Medieval Music

Medieval Music

Medieval Period: from about 1100 to 1400—1500

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Images from Wiki Commons, source of public domain images; click to enlarge

  • Genres: Plainchant (Gregorian chant), motets, music for theater and dance, troubadors (itinerant musicians) and trouvères (troubadors who were noblemen); music (melodies, not rhythms) began to be written down.
  • Modes were typically used instead of the major and minor scales we are familiar with today. Think of playing eight notes in a row using only the white notes of a keyboard. For example, the Dorian mode uses DEFGABCD; the Lydian mode uses FGABCDEF. Each mode has a different pattern of whole and half steps, giving it a unique sound. Modes are still used in music now, including in many sea shanties. At the end of Philip Glass’s opera Satyagraha (1979), Ghandi sings the haunting notes of the Phrygian mode (EFGABCDE), repeated 30 times.
  • Composers from Medieval times whose works still survive: Hildegard von Bingen, Adam de la Halle, Guillaume de Machaut, and, of course, Anonymous.
  • Instruments commonly used: Vielle (fiddle), Guitarra (guitar), harp, hurdy-gurdy, lute, rebec, viol, dulcimer, bagpipes, crumhorn, flageolet, organ, recorder, sackbut, shawn, tabor pipe, cymbals, glockenspiel, and various types of drums.

Music was either sacred, for use in church, or secular, non-religious. Most pieces were written down, but some were improvised. Music included works for voice and instruments in various combinations.

One of the most well-known Medieval tunes is “Sumer is icumen in,” a round set for several voices, written in the middle of the 13th century. It is, according to the British Library, the oldest known musical round with English words. Click on the image below to enlarge the manuscript.

Click to listen to the piece, accompanied by Medieval art.

Sumer is icumen in
Image courtesy of the British Library

“During the Medieval period the foundation was laid for the music notation and music theory practices that would shape Western music. … The most significant of these is the development of a comprehensive music notational system which enabled composers to write out their song melodies and instrumental pieces on parchment or paper. Prior to the development of musical notation, songs and pieces had to be learned ‘by ear,’ from one person who knew a song to another person. This greatly limited how many people could be taught new music and how wide music could spread to other regions or countries. The development of music notation made it easier to disseminate (spread) songs and musical pieces to a larger number of people and to a wider geographic area.”

Continue to Renaissance Music.