The Elizabethan Era - An Exciting Time For Music

The Elizabethan era was a time of great change in England. The second half of the 15th century saw the rise of the Tudor dynasty and a new surge in the popularity of theater. Writers such as Christopher Marlowe, William Shakespeare, and Thomas Kyd all thrived during this period. Their work helped give rise to what’s now known as the Elizabethan era. The latter part of the 15th century also saw the English Reformation come to a close with Henry VIII breaking from the Roman Catholic Church and establishing Anglicanism as the official religion in England. The Elizabethan era gave birth to many famous composers, including Thomas Tallis, John Taverner, and Robert Johnson.

This article takes an in-depth look at their music and explores how they differed from their Medieval predecessors.

What Was Music Like in the Elizabethan Era?

Music in the Elizabethan era was vibrant, exciting, and new. The development of music theory during the Medieval era made it possible for composers to create richer, more complex music than ever before.

Musicians used this new foundation to explore bolder ideas that flew in the face of Medieval music’s formal conventions. The Elizabethan era also saw the rise of new (at the time) instruments like the lute and the trumpet. These new sound-making devices helped create even more complex musical textures than were possible in the Medieval era.

If you were to go back in time to the Elizabethan era and visit a theatre, you would notice some differences between the music of the time and what we’re used to today. The music of the Elizabethan era was generally written for instruments and voices, with the latter being divided into soloists, chorus, and a role for the actors. The music was often based on a single melody line, with a lot of repetition. It tended to feature short, catchy tunes and was written in modes rather than the major and minor scales we use today.

The use of modes was common during this period, as composers were accustomed to thinking in terms of a few different types of scales, rather than a full set.

The Theatre and Its Importance

One of the most important developments of the Elizabethan era was the rise of the public theatre. This shift brought about its own set of compositional challenges.

To fit the new, more raucous theatres, composers had to write louder music that the audience could hear. They also had to write music that would take advantage of the new theatres’ larger size. To accomplish these things, composers had to make a few changes to their practices and write music that was bolder and more complex. Composers started using instruments in new ways and placed them in different places on the stage. This had the dual effect of making the music louder and adding more texture to it. The rise of the trumpet and the lute were also important developments for Elizabethan music. These new instruments allowed composers to write more complex music, and they gave them more options for colours and textures.

Developments in Instrumentation

The Elizabethan era saw the rise of a few different musical instruments, including the lute and the bass viol. The lute was a stringed instrument that was closely related to the guitar. The lute was popular among musicians and affluent people. The bass viol was a precursor to the modern day cello. It was played with a bow and was closely related to the viol.

The theatrical environment was also key to the rise of the organ. Organists were hired to play music between scenes, providing a soundtrack to the performance.

The cornet and trumpet were two instruments that were popular during the Elizabethan era but were later phased out.

Composition Techniques

One important compositional shift in the Elizabethan era was the move away from isorhythm. Isorhythm was a very common technique in the Medieval era, but it quickly fell out of fashion in the Elizabethan era. Instead, composers started using more varied rhythmic figures, giving them more tools to create interesting music. Another compositional shift in the Elizabethan era was the move away from syllabic settings. Syllabic settings were very common in the Medieval era, but they fell out of fashion towards the end of the 15th century. With these two compositional shifts, composers were able to write richer, more complex music. They also had more options for creating interesting, varied timbres. By moving away from these techniques that were so common in the Medieval era, composers were able to create a new sound that was more in line with the Elizabethan era.

A significant number of composers of the Elizabethan era used the technique of memo. This involves writing a short musical phrase and then writing variations on it until a complete piece of music has been created. This can be compared to the compositional practices of the Baroque era, in which composers often used the technique of theme and variations.

Music Vocabulary and Rhythmic Practices

The music of the Elizabethan era featured polyphonic melodies and homophonic textures. Polyphonic melodies are those in which more than one voice is heard simultaneously. Homophonic textures are those in which one voice is heard at a time.

The shift towards a less syllabic style meant that composers had more freedom with their choices of notes. This was important, because it allowed them to make music that was richer and more complex. It also meant that composers were able to create more dramatic effects with their music. One important rhythmic practice in the Elizabethan era was the use of hemiola. Hemiola was used to create a feeling of acceleration, and it was often employed towards the end of pieces to create a sense of climax. It was also used in dance music to create a sense of momentum.


Overall, the Elizabethan era was a time of great musical change. Composers had more tools than ever before to create interesting, complex music. They also had more options for creating rich timbres and dramatic effects with their music. These developments led to a new sound that was very different from the music of the Medieval era. While Medieval music focused on formal complexity and rich textures, Elizabethan music was bolder, louder, and more dramatic.