Instruments Used During the Renaissance Period

The renaissance was an intriguing period that was marked by a massive transition. It’s an important part of European history that signified a period of transition to modernity from the middle ages. Reports indicate that it started approximately at 1300.


Human beings have been playing instrumental music for so many centuries. However, the use of these tools started to peak during the renaissance period i.e. between 1400 and 1600. Not only was music important for education but it influenced various aspects of life including civic movements, religion, and festivals among others.


During the renaissance, music performers as well as music composers incorporated various instruments in a wide range of music genres, poetry, and recitations. They became important guides that were used to ensure that vocals were balanced and remained on-key. 

​Most of the instruments used during this period belonged to sets of families. Below is an overview of the most common family sets of musical instruments.


1. Keyboards

The history of keyboards goes back to many centuries ago, even before the renaissance period. However, they became very popular during the renaissance. These instruments are soft-sounded hence they were used to play soft music. The renaissance keyboards were used to accompany most songs and as a result, they were often handled as solo instruments. Popular types of instrumental keyboards were:

i. Organs

During medieval times, there were two main types of organs that were used in crusades. There was a large organ that was installed in a fixed place. The small organ was lightweight and portable hence it used to be moved from place to place.

But regardless of the size, these two types of organs still had the same pipe arrangement. The only difference was where they were used. Large organs were mostly used in churches/choirs. The longest pipe was used to produce bass while the shortest one was for treble.

ii. The Harpsichord

The Portuguese call it Cravo, the Germans refer to it as Cembalo, while the Italians know it as Clavicembalo. This pipe organ came with more than one type of a keyboard manual. Even though it is considerably small, more than 10 people can play the harpsichord together.

This instrument was very popular due to the fact that it was louder. Besides that, it could be used for multiple functions in different settings in addition to other instruments. The history of the harpsichord is quite dilute and very little is known about it. One thing that is clear, though, is that it became an important European instrument between the 16th and 18th centuries.

iii. The Clavichord

The European stringed keyboard is designed with a rectangular shape. Its use became very common in the Late Middle Age, making it a widespread instrument during the renaissance. At that time, Clavichord was mostly used for practical purposes with the aim of aiding music composition.

To play it, its strings need to be pushed at a certain tangent and it also has the ability to create a vibrating effect. History indicates that the Clavichord was invented at the beginning of the 14th century, just when the period of the renaissance was starting as well.

iv. The Virginal

This is a pair of instruments and that’s why sometimes it’s known as the Virginals. Historical reports indicate that this instrument’s name could have potentially come from a Latin word “virga” that loosely translates to wooden shafts or jacks.

It was popular among those composers that valued portability and couldn’t use the harpsichord. The Virginal has just a single string per note that is designed to run parallel to the keyboard. To play it, the composer has to place the instrument on the table since it doesn’t have legs.


v. The Spinet

Just like the Virginal, the Spinet is considered as the smaller version of the harpsichord. It first originated in Italy around the 16th century. But due to its popularity, its use quickly spread to England and France.

It has a winged shape in addition to a single string set that’s placed at an oblique angle next to the keyboard. Besides being great and portable music instruments, spinets were also used for aesthetical purposes due to their attractive design.

Did you know that piano history dates as far back as ancient Biblical times? Find out more: Interesting Facts about Piano History: The Renaissance Period

2. Percussion

It’s a type of music instrument set that produces sound after being struck by a beater. During the renaissance period, percussion instruments mainly included bells, Jew’s hap, certain drums, and the tambourine.

i. Jew’s harp

Jew’s harp is a steel instrument that produces sound when it’s used to pronounce vowels with the human mouth. It is made of a flexible metal tongue (sometimes bamboo tongue) that’s attached to a frame with a loop. Its tongue needs to be placed inside the performer’s mouth and then the loop end is plucked with the finger to produce a high note of a constant pitch.

It should be noted that performers can create different tunes by changing the shape of the mouth. This happens as they try to pronounce various vowels. As a result, the Jew’s harp normally produces various overtones.

Note: The modern Jew’s harp is distinct from what was used in the renaissance period. It’s well-crafted to produce more refined sounds. The renaissance Jew’s harp instrument was banned during the revival period because the steel material used to construct it was in high demand.

ii. Tambourine

The old design of tambourine that was used during the renaissance featured a frame drum minus the jingles that are normally attached to the side. However, the growing demand for music genres for different activities saw the evolvement of this device.

It was made with jingles and its name even changed. During the crusades, the tambourine was called timbrel and it had a single skin surrounding the frame. This skin is what was known as the vellum and it made it easier for any dancer to play it.

To produce sound, the dancer needs to strike the frame’s surface with the hand, fingertips, or knuckles since it has jingles. Besides that, you can just shake it and it will produce jingling sounds.

​3. Aerophones

They are also known as woodwind instruments. Aerophones made during the renaissance had vibrating air columns that were used to produce sounds. These instruments normally have holes along the pipes that are vital for sound control as well as sound variation. To do this, the player has to close or leave open various holes in order to produce different pitches.

The way aerophones vibrate depends on the family subset. A player can blow air across the double reed, a single reed, or across the mouth hole, just like with the modern-day flute.

i. The recorder

It’s still a popular instrument even in the current times. The recorder was mainly used during the renaissance to teach students in elementary schools. It has a whistle mouthpiece which the user blows in to produce sound. Just like most aerophones, the recorder comes with a thumb hole in addition to 7 finger holes.

ii. Transverse Flute

Its design features a mouth hole located near its stoppered end in addition to finger holes. The flute is held on the right side and the player then blows air into its long body. Note that the device used during this period is still similar to the modern flute.

iii. Reed Instruments

During the period of transition, these instruments were mostly the double-reed type. This means that they had the design of the modern oboe and not the modern clarinet that has a single-reed. There are several types of reed instruments used during the renaissance and the most common ones feature the likes of:

  • Shawm: it was the basis of reed instruments. A shawm is almost foot long in size and it has around 7 finger holes for pitch control. Additionally, the renaissance music tool has a thumb hole and it was considered a highly attractive addition thanks to the decorated wood carving design. The double-reed equipment was popularly used in crusades especially in streets since it had a deafeningly loud sound. To enhance its effectiveness, shawm was used with trumpets and drums.
  • Crumhorn: it is a type of closed reed that has a wind cap with a hole. To play crumhorn, you have to blow air into the hole to produce buzzing sounds. Crumhorns were very popular in Germany where consort music was played. The tool was available in different sizes to cater to different needs. Out of the many reed instruments, the crumhorn is one of the few that didn’t evolve and so it doesn’t have a modern descendant.
  • Reed pipe: it is made by using a short single-length cane that contains a mouthpiece. Besides that, the reed pipe has 4/5 finger holes that the player uses to control sound variations. It’s normally considered as the predecessor of clarinet or sax.


iv. Bladderpipe

It is also known as the bagpipe. Bladderpipe’s origins are quite interesting since it is believed that it was herdsmen who first used it. Its design features a goat or sheep skin and this is what encloses the air that’s blown in the instrument.


v. Tenor and bass shawms

They are longer types of reed instruments. Tenor and bass shawms are made with a bore-doubled back. They are used to produce tenor and bass sounds. Generally, these devices are loud and this made them ideal for use in crusades.

4. Chordophones

They are also known as stringed or string instruments. They are simple to use since they basically produce sound when the strings are stroked. Chordophones used during the renaissance period were diverse, in terms of design and size.

Besides that, they are highly versatile and so they were used in a wide range of activities. The most common instruments found under this category include plucked strings and bowed strings.

i. Plucked strings

Most of them belong to the lute family. The instruments have “bodies” and “necks” with the strings running along the long neck. The body is normally used to provide a resonating effect. Examples of plucked strings are:

  • Lute: it’s a general description that refers to a string instrument designed with strings that run parallel to its sound table. Its back is deep and round it’s usually plucked to produce different tonal variations.
  • Lyre: this is another example of a plucked string instrument that is designed with strings perpendicular to the soundboard. Lyre belongs to the harp family and to produce sound, players have to depress its key while a plectrum is used to strike the strings.

ii. Bowed String Instrument

These devices consist of bowed strings that have to be ribbed in order to produce sound-emitting vibrations. Common devices that belong to the bowed string instruments subcategory features the likes of:

  • Viol: it’s an old type of instrument that was first developed in the 15th century. At that time, a viol was designed with 6 strings, and players used to use it alongside a bow. To play it, the instrument has to be placed between the player’s legs such that it stays in an upright position. There is some resemblance between the modern-day cello and viol in the manner in which the latter is placed and played.
  • Lira da Braccio: it is also known as Lyra de bracio. This is an ancient type of bowed string instrument with European origins. Lira da braccio’s popularity started to peak during the renaissance as it was mostly used by the Italian poet-musicians who worked in courts. Ideally, it was used to guide them as they narrated poetry and recited song lyrics. Lira da Braccio has the design of the modern-day violin, even though it has a flatter bridge.

Did you know that  early violins had only 3 strings? Find out more: Interesting Facts on Violin History: The Renaissance Period

There was a wide range of musical genres and styles during the renaissance period. This versatility made music to flourish and it led to the design and upgrade of various music ensembles. During this period, music was an important part of life, especially in religious, civic, and court life.

The above-mentioned instruments were some of the most common during the renaissance. Most of them are built-in families and were used with different music styles. Some of the instruments were even improvised as time went by. The best thing is that some of these instruments are still around and are being used in the creation of various music genres, even though our taste and style of music have changed over the centuries. 

Find out more about Willan Academy of Music in NYC.

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