guide to medieval music


What is medieval music?

It is about sacred and secular music composed in the Middle Ages, which covers a very long period, from the year 476, after the fall of the Roman Empire, to the beginning of the Renaissance in the 14th and 15th centuries. It’s been around 1000 years, making it the longest major era in Western classical music.

How much is it possible to know about medieval music?

Much of the music of the High Middle Ages is a mystery. A lot of people at the time were illiterate, so the music was passed down orally, rather than written down, which means we’ve lost it. Moreover, it was not until 1030 that an Italian Benedictine monk by the name of Guido d’Arezzo invented a scopeusing his hand to hold the lines.

And then?

The music that was written was usually church music, as it was usually clergymen who knew how to write – and even that is difficult for a modern musician to decipher. This is because there were different systems of music notation as of today, the best known being square notation. It wasn’t always written very clearly and for a long time there was no way to indicate a precise rhythm. As for secular music: the first fragments we have date from the first half of the 13th century.

How did medieval music develop and what are some examples of medieval music?

We know that medieval music progressed through several stages.

Monophonic vocals

The singing of religious texts in Latin in a single melodic line in unison – otherwise known as plainsong – was popular from the early medieval period. The best known of these monophonic chants was Gregorian chant, which spread throughout Western Europe in the 9th and 10th centuries.

Heterophony and polyphony

Over the centuries plainsong gradually evolved into something a little more elaborate with the addition of additional vocal lines. One of the results has been heterophony, in which several variants of a single melodic line are heard simultaneously. Another was polyphony, characterized by multiple voices with separate melodic lines and rhythms, the first real example being motets, in which a number of vocal parts were associated with a main melody, or cantus firmus.

secular music

With the arrival of motet, secular lyrics, often about courtly love, became more common. During the 12th and 13th centuries, Troubadours and Trouvères – French poet-musicians – roamed the countryside singing profane plainsong in Occitan, a Romance language derived from vernacular Latin. Another form of secular music was the Italian madrigal, which were usually duets on a pastoral subject.

Ars Nova

The late Middle Ages (from the 14th century) saw the flourishing of Ars Nova (“Art Nouveau”), a sophisticated form of polyphony that avoided the limitations of 13th-century rhythmic modes, thanks to developments in the notation. The result was music of greater expressiveness and variety than before.


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