabor, other drums were used, including tambourines and various small kettle drums, many dating back to the Middle Ages and before. Drums were common in folk and some types of dance music, but were evidently not often used in "serious" music of the period.

Plucked string instruments included the lute, cittern, and bandura. There were large keyboard instruments - organs and early harpsichords, but also portable versions, the portative organ and the virginal.

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Copyright © 1997, 1999 by Curtis Clark.
This page may be reproduced in its entirety for nonprofit educational use.
Drawings of instruments are from Syntagma Musicum by Michael Praetorius and Orchesographie by Thoinot Arbeau.