Music History: Medieval Music

The Medieval Era. Beginning with the fall of the Roman Empire around 500 CE and ending around 1400 with the Renaissance, the Medieval period is known for the rise of the Roman Catholic Church, the Black Death plague (which killed almost one-third of Europe’s population in the late 1340s), the 100 years war, and knights/serfs/King Arthur. The Medieval Era laid the foundations for learning and exploration (which led to the Renaissance) and as a result, much of today’s music tradition is rooted in Medieval music. For more information on the history of the Medieval Era, read here.

Medieval Sacred Music

While various forms of early Medieval music existed, the only repertoire we have today older than 800 CE is Roman Catholic Church music known as plainsong (or plainchant). Plainchant consists of one unaccompanied, rhythmically free melodic line. Plainsong possibly developed from Jewish synagogue music, but it also has roots in the Ancient Greek harmonic language. One example of plainsong is Gregorian chant, a type of plainsong named after Pope Gregory I, who assigned his name to the repertoire even though he probably didn’t compose it all. Plainsong was used in worship services and was the basis for the Roman Catholic mass. For more information about Gregorian chant and for an explanation of its roles in worship services (also known as liturgy), read here. An example of plainsong is given below.

Side note: Hildegard von Bingen was a German nun who wrote spiritual music, much of which we still have today. For more information about her, read here.

Around 800 CE, an important change occurred in the music of the church: the earliest polyphonic music was sung. Polyphonic music is similar to plainsong but with one key difference. Polyphonic music has more than one melodic voice. This type of chant is called organum (a plainsong melody with at least one more voice to provide harmony). Early organum involved a Gregorian chant melody underneath the same melody transposed up a fixed interval (usually a perfect fourth or perfect fifth). There are many different types of organum, so read more here if you’re interested. And check out the example of organum in the Christmas mass below, written in the 12th century by Léonin. The organum begins around 6:00.

Polyphony soon became the standard for composing and performing. Composers Léonin and Pérotin were the first to produce music for more than two parts (around 1200). This example of organum was written by Pérotin at the very end of the 12th century, and it includes four vocal lines. Skip to 3:47-ish to hear some really beautiful sounds.

Organum and polyphony helped in the creation of new musical genres. The motet, for instance, first appeared in the early 13th century and is believed to have been directly inspired by Léonin and Pérotin’s development of organum. Early motets were part of sacred Church repertoire, although they later became more secular in nature. 

Medieval Secular Music

As sacred music developed and as polyphony became the standard for church services, secular music also established its own tradition. Songs about chivalry and courtly love performed by troubadours (the Southern French word for a composer/performer of a form of lyric poetry; also known as trouvères in Northern France and Minnesänger in Germany) were greatly popular from 1170-1220, although the genre itself died out around the Black Death (1347-1350). However, much of the secular music in the early Renaissance period evolved from forms/ideas/musical language of the troubadours.


The image to the right is a record of the Song of Guiraut Riquier, one of the last troubadours of the 13th century. He took great care in notating his works, which is why we have this piece. We still have record of 2600 poems (or fragments of poems) composed by various troubadours. The images below are actual troubadour records and are held in chansonniers, songbooks created for wealthy patrons. In many cases, troubadour music was not notated with the text, so much of the record we have today is just the troubadour poetry. 

The following video is an example of a troubadour song written around the 12th century:

Side note: secular songs also discussed politics and told stories. And traveling musicians often carried around drums, harps, recorders, and other instruments like these because they were easy to transport.

The other main type of secular music was the purely instrumental genre. The growing theater tradition and the increasing desire for court performances in the aristocracy allowed for the rise of the musical instrument. The musical instruments of the time included wooden flutes, recorders, the lute (and other plucked string instruments), as well as early versions of the organ, the fiddle, and the trombone. And fun fact: dance music was the largest purely instrumental genre.

Medieval Music Notation

Music notation went through a great deal of change in the Medieval era, and those changes helped establish what we know today as music notation. The earliest Medieval music (chants included) was not notated, as musicians transferred their knowledge orally. Then the Roman Catholic Church began establishing itself as Europe’s main religion, and the need for a notation system became evident so that the church wouldn’t have to teach everyone across Europe their chants by ear. The first solution to this problem was to write various signs above chant text that indicated the direction of pitch movement (called neumes). The image below shows an example of neumes for Kýrie Eléison, one of the sacred chants used in the Roman Catholic Church. The neumes fall and rise, notating the way in which the singer would move to the next pitch. 


Over time, neumes evolved into basic symbols for the music notation we know today. Lines developed with the neumes to help distinguish intervals, and soon enough a line notating middle C (marked in yellow or green) and the F below (marked in red) became common in notation. Guido d’Arezzo, Italian music theorists, is credited to having invented the four-line staff, which allowed for singers to easily learn new music. 

This brought musicians to a new dilemma: how to notate rhythm. Early in the Medieval Era, rhythm was not notated, leaving it up to the performer (or oral tradition). The first notated rhythmic system developed in the 13th century assigned patterns of rhythm, known as rhythmic modes, and composers would use those modes in various orders to create rhythm. But then this idea developed even further; a new rhythmic notation system included differently shaped notes for each rhythm. This is a big deal! Earlier, while rhythm was essentially set in stone once modes were assigned, rhythmic notation allowed for composers to creat their own modes.

Pérotin, “Alleluia nativitas”, uses the third rhythmic mode.

Then the 14th century brought about a new musical style that helped usher in Renaissance music. The developments in music notation allowed for more rhythmic freedom.A s a result, new rhythmic techniques were developed, such as isorhythm – the arrangement of a fixed pattern of pitches with a repeating rhythmic pattern; and the set rhythmic notation discussed above, where composers could choose their own rhythms, allowed for more emotionally expressive music in the style of what is called ars nova. For more information about ars nova, read here. The following musical example uses isorhythm; watch the video for the barred sections (the repeated rhythmic pattern).

The transition between Medieval and Renaissance music is a little fuzzy. Early 15th century music is the start of that transition: polyphony continued to develop equal parts for each voice. Also, the increasing usage of a third interval is one of the most deliberate transition signs to the Renaissance; Medieval music often used a fourth or a fifth interval as the basis for harmony. Music notation continued to develop, and all of this will be explored in a future post.

*The featured image for this post is the manuscript of the Mass Missa O Crux Lignum by Antoine Busnois , written around 1450 during the transition from Medieval to Renaissance.



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