Throughout the last six hundred years, religion has played a significant role in influencing the trends and directions music has taken. This can be seen by the use of more complex arrangements and harmonic structures.
Initially, music was almost solely composed by the church. Originally a form of a cappella called plainchant dominated, characterized by monophonic and heterophonic harmony. After the Middle Ages came the Renaissance, which saw Greek and Roman classical forms reborn into the arts (Anon n.d.).
Whilst the traditional forms of Motet and Mass were being used in Renaissance compositions, composers started exploring new musical ideas, including the use of accidentals and the addition of extra parts such as the bass (Anon n.d.).
There are many significant differences between sacred and secular music, a primary difference is the texture of the music. Whilst in Medieval Music composers would use polyphonic arrangements to create harmonies, renaissance composers increasingly used homophonic harmonic structures. Imitation was one method a composer would use to make complex music easier to interoperate and give the piece a sense of structure. (Anon n.d.). An aspect of secular renaissance music was that it was composed and performed as chamber music for a smaller audience, rather than for large choral ensembles (Anon n.d.).
Another influence the church has had on music was its restrictions of certain devices and techniques. The church at one point tried to dictate the use of other instruments besides the organ and tired to outlaw profane melodies (Swain 2006). By maintaining an almost authoritarian control over key elements of the music, such as voices, melodies and polyphonic texture, the church was able to keep their sacred music separate from the world outside the church, which in turn enabled them to clear distinction between sacred and secular music, unfortunately at a time when European music was undergoing a fundamental transition (Swain 2006).
An instance of where the church banned the use of harmonic ideas was in the case of the tritone. The tritone was considered too dissonant for the music of the church. The tritone was first described as a dangerous interval by Guido of Arezzo. At around the same time the interval picked up its nickname as ‘Diabolas in Musica’, or the devil in music (Arnold 1983). These conventions and laws were gradually challenged by composers over the next two hundred years as the church’s power and influence faded. The Tristan chord is appropriately named after Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde opera, within, which it forms part of the main motif. Whilst Wagner’s use of the chord significantly ruffled some feathers at the time, Wagner wasn’t alone in that the chord was used in the works of other composers including Bach and Beethoven.
In summary, societies move away from the church after the enlightenment of the Renaissance triggered a progressive change in society which was reflected in the music. This is evident through the move away from the traditional arrangements of polyphony typical of Medieval Music to the more developed use of homophony and imitation as well as the use of nontraditional melodic and harmonic techniques such as the tritone and Tristan Chord. It is through these processes that we can see the impact that religion, as well as the movement away from religion has had on music today.
Anon n.d., A Journey Through The Renaissance, Oracle © ‘ThinkQuest’, viewed 27th April 2011, <http://library.thinkquest.org/C005356/resources.htm>.
Anon n.d., A History Of Music, Oracle © ‘ThinkQuest’, viewed 27th April 2011, <http://library.thinkquest.org/16020/data/eng/text/education/theory/renaissance.html>.
Anon n.d., The Renaissance Era, Oracle © ‘ThinkQuest’, viewed 27th April 2011, <http://library.thinkquest.org/15413/history/history-ren-voc.htm>.
Arnold D. 1983, The New Oxford Companion to Music, Volume 1, Oxford University Press, United States of America.
Swain J.P. 2006, Historical Dictionary of Sacred Music, Scarecrow Press Inc, United States of America.
Anon n.d., Tristan Isolde – the famous Opera and Chord, Favourite Classical Composers, viewed 27th April 2011, <http://www.favorite-classical-composers.com/tristan-isolde.html#axzz1L63gpohu>.