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Comparison of Renaissance and Classical Music

Comparison of Renaissance and Classical Music


Music is one of the essential elements of culture, which has guided the humanity from the first days of its existence. In general, it can be regarded as a stable notion, characterized by such features as tone, rhythm, and others. Nevertheless, if to treat music not only as the combination of musical notes but also as the reflection of social features of life, it is possible to notice that it has unique shades in every epoch. An example of it can be found in the analysis of music from the period of Renaissance and Classicism. The Renaissance is known as the time of humanistic struggles, which is rich in free melodies with deep meaning. In contrast to it, the Classical period is famous for the confrontation between art and materialistic values, presented in the form of abstract melodies. Due to it, the comparison of Renaissance and Classical melodies shows that music is different not only from the stylistic perspectives but also in terms of social aims.

Characteristics of Music in the Renaissance Period

The period of Renaissance (1450 – 1600), known by the works of such composers as Antoine Brumel (1460-1520), John Dowland (1563-1626), Jean de Castro (1540-1611), Claudin de Sermisy (1490-1562), and Thomas Morley (1557-1602), was the fertile ground for the development of art. The main goal of this time was to revive the rich culture of Antique world and bring it to new heights. Especially, it can be noticed in music. The Renaissance preserved the antique tradition to value vocal music. It was perceived as more sophisticated in comparison with instrumental one. In addition, it revived the interest to the combination of music and language. During the Renaissance period, the composers paid special attention to the meaning of the words in musical compositions and emotions conveyed through them. Their main task was to make music similar to the art of painting. In other words, they strived to create certain images with the help of musical tones.

Moreover, Renaissance music was based not only on the Antique traditions. It retained some features of the medieval times. One of them was the sacred objective of music. In most cases, music was created under the influence of church. It can be proved by the fact that hymn was the most popular genre of the period of Renaissance (Hoffman 204). Nevertheless, the tendency to retain some peculiarities of the previous epochs does not mean that Renaissance music is not unique. Firstly, the special feature of Renaissance art is the combination of a sacred character with a secular one. Royal Courts became the most influential institution together with the church, which sponsored the creation of new musical material. Due to it, during the period of Renaissance, music gained the status of the mass treasure. Motets, madrigal setting texts as well as dance forms made music close to the society (Hoffman 204). Moreover, it helped music transform from the sacred perspective. The period of Renaissance with its creativity brought freedom to the texts of hymns. Secondly, the peculiarity of Renaissance music can be noticed in terms of style. Although vocal music was of great importance, the composers of Renaissance wanted to foster the development.

Due to it, music styles became more complex, including the parts for different instruments. For example, such instruments as recorder and lute were widely used in the period of Renaissance. Finally, Renaissance music has a unique inner structure. Its special feature is a polyphonic texture, which means the combination of many lines of music, played at the same time. In addition, Renaissance music is characterized by full sound, created with the help of the bass register, lifting the range of music to four octaves. The rhythm of Renaissance music is also a special one. It can be defined as a flowing stream without a sharply defined beat. It provides the melodies with large leaps, which are easy to sing because of it (Hoffman 205).

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Renaissance Music as a Mirror of Society

The analysis of Renaissance music also helps to define the social peculiarities of life of that time. Firstly, music reveals the most influential social institutions. It shows the power of church with the help of the hymns. In the Renaissance, the church choirs remained the main mechanism of bringing music to the folks. However, secular composers, such as kings, dukes, and princes, indicated the growing role of the secular institutions in music creation. As courts contributed to the development of music, it became a server of church as well as people. During the period of Renaissance, the performance of music for civic processes was common practice. Secondly, the thematic peculiarities, especially lyrics of compositions, show the desire of people to gain the freedom from the oppression of the church.

In other words, Renaissance music was the main tool in the struggles for human rights (Hoffman 204). Thirdly, the spread of music with the help of secular institutions created the image of the ideal person of the period of Renaissance. As the music was the domain only of educated people, an enlightened person was regarded as an example to follow. In addition, the high secular value of music helped people understand that education was not only a way to find God but also gain income. Finally, Renaissance music shows that the development of culture stimulates the improvement of society. The growth of music popularity inspired people to invent printing. It helped to spread music in a fast and effective way (Hotle 47).

Characteristics of Music in the Classical Period

The Classical period (1750 – 1820), known for the works of such composers as Franz Joseph Haydn (1732-1809), Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827), Franz Peter Schubert (1797-1828),Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791), and Carl Philipp Stamitz (1745-1801), brought the new understanding of music. It tried to show the value of this art from the pure perspective. In other words, during this time, people valued the music for art sake. It can be noticed when observing its different features. Firstly, lyrics were not regarded as the main element of compositions. Many composers tried to create the abstract music, deprived of any direct meaning. The proof of it can be found even in the titles of compositions – Piano Concerto No. 1 in C Major (Staines and Clark 52). Secondly, the pure evaluation of music can be noticed in the typical forms of music of the Classical period. They were sonata, symphony, concerto, and string quartet. The main aim of them was not to impress the listeners by the texts but to create the perfect combination of instruments in the lines of melody. Thirdly, the “music for art sake” principle can be found in the attitude of composers towards their work. They wanted to be treated as the rulers but not as the servants. In other words, composers created music not because of the desires of society but their own ones. An example of it can be noticed even in the tendency to choose musical instruments.

For instance, the musicians preferred to use the piano instead of the harpsichord because it gave an opportunity for a player to adjust the dynamic with the help of the force pressing on the keys. Thus, the piano was the symbol of independence and creativity (Staines and Clark 93). Finally, the structure of Classical music also shows the main objective of the Classical period to value pure art. The pattern of Classical music was not the combination of clear lines. Composers did not regard fluidity and smoothness as the essential features of their works. In contrast to it, they conveyed various moods with the help of different components of the composition. Sudden change in the length of notes and pauses were the common tools for it. Syncopation also contributed to the creation of “chaos” within the musical composition (Hoffman 240).

Nevertheless, not all features of music had an objective to fox the listeners. From the perspective of texture, it becomes clear that Classical music was homophonic. It means that the composers based the compositions on the main melody, supported by the progression of chords. In addition, Classical music is characterized by the tunes which are easy to remember. Although the structure was rather complex, the listeners easily noticed the basic melody to follow. It was so because the balance and symmetry were hidden in the compositions with the help of two phrases of the same length (Hoffer 124). Moreover, if to read the Classical music between the lines, it becomes clear that the meaning is also its unique feature. Although music was created for art sake, the main goal of this art was to engage the society in the secret way.  For example, the composers communicated with public indirectly with the help of such mechanisms as the crescendo and decrescendo (Hoffler 125).

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Classical Music as a Mirror of Society

In general, the Classical period was characterized by the significant economic development of many countries. Money became the most important factor of the society. Due to it, the society was divided into two main classes, namely the middle class and the poor one. The middle class could afford to meet almost all social needs. For example, in comparison with poor people, they had the opportunity to get profound education and cultural development (Breer 18). Music was one of the essential elements of it. Many composers understood that it was not right to sell music. They wanted to show that music was the bigger treasure in comparison with materialistic prosperity. Due to it, they developed the principle – music for art sake. They achieved it with the help of creativity and the refusal to follow conventional rules.

Nevertheless, it was impossible to ignore the needs of society completely. Following the inquiries of society for home music education, the composers tried to make the main melody within compositions easy to follow. That is why, in general, Classical music can be regarded from two social perspectives. On the one hand, it did not want to reflect the actual state of things and strived to make the society better from the artistic point of view. On the other hand, it followed the general societal tendencies. Music was simplified in some way so that the middle class could fully understand it.

The Comparison of Renaissance and Classical Music

The analysis of Renaissance and Classical music shows that there are many differences between them. The first one can be distinguished in terms of musical goals of both periods. During the Renaissance, music was the tool of humanistic struggles. It helped to show a human being as the greatest treasure and saved it from the church oppression. Classical music did not have a direct social goal. It was mainly regarded as an object of art. Nevertheless, if to read between the lines, it becomes clear that Classical composers wanted to show that music was bigger treasure than money. Secondly, it is different from the thematic perspective. For the composers of the Renaissance period, the main tool to convey the meaning was text. In other words, the communication via music was direct. Due to it, vocal music was more popular than instrumental one. For the composers of the Classical period, lyrics in music were not important. Their goal was to interact with the audience in a hidden way through the play of instruments.

The sudden change in notes and unexpected pauses were the main tools to evoke the emotions in listeners. Thirdly, the differences can be noticed in the attitude towards different musical instruments. During the period of Renaissance, musicians preferred such instruments as recorder and lute. The reasons for it were the easy-to-understand tunes and standardized procedure of performing. The classical composers were charmed by the piano. They liked this instrument because it gave an opportunity to be creative and adjust the melodies to their tastes. In other words, the piano was regarded as a tool of art liberation.

Finally, the changes can be noticed in the music structure. In the period of Renaissance, music was regarded as a flow of a stream. Due to it, the polyphonic structure with a combination of different musical lines was popular. In the Classical period, the composers did not want to simplify music. For them, musical composition was not the wholeness but the abstract chaos. That is why it consisted of many parts, which were responsible for different moods. Nevertheless, in order to adjust to the tastes of middle class, they adopted the homophonic texture, based on one main melody, supported by the progression of chords. The differences can also be noticed in rhythm. In the Renaissance period, rhythm was not sharply defined by beats. It gave an opportunity to make the composition smooth and flowing. In the Classical period, rhythm was a tool of chaos creation. It was characterized by syncopation – an unexpected break of the regular flow. In many cases, the goal of composers was to present the composition as a living organism, which did not follow the conventional rules.

Renaissance and Classical music has also some features in common. Firstly, both types of music were mainly secular in its nature. They were used to make the society better and improve its spirituality. In the Renaissance, music was employed with the humanistic aim. It wanted to show the human being as the greatest creation of God. In the Classical period, this objective was an artistic one. Music was created to enhance the art. Nevertheless, it does not mean that the church was deprived of music. As church music was unified and standardized, these two epochs showed that music as a kind of art found the best conditions for the development in the society.

The Reasons for Differences

The analysis of Renaissance and Classical music helped to define the root of these variations. As music is a mirror of society, the peculiarities of people’s life in different times are reflected in it. For example, Renaissance music was created in the period of fight between the sacred and secular sides. Due to it, music was the server of society. In other words, it performed the noble humanistic goal. That is why the smoothness, fluidity, and direct textual meaning were used to enlighten the society. In the Classical period, money occupied the most important place in the people’s lives. That is why music as an element of culture did not want to follow this tendency. The abstract structure and the hidden meaning were the main tools to save the music from the harmful influence of the consumer society. However, it is necessary to underline that music as a type of art cannot remain totally separated from the society. It can be proved by the fact that Classical music was simplified in many aspects due to the desires of the main social class, namely the middle class. In other words, Classical music proved that music cannot exist only for art sake; it should be a paid activity as well.


To sum up, Renaissance and Classical music is different from many perspectives. In general, Renaissance music was the server of the society, which helped people gain the freedom from the sacred oppression with the help of smoothness, fluidity and rich texts. In contrast to it, Classical music was the opponent of conventional consumer society using such methods of fight as abstractness, pauses, the variations of notes range, the absence of traditional rhythmical pattern, and the decoded meaning. Nevertheless, it does not mean that there are no similar features in these types of music. They both wanted to make the society better and improve it from the spiritual point of view. The reasons for these changes and the similarities can be found in the peculiarities of the society, in which they were created. That is why music can be treated as the main mirror of the societal processes.

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