Comparison of Medieval, Renaissance & Baroque Musical Styles

Mid-Medieval Period (900-1300) Ars Antiqua Unspecified: heterogeneous ensembles assumed. Solo polyphony vs. choral chant. Light, nasal vocal quality and high range conjectured. Monophonic/heterophonic. Polyphonic: parallel perfect intervals; melismatic solo over sustained tenor; discant style; conductus style; unequally-active voices over slower Cantus firmus (some voice-exchange) Two, later three voices usual. Modal polyphony. Intervallic concept of voice relationships. Incidental dissonance (including 2nds & 7ths). Dominance of perfect consonances (including 4th) at important beats, resulting in typical "open" (3rd-less) sound. Cadences usually 2-1/7-8 (in polyphony) on various scale degrees. Some musica ficta. Original chant rhythm unknown. Generally sung today in equal note values without accents, but some performances use accents, unequal values, even meter. Secular monophony apparently sung in a rhythmic mode (or metrically). Rhythmic modes likely for organum. Later, mensural rhythm (triple meter). Irregular phrases with repeated short rhythmic patterns. Motion basically conjunct (some 3rds, few larger leaps), based on hexachords with some mutation. Contour often archlike, revolving around dominant. Use of church modes (and major mode). Mainly syllabic with melismas for expression. Character ranges from folk-like to highly sophisticated. Text-dominated forms (through-composed, sectional, strophic) with secular ones including refrain types and bar form (AAB). Cantus firmus forms. Dance music in chain of repeated sections.
Late Medieval Period (1300-1420) Ars Nova Instrumental doubling of voice(s), especially in secular music. Loud outdoor instruments: shawm, sackbut, rebec, organistrum tabor. Soft indoor instruments: harp, psaltery, vielle. Unequal-voice free counterpoint with overlapping ranges over slower Cantus firmus; isorhythmic/ isometric texture; ballade style. Use of hocket and canon. From two to four voices, with three usual. Modal, intervallic polyphony. Milder incidental dissonance: escape tones, accented passing tones weak beat suspensions. 3rds, 6ths, full triads now common. Cadences: Landini type; double-leading tone; occasional V-I. Use of partial signature and musica ficta. French rhythm varied and complex, due to independence of voices and isorhythm. Motion irregular. Phrasing irregular, articulated by rests & cadences. Introduction of duple meter. Much syncopation and some diminution. Mostly conjunct motion in relatively small range, but more leaps in supporting voices (lines are unrelated). Melismatic treble (especially in Italy). Phrases follow length of poetic line, with some short phrases and recurring rhythmic motives. Text-dominated secular forms, especially refrain types with musical rhyme. Cantus firmus forms. Isorhythmic structures. Dance music in repeated sections.
Early Renaissance (1420-1480) Burgundian Unspecified: usually heterogeneous. Inception of choral polyphony (SATB) in sacred music. Instrumental doubling of voices, soft colors including viol, recorder, douchaine, lute. Homorhythmic textures include more harmonic ballade style and fauxbourdon; more or less equal-voice counterpoint over Cantus firmus with occasional imitation; isorhythmic/isometric texture. Three or four voices, but reduced to two or three in some sections. Modal, but much ionian and aeolian. Intervallic concept but some chordal sound. Expressive, regulated use of less dissonance: escape tones, anticipations, accented passing-tones, proper suspensions. Full triads except at important cadences. Cadences: Landini type disguised V-I; double-leading- tone; occasional IV-I. Musica ficta (seldom in Ockeghem). Less complex and varied: smoother flowing but with restless continuity and irregular quality (sacred more complex than secular). Phrases articulated by rests and cadences (unless these are avoided, as in Ockeghem). Much use of duple meter. Considerable syncopation. Some accent in pieces with metrical text. Netherlands drive to the cadence common. Flowing diatonic motion based on the 3rd, with leaps then filled in and penultimate melismas. Chant often paraphrased in the treble. Ockeghem's melodic lines seldom sequence or cadence. Tenor and contratenor frequently unvocal. Basic range of part still an octave. Text-dominated secular forms but decline of the formes fixes. Cantus firmus often ornamented in treble, sometimes in tenor (often in larger note values). Isorhythm now rare. Sectional motet forms (repetition and contrast).
High Renaissance (1480-1600) Unspecified: homogeneous use of families of instruments and voices. A capella ideal. Choral sacred music, solo secular. Vast variety of colors, including cornetto, crumhorn, guitar, harpsichord. Imitative counterpoint and some canon (fully equalized voices) contrasted with homophonic textures (familiar style); accompanied solo texture; polychoral and concertato styles. Four voices (secular); five, then six or more (sacred), with some sections of fewer voices. Modal (and some tonal) polyphony. Chordal sound with some harmonic sequence. Highly regulated, expressive dissonance, stressing passing and neighbor-tones, suspensions, and pedal points Harmonic tone-painting reflected in chromaticism and cross-relations. Cadences usually V-I, with IV-1 at important places. Some double counterpoint. Clear rules for applying musica ficta. Smooth regular flow (Palestrina) or restless continuity. French-type chanson and dance strongly metrical. Meter generally unstressed. Phrases complex and interlocking. Use of constant tactus. Ostinato, syncopation. and dotted rhythms. Concern for text declamation. Carefully graded levels of rhythmic activity by section: with Netherlands drive to the cadence. Contrapuntal lines either mainly conjunct and relatively unarticulated, or shaped in well-defined themes with memorable intervals and rhythms. Much tone-painting by way of ascending and descending lines, chromaticism, and unusual intervals of larger size. Melody with accompaniment often given balanced phrasing. Systematic point imitation. Cantus firmus structures (often on secular tunes). Sectional forms clearly defined, and some use of tonal unity. Text-dominated forms used, but not formes fixes. Instrumental forms based on repeated sections, imitation, variation.
Early Baroque Period (1600-1685) Continuo-based textures with preference for mixed consort; wide variety of instrumental and vocal sonorities, use of violin family and cornetto, greater dynamic range. Omnipresent harpsichord (or organ). Melody-bass polarity in monodic, concertato, and polychoral styles; melody with accompaniment (with improvised inner voices), chordal, or imitative texture. Growing preference for trio-sonata texture. Harmonic idiom between modal and tonal (with many chromatic changes): striking use of more frequent dissonance (some unprepared), fast harmonic rhythm, V-I cadences but still many step progressions. Metrical rhythm with varied motion, often uneven or discontinuous with marked contrasts of pace and irregular phrasing, except in dance or dancelike movements. Formal song usually in triple meter. Hemiola. In monody, circumscribed range and frequent use of stylized speech-rhythms; relatively short phrases, affective and dramatic quality, improvised ornamentation required at performer's discretion; bel canto style begins. Music built in short sections with much contrast and un-systematic use of imitation at phrase beginnings; much use of ground bass, ostinato, strophic form, variations, and expanded binary (AAB).
High Baroque Period (1685-1750) Wide variety of instrumental and vocal sonorities with parts present throughout; preference for trio-sonata texture, then for concerto sound; 4-part strings and continuo usual, with frequent obbligato parts; terraced dynamics with wider contrasts, equal temperament, greater virtuosity (clarino trumpeters and castrato singers). Standardized textures of melody-with-accompaniment (inner parts improvised), SATB homophony, or contrapuntal voices in imitation as in fugue. Greatest achievement: perfect balance between the vertical and the horizontal dimensions of music. Functional harmony basec on central tonic with much tonal sequence and strong harmonic flow (circle of fifths frequent); larger harmonic vocabulary and more dissonance for expression (but fully regulated). Fast to moderate harmonic rhythm, with relatively few but very strong V-I cadences (often with trill on upper neighbor). Motion more regular and continuous, culminating in constant motor rhythm within unchanging beat in the energetic, driving concerto style; asymmetrical phrasing common save in dancelike movements, much syncopation, wide range of tempi; discontinuous recitative style. Development of longer, spun- out melodic phrases with striking motives, clearly-articulated themes (with more and wider leaps), expanded range, more ornate figuration; diatonic idiom increasingly invaded by harmonically-inspired chromaticism; words subordinated to more melismatic style (improvised embellishment required); recitative styles more varied, from near-patter to highly disjunct & expressive. Development of tonal architecture and emergence of standard multi-movement genres with conventional sequences of movements (SFSF and FSF) and formal principles; Baroque binary, ternary (da capo aria), fugue, ritornello, variations. Fundamental structural process based on motivic "play," or "spinning-out."

Source: David Poultney. Studying Music History. 2nd Edition. Prentice Hall, 1996.