In this two-part video series, we’re going to be exploring the music of the middle ages. On this channel we’ve discussed Baroque, Classical, Romantic, Impressionist and other genres and eras of music. This time we’re going further into the past to talk about the middle ages.
You’ll find a brief history of the music of the middle ages in this video – namely, the styles and genres that developed, how music evolved, and of course some audio clips to listen to.
Let’s get started!
Three types of music of the Middle Ages
There are three types of music we’ll be looking at in this video series:
Sacred vocal music
Secular vocal music
This first video will be dedicated to sacred (religious) vocal music. The follow-up video will discuss secular and instrumental music.
History of the middle ages
Before we get into the music, though, let’s get a grip on the climate of the middle ages. The middle ages span approximately 476-1450 AD, generally considered to start around when the Roman Empire fell.
The middle ages is the period in between Classical antiquity (think Greeks and Romans) and the Renaissance (the blossoming of science and art).
In Europe, it was the Roman Catholic Church that held most of the power, and because of that, they controlled much of music’s development in the middle ages.
Music style in the Middle Ages
During the 1000 years of the Middle Ages, music notation developed from virtually nothing to a primitive form of our modern sheet music. Music notation as we know it completed its journey in the Renaissance.
Middle ages music originally had no rhythmic structure, but as the music became more complex, a need for rhythmic unity emerged. With this complexity came rhythmic notation.
In the early middle ages, music was monophonic, meaning a single voice or melody line. As time passed, polyphony developed (multiple melodies). Polyphony is really interesting and led to the highly complex polyphony of the Renaissance, and eventually to the fugues of the Baroque period.
Music at this time was modal, meaning it wasn’t based in any key. There wasn’t any concept of key signatures until around the Baroque period. Music “modes” are basically the early form of key signatures. So instead of saying “this piece is in the key of D”, you might say, “this piece is in Dorian mode”.
Sacred Vocal Music
Gregorian Chant is the most common name for a type of plainchant that originated in Rome. It’s kind of like how we say “Kleenex” instead of “paper tissue” – Gregorian Chant is like the brand name version of plainchant.
So what is plainchant? It’s basically what it sounds like – an early style of music that is quite plain (only one voice) and involves vocal chanting. This was the music used in Roman Catholic church services like mass.
Pope Gregory the Great
Gregorian chant provides us with some of the earliest notated music ever, since the monks and nuns of the time were good about writing things down. Pope Gregory the Great especially made an important contribution – he helped organize the giant body of chants that had accumulated during the middle ages. This organization led to specific chants being used at specific times of the year during mass.
Pope Gregory’s contribution to plainchant was so important that they named it after him (Gregory = Gregorian chant).
What does Gregorian chant sound like? Well, we’ll listen to an example in a moment. But as we already talked about, it’s:
Monophonic (one voice only)
Has no rhythm (the melody follows the natural flow of the text)
Written in Latin, and based on sacred texts like the Bible
Fairly simple (no complex melodic leaps or jumps – it’s pretty steady and stepwise)
Some melismatic text (many different melody notes with just a single syllable of text)
The example of Gregorian chant we’re going to listen to is called “Universi qui te expectant”, which is from the first Sunday mass during advent.
Source: Recorded privately with members of Schola Antiqua
Copyright: CC Attribution-sharealike 3.0
Gregorian chant eventually evolved into a genre called “organum” around the 9th century. You have to remember that the middle ages spanned about 1000 years, and these monks surely got bored singing the same monophonic chants over and over. They were bound to start experimenting and improvising.
Basically, these singing monks thought it might be fun to add some harmony to their single melody lines. This started out as 8va doubling (singing the same note, but at a different octave), and eventually turned into singing harmonies of 4ths and 5ths.
4th/5th harmonies are basically not used today, unless you’re listening to some really progressive or abstract music. They just sound very strange and dissonant to our modern ears. But back in the middle ages, it was the thing to do.
After the development of parallel organum, early polyphony began to develop. Polyphony is when multiple voices sing different parts, independent of each other. This more complex style of polyphony really developed in earnest during the 12th and 13th centuries in Paris.
These new developments are referred to as “free organum”. Free organum used original Gregorian chants (called the “cantus firmus”, fixed song) and newly-composed parts for a second, higher voice.
Rhythm also developed alongside organum – instead of rhythm being completely unmeasured and random, rhythmic modes developed. There still wasn’t any sense of meter at this point, but various patterns of long and short rhythms added a little more structure to the music.
Check out a recording of Haec dies (organum) to hear what this sounds like. It’s incredibly melismatic (many notes on a single syllable of text), which makes it quite confusing to listen to and sing.
You’ll hear the original Gregorian chant as the low voice, and the newly-composed part in the upper voice. These voices move independently of each other, but still manage to mesh well together.
By the time we hit the 13th century, music evolved to be polytextual. This means exactly what it sounds like – multiple texts used in a single composition.
The reason this developed is because the melismas of organum became very difficult to sing. You had a million melody notes sung as just one long syllable. To correct this problem, they decided to add new text to those crazy melody lines, therefore making them easier to sing.
These polytextual motets often merged sacred and secular music. You’d start with your sacred Latin text, but perhaps stick a French poem on top of it.
Thus polyphony grew even more detailed, and the melody lines (now usually in 3 parts) became even more independent.
Adam de la Halle
Though adding new text to hard-to-sing melismas was helpful for singers, one feature of this style of music is that it’s virtually impossible to discern what words they’re saying. That musical problem would later be solved in the Renaissance.
I’ve got a video example for you to listen to over on the blog by Adam de la Halle – check it out if you want to get a sense of what layering different texts sounds like.
Secular vocal music
Humans have been making music pretty much forever. And though the first part of our discussion on the music of the middle ages focused on sacred music, secular music was very common as well.
The big problem with secular music from this era is that it wasn’t well-recorded. Monks and nuns were literate and meticulous about writing things down. But regular folk tended to pass music traditions along orally, seeing no point of writing the music down (if they even could write).
If you’ve ever heard the expression “traveling troubadours”, that term came from the poet-musicians of France in the 12th and 13th centuries. These musicians were usually higher on the food chain (they had enough leisure time to write and play music regularly), and some of their music has been preserved.
In general, what you’ll find written down for these chansons are the words and the melody – that’s it. No rhythm, no notes for instruments. So researchers have done a lot of guesswork when it comes to reinterpreting these old chansons.
Comtessa de Dia
I found a file for the only notated monophonic chanson by a woman – it’s called “A chantar m’er de so qu’eu no volria” (I am obliged to sing), and it’s from the 12th century. It was written by the troubadour Comtessa de Dia.
Monophonic chansons were generally in “strophic” form, which just means that for each verse of words, the music and tune stays the same. That’s true of this chanson. It’s also completely monophonic with no accompaniment whatsoever (the PTV video version) – but when you’re looking into chansons of the middle ages, you’ll find some recordings with instrumental accompaniment.
Audio credits: Makemi
In the 14th century, the Roman Catholic church began slowly losing its grip on the European population, so secular music began to really thrive. This era is referred to as “ars nova” (new art), and the era prior to it as “ars antiqua” (old art).
At this point, polyphony became so complex that music notation was forced to develop. Pitch notation became exact, and rhythmic notation also evolved.
Another feature of these late chansons is that crazy melismas basically disappeared – the text became much simpler, with only one to several notes per syllable. We also see an evolution away from the dissonant 4th and 5th harmonies, with the addition of the much more modern-sounding 3rds and 6ths.
Puis qu’en oubli
Puis qu’en oubli by Machaut is a good example of polyphonic chanson. The biggest difference between this and the monophonic chansons we just discussed is its complexity.
This chanson is written for 3 voices, and all voices move independently (polyphony). One thing to note is that the “voices” don’t have to be human voices – they could also be musical instruments.
I’ll leave a link to a YouTube clip over on the blog. You’ll notice how much more modern-sounding this chanson is (even though it still sounds very old). You can hear the inklings of Renaissance and Baroque music really beginning to form here.
Instrumental music didn’t exist in the church during this time – in fact, the only instrument even allowed in the church was the organ. Instead, instrumental music existed in the secular world, and served a functional purpose, such as being used for dance, public events, and accompanying singers.
Unfortunately, like secular vocal music, instrumental music was not well-recorded, for the same reasons. It just wasn’t considered necessary to write down music to the general illiterate public. Instrumental music was also highly improvised at this time, so there wasn’t much benefit of writing music down to the musicians themselves.
Dance music was the most common type of instrumental music in this period. These dances were functional – people actually danced to them. Later on, in the Baroque period, dance music would evolve to be for listening as opposed to just dancing (and thus would become way more complex).
Another interesting thing about instrumental music in the middle ages is that the instruments weren’t standardized. Classical music, for example, has music written for specific instruments. There’s a violin part, a trumpet part, and so on. But with music of the middle ages, instruments weren’t specified. The type of instruments used would vary based on if it was an outdoor or indoor event, or what people had available to play.
We’ll listen to an example of an estampie, which was a popular dance at the time. It’s called Retrove, and it’s from the Robertsbridge Codex, a music manuscript from the 14th century.
To sum up, these are the key developments we saw in music during the Middle Ages:
The development of notation (pitch and rhythm)
Simple monophony to complex polyphony
Single texts to multiple texts in sacred music
Melismatic singing to simpler singing (one to several notes per syllable)
No rhythm to use of rhythmic modes
I hope you enjoyed today’s tour of the music of the Middle Ages! Since there isn’t any keyboard-specific repertoire from this era, piano players tend to skip over this fascinating period in history. I think that’s a mistake – it helps to see where the roots of Western music began.