Renaissance Instruments

Renaissance means rebirth or reinvention. Music of the Renaissance period was going through a rebirth as artists had more creative freedom than in earlier periods. The Renaissance was between the years 1400 to 1600 C.E., and the music of this time had a polyphonic style. Music was very much a sacred art form, but more composers started creating secular music for informal gatherings and dances. Organs, harps, and viols were the main Renaissance instruments used during church services and other sacred gatherings. The lute was a popular instrument used when playing music for dances. 


The shawm is a woodwind reed instrument used primarily for social and secular music of the Renaissance era. It’s shaped like a long reed and has vent holes that the player covers to make different notes. The end of the shawm is called a bell and is a broad, round flat piece. Some shawms are small enough to be held in the hands and played, while others are so large the bell rests on the ground during play. A thin reed protrudes from the top of the shawm, and the player blows into this piece to create music. 

Bass Recorder 

Bass recorders are of the woodwind family and were created in one piece. Similar to a shawm, the bass recorder has finger holes the player covers to create different tones. The top of the recorder has a cap with a small hole that the player blows into to create music. The bottom of the recorder has two holes that allow a player to use either the right or left pinky. Recorders were small hand-held instruments or large instruments needing support to play properly. The bass recorder has a slightly deeper tone than other recorders. 

Glastonbury Pipe 

The Glastonbury pipe is another woodwind instrument that uses a reed for proper play. This pipe has thin construction and an interesting history. Named for a place of worship and stone figure in Glastonbury, England, the pipe has a unique history. Players used this pipe for folk music and indoor events. This instrument plays well in an instrumental ensemble. 

Treble Viol 

The viol is a stringed instrument, most commonly made with six strings. These instruments were made from flat or curved pieces of wood and had a fingerboard made from stretched gut strings. To differentiate viols from other instruments in the violin family, the viol commonly had a C shape hole rather than an F shape hole familiar in other violin-type instruments. The treble viol is similar in size to a modern violin, but has a deeper body. It is also one octave higher than the bass viol. Viols were commonly used in ensembles with like instruments called a consort. 


A tabor was a type of Renaissance percussion instrument frequently accompanied by a pipe. The same musician usually played both the pipe and tabor when performing since the tabor can be worn around the arm with a strap. The tabor was used to perform at rustic dances or as background music for a jester or performing animal. It was also common to hear a tabor in between scenes of Shakespeare’s plays. The body of the drum was usually made of wood, metal, or bone. Animal hides made up the top of the drum where the musician struck the instrument for sound. 

Bass Viol 

The bass viol is considered the predecessor of the cello. Musicians play the bass viol upright between their legs using a bow. The bass viol commonly has six strings. During the Renaissance period, bass viols accompanied singers, but composers soon started making instrumental scores for the viol that could be played with or without vocal accompaniment. 

Tenor and Bass Crumhorn 

The crumhorn is a reeded woodwind instrument that curves upward. It’s shape is cylindrical rather than conical, meaning the notes don’t reach extremely high octaves. The curve of the crumhorn does not affect the sound made by the instrument. One difference of the crumhorn to other woodwinds is that the musician’s mouth does not come into contact with the reed because it’s built inside a mouth cap. This gives the musician less control of the reed, also impeding a musician’s ability to reach high octaves with the crumhorn. This instrument was commonly used in church masses and wedding ceremonies during the Renaissance. 

The above mentioned instruments are just a few of the instruments popular during the Renaissance period. Tambourines and finger cymbals are other instruments commonly heard and played during this era. While Renaissance music was still largely used for church services, the rebirth of personal freedom and creativity was the cause for many famous pieces of renaissance music listened to today.