Music Well – Dosia McKay, Composer, Painter, Writer

Reflections on Art and Life

Delightful Art – Education, Techniques, and a Toolbox of Renaissance Composers

Did Renaissance composers in training use pencil and paper? Did they study scores of their mentors? Was improvisation strictly forbidden? What was the ratio of boys to girls in a classroom?

schoolFor a young contemporary composer a serious study of music composition begins with the analysis of Renaissance masters. One cannot fully appreciate modern composition techniques and orchestration until he or she has been immersed in the art of counterpoint; studying the shape of individual lines of polyphony, and understanding the tension of dissonance and its resolution in consonance. The western music education world has followed this sequence for several centuries with much success. And rightly so, since a careful examination of Renaissance music autographs, treatises, and culture shows that the composers of that period were highly skilled, well educated artisans with superior ear training capacity and a wide collection of intricate compositional tools at their disposal, worthy of imitation.

While during medieval times learning was mostly associated with the prosperous cathedrals and colleges of the Roman Catholic Church and centered on religious worship, the Renaissance saw new approaches to education as the Reformation swept through Europe. When Martin Luther restored the long lost doctrine of the priesthood of all believers to Christianity, and as the winds of change blew across stagnated Catholic Europe, artists and scholars began to see their calling in a new light. Educators sought to revive the principles of the classic education to equip their students in various disciplines of art and sciences, and music came to the forefront.

Johannes TinctorisLewis Lockwood, in his Grove Music Online article “Renaissance”, points out that one of the pioneers of humanist learning was Johannes Tinctoris who, in the preface to his Proportionale (c1472–5), cites Plato’s idea of the science of music as being “the mightiest of all.” Tinctoris argues that “no one ignorant of music could be considered truly educated.”(1) In Lutheran and Calvinist schools music became one of the primary and mandatory subjects. Christle Collins Judd, in Reading Renaissance Music Theory, describes the requirements for the position of a rector of the Latin school in Nuremberg, who was expected to be not only a scholar, but also a musician. The list of his duties included oversight of the school choir, which was responsible for chant and polyphony in the daily worship services of the local church.(2)

Renaissance ChoirAnother example of the importance Renaissance Europeans placed on music studies is given by Charles Plummerige in his Grove Music Online article on music schools. Plummerige describes an ambitious German course of study by Martin Agricola entitled Ein kurz deudsche Musica (1528), intended for the boys at the Lateinschule in Magdeburg, which comprised musical theory and exercises to be followed for a period of ten years.(3) Germany was not a uniquely progressive country at that time as many European grammar schools (for example in Spain and in France) included counterpoint, choral, and instrumental instruction in their curricula.(4) In addition to institutional studies, it was customary for students to pursue private instruction while serving as apprentices to established composers and performers.(5) These examples illustrate the scope and intensity of musical training available during the Renaissance. The atmosphere of respect for the arts and scholarship proved to be fertile ground, which produced many superb composers, such as Orlande de Lassus, Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, Luca Marenzio, and Thomas Morley, to name a few.

Although counterpoint was a part of many school curricula, its study did not necessarily equate with the study of composition itself; it was merely a basic requirement for all music students. Perhaps in keeping with the classic Greek understanding of the hierarchy of musical specializations, in which the composer was elevated above the performer, Adrianus Petit Coclico (possibly a pupil of Josquin des Pres)(6) writes of Josquin that he “did not […] consider all suited to learn composition; he judged that only those should be taught who were drawn to this delightful art by a special natural impulse”.(7) Composition instruction was most likely given only to bright and promising students. According to Coclico, Josquin taught composition to students only after they proved to be fluent in singing and counterpoint.(8)

Pietro Aron - Thoscanello de la musicaAlthough it is difficult to reconstruct the compositional process of a student, or to fully understand how composition was taught during the Renaissance, a number of artifacts from that period survive to shed light on specific tools of young composers. Owens describes examples of cadences for two or four voices catalogued in a music treatise “Regule de contrapuncto” and provides copies of consonance tables. Other manuscripts that she references preserve collections of musical phrases and counterpoint exercises over a cantus firmus.(9) Many other treatises by such composers and theorists as Johannes Tinctoris, Pietro Aaron, Adrianus Petit Coclico, Nicola Vicantino, Gioseffo Zarlino, Pietro Pontio, Vincenzo Galilei, and Giovanthomaso Cimello were in circulation and became increasingly more accessible with the invention of the printing press. They were the textbooks of the leading European schools and were well known by composition students. These treatises discuss rules of voice leading, the function of dissonance, suspensions, construction of chords, rules associated with composition of particular musical segments (beginning, middle, end), as well as specific structural rules governing fugues, canons, and cadences.(10) The treatises provide not only descriptions of the compositional process, along with the music notation, but also tables aiding the students in understanding the art of counterpoint. For example Aaron in his Thoscanello (1523) features a three column table (one column each for: tenor, bassus, and altus) illustrating possible interval combinations between the bassus and altus relative to the cantus-tenor relationship, expressed in Roman numerals.(11)

The practical skills of a rising Renaissance composer far exceeded mere memorization of consonance charts and cadencial patterns. Without the luxury (or crutch) of a laptop, and still limited by lack of cheap paper, the composer was expected to mentally combine the separate parts of any polyphonic work into a musical unit, without ever creating a physical score.(12) This skill would have been developed over years of choral practice, as the student sang from part books containing individual lines of polyphony and, through listening to other voices, learned the function of his part as it related to the whole.(13) In addition, it appears that Renaissance singers (composers in training) were also skilled improvisers of counterpoint. Coclico in his Compendium musices (1552) attributes to Josquin des Prez a statement that singing extemporaneous counterpoint provided valuable preparation for composition.(14)

Wax TabletBeside the intellectual tools, the Renaissance composers relied on tangible, practical tools to aid their composition process. Before committing a work to ink and paper (the pencil had not yet been invented), the composers first notated it on an erasable tablet.(15) The tablets, most commonly called cartella in Italian, were made of plaster, wood, or stone (specifically slate), and had a smooth surface. Such erasable tablets served as instructional tools for teachers, as counterpoint exercise notebooks for students, as well as a storage medium on which composers notated and preserved their entire compositions. The cartellas came in different sizes and were widely popular not only in the musical circles but also in the every day life of merchants, scribes, and city officials.(16)

The Renaissance composition students worked by candlelight and may have grown weary of carrying around their cumbersome cartellas. Their efficiency and productivity would have been greatly enhanced had they had mere pencils and erasers. They certainly could not have fathomed the technology available to the 21st century composers, but would likely welcome the music notation software, World Wide Web, and the availability of music on demand. However, where their technology and efficiency was lacking, their intensive musical training and their practical skills more than made up for them. It is every contemporary composer’s dream to be able to hear music in his or her mind before it is notated, but as we rely on our advanced technology, it is rarely the case. The Renaissance composers must have had superior ability to hear and discern multiple layers of music simultaneously if they functioned fluidly within intricate polyphony without relying on a score. Their mastery of counterpoint is evident in works which continue to not only bring beauty and enrichment to the listener, but remain a model and inspiration to the contemporary student of music composition. The progressive Renaissance culture in which they were privileged to work, one where both the religious and secular institutions highly valued music education, scholarship, and arts in general, is an enviable environment for any contemporary composer.

The study of Renaissance counterpoint should remain one of the fundamental building blocks of contemporary music composition curriculum. The analysis of the early composition techniques is essential for development of skills of the modern student, but beyond mere understanding of tools, tricks, rules, and shortcuts, the study of the craftsmanship of the Renaissance composers remains a rich lesson in respect for the heritage of the art of music composition.

I originally wrote this essay in December 2007 when I was a student of Music Theory and Composition at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.

(1)Lockwood, Lewis: ‘Renaissance’, Grove Music Online ed. L. Macy (Accessed 11/24/2007),
(2)Judd, Cristle Collins, Reading Renaissance Music Theory, Hearing with the Eye. Cambridge University Press, 2000, 84.
(3)Plummeridge, Charles: ‘Schools’, Grove Music Online ed. L. Macy (Accessed 11/20/2007),
(5)Owens, Jessie Ann, Composers at Work, The Craft of Musical Composition 1450 – 1600. Oxford University Press, 1997, 12.
(6)Ibid., 12.
(7)Compendium musices descriptum ab Adriano Petit Coclico discipulo Iosquini de Pres in quo prateter caetera tractantur haec: De modo ornate candeni, De regula contrapuncti, De compositione (Nuremberg, 1552; reprint, Kassell, 1954). This translation, adapted from Smijers, is found in Gustave Reese and Jeremy Noble, “Josquin Desprez,” The New Grove High Renaissance Masters (New York, 1984), 20, here quoted from Owen’s Composers at Work, 11.
(8)Owens, Composers at Work, 12.
(9)Ibid., 14.
(10)Ibid., 14.
(11)Ibid., 25.
(12)Blum, Stephen: ‘Composition’, Grove Music Online ed. L. Macy (Accessed 11/07/2007),
(15)Owens, Composers at Work, 74.
(16)Ibid., 75-100.

©2007 Dosia McKay


One comment on “Delightful Art – Education, Techniques, and a Toolbox of Renaissance Composers

  1. t h i n g s + f l e s h
    May 7, 2013

    your blog, Dosia, is a gorgeous treasure of musical insight. i enjoy my visits so much. tony

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