Music from the Middle Ages

Music from the Middle Ages

The Medieval period begins with the fall of the Western Roman Empire in the fifth century, and extends to the fall of Constantinople in 1453.

The Middle Ages saw the parallel development of both Gregorian Chant and secular song.



Gregorian Chant 

Gregorian Chant :

  • monophonic : a single unaccompanied melodic line
  • sacred song of the Roman Catholic Church
  • in Latin
  • developed in Europe in the 9th and 10th centuries
  • written using neumes
  • flexible rhythm, without clearly defined time values or regular accents
  • written in the 8 medieval church modes (scale systems different from our major/minor)
  • functional music : aims at expressing the religious content of the text
  • uninvolved and unemotional style 

Gregorian chant was traditionally sung by choirs of men and boys in churches, or by men and women of religious orders in their chapels.

It is the music of the Roman Catholic rite, performed in the Mass and the monastic Office.

The earliest notated sources of Gregorian chant (written ca. 950) used symbols called neumes to indicate tone-movements and relative duration within each syllable.

Salve Regina 

Canto Gregoriano Catolico

Medieval Musical Theory

Medieval musical theorists were mainly interested in :

  • the ethos of music : inherited from the Ancient Greeks, this theory states that music can heal the sick and shape personal character, and answer man's need for order, equilibrium and harmony 
  • the importance of music as a mental discipline in preparation for higher philosophic studies
  • the mathematical aspects of music

The Medieval Church Modes

Les modes grégoriens

Guido of Arezzo (c. 991-992, after 1033)

An Italian music theorist and pedagogue, he perfected the hexachord system ut, re, mi, fa, sol, la.

Later, musicians replaced ut with do and added a si (Sancte Iohannes) after la. But otherwise, Guido of Arezzo's system is still in use today!

Guido of Arezzo also described a four-line staff, on which letters indicated the lines for fa, ut and sometines sol. This eventually evolved into our modern clef signs.

The Hymn Ut Queant Laxis and the invention of Solfège 

Secular Song

Goliard Songs

The goliards were students or young clerics who wrote satirical poetry in Latin in the 11th and 12th centuries.

They were mostly vagabonds in the days before the founding of the great European universities.

The main subjects of their songs was wine, women and satire.

Chansons de geste

The Chanson de geste is an epic narrative poem recounting the deeds of national heroes, sung to simple melodic formulas.

Starting about the 10th century, these songs were performed by the jongleurs or ménestrels, professional musicians who wandered singly or in small groups from village to village, earning their living by singing, performing tricks, or exhibiting trained animals.

The most famous of the chansons de geste is La Chanson de Roland, a national epic of France, dating from about the second half of the 11th century.

Troubadours and trouvères

Troubadours and trouvères were poets and composers. The troubadours flourished in Provence, and wrote their songs in the Provençal language, the langue d'oc. The trouvères were active in northern France and wrote in the langue d'oil, the dialect of medieval French that later became modern French.

The songs of the troubadours and trouvères are mainly monophonic, and they express the values and concerns of the upper feudal classes.

Bernart de Ventadorn : Can vei la lauzeta mover 

Adam de la Halle : Le Jeu de Robin et de Marion

 Adam de la Halle : Bonne Amourette me tient gai

Guiraut de Bornelh : Reis glorios


The French troubadours were the inspiration for a German school of knightly poet-musicians called the Minnesinger.

Minnesinger von Wissenlo 

Medieval Instrumental Music

In the Middle Ages, dances were accompanied by songs and by instrumental music.

The variety of musical instruments in the Middle Ages is impressive. Most came into Europe from Asia, either by way of Byzantium or through the Arabs in North Africa and Spain :

  • the Roman lyre
  • the harp, which is the oldest characteristically medieval instrument
  • the vielle of Fiedel, which would later become the viol of the Renaissance and the modern violin
  • the psaltery, remote ancestor of the harpsichord and clavichord
  • the lute, brought to Spain by the Arab conquerors
  • the flute, both the recorder and the transverse flute
  • shawms, reed instruments of the oboe kind
  • trumpets and horns
  • the bagpipe, which was the universal folk instrument
  • drums
  • the organ, both the great organ in churches and a smaller, portative type

Medieval Musical Instruments

Early Polyphony

The 11th century saw the emergence of important changes in the history of music :

  • composition gradually replaced improvisation as a way of creating musical works
  • musical notation was invented and perfected
  • principles of order were established, for instance the eight modes
  • polyphony began to replace monophony

Musical Textures : Monophony, Polyphony, Heterophony

The Birth of Polyphony 

Two early forms of polyphony are :

The Notre Dame School

L'École musicale de Notre-Dame (1160-1225, 3 videos)

Three main types of composition :

  • organum
  • conductus
  • motet

The first composers of polyphony whose names are known to us are Leonin and Perotin, whom we believe were both choirmasters at the Church of Notre Dame in Paris.

Leonin : Organum Duplum (two voices)

Leonin : Haec Dies

Perotin : Siderunt Principes (four voices)

The Motet

A motet is a piece of polyphonic music with words.

Motet : Pucelete, je languis

The Ars Nova in France

Philippe de Vitry and the Ars Nova

Signing the motets of Philippe de Vitry

Guillaume de Machaut (ca. 1300-1377) :