Medieval Music (approximately 400-1400)

Medieval (approx. 400-1400)

Music at this time was heavily influenced by the growing power the Church began to wield, and notation was reintroduced into the musical repertory, a major distinction from earlier songs. Unfortunately, much of the music of this time was destroyed. We do have several medieval liturgical pieces from the Roman Catholic Church. The Gregorian Chant is one of the most famous pieces from this era.

Medieval music consists of songs, instrumental pieces, and liturgical music from about 500 A.D. to 1400. Medieval music was an era of Western music, including liturgical music (also known as sacred) used for the church, and secular music, non-religious music. … Gregorian chant was sung by monks during Catholic Mass.

The traditions of Western music can be traced back to the social and religious developments that took place in Europe during the Middle Ages, the years roughly spanning from about 500 to 1400 A.D. Because of the domination of the early Christian Church during this period, sacred music was the most prevalent. Beginning with Gregorian Chant, church music slowly developed into a polyphonic music called organum performed at Notre Dame in Paris by the twelfth century. Secular music flourished, too, in the hands of the French trouvères and troubadours, until the period culminated with the sacred and secular compositions of the first true genius of Western music, Guillaume de Machaut.

Music had been a part of the world’s civilizations for hundreds of years before the Middle Ages. Primitive cave drawings, stories from the Bible, and Egyptian heiroglyphs all attest to the fact that people had created instruments and had been making music for centuries.

Music had been a part of the world’s civilizations for hundreds of years before the Middle Ages. Primitive cave drawings, stories from the Bible, and Egyptian heiroglyphs all attest to the fact that people had created instruments and had been making music for centuries.

The word music derives from the ancient Greek muses, the nine goddesses of art and science. The first study of music as an art form dates from around 500 B.C., when Pythagoras experimented with acoustics and the mathematical relationships of tones. In so doing, Pythagoras and others established the Greek modes: scales comprised of whole tones and half steps.

With the slow emergence of European society from the dark ages between the fall of the Roman empire and the rise of the Christian Church, dozens of “mini-kingdoms” were established all over Europe, each presided over by a lord who had fought for and won the land. Mostly through superstitious fear, the early Church was able to claim absolute power over these feudal lords. The Church was able to dictate the progress of arts and letters according to its own strictures and employed all the scribes, musicians and artists. At this time, western music was almost the sole property of the Christian Church.


Gregorian Chant

Early Christians derived their music from Jewish and Byzantine religious chant. Like all music in the Western world up to this time, Christian plainchant was monophonic: that is, comprised of a single melody without any harmonic support or accompaniment. The many hundreds of melodies are defined by one of the eight Greek modes, some of which sound very different than the major/minor scales our ears are used to today. The melodies are free and seem to wander, dictated by the Latin liturgical texts to which they are set. As these chants spread throughout Europe, they were embellished and developed along many different lines in various regions. It was believed that Pope Gregory I (reigned 590-604) codified them during the sixth-century, establishing uniform usage throughout the Western Church. Although his actual contribution to this enormous body of music remains unknown, his name has been applied to this music, and it is known as Gregorian Chant.

Gregorian chant was a music designed to be sung in very specific settings, and in order to understand Chant it is necessary to understand at least the outlines of these settings. Gregorian chant was the principle music used in worship services for the first thousand years of Christianity. These worship settings may be divided into two general classes of liturgy: the Mass (the celebration of the Lord’s supper), and the Divine Officies (structured readings of Psalms and other sacred texts). Gregorian chant remains among the most spiritually moving and profound music in western culture. An idea of its pure, floating melody can be heard in the Easter hymn, Victimae paschali laudes.

Many years later, composers of Renaissance polyphony very often used plainchant melodies as the basis for their sacred works.



Plainchant is the official monophonic unison chant, originally unaccompanied, of the Christian liturgies. The term refers particularly to the chant repertories with Latin texts. i.e. those of the major Westem Christian liturgies (Ambrosian, Gallican, Mozarabic and Gregorian and Old Roman). and in a more restricted sense to the repertory of Gregorian chant, the official chant of the Roman Catholic Church.

The origins of Christian liturgical chant lie in Jewish synagogue practice and in pagan music at early church centres (Jerusalem, Antioch, Rome and Constantinople). By the 4th century there were distinct families of Eastern and Western (Latin) rites, each with its own liturgy and music. As political and liturgical unification began under Carolingian rule in the mid-8th century, all the local Latin musical rites except the Ambrosian were suppressed in favour of the Gregorian. Notation appears nowhere before the 9th century, precise pitch representation being found only a century or two later. Of the Latin rites, only the Gregorian, Old Roman and Ambrosian survive complete.

Each plainchant family has its distinctive modal idioms; in some repertories (Gregorian-Old Roman, Byzantine, Slavonic, Coptic) the modes are assigned numbers or names. The Byzantine modal theory «Oktoechos» developed with a symmetrical arrangement of eight modes and was adopted by the Gregorian repertory in the late 8th century. These use four final pitches (D, E, F and G), with sub-forms in a higher range (authentic) and lower range (plagal) for each final. Certain modes are preferred for certain liturgical categories, liturgical seasons or particular feasts. In the Gregorian tradition tonaries from the 9th century onwards listed melodies by mode, imposing the modal system only after the repertory had been fixed.

The forms or the chant repertory can be divided into psalmodic and non-psalmodic. There are three main forms of psalmody: antiphonal, in which two halves of a choir sing psalm verses in alternation with a refrain (antiphon); responsorial, in which one or more soloists alternate with the choir in singing psalm verses and a refrain (respond); and direct, in which the cantors sing verses without a refrain. Non-psalmodic forms include the strophic form of the hymn, in which a single melody is repeated for all strophes; the sequence, in which there is repetition within each couplet; the repetitive forms of the Kyrie and Agnus Dei; and the non-repetitive forms of the Sanctus, Gloria and Credo. In the Mass, the chants of the Ordinary are all non-psalmodic and those of the Proper are psalmodic. Recitation formulae are used for both psalmodic and non-psalmodic texts. The syllabic psalm tones are the musical patterns based on mode that accommodate the recitation of psalm verses. The beginning, middle and end of each verse are punctuated with small intonation, flex, mediant and cadential formulae.

There are three melodic styles of chant: syllabic, in which each syllable of text is set to a single note; neumatic, in which two to a dozen notes accompany a syllable; and melismatic, in which single syllables may be sung to dozens of notes. The Christian liturgies are divided into the Eucharistic Mass and the Divine Office, and it is the liturgy that determines the musical style of plainchant. In general, the more solemn the occasion, the more florid the music, although the most solemn chants are intoned by the celebrant. Each family of chant is characterized by a specific melodic type: antiphons and psalms are normally set syllabically, introits, Sanctus and Agnus Dei melodies are neumatic, and graduals, alleluias and offertories contain extensive melismas.

Chant composition involves the contrived selection of traditional modal materials, which may be divided into cells, formulae and patterns. Cells are miniature melodic gestures, which either stand alone or contribute to the larger stylized formulae; formulae are longer, more individual melismatic elements; and patterns are flexible frameworks or pitches that accommodate whole phrases of text. These melodic idioms are chosen and ordered according to established modal procedures.


Notre Dame and the Ars Antiqua

Sometime during the ninth century, music theorists in the Church began experimenting with the idea of singing two melodic lines simultaneously at parallel intervals, usually at the fourth, fifth, or octave. The resulting hollow-sounding music was called organum and very slowly developed over the next hundred years. By the eleventh century, one, two (and much later, even three) added melodic lines were no longer moving in parallel motion, but contrary to each other, sometimes even crossing. The original chant melody was then sung very slowly on long held notes called the tenor (from the Latin tenere, meaning to hold) and the added melodies wove about and embellished the resulting drone.

This music thrived at the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, and much later became known as the Ars Antiqua, or the “old art.” The two composers at Notre Dame especially known for composing in this style are Léonin (fl. ca. 1163-1190), who composed organa for two voices, and his successor Pérotin (fl. early13th century), whose organa included three and even four voices. Pérotin’s music is an excellent example of this very early form of polyphony (music for two or more simultaneously sounding voices), as can be heard in his setting of Sederunt principes.

This music was slowly supplanted by the smoother contours of the polyphonic music of the fourteenth century, which became known as the Ars Nova.


The Trouvères and the Troubadours

Popular music, usually in the form of secular songs, existed during the Middle Ages. This music was not bound by the traditions of the Church, nor was it even written down for the first time until sometime after the tenth century. Hundreds of these songs were created and performed (and later notated) by bands of musicians flourishing across Europe during the 12th and 13th centuries, the most famous of which were the French trouvères and troubadours. The monophonic melodies of these itinerant musicians, to which may have been added improvised accompaniments, were often rhythmically lively. The subject of the overwhelming majority of these songs is love, in all its permutations of joy and pain. One of the most famous of these trouvères known to us (the great bulk of these melodies are by the ubiquitous “Anonymous”) is Adam de la Halle (ca. 1237-ca. 1286). Adam is the composer of one of the oldest secular music theater pieces known in the West, Le Jeu de Robin et Marion. He has also been identified as the writer of a good many songs and verses, some of which take the form of the motet, a piece in which two or more different verses (usually of greatly contrasted content and meter) are fit together simultaneously, without regard to what we now consider conventional harmonies. Such a piece is De ma dame vient! by this famous trouvère.

Although secular music was undoubtedly played on instruments during the Middle Ages, instrumental dance music didn’t come into its own until the later Renaissance.