The Medieval Period of music is the period from the years c.500 to 1400.
It is the longest “period” of music (it covers 900 years!!) and runs right through from around the time of the fall of the Western Roman Empire to the beginning of the Renaissance.
Here is an overview of several features of Medieval music that is good for you to have an understanding of.
The vast majority of medieval music was monophonic – in other words, there was only a single melody line. (“mono-phonic” literally means “one sound”).
The development of polyphonic music (more than one melody line played at the same time (“poly-phonic” means “many sounds”)) was a major shift towards the end of era that laid the foundations for Renaissance styles of music.
Gregorian chant, consisting of a single line of vocal melody, unaccompanied in free rhythm was one of the most common forms of medieval music.
This is not surprising, given the importance of the Catholic church during the period. The Mass (a commemoration and celebration of The Last Supper of Jesus Christ) was (and still is to this day) a ceremony that included set texts (liturgy), which were spoken and sung.
Have a listen to this example of Gregorian Chant:
By Paterm (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons]
The chants were also based on a system of modes, which were characteristic of the medieval period.
There were 8 church modes – (you can play them by starting on a different white note on a piano and playing a “scale” of 8 notes on just the white notes. For example, if you start on a D and play all the white notes up to the next D an octave higher, you will have played the “Dorian Mode”).
The Development of Polyphonic Music
As the Medieval Period progressed, composers began to experiment and polyphonic styles began to develop.
Organum was a crucial early technique, which explored polyphonic texture.
It consisted of 2 lines of voices in varying heterophonic textures.
The 3 main types of organum are:
Parallel organum (or “strict organum”)
One voice sings the melody, whilst the other sings at a fixed interval – this gives a parallel motion effect.
Have a listen to this synthesised example of parallel organum:
The 2 voices move in both parallel motion and/or contrary motion.
Have a look at this example of free organum and listen to the track of the beginning being played on a synthesised choir sound:
An accompanying part stays on a single note whilst the other part moves around above it.
Have a listen to this synthesised example – notice how the 2nd voice stays on the same note whilst the 1st voice “sings” the melody:
Sheet Music in the Medieval Period
The Catholic Church wanted to standardise what people sung in churches across the Western world.
As a result, a system of music notation developed, allowing things to move on from the previously “aural” tradition (tunes passed on “by ear” and not written down).
These were signs written above chants giving an indication of the direction of movement of pitch.
Here is an example of an 11th century manuscript containing nuemes:
As the medieval period prgressed, nuemes developed gradually to add more indication of rhythm, etc..
Instruments of the Medieval Period
There were a number of characteristic instruments of the Medieval Period including:
Medieval flutes looked more like the modern day recorder as they had holes for fingers rather than keys.
The medieval dulcimers were originally plucked, but then hit with hammers as technology developed.
The lyra is considered to be one of the first known bowed instruments
Other medieval instruments included the recorder and the lute.
The period was also characterised by troubadours and trouvères – these were travelling singers and performers.
Secular Styles of Medieval Music
Ars Nova (“new art”) was a new style of music originating in France and Italy in the 14th century.
The name comes from a tract written by Philippe de Vitry in c.1320.
The style was characterised by increased variety of rhythm, duple time and increased freedom and independence in part writing. These experimentations laid some of the foundations for further musical development during the Renaissance period.
The main secular genre of Art Nova was the chanson.
Examples of Art Nova composers include Machaut in France and G. Da Cascia, J. Da Bologna and Landini in Italy.
Recommended Medieval Music Listening
It is quite difficult to find many recorded albums of medieval music, which offer a range of styles.
There is an album called “Discover Early Music” that has some fantastic recordings of plainchant and organum in particular.
You should be able to find the album by searching on the amazon store.
Hope this helps.