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How Vocal and Choral Music Came About in the Medieval, Renaissance, Baroque and Classical Period

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Choral music has always held a prominent position in American musical life. According to a Chorus America’s study, estimated 42.6 million Americans regularly sing in choruses today. More than 1 in 5 households have at least one singing family member, making choral singing the most popular form of participation in the performing arts for both adults and children. Music is an art, entertainment, pleasure, and medicine for the body and soul. Playing and listening to music is intrinsic to all cultures and has surprising benefits not only for improving memory and focusing attention, but also for physical coordination and development

Let’s drive deeper into what is choral music and understand its importance.

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The Florentine Camerata was a group of humanists, musicians, poets and intellectuals in late Renaissance Florence who gathered under the patronage of Count Giovanni de’ Bardi to discuss and guide trends in the arts, especially music and drama. In reference to music, they based their ideals on a perception of Classical (especially ancient Greek) musical drama that valued discourse and oration. As such, they rejected their contemporaries’ use of polyphony and instrumental music, and discussed such ancient Greek music devices as monody, which consisted of a solo singing accompanied by a kithara. The early realizations of these ideas, including Jacopo Peri’s Dafne and L’Euridice, marked the beginning of opera, which in turn was somewhat of a catalyst for Baroque music. Concerning music theory, the more widespread use of figured bass (also known as thorough bass) represents the developing importance of harmony as the linear underpinnings of polyphony. Harmony is the end result of counterpoint, and figured bass is a visual representation of those harmonies commonly employed in musical performance. Composers began concerning themselves with harmonic progressions, and also employed the tritone, perceived as an unstable interval, to create dissonance

Investment in harmony had also existed among certain composers in the Renaissance, notably Carlo Gesualdo; However, the use of harmony directed towards tonality, rather than modality, marks the shift from the Renaissance into the Baroque period. This led to the idea that chords, rather than notes, could provide a sense of closure—one of the fundamental ideas that became known as tonality. By incorporating these new aspects of composition, Claudio Monteverdi furthered the transition from the Renaissance style of music to that of the Baroque period. He developed two individual styles of composition – the heritage of Renaissance polyphony (prima pratica) and the new basso continuo technique of the Baroque (seconda pratica). With the writing of the operas L’Orfeo and L’incoronazione di Poppea among others, Monteverdi brought considerable attention to the new genre of opera.

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This mainly occurred during the 14th and 15th century when there was the need to improve the performance. The renaissance music entailed the sacred choral music performed across the Western Europe. Repeatedly, hundreds of masses and motets were composed for choirs that were either cappella or not. From this era, choral music has evolved and continued to become popular with numerous choirs across the world. Because of the variation in the sizes of choral music singers, a conductor or a choirmaster leads them. Often, the choirs consist of four sections aimed at being sung in a four-part harmony, but in other instances, the parts could range from three, five, six, or eight. To enhance the outcome of the voices, choral music could be sung with or without the accompaniment of instruments. Cappella refers to the choral music without any accompaniment (Apel 141). This form of unaccompanied music is in much favour since it is applicable in chapels and the secular world

Some of the instruments that could accompany choral music include orchestra but piano, flute or guitar. Since choral music meets a variety of needs, its performance can occur in many locations like the church, school halls, and opera houses. In some instances, choral music could involve mass choirs meant for special reasons as celebrations or entertainment. During the composition of the choral music, there are equally important voices that require consideration. These voices include soprano, alto, tenor and bass (Forney 45). Soprano refers to the highest vocal range, which is common among female singers though some boys could exhibit it. Alto is the second highest vocal range, which is the highest male voice while for females it is known as contralto. This voice is placed just below soprano, but above tenor.

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Obviously, although the baroque period ended over 250 years ago, vestiges of the era can be heard everywhere

Some of the most influential and beloved compositions are regularly performed in concert halls, and a wealth of recordings make the baroque available on demand. Many of the musical genres still in use today, like the oratorio, concerto and opera, originated in the period. Twentieth century composers such as Ralph Vaughn Williams, Igor Stravinsky and Benjamin Britten paid homage to the baroque in their works. Its influence can even be heard outside the realm of art music: the free movement between solo and group in jazz is sometimes compared to baroque music, and snippets of Bach and Vivaldi frequently appear in the solos of heavy metal guitarists. And the spirit of the baroque—an unwavering belief in the power of music to touch people’s lives—changed music history forever.

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Apel, Willi. Harvard dictionary of music. 2d ed. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1969. Print.

Forney, Kristine, and Joseph Machlis. The enjoyment of music: an introduction to perceptive listening. 10th ed. New York: W.W. Norton, 2007. Print.

Juslin, Patrik N., and John A. Sloboda. Music and emotion: theory and research. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001. Print.

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