Tapia's Gold

Learning to play Renaissance music

One of the important features of much of Renaissance music is that it is polyphonic: several instruments play at once, and they play different melodies that weave together to make the complete sound. Playing with other instruments requires a bit of extra concentration, but the result is literally greater than the sum of the parts. We will illustrate this with the old standby "Pastime with good company" by King Henry VIII of England. The links will play the music that is described; if your computer can play music, it should work here.

If you begin your study of Renaissance music with the soprano recorder, as many do, you would first learn the soprano, or "top" line. Notice that it is a fairly simple tune (except for the "trill" at the end, which can be omitted), and it doesn't sound like much by itself.

You might also choose to play the alto or tenor recorder. The alto was the standard of the later Baroque period, and even in the Renaissance was more common than the soprano. The tenor has an even lower sound, an octave below the soprano. Either one can be used to play the second line of "Pastime". Notice that the tune is somewhat different than the soprano line, and that it, too, doesn't sound like much by itself.

When we put the two together, though, the sound becomes fuller and more "three-dimensional". The word "ensemble" comes from a French word that means "together".

The third line is played on a bass recorder, an octave below the alto. Most beginners don't play the bass (partly because it is written with a different clef), but it is a rewarding and important part of early music. Again, by itself, the bass doesn't sound like much, but added to the other two, it completes the music.

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