Musical Instruments Used in the Renaissance Period

By Rochelle Leggett ; Updated September 15, 2017
A bowed psaltery, recorder and bells on a rug with sheet music.

The Renaissance period in Europe, from the 1400s to the 1600s, was a time of invention and innovation, and this is true of musical instruments as well. While crafting techniques at the time limited what was possible for instruments, there were many different kinds of instruments, some of which became more familiar instruments that we know today.

Flutes

A close-up of a man holding a flute.

Flutes were a common instrument in the Renaissance. Flutes would have been made of wood and had one or no keys, unlike modern flutes which are metal and have many keys. The fife was a similar instrument, the design of which has not changed since the Renaissance. Recorders were also very popular and went well with vocal music; recorders were occasionally played two simultaneously. The tabor pipe was unusual in that it only had three finger holes and was designed to be played with the left hand; it was meant to be played at the same time as a tabor drum, meaning that one person could play both instruments at once.

Reeds

A bagpipe and three reeds laying on Scottish tartan.

Reed instruments were quite varied, but all produced their sound from a vibrating single or double reed. The shawm was a common double-reed instrument, prized for its loud volume; this instrument was the precursor to the modern oboe. The dulcian was similar but this instrument was much larger and was the precursor to the modern bassoon. The crumhorn and the bagpipe were also reed instruments, but the reed is enclosed within the instrument. In the case of the crumhorn, this makes the instrument very easy to play, but limits its range.

Horns

An antique brass horn hanging on a wall.

These instruments are related to modern brass instruments, but were not made of metal. They were played with the lips like a modern brass instrument. The sackbut is very similar to the modern trombone. The trumpet was also used at this time, but it did not have valves like a modern trumpet, which limited its range and musical usage. The cornetto was another Renaissance horn type instrument, which had finger-holes and came in many sizes. The largest size was called a serpent.

Strings

A close-up of the strings on a lute.

There were a variety of stringed instruments in the Renaissance, both those designed to be plucked and those designed to be played with a bow. The viola da gamba was a very common bowed instrument that was simple enough to learn that it was often a first instrument. Lutes were a very popular choice for a plucked stringed instrument; citterns and banduras were also popular.

Other Instruments

Two mallots resting on a kettle drum.

There were several styles of percussion instruments available at the time, including the tambourine, tabor drum, and drums like a kettle drum. Organs and harpsichords were also used during the Renaissance, and were more fully developed later.