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What is a Madrigal?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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A madrigal is a piece of music which is intended to be sung by two to six voices in polyphonic harmony. This musical form ranges widely in style and content, although most madrigals are secular compositions, with love being a popular theme, especially in later 17th century madrigals. Chamber choirs may perform madrigals at special events, and it is also sometimes possible to hear them at Renaissance fairs and other events which celebrate European culture in the Renaissance.

The earliest examples of madrigals appear to date from 14th century Italy. These early versions of the form were generally sung by two to three people, who blended their voices in a distinct but usually simple harmony. As the form spread across Europe, it became more complex and stylized, until a madrigal became a very formal, stunning piece of music which can be quite haunting, despite having a secular theme. Many people associate madrigals with the Renaissance period, although the form was widely performed until the 1800s.

England in particular has long been noted for its madrigals, with numerous composers of the form such as Thomas Morley and Orlando Gibbons. Later composers of madrigals across Europe focused on the play of many voices in a complex and very ornate harmony, sometimes almost obscuring the words and theme of the music. The lack of accompaniment also showcases the skills of the singers, although it can act to highlight singers who are less talented as well.

There is no set form for a madrigal; in other words, no rhyming scheme dictates what is a madrigal and what is not, and the music does not have to follow a particular meter. By convention, a rhyming couplet ends most madrigals, although this is by no means required. The music may also be composed for any occasion, with madrigals appearing at celebratory parties, funerals, and a range of other events.

Singing a madrigal is challenging, especially when it integrates multiple harmonies. Some singers have difficulty staying on track when they can hear other singers singing different parts of the music, which can result in skips or hesitations in the music. When a well trained and coordinated chorus performs, however, the result is quite distinctive. Many choral groups record their madrigals so that fans can purchase them for home enjoyment, and comparing madrigals with religious music forms from the same period of history can be an interesting and enlightening way to spend an evening.

Musical Expert is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a Musical Expert researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By Oceana — On Apr 25, 2012

My friend majored in music in college, and she had to sing a couple of madrigals with other students. When she described them to me, it all sounded very intriguing, so I decided to come to her performance.

The style of singing was unlike any I had ever heard. There was a lot going on within the song, and how the individual singers kept their parts straight is a mystery to me. It must have required a lot of focus and a ton of practice.

I think that a singer could not afford to get nervous during a madrigal performance, because any little distraction could ruin the whole thing. All of the student singers were very polished and prepared, and I really enjoyed their performance.

By anon19030 — On Oct 04, 2008

Very good review of what a madrigal is! :)

That really helped me to understand what it is! Keep up the good work x

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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