Exploring Music's Complexities

Early and Medieval Music


Early and Medieval Music

The classification system describing the evolution of Western music incorporated into the next series of notes follows that generally accepted by Music History Scholars.  This note will restrict itself to the music of the Early and Medieval or Gothic Periods emphasizing church music.  

The following list of classifications provide a look into the key periods of musical development:

Early (prior to 9th century)
Medieval (9th to 14th century)
Renaissance (15th to 16th century)
Baroque (1600 to 1750)
Classical (1750 to1820)
Romantic (1820 to1920)
Modern (1920 to present)

Early Period

 Although there is agreement that music has been part of human societies for thousands of years very little is known about its early history.  Current theories of its development are primarily based on  the drawings and paintings of musicians and instruments, writings about music and musicians, and the music preserved in notation.  Ancient Greece was one of the most prevalent cultures that left the most behind and were influential on western music.

One of  the most influential writers and authorities on this early music was Boethius. Boethius transmitted Greek thought into his own treatises, which stressed the effect of music and music theory, shaping church music. Boethius wrote a treatise, De institutione musica  (The Fundamentals of Music) that discussed three types of music:

musica mundana (the music of the universe): numerical relations governing the movement of stars, planets, seasons, and the elements
musica humana (human music): unification of body, soul, and their parts
musica instrumentalis (instrumental music): audible music produced by voices or instruments.

Early Church and Music

In the latter part of the Early Period formal music traditions were being developed in Catholic monasteries.  By 600 A.D. every area that Rome controlled was Christian. With this kind of control, the rise of Gregorian Chant began to dominate church music. The legend of Pope Gregory I stated that the Holy Spirit, in the form of a dove, dictated to Gregory these chants. With the help of Roman leaders and Popes, the Gregorian Chant became common and unified the music of the church. For information about specific composers or poets during this early period see Pope Gregory I, St. Gadres, Hildegard of Bingen, Guido of Arozzo, and Tutilo.

In the Roman Church the mass was and still remains the most significant in church music.  The singing or “plainsong” often centers around a single note with a few notes on either side of it.  These were called Modes.

Song Music

The growth of cities provided a new middle class with a thriving interest in learning and the arts. With this interest many schools began teaching Latin grammar, rhetoric and music. The widespread knowledge of Latin led to the writing of epic, lyric and narrative poems helping form the repertoire of medieval songs. There were a wide range of songs that existed in the Middle Ages, here are some;

Latin Song – song in Latin, usually of sacred origins.
Troubadour Song – originated from Southern France, usually songs on political, moral, and literary topics.
Minnelieder – love songs by German knightly poet musicians, called Minnesingers.
Laude – Italian song, usually sung in processions of religious penitents and in confraternities.
Cantigas – Songs in Galician – Portuguese in honor of the Virgin Mary.

Medieval Instruments

There were numerous musical instruments played in the Middle Ages.  Among these were:
Vielle – Fiddle, principle medieval bowed instrument and predecessor of the Renaissance viol and modern violin.
Hurdy-gurdy – three-stringed vielle sounded by a rotating wheel inside the instrument turned by a crank at one end.
Psaltery – played by plucking strings attached to a frame over a wooden sounding board.
Transverse flute – similar to the modern flute, but made of wood or ivory and without keys.
Shawm – double-reed instrument, similar to the oboe.
Piper and Tabor – a high whistle fingered with the left hand while the right had beats a small drum with a stick.

For a summary of categories of musical instruments played in the middle ages see http://www.middle-ages.org.uk/middle-ages-music.htm

Emergence and Development of Polyphony through the 13th Century

Up till around 1100 A.D., all of the music had been monophonic, meaning music of unaccompanied melody.  Polyphony, music consisting of two or more simultaneous lines of independent melody, was first understood as organum. Organum means two or more voices singing different notes in an agreeable combination according to given rules.

In the early 12th century singers and composers in France developed a new, more elaborate type of polyphony. Today known as Aquitanian Polyphony, where either voice moved at the same rate but had different pitches, or the upper voice would be more florid while the lower part held the principle melody. In the late 12th century and early 13th century in Paris at Notre Dame, they began to add rhythmic variations and add more voices. Through this development came a new genre called Motet displaying polyphony, rhythmic variations and more voices.

In the 14th century, a French composer Philippe de Vitry introduced the term Ars Nova (New Art or New Method) and a new development in motets, consisting of voices with varying rhythmic phrases and rhythmic ideas. The leading composer during the French Ars Nova was Guillaume de Machaut. Machaut produced many musical works, and one of the earliest polyphonic settings of the Mass Ordinary. Machaut’s Messe de Nostre Dame displayed all the advancements of motets but for a Mass.

Another important advancement in polyphonic music was discovered in Italy.  In Italy during the 14th century, Madrigals, Caccia and Ballata were three types of secular Italian musicians and the most renowned in Italy. Madrigals songs were for two or three voices without instrumental accompaniment. Caccia’s were in popular style melody, in strict canon with descriptive words. Ballata’s music accompanied dancing. It developed from the 13th century and usually a monophonic texture, but in the 14th century developed into a polyphonic texture. Francisco Landini was a leading composer of ballate and a notable Italian musician.


Much of the basic information for this newsletter was found in Burkholder, J. Peter., Donald Jay. Grout, Claude V. Palisca. A History of Western Music. New York: Norton, 2010. Print.




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