After the fall of the Roman Empire in the fifth century, European music remained virtually unchanged for one thousand years. However, in the middle of the fifteenth century musicians looked back to the ancient world for inspiration and began what we now call the renaissance era. Literally, [i]renaissance[i] means “rebirth.” This rebirth started earlier in other forms of art because sculptors, architects, writers, and poets could look directly upon the works created in ancient times and study them in detail. But, musicians had a distinct disadvantage — they had access to only a few scattered bits of musical compositions that were impossible to understand. The extensive writings of Plato and other philosophers were intact though, and they revealed how important and powerful music was to society in ancient Rome and Greece. These words inspired renaissance composers to experiment with their music, opening new worlds of ideas to their craft.

The renaissance era brought a new level of importance to musicians as individuals. Also, music was viewed as an art instead of a science. In the Middle Ages music was grouped with geometry and arithmetic, and it was written down anonymously by people who tried to please God with their work. In the renaissance music was grouped in a category with the arts, and it was composed by individuals who sought to create works which were pleasing to their own ears.

The greatest renaissance composer was Josquin Desprez (c.1440-1521). Like Leonardo da Vinci and other renaissance artists, Desprez was an educated, well-rounded individual. Some of his greatest contributions to music were in his motets. A motet was a religious work that was sung by a choir, usually in a church. Unlike the single melodic lines of the Gregorian chant, Josquin’s motets consisted of four different vocal parts — soprano, alto, tenor, and bass, which often weaved around and overlapped each other.

The greatest mechanical creation of the renaissance was Johann Gutenberg’s printing press that was invented around 1460. This new machine led to the rapid spread of ideas and information (similar to the computer that you are staring at right now), forever changing Western society. By 1500 printing presses were used to mass-produce music, bringing new compositions to a rapidly growing middle class in Europe. The popular music of that time was the [i]madrigal[i], which was first performed in Italy. Thanks in large part to the printing press; this new form of music quickly became popular in all of Western Europe.

The madrigal is a piece for four or five singers. Unlike the motet, it was based on love poems and sung in the language of the people, not the language of the church (Latin). A significant characteristic of the madrigal was its [i]word painting[i] which is musical imitation of the words being sung. For example, if the text of the poem said “I am running to you as quickly as I can,” then the music at that point might suddenly include faster notes. If the text says, “My heart is slowing with sadness,” then the speed of notes might decrease.

In renaissance society it was expected that people of culture could sing and read music. Madrigals were not difficult to perform and were written to provide enjoyment for amateurs as well as professionals and their audiences. Thus began a trend of involving non-professionals in the making of music. To this day, there are madrigal societies that meet for their own pleasure