Medieval music

History of European art music
Medieval (476 CE – 1450)
Renaissance (1450 – 1600)
Baroque (1600 – 1750)
Classical (1740 – 1830)
Romantic (1815 – 1910)
20th century (1900 – 2000)
21st century (2001 – present)
Medieval Musicians. Image provided by Classroom Clipart (
Medieval Musicians. Image provided by Classroom Clipart (

Medieval music is classical music written during the Middle Ages. This era begins with the fall of the Roman Empire (476 CE) and ends in approximately the middle of the fifteenth century. Though establishing the end of the Medieval era and the beginning of the Renaissance is admittedly arbitrary, 1450 is used here.



Style and trends

The general trend in Medieval music is toward complexity in harmony, rhythm, text, and orchestration.

At the start of the era, music is monophonic and homorhythmic with a unison sung text and no instrumental support. The notation system is weak, and rhythm cannot be specified. The simplicity of chant, with unison voice and natural declamation, is most common.

Polyphony and notation develop. Harmony, in consonant intervals of fourths, fifths, and octaves, begins to be seen. Rhythmic notation allows for complex interactions between multiple vocals lines in a repeatable fashion. The use of multiple texts and instrumental accompaniment has developed by the end of the era.


In this era, music was both sacred and secular, although almost no early secular music has survived, and since notation was a relatively late development, reconstruction of this music, especially before the 12th century, is currently subject to conjecture (see authentic performance).

Theory and notation

In music theory the period saw several advances over previous practice, most of them in conception and notation of rhythm. The most famous music theorist of the first half of the 13th century, Johannes de Garlandia, was the author of the De mensurabili musica (about 1240), the treatise which defined and most completely elucidated the rhythmic modes, a notational system for rhythm in which one of six possible patterns was denoted by a particular succession of note-shapes (organised in what is called a "ligature") to begin a line. The line, once it had its mode, would remain in it until another ligature indicated a change. A German theorist of a slightly later period, Franco of Cologne, was the first to describe a system of notation in which differently shaped notes have entirely different rhythmic values (in the Ars Cantus Mensurabilis of approximately 1260), an innovation which had a massive impact on the subsequent history of European music. Most of the surviving notated music of the 13th century uses the rhythmic modes as defined by Garlandia.

Lute Guitar. Image provided by Classroom Clipart (
Lute Guitar. Image provided by Classroom Clipart (

Philip Vitry is most famous in music history for writing the Ars Nova (1322), a treatise on music, which gave its name to the music of the entire era. His contributions to notation, in particular notation of rhythm, were particularly important, and made possible the free and quite complex music of the next hundred years. In some ways the modern system of rhythmic notation began with Vitry, who broke free from the older idea of the rhythmic modes, patterns which were repeated without being individually notated. The notational predecessors of modern time meters also originate in the Ars Nova; for Franco, a breve (for an brief explanation of the mensural notation in general, see the article Renaissance music#Theory and notation) had equalled three semibreves (on occasion, two, locally and with certain context; always, however, these two semibreves were one of normal length and one of double length, thereby taking the same space of time), and the same ternary division held for all larger and smaller note values. By the time of Ars Nova, the breve could be pre-divided, for an entire composition or section of one, into groups of two or three smaller values by use of a "mensuration sign," equilvalent to our modern "time signature." This way, the "tempus" (denoting the division of the breve, which ultimately achieved the same primacy over rhythmic structure as our modern "measure") could be either "perfect," with the ternary division, or "imperfect," with the binary. Perfect tempus was indicated by a circle for a signature, while imperfect was denoted by a half-circle; our current "C" as a stand-in for 4/4 time is actually a holdover from this practice, not an abbreviation for "common time," as popularly believed. For the duration of the Medieval period, most music would be composed primarily in perfect tempus, with special effects created by sections of imperfect tempus; there is a great current controversy among musicologists as to whether such sections were performed with a breve of equal length or whether it changed, and if so, at what proportion. In the highly syncopated works of the Ars Subtillior, different voices of the same composition would sometimes be written in different tempus signatures simultaneously. Many scholars, citing a lack of positive attributory evidence, now consider "Virty"'s treatise to be anonymous, but this does not diminish its importance for the history of rhythmic notation. The first definitely identifiable scholar to accept and explain the mensural system was Johannes de Muris (Jehan des Mars), who can be said to have done for it what Garlandia did for the rhythmic modes.

For specific Medieval music theorists, see also: Isidore of Seville, Aurelian of R鴭e, Odo of Cluny, Guido of Arezzo, Hermannus Contractus, Johannes Cotto (Johannes Afflighemensis), Jehan des Murs, Franco of Cologne, Johannes de Garlandia (Johannes Gallicus), Anonymous IV, Marchetto da Padova (Marchettus of Padua), Jacques of Liège, Johannes de Grocheo, Petrus de Cruce (Pierre de la Croix), and Philippe de Vitry.

Early Medieval music ( -1150)

Early chant traditions

Chant (or plainsong) is a monophonic secular form which represents the earliest known music of the Christian church. The Jewish Synagogue tradition of singing psalms was a strong influence on Christian chanting. The eastern traditions of the Byzantine Church were also an influence.

Chant developed separately in several European centers. The most important were Rome, Spain, Gaul, Milan, and Ireland. These chants were all developed to support the regional liturgies used when celebrating the Mass there. Each area developed its own chants and rules for celebration. In Spain, Mozarabic chant was used and shows the influence of North African music. The Mozarabic liturgy even survived through Muslim rule, though this was an isolated strand and this music was later suppressed in an attempt to enforce conformity on the entire liturgy. In Milan, Ambrosian chant, named after St. Ambrose, was the standard. Celtic chant was used in Ireland.

Around 1011 AD, the Catholic Church wanted to standardize the Mass and chant. At this time, Rome was the religious center of Europe, and Paris was the political center. The standardization effort consisted mainly of combining these two (Roman and Gallican) regional liturgies. This body of chant became known as Gregorian Chant.

Gregorian chant

A doctrinally unified version which came together from under the supervision of Rome in approximately the ninth century was called Gregorian chant, a type of plainsong that was central to the musical tradition of Europe in the Medieval era. The actual melodies that make up the repertory probably come from several sources, some as far back as the pontificate of Gregory the Great himself (c. 590604). Many of them were probably written in the politically stable, relatively literate setting of western monasteries during the reign of Charlemagne.

The earliest surviving sources of chant showing musical notation are from the early ninth century, though the consistency of the music across a wide area implies that some form of chant notation, now lost, may have existed earlier than this. It should be noted that music notation existed in the ancient world--for example Greece--but the ability to read and write this notation was lost around the fifth century, as was all of the music that went with it.

To what extent the music of the Gregorian Chant represents a survival of the music of the ancient world is much debated by scholars, but certainly there must have been some influence, if only from the music of the synagogue. Only the smallest of scraps of ancient music have survived (for instance, the Seikilos epitaph), but those that have show a not surprising similarity of mode, shape and phrase conception to later western music.

Chant survived and prospered in monasteries and religious centers throughout the chaotic years of the early middle ages, for these were the places of greatest stability and literacy.

Most developments in western classical music are either related to, or directly descended from procedures first seen in chant and its earliest elaborations.

Early polyphony: organum

Around the end of the ninth century, singers in monasteries such as St. Gall in Switzerland began experimenting with adding another part to the chant, generally a voice in parallel motion, singing in mostly perfect fourths or fifths with the original tune (see interval). This development is called organum, and represents the beginnings of counterpoint. Over the next several centuries organum developed in several ways.

The most significant was the creation of "florid organum" around 1100, sometimes known as the school of St. Martial (named after a monastery in south-central France, which contains the best-preserved manuscript of this repertory). In "florid organum" the original tune would be sung in long notes while an accompanying voice would sing many notes to each one of the original, often in a highly elaborate fashion, all the while emphasizing the perfect consonances (fourths, fifths and octaves) as in the earlier organa. Later developments of organum occurred in England, where the interval of the third was particularly favored, and where organa were likely improvised against an existing chant melody, and at Notre Dame in Paris, which was to be the center of musical creative activity throughout the thirteenth century.

Much of the music from the early Medieval period is anonymous. Some of the names may have been poets and lyric writers, and the tunes for which they wrote words may have been composed by others. Attribution of monophonic music of the Medieval period is not always reliable.

Surviving manuscripts from this period include the Musica Enchiriadis, Codex Calixtinus of Santiago de Compostela, and the Winchester Troper.

For information about specific composers or poets writing during the early Medieval period, see Pope Gregory I, St. Godric, Hildegard of Bingen, Hucbald, Notker Balbulus, Odo of Arezzo, Odo of Cluny, and Tutilo.

Liturgical drama

Another musical tradition of Europe originated during the early middle ages was the liturgical drama. In its original form, it may represent a survival of Roman drama with Christian stories--mainly the Gospel, the Passion, and the lives of the saints--grafted on. Every part of Europe had some sort of tradition of musical or semi-musical drama in the middle ages, involving acting, speaking, singing and instrumental accompaniment in some combination. Probably these dramas were performed by traveling actors and musicians. Many have been preserved sufficiently to allow modern reconstruction and performance (for example the Play of Daniel, which has been recently recorded).


The Goliards were itinerant poet-musicians of Europe from the tenth to the middle of the thirteenth century. Most were scholars or ecclesiastics, and they wrote and sang in Latin. Although many of the poems have survived, very little of the music has. They were possibly influential--even decisively so--on the troubador-trouv貥 tradition which was to follow. Most of their poetry is secular, and while some of the songs celebrate religious ideals, others are frankly profane, dealing with drunkenness, debauchery and lechery.

Middle Medieval music (1150-1300)

Ars antiqua

The impressive flowering of the Notre Dame school of polyphony from around 1150 to 1250 corresponded to the equally impressive achievements in Gothic architecture: indeed the center of activity was at the cathedral of Notre Dame itself. Sometimes the music of this period is called the Parisian school, or Parisian organum, and represents the beginning of what is conventionally known as Ars antiqua. This was the period in which rhythmic notation first appeared in western music, mainly a context-based method of rhythmic notation known as the rhythmic modes.

This was also the period in which concepts of formal structure developed which were attentive to proportion, texture, and architectural effect. Composers of the period alternated florid and discant organum (more note-against-note, as opposed to the succession of many-note melismas aginst long-held notes found in the florid type), and created several new musical forms: clausulae, which were melismatic sections of organa extracted and fitted with new words and further musical elaboration; conductus, which was a song for one or more voices to be sung rhythmically, most likely in a procession of some sort; and tropes, which were rearrangements of older chants with new words and sometimes new music. All of these genres save one were based upon chant; that is, one of the voices, (usually three, though sometimes four) nearly always the lowest (the tenor at this point) sung a chant melody, though with freely composed note-lengths, over which the other voices sung organum. The exception to this method was the conductus, a two-voice composition that was freely composed in its entirety.

The motet, one of the most important musical forms of the high Middle Ages and Renaissance, developed initially during the Notre Dame period out of the clausula, especially the form using multiple voices as elaborated by P鲯tin, who paved the way for this particularly by replacing many of his predecessor (as canon of the cathedral) Leonin's lengthy florid clasulae with substitutes in a discant style. Gradually, there came to be entire books of these substitutes, available to be fitted in and out of the various chants. Since, in fact, there were more than can possibly have been used in context, it is probable that the clasulae came to be performed independently, either in other parts of the mass, or in private devotions. The clasulae, thus practiced, became the motet when troped with non-liturgical words, and was further developed into a form of great elaboration, sophistication and subtlety in the fourteenth century, the period of Ars nova.

Surviving manuscripts from this era include the Codex Montpellier, Codex Bamberg, and the El Codex musical de Las Huelgas.

Composers of this time include Leonin, P鲯tin, W. de Wycombe, Adam de St. Victor, and Petrus de Cruce (Pierre de la Croix). Petrus is credited with the innovation of writing more than three semibreves to fit the length of a breve. Coming before the innovation of imperfect tempus, this practice innagurated the era of what are now called "Petronian" motets. These late 13th-century works are in three, sometimes even four parts, and have multiple texts sung simultaneously. These texts can be either sacred or secular in subject, with Latin and French mixed also. The Petronian motet is a highly complex genre, given its mixture of several semibreve breves with rhythmic modes and sometime (with increasing frequency) substitution of secular songs for chant in the tenor. Indeed, ever-increasing rhythmic complexity would be a fundamental characteristic of the 14th-century, though music in France, Italy, and England would take quite different paths during that time.

Troubadors and trouv貥s

The music of the troubadors and trouv貥s was a vernacular tradition of monophonic secular song, probably accompanied by instruments, sung by professional, occasionally itinerant, musicians who were as skilled as poets as they were singers and instrumentalists. The language of the troubadors was Occitan (also known as the langue d'oc, or Proven硬); the language of the trouv貥s was Old French (also known as langue d'oil). The period of the troubadors corresponded to the flowering of cultural life in Provence which lasted through the twelfth century and into the first decade of the thirteenth. Typical subjects of troubador song were war, chivalry and courtly love. The period of the troubadors ended abruptly with the Albigensian Crusade, the fierce campaign by Pope Innocent III to eliminate the Albigensian heresy (and appropriate the wealth of a defenseless people) which effectively exterminated the entire civilization. Surviving troubadors went either to Spain, northern Italy or northern France (where the trouv貥 tradition lived on), where their skills and techniques contributed to the later developments of secular musical culture in those places.

The music of the trouv貥s was similar to that of the troubadors, but was able to survive into the thirteenth century unaffected by the war of extermination against the Albigenses. Most of the more than two thousand surviving trouv貥 songs include music, and show a sophistication as great as that of the poetry it accompanies.

The minnesinger tradition was the Germanic counterpart to the activity of the troubadors and trouv貥s to the west. Unfortunately, few sources survive from the time; the sources of minnesang are mostly from two or three centuries after the peak of the movement, leading to some controversy over their accuracy.

For information about specific composers writing secular music in middle Medieval era, see Berenguier de Palou, Arnaut Daniel (one of the finest poets of the age, in addition to being a composer), Giraut de Bornelh, Marcabru, Peire Cardenal, Raymond Lull, Bernart de Ventadorn, Bertran de Born (Dante), Jaufre Rudel, Alfonso X of Castile, Wolfram von Eschenbach, Walther von der Vogelweide, and Niedhart von Reuenthal.

Composers of the middle and late Medieval era <timeline> Preset = TimeHorizontal_AutoPlaceBars_UnitYear

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 from:1163 till:1195 text:Leonin
 from:1245 till:1306 text:Adam de la Halle
 from:1250 till:1280 text:Franco of Cologne
 from:1291 till:1361 text:Philippe de Vitry
 from:1300 till:1377 text:Guillaume de Machaut
 from:1325 till:1397 text:Francesco Landini 
 from:1340 till:1360 text:Jacopo da Bologna
 from:1375 till:1445 text:Leonel Power        
 from:1390 till:1453 text:John Dunstable  
 from:1400 till:1460 text:Gilles Binchois
 from:1400 till:1474 text:Guillaume Dufay


Late Medieval music (1300-1450)

France: Ars nova

The beginning of the Ars nova is one of the few clean chronological divisions in medieval music, since it corresponds to the publication of the Roman de Fauvel, a huge compilation of poetry and music, in 1310 and 1314. The Roman de Fauvel is a satire on abuses in the medieval church, and is filled with medieval motets, lais, rondeaux and other new secular forms. While most of the music is anonymous, it contains several pieces by Philippe de Vitry, one of the first composers of the isorhythmic motet, a development which distinguishes the fourteenth century. The isorhythmic motet was perfected by Guillaume de Machaut, the finest composer of the time.

During Ars nova, secular music acquired a polyphonic sophistication formerly found only in sacred music, a development not surprising considering the secular character of the early Renaissance (and it should be noted that while this music is typically considered to be "medieval", the social forces that produced it were responsible for the beginning of the literary and artistic Renaissance in Italy—the distinction between Middle Ages and Renaissance is a blurry one, especially considering arts as different as music and painting). The term "Ars nova" [new art, or new technique] was coined by Philippe de Vitry in his treatise of that name (probably written in 1322), in order to distinguish the practice from the music of the immediately preceding age.

The dominant secular genre of the Ars Nova was the chanson, as it would continue to be in France for another two centuries. These chansons were composed in musical forms corresponding to the poetry they set, which were in the so-called formes fixes—rondeau, ballade, and virelai. These forms significantly affected the development of musical structure in ways that are felt even today; for example, the ouvert-clos rhyme-scheme shared by all three demanded a musical realization which contributed directly to the modern notion of antecedent and consequent phrases. It was in this period, too, in which began the long tradition of setting the mass ordinary. This tradition started around mid-century with isolated or paired settings of Kyries, Glorias, etc., but Machaut composed what is thought to be the first complete mass concieved as one composition. The sound world of Ars Nova music is very much one of linear primacy and rhythmic complexity. "Resting" intervals are the fifth and octave, with thirds and sixths considered dissonances. Leaps of more than a sixth in individual voices are not uncommon, leading to speculation of instrumental participation at least in secular performance.

Surviving French manuscripts include the Ivrea Codex and the Apt Codex.

For information about specific French composers writing in late Medieval era, see Jehan de Lescurel, Philippe de Vitry, Guillaume de Machaut, Borlet, Solage, and Fran篩s Andrieu.

Italy: Trecento

Most of the music of Ars nova was French in origin; however, the term is often loosely applied to all of the music of the fourteenth century, especially to include the secular music in Italy. There this period was often refered to as Trecento.

Italian music has always, it seems, been known for its lyrical or melodic character, and this goes back to the 14th century in many respects. Italian secular music of this time (what little surviving liturgical music there is is similar to the French except for somewhat different notation) featured what has been called the cantalina style, with a florid top voice supported by two (or even one; a fair amount of Italian Trecento music is for only two voices) that are more regular and slower moving. This type of texture remained a feature of Italian music in the popular 15th and 16th century secular genres as well, and was an important influence on the eventual development of the trio texture that revolutionized music in the 17th.

There were three main forms for secular works in the Trecento. One was the madrigal, not the same as that of 150-250 years hence, but with a verse/refrain-like form. Three-line stanzas, each with different words, alternated with a two-line ritornello, with the same text at each appearence. Perhaps we can see the seeds of the subsequent late-Renaissance and Baroque ritornello in this device; it too returns again and again, recognizable each time, in contrast with its surrounding disperate sections. Another form, the caccia ("chase,") was written for two voices in a canon at the unison. Sometimes, this form also featured a ritornello, which were occasionally also in a cononic style. Usually, the name of this genre provided a double meaning, since the texts of caccia were primarily about hunts and related outdoor activities, or at least action-filled scenes. The third main form was the ballata, which was roughly equivalent to the French ballade.

Surviving Italian manuscripts include the Squarcialupi Codex and the Rossi Codex. In all, however, significantly less Italian music survives from the 14th century than French.

For information about specific Italian composers writing in late Medieval era, see Francesco Landini, Gherardello da Firenze, Andrea da Firenze, Giovanni da Firenze (aka Giovanni da Cascia), Donato da Cascia, Lorenzo Masini, Niccol򠤡 Perugia, and Maestro Piero.

Germany: Geisslerlieder

The geisslerlieder were the songs of wandering bands of flagellants, who sought to appease the wrath of an angry God by penitential music accompanied by mortification of their bodies. There were two separate periods of activity of geisslerlied: one around the middle of the thirteenth century, from which, unfortunately, no music survives (although numerous lyrics do); and another from 1349, for which both words and music survive intact due to the attention of a single priest who wrote about the movement and recorded its music. This second period corresponds to the spread of the Black Death in Europe, and documents one of the most terrible events in European history. Both periods of geisslerlied activity were mainly in Germany.

There was also French-influenced polyphony written in German areas at this time, but it was somewhat less sophisticated than its models. In fairness to the mostly anonymous composers of this repertoire, however, most of the surviving manuscripts seem to have been copied with extreme incompetence, and are filled with errors that make a truly thorough evaluation of the music's quality impossible.

Mannerism and Ars subtilior

As often seen at the end of any musical era, the end of the Medieval era is marked by a highly manneristic style known as Ars subtilior. In some ways, this was an attempt to meld the French and Italian styles. This music was highly stylized, with a rhythmic complexity that was not matched until the 20th century. In fact, not only was the rhythmic complexity of this repertoire largely unmatched for five and a half centuries, with extreme syncopations, mensural trickery, and even examples of augenmusik (such as a chanson by Baude Cordier written out in manuscript in the shape of a heart), but also its melodic material was quite complex as well, particularly in its interaction with the rhythmic structures. Already discussed under Ars Nova has been the practice of isorhythm, which continued to develop through late-century and in fact did not achieve its highest degree of sophistication until early in the 15th century. Instead of using isorhythmic techniques in one or two voices, or trading them among voices, some works came to feature a pervading isorhythmic texture which rivals the integral serialism of the 20th century in its systematic ordering of rhythmic and tonal elements. The term "mannerism" was applied by later scholars, as it often is, in response to an impression of sophistication being practiced for its own sake, a malady which some authors have felt infected the Ars subtillior.

For information about specific composers writing music in Ars subtilior style, see Anthonello de Caserta, Philippus de Caserta (aka Philipoctus de Caserta), Johannes Ciconia, Matteo da Perugia, Jacopo da Bologna, Lorenzo da Firenze, Grimace, Jacob Senleches, and Baude Cordier.

Transitioning to the Renaissance

Demarcating the end of the Medieval era and the beginning of the Renaissance, with regards to the composition of music, is problematic. While the music of the fourteenth century is fairly obviously medieval in conception, the music of the earlier fifteenth century is often conceived as belonging to a transitional period, not only retaining some of the ideals of the end of the Middle Ages (such as a type of polyphonic writing in which the parts differ widely from each other in character, as each has its specific textural function), but also showing some of the characteristic traits of the Renaissance (such as the international style developing through the diffusion of Franco-Flemish musicians throughout Europe, and in terms of texture an increasing equality of parts). The Renaissance began early in Italy, but there musical innovation lagged far behind that of France and England; the Renaissance came late to England, but there musical innovation was ahead of continental Europe.

Music historians do not agree on when the Renaissance era began, but most historians agree that England was still a medieval society in the early fifteenth century. (See a discussion of periodization issues of the Middle Ages.) While there is no consensus, 1450 is a useful marker. In 1450s, John Dunstable died, the 100 Years War ended, Constantinople fell, and Gutenberg invented moveable type. With this marker, the English composers of this transitional period (1400-1450) are correctly viewed as medieval.

The increasing reliance on the interval of the third as a consonance is one of the most pronounced features of transition into the Renaissance. Polyphony, in use since the 12th century, became increasingly elaborate with highly independent voices throughout the 14th century. With John Dunstable and other English composers, partly through the local technique of faburden (an improvisitory process in which a chant melody and a written part in parallel sixths below it are ornamented by one sung in perfect fourths below the former, and which later took hold on the continent as "fauxbordon"),the interval of the third emerges as an important musical development; because of this "English countenance," which had been developing on the somewhat isolated island even during the Ars subtillior, their music is often regarded as the first to sound less truly bizzare to modern, unschooled audiences. English stylistic tendencies in this regard had come to fruition and begun to influence continental composers (While the 100 Years War continued, English nobles, armies, their chapels and retinues, and therefore some of their composers, traveled in France and performed their music there; it must also of course be remembered that the English controlled portions of northern France at this time anyhow.) as early as the 1420s, and can be seen there in works of the young Dufay, among others.

English manuscripts include the Worcester Fragments, the Old St. Andrews Music Book, the Old Hall Manuscript, and Egerton Manuscript.

For information about specific composers who are considered transitional between the Medieval and the Renaissance, see Roy Henry, Arnold de Lantins, Leonel Power, John Dunstable, Guillaume Dufay, and Gilles Binchois.

See also

Sources and further reading

  • Hoppin, Richard H. Medieval Music. New York: W. W. Norton, 1978.
  • McKinnon, James, ed. Antiquity and the Middle Ages. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1990.
  • Reese, Gustave. Music in the Middle Ages. New York: W. W. Norton, 1940.
  • Seay, Albert. Music in the Medieval World. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1965.
  • Yudkin, Jeremy. Music in Medieval Europe. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1989.

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