Music of the Medieval Period


Monophonic Chant

Early Christians were influenced by the Jewish cantorial singing heard in the synagogues. Early christians attended synagogue services followed by a reenactment of the last supper, known as "agape" or feast of love. At the feast of love, a cantor would perform psalms and intone prayers. Often psalm settings would be performed first by the cantor and then by the congregation. These melodies grew in number and variety as the christian church spread geographically.

From the seventh to the ninth century A.D. all of non-Roman chant practices except the Ambrosian in Milan were gradually absorbed into a single practice regulated by the Roman Catholic Church. Regulation and standardization changed the performance of chant from a passionate outpouring of religious fervor to a disciplined and orderly expression of piety. The codified body of Roman chant that resulted came to be known as plainsong (cantus planus) or Gregorian chant, after Pope Gregory the Great who reigned from 590 to 604 A.D. .Attempts to preserve existing chant in notated form began in the 9th century by adding markings to the text to remind singers of melodies they had already learned. The acute ( / ), grave ( \ ), and circumflex ( /\ ) accents were written above the text of an existing chant in patterns that showed the general shape of the melody. Toward the end of the 10th century, a horizontal line was introduced to represent the location of the pitch F. Later a second line was added to indicate the pitch C. Sometimes various colors were used in the manuscript to help readers discriminate among the staff lines. Guido d’Arezzo in the 11th century codified a practice for notating Gregorian Chant melodies which is still in use today.

Gregorian chant is monophonic, unaccompanied, and sung in free and placid rhythms that often follow the inflections of the text. Most Gregorian melodies exhibit a balance between syllabic and neumatic (several notes sung on one syllable) writing with melismas (many notes sung on one syllable) occuring rarely if at all. Conjunct motion prevails in these melodies and traditional performance involves almost no vibrato. Gregorian chants were written with a limited melodic range, probably to prevent the voice from sounding strained. Traditional chants are sung in Latin and notated in neumatic notation. Admired for its simplicity and subtle expression, this body of chant influenced most of the sacred music of Western Europe until the sixteenth century.


Chant (CD)

Mysteria: Gregorian Chants (CD)



Secular Music

Although the Catholic Church is enormously important in the history of medieval music, it should not be assumed that secular music had no place in medieval Europe. Secular music of the medieval period was the domain of minstrels, minnesingers, troubadours and trouvères. These traveling performers juggled, danced, sang, and played musical instruments throughout medieval Europe. Secular music of the time was monophonic, syllabic with short melismas, and unaccompanied with instruments used only for intros, postludes, and occasionally heterophony. Secular songs often described courtly love, the love of a knight for a shepherdess (the pastourelle form), religious crusades, or other adventures. The contributions of medieval secular music include many structural devices like poetic forms (the Formes Fixe) and the melodic refrain.
The Chaucer Songbook (CD)


Polyphonic Chant

The practice of doubling a chant at the fourth, fifth, or octave became common in the late 9th century. The voice singing the chant was called the vox principalis and the other voice was called the vox organalis. The term "organum" was used to describe this early polyphony. As the practice of organum evolved, more or less free-moving parts were added above and below the traditional church melody. Organum reached its maturity in the 2-voice and 3-voice works of Leonin (late 12th century) and Perotin (late 12th century to early 13th century). These men worked at the Notre Dame cathedral in Paris and their work is known as the Notre Dame School of Organum.

In two and three-voice organa by Leonin we often find sections (clausulae) in discant style (syllabic, note-against-note harmony). Perotin and the next generation of composers created many discant clausulae as substitutes for those of Leonin and other early composers. These "substitute" clausulae were popular among composers who often added Latin texts, appropriate to the sentiment of the cantus, to the upper voices. The voice assigned to sing the new text was called the "motetus" which comes from the French word "mot" meaning "word". Eventually these substitute clausulae became independent works much in the same way as the sequence was emancipated from its role as an appendage to the alleluia and the word "motet" came to signify the composition as a whole. The motet was the dominant polyphonic form of the 13th century. The work of French composers was widely imitated all over Europe.

The Canon was also an important form. Sumer is icumen in, arguably the most well-known work of the period, is an example of a Rota (canon), which dates from about 1240 and is of English origin. Below the four-part canon, two tenors sing a pes ("foot" i.e. a repeated bass motive) with interchange of voices. The music emphasizes major tonality rather than one of the church modes, with a full sounding texture, harmonic unity, and use of thirds and sixths as consonances.

Leonin and Perotin (CD)


Ars Nova (the new art)

The Ars Nova, a period named for a famous treatise written by Philippe de Vitry c. 1316, began in the 14th century and was characterized by an emphasis on polyphony in popular song and more variety in metrical structures including duple and compound duple. As the century progressed, notation practices were refined and the music became more rhythmically complex and syncopated. Guillaume de Machaut and Francesco Landini are the most widely-known composers of the Ars Nova. Machaut worked in France and composed mostly three-part ballades and rondeaux in addition to the monophonic lais and virelais forms. Landini worked in Italy and composed many works in a form known as the ballata. The ballata was similar to the French virelais. In England, composers like John Dunstable were establishing their own style with a heavier use of major thirds as consonant intervals. The politics of the 15th century gave English composers opportunities to influence their continental colleagues. Dufay and Binchois emerged as leaders in France of a new school of composition known as the Burgundian school. The Dukes of Burgundy and other nobles during this time actively recruited the finest musicians from all over Europe to compose and perform in their chapels. As a result, the styles of Dunstable, Dufay, and Binchois show cosmopolitan influences. One of the more popular forms of the early 15th century was the Chanson, a secular song with French text, but masses, magnificats, and motets were also composed in abundance. The intense creative activity of the mid to late 15th century resulted in a complex choral style of four equal voices. This style became mature in the Renaissance works of Obrecht and Josquin des Prez.
Landini Love Songs

















Below are links to other resources about this historical era in music.
Please note: These links will open in a new window.

Music in the
Medieval World