Renaissance Music II: The Origin of Popular Music

As Simon and Garfunkel and other 20th century pop bands have taken a bow in this blog, a few words about popular music are warranted—popular music would play an increasing role in the development of music, surpassing the importance of what I call “formal music” for much of the 20th century. Finding its origin in Muslim Spain, the singer-songwriter arose in the guise of the traveling troubadour in or around the 13th century. No different from early Bob Dylan, these performers would travel from town to town, tavern to tavern, plying their trade in song and music. Developments in music technology furthered their efforts. While formal music—and by that I mean largely church music—focused on the chorus and the organ, traveling musicians often used a cittern, but were quickly joined the lute, the viol (think something like the cello) and then, most importantly, the violin. Advances were also made in keyboards—virginals (https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/505004) being the first step that would lead to the modern piano—during the Renaissance.

There has always been a fruitful symbiosis between formal and popular music, each borrowing from the other to find melodies, rhythms, and new technologies.  Examples are hard to come by as modern performances are typically gussied up with a full chorus and extra instruments.  But this one gets the gist right and the influence of contemporary church motets can be clearly discerned in this more popular form of song.

Bartolomeo Tromboncino, Zephiro spira e ‘l bel tempo rimena: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u1jzcpex9ho

It comes as no surprise that the Scottish magpie Ian Anderson and his merry band of minstrels, Jethro Tull, have looked back in time for inspiration across one of the longest and most varied career in modern popular music. As this brief tune attests, the gulf across the centuries can be bridged by a man, a guitar, and some strings.

Jethro Tull, Wond’ring Aloud: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KqTJSUeZY98

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