Renaissance Period - Melody

General characteristics of melodies in the Renaissance period

  • Melodies were mainly based on modes - types of scale found in the Medieval and Renaissance periods.
  • Most of the melodies were conjunct with the occasional leap. This is because the majority of compositions were still vocal. Step-wise melodies are very suitable for singers.
  • The range of most Renaissance melodies was limited to the vocal range for which the melodies were written. Instrumental melodies have similarly narrow ranges.

Melodic devices


Imitation can be found in a lot of sacred choral music from the Renaissance period. A melody would often be sung in one voice - eg soprano - and then copied by another voice shortly afterwards.

An example of this can be found in the motet Sicut cervus by Giovanni Pierlugi da Palestrina. The tenor opens with a simple conjunct melody, which is imitated by the alto line shortly afterwards - a perfect fifth above. The soprano and bass then imitate the same melody. All of the entries in this motet are imitative. It is worth listening to the whole thing to hear how the individual lines work together. Another example of imitation can be heard in William Byrd’s Civitas sancti tui.

An example of imitation from Sicut cervus by Giovanni Pierluigi.


Composers of Renaissance madrigals often used word-painting to set their chosen texts as expressively and effectively as possible. In Weelkes’ madrigal As Vesta was from Latmos Hill Descending, the word “descending” is set to a descending scale, and the word “ascending” is set as an ascending scale. The music descends when the voices sing “running down amain”, and Thomas Weelkes even reflects “two by two”, “three by three” and “together” in the number of voices singing each time.

An example of word-painting showing ascending and descending notes.


A lot of Renaissance instrumental music is decorated with ornaments. These include mordents, trills and turns. They appear in a lot of keyboard and lute music of the time. A good example is My Lady Nevell’s Ground by Byrd.

A mordent is formed by playing a note, the note above and then returning to the first note.

This video explains a mordent and its effect:

Ornaments, from acciaccatura to appoggiatura, and the more pronounceable examples, such as mordent and trill


A trill is two adjacent notes that are played rapidly one after the other.


A turn is a short decoration consisting of the note above the one indicated, the note itself, the note below the one indicated, and the note itself again. It is marked by a mirrored S-shape lying on its side above the stave.

An example of a turn marked by a S-shape lying on its side above the stave.