Music of the Middle Ages: A Study Guide

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This page is a part of the Musical Study Guide Masterclass. For other related articles, see Category:Musical Study Guide
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The purpose of this masterclass is to provide an outline of prominent dates, terms, composers, compositions, social contexts, and ideas that may be encountered in a western study of medieval music history. This is by no means a complete list, but it should serve as a solid overview of the time period. For additional information I recommend reading Music in Medieval Europe by Jeremy Yudkin.

The Medieval Period spans the Middle Ages and encompasses 800 to 1200 years, depending on the historian. It begins with the fall of the Roman Empire and lasts into the early Renaissance. A typical time frame given to the era is 400 to 1400.

Classical antiquity and its affect upon medieval music

Much of the medieval attitude towards music was derived from classical antiquity, taken from the Greeks and the Romans.

[list][*]The Greek word for music ([i]mousiké[/i]) comes directly from the word for the Muses, the nine daughters of Zeus who inspired the creation of the arts. Music was considered to have a sacred and therapeutic power, and it became an indispensable part of sacred rites and Greek religious drama. [*]Musica universalis (“universal music” or “music of the spheres”) is the idea, often credited to Pythagoras, that the motion of the planets creates a constantly present harmony, a vibration with which humanity should strive to be in tune. Pythagoras established a philosophical belief in the universal importance of music and discovered music's mathematical basis. Plato elaborated on these ideas, believing that music should be carefully controlled because of its ability to alter emotions and affect one's actions. [*]Aristoxenus of Tarentum, a 4th century B.C.E. philosopher and student of Aristotle, led a turning point in Greek musical theory by being being the first to base theory on analysis of musical practice. In his two extant treatises, "Elements of Rhythm" and "Elements of Harmony," he classified melody and rhythm into organized modes and effectively systematized Greek music. Melodic modes were based on scales while rhythmic modes were based on patterns derived from poetry and dance. The rhythmic modes were named after Greek peoples, such as the Dorians or the Phrygians. [*]The Greeks had a sophisticated system of musical notation, but the techniques were most likely lost to medieval musicians since there is no written music from the Middle Ages until the ninth century. [*]Greek musical theory was transmitted to the Middle Ages largely through the work of Anitius Manlius Severinus Boethius (c. 475-525). Boethius was a Roman statesman and author noted in music history for his book [i]De Institutione Musica[/i] ("The Principles of Music"), which became the standard textbook on music in European schools and universities for over 1000 years. He also developed a notational system with a range of 15 notes in which each note was associated with a letter of the Greek alphabet. The theorist Hucbald (d. 930) would later build on his work.[/list]

Music plays a considerable role in the writings of Augustine (354-430), an intellectual and saint of the Christian faith known as the founder of theology. A part of his [i]De Musica[/i] ("Concerning Music") still exists, which was supposed to be one book in a series on the seven liberal arts. What remains contains five sections on rhythm (with an analysis of all the combinations of poetic meter) and a section on the significance of musical numbers, derived from Plato. In other writings Augustine addresses the role of music in the Church, deciding that music's sensuous appeal does not make it a sinful practice within Church walls. Instead, he felt that music as a sacred medium was a vehicle of profound expression for spiritual devotion. The idea that music transmits and emphasizes a message to God permeated the Christian world and allowed for the development of a rich musical heritage that grew with the Church.

Chant and liturgy

Pope Gregory I (c. 540-604) is traditionally considered the father of chant. Supposedly he composed a complete repertoire known as Gregorian chant at the bidding of the Holy Spirit, although this may be a claim made during the Carolingian era to aid in Church unification (Charlemagne felt that everyone should sing the chants found in Rome). In 800 Charlemagne was crowned emperor of the Roman Empire, and under his rule came unification. For the Church this meant that Roman and Frankish chants were consolidated and spread with a systematic method of classification. [Music notation also developed during his reign.] Gregorian chant, or unaccompanied single lines of text sung in unison without a clearly definable rhythm, refers to the body of Christian Church music attributed to Gregory I and codified under Charlemagne. Often Gregorian chant is used interchangeably with plainchant or chant, but after 800 music is post-Gregorian. It makes more sense to call the complete repertory of chant that developed over roughly 1500 years simply plainchant (cantus planus, a term in use by the 12th cenury) or chant. Many chants involve a text sung mostly upon a single note, known as the reciting tone. The reciting tone provides an anchor around which grammatical/melodic flourishes may occur.

  • chant styles
    • recitational: chant based mostly on a reciting tone (but probably syllabic)
    • syllabic: chant in which almost every syllable receives only one note
    • neumatic: uses two to five notes per syllable
    • melismatic: six or more notes per syllable[/list]
    • The first note of a chant is called the incipit.
    • In the eighth and ninth centuries chants began to be classified into four melodic modes: protus (melodies that ended on D), deuterus (E), tritus (F), and tetrardus (G). These types could be subdivided into pairs (either authentic or plagal) based on the range of the chant (authentic modes could go up to a fourth above and a fifth below “tonic,” while plagal modes could go a fifth above and a fourth below “tonic”). By the eleventh century the modal doctrine was established and given its formulation by theorist Guido of Arezzo (c. 990-1040) in his popular [i]Mikrologus[/i] (“Little Discussion”). He is also credited with developing the staff, letters on the staff (precursors to clefs), a system of hexachords, and a sight-singing system that is the basis of modern solfeggio.
      • hard hexachord: GABCDE
      • natural hexachord: CDEFGA
      • soft hexachord: FGABbCD
      • 8 melodic modes (odd modes are authentic, even are plagal): Protus - 1. Dorian, 2. Hypodorian, Deuterus - 3. Phrygian, 4. Hypophrygian, Tritus - 5. Lydian, 6. Hypolydian, and Tetrardus - 7. Mixolydian, 8. Hypomixolydian

Most of the extant music of the Middle Ages is liturgical music from the Catholic church. The liturgy refers to a standardized progression of events observed during a religious service. Worship was based on teachings of the Hebrew Bible and the Greek New Testament, which were both translated into Latin by St. Jerome (c. 347-420) to form the Vulgate, the Latin Bible or the common/popular edition, which became the standard Christian Bible until modern times. Liturgical forms varied greatly in the early years of the Christian Church, but two basic types emerged. The Mass was the ritual celebration of the Last Supper and the Office focused on scripture readings, prayers, and singing of psalms. The antiphonale contains the composed chants of the Office (minus liturgical recitative) while the breviary contains the text/instructions, and the graduale contains the music of the Mass while the missale contains the text. The Liber Usualis is the modern compilation of text and music for a mass.

  • The Office
    • The Office was a marathon of services that took place at fixed times of the day; it was the main function of monks in monastic communities, although it was increasingly adopted by “secular” clergy, or clergy attached to a particular church.
    • Psalms are the central focus of the Office, and all 150 must be sung.[/list]
    • The Medieval Mass
      • Text can be proper (text changes based on day) or common (text is always the same).
      • The Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, and Agnus Dei make up the Ordinary of the Mass.
      • An antiphon is typically a framing melody sung both before and after the singing of a psalm (religious song) verse, although singing may alternate between antiphon and hymn (non-biblical strophic song of praise for God) or antiphon and canticle (sung biblical text), etc... It may open with a short introductory phrase by a soloist (or it could be a small soli) called an intonation, which establishes the pitch and tempo, then the whole choir joins in. If something is sung antiphonally it means that two groups alternate, taking turns with each verse or section of music, but these antiphons are not actually sung antiphonally (since generally the whole choir sings all except the intonation).

Psalm antiphons frame a psalm. Votive antiphons are devoted to a person or to God. Marion antiphons are specifically about Mary.

      • A collect (sometimes called an oratorio) is a liturgical action coupled with a short, general prayer meant for those present. These were often sung as liturgical recitative.
      • Notker Balbulus (c. 840-912) was a monk and composer at St. Gall monastery in England who wrote an account of the origin of the sequence, a musical genre performed within the Mass. The jubilus is a long melisma placed on the last syllable of Alleluya; supposedly syllables of new text were added into the melisma and the sequence was born. A typical sequence form was abbccdde, and sequences eventually shifted to rhyme and iambic pentameter.

Adam of St. Victor (d. 1146) was a prolific poet and composer of hymns and sequences.

    • The Mass and the Office are together known as opus dei, or the work of God (in contrast to opus mundi, or work of the world, which includes activities like tilling a field).
    • additional chant techniques
      • A trope is an addition to a pre-existing chant, with either (or both) music or text. It is a technique and not a genre.
      • A prosula describes the addition of text to a melisma. It is a trope where only text is added.

In addition to the Gregorian chant of Rome, Italy was home to Ambrosian chant. Likewise England had Sarum chant, Spain had Mozarabic chant, and France had Gallican chant. Though different in name they used similar techniques.

Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179) was the first important composer of Western art music and a Christian mystic. She wrote 77 pieces of music plus one play with music ([i]Ordo virtutum[/i] is unique as a sort of liturgical drama and a morality play). Her music does not observe normal modal requirements, it is full of melismas, has unusual texts, and was known around Europe during her lifetime. The Riesencodex (Wiesbaden Codex) was published soon after her death and it contains nearly all of her writings as well as music.

Chant is the main type of music performed in church for centuries to come.

  • The Council of Trent (1545-1563) was a re-examination of the Catholic Church in light of the Protestant Reformation. It was decided that chant should be simpler so tropes, sequences, etc. were removed. The chants were revised by a council of six composers and the result was the Medicean Gradual, named so because the work was published by the Medici Press.
    • Eventually figured bass accompanied chant and slowly non-vocal instruments were allowed in the church.
  • During the 19th century the monks of Solesmes began a movement to revive the chant of the Middle Ages. The motivation was probably the development of a unique French identity (the best composers were typically German and overshadowed French accomplishments). In 1903 the pope made the Solesmes monk music the official church music.
  • In the 1960s Pope John-Paul the XXIII reached out to Christian religions to seek common ground. This led to Vatican II, where it was decided that Latin Mass (which was nearly all masses prior to the 1960s) should be presented in the language of the area. Chant was thrown out and Protestant hymns were adopted. This led to guitar masses, new instruments in the church, and more modern music.
  • Some churches still perform a chant mass, though it is rare.


Organum refers to Medieval polyphony, or music which contains more than one composed part.

Early polyphony

  • Organum is beliveved to have arisen in the 9th century; the first treatise to contain musical examples of polyphony was the Musica Enchiriadis (Musical Handbook) from about 900.
    • Parallel organum was probably the first style of polyphony, and it was applied most often to solo sections of proper chants. It involved 2 voices: the top voice (vox principalis) was the original chant and the bottom voice (vox originalis) was set a fourth or fifth below the original chant. The voices moved in parallel motion.
    • Free organum emerged in the 11th century and often departed from strict parallel motion (it was still mostly note against note, but more improvisational) . It used more than just intervals of a fourth and a fifth, and voice crossing was common.
    • Guido D'Arezzo's Mikrologus has a chapter on polyphony and how to apply it to chants, plus a chapter with musical examples.

12th century organum

  • Around 1100 treatises emerge which separate organum into two styles: discant (note against note or neume against neume) and organum (a melismatic style where the added voice sang short melismas against notes of the chant). It also became standard for the chant to be the bottom voice while the added voice was on top.
  • Ad Organum Faciendum (How to Make Polyphony) was written around 1100; it discussed intervals and voice relationships in polyphony, citing musical examples.

Aquitainian polyphony

Aquitaine was an area of southwestern France. Much polyphony sprouted from the Benedictine Abbey of St. Martial. This organum used discant and organum styles, placed the chant in the lowest voice, often used neume against neume writing, and often used voice crossing.

Polyphony of the Iberian Penninsula

  • New polyphony developed at Santiago de Compostelo, which was a popular place for pilgrims because the cathedral was supposedly built over the tomb of St. James. The music was similar to Aquitainian polyphony, but the choice of style seems more deliberate and suited for the texts.
  • The Codex Calixtinus, named after its compiler, Pope Calixtus II, contains early polyphony from Santiago de Compostelo. More specifically it has chants for a Mass and Office of St. James, a satirical story about Charlemagne, and a tourist guide showing the best routes and inns for travelers on pilgrimage.

Notre Dame organum and 13th century developments in polyphony

  • Paris was an important city for musical innovation.
  • Léonin (or Leoninus, 12th century) was considered the best composer of organum. He made the Magnum liber organi (Big Book of Organum), a revised and copied compilation of Notre Dame organum that contains music for proper Mass and Office texts, plus 500 substitute clausulas.
  • Anonymous IV is a 13th century music treatise that ties two composers to Notre Dame organum: Léonin and Pérotin.
  • There were three types of Notre Dame organum: melismatic, copula, and discant. Melismatic is the same as organum style. Copula uses the standard chant voice on the bottom while the top voice uses a rhythmic mode; the voices interact in a melismatic style. Discant style in this case uses a rhythmic mode in each voice.
    • There were 6 rhythmic modes that sounded like 6/8 meter.
  • A clausula was a section of music set in discant style.
    • A substitute clausula could be used in place of a clausula; the bottom voice sometimes needed to be altered somewhat to accommodate the new clausula.
  • Pérotin (Perotinus, 13th century) revised and added to the Magnus liber organi by making melismatic organum or copulas into discant style (which sped up sections of music), writing substitute clausulas, and adding 3rd and 4th voices. He treated chant as raw material to be altered to a composer's liking, which was strikingly new for sacred music. He also used voice exchanges, voice crossings, wrote melodic sequences, and wrote conductus.
  • A conductus is a non-liturgical Latin song with a serious text, predominantly in two voices. Perhaps used as a processional piece, the texts use rhymed metrical Latin (like late sequences). Everything is newly composed, and it tends to be syllabic and homorhythmic.
  • The cauda (“tail”) emerged (and later led to the coda) as a melismatic section at the end of a piece.
  • A lauda was a song of praise from Italy in ballata form (AbbaA). It used mostly simple syllabic settings of text that addressed the virgin, or described aspects of the life of Christ or St. Francis.
  • When composers began to add words to the upper voice of a clausula (which was already thought of as its own entity by the 13th century), then the motet was born. A Clausuala contained only a portion of the original chant and the text did not make sense by itself, so composers added related text to the upper voices. This practice was similar to troping chant melismas by adding text to them. These motets can be described as polytextual and eventually became popular as a secular genre. Ceremonial motets often accompanied important events.
    • The new text was originally in Latin with liturgical reference, but eventually became secular and vernacular (written in the language of Old French).
    • Polytextuality was its defining feature.
    • A motet typically had three voices, but sometimes had two or four.
    • The motet was popular in the 1200s beginning in France.
    • The hocket was a textural device used in the upper voices of motets that involved breaking up melodic lines by inserting short rests (to create a sort of “hiccup”). It was both a technique and a genre, and some were textless so it is likely that they would have been performed by instruments.
    • The motet enté was a “grafted” motet, where a text quotation from one voice was put in another. It could also be a motet that quoted another song, usually a refrain from a popular trouvère tune.
  • In the 13th and 14th century three sacred styles were prevalent: organum, conductus, and motet (conductus and motet slowly became separate from organum as individual genres).

Latin secular monophony

Goliards were artists, and perhaps members of clergy, who wrote and performed satirical Latin poetry and secular monophony in the 12th and 13th centuries. They were almost like vagabonds who commented on love, morals, and religion, often poking fun at the church and public figures.

The Carmina Burnana (Songs of Beuern) is the largest surviving collection of Latin secular texts and contains more than 250 poems. This incomplete 13th century manuscript turned up in a Benedictine monastery in 19th century Germany. Carl Orff used texts from the collection to write his Carmina Burana, a twentieth-century work that incorporates medievalism (in this case melodic lines represent plainchant).

The Vernacular Tradition: To 1300

secular monophony in France

  • France was split into a North and South; in the North people spoke old French and in the South they spoke Provençal/Occitan.
    • In the South, musicians called troubadors flourished from about 1100 to 1250, dying out in the Albigensian Crusade. They sang canso, and female troubadors were called trobairitz.
    • In the North, trouvères flourished from about 1150 to 1300 and sang the chanson.
    • Song topics were first and foremost related to courtly love, followed by songs of service.
    • An alba is a dawn song and a result of happy courtly love. It is sung by a faithful friend to alert lovers at dawn to separate themselves from each other.
    • Vidas were often included in manuscripts of the time and are biographies, regularly exagerrated or fictional, of the troubadors or trouvères.

Iberia (Spain)

  • In the 13th century Alfonso the Wise, wise for inviting Christians, Muslims, and Jews to join his court, compiled the Cantigas de Santa Maria. The illuminated manuscript contains about 400 non-liturgical songs about Mary but is important because it shows pictures of contemporary instruments and musicians performing in pairs.
  • Joglars were performers who used the canso of the troubadors (joglaresses were female and the jongleurs performed the chansons of the trouvères).
    • These were wandering musicians of a low social class; they were all-around entertainers who could sing, juggle, train animals, etc...

German secular monophony (minnesang)

  • Minnesingers (“love singers”) sprouted up around 1150 and developed bar form (aab), which eventually became the standard formal structure for chorales. They were replaced by the meistersinger in the 14th century.
    • The a section in bar form is called the stollen, while the b section is the albesang.
    • One of the most accomplished minnesingers was Walter von der Vogelweide. 9 out of every 10 musicologists agree that he has coolest name in medieval music history (citation needed).


  • Distinct Italian language was not well-developed until the 14th century, in part because Italy was made up of many fighting city-states. Thus Italy failed to develop a strong tradition of secular music prior to the 14th century.
  • Dante's Divine Comedy (14th century) set one of the first standards for a modern Italian language.


While French was considered a language for the upper classes, English was for the lower classes, and therefore the more influential people rarely wrote music in the English vernacular. The English motet, however, was unique in that it was often based on a newly composed melodic phrase called a pes rather than on a fragment of plainchant. Motets were usually sacred and thus written in Latin, often Marian in inspiration, but one exception is the Sumer canon. Sumer is icumen in, written in the 13th century, is the first famous instance of canonic writing. Written in Old English, (and now associated with a set of secular and a set of religious lyrics) the piece influenced the English writing style.

Franco of Colgne (fl. mid 13th century, Germany)

He was one of the most influential music theorists of his time, known for the treatise Ars cantus mensurabilis (The Art of Measured Song). He laid out changes in the way rhythm was notated, developed clear symbols for notes and rests (where the duration of any note could be determined by its appearance on the page, and not from context alone), and defined ligatures. The result was Franconian notation.

14th century secular music

Philippe de Vitry

[list][*]He was the first theorist to devise a lasting system of music notation; the system lasted until roughly 1600. [*]He wrote [i]Ars nova[/i] (New Art), a treatise that lays out relationships between notes with mensural notation (the old art was called ars antiqua). He developed black mensural notation, a system where all notes were filled in (this evolved into white mensural notation in the 15th century and the blackened notes were known as coloration). [list][*]He developed 6 note relations: modus (perfect and imperfect), tempus (perfect and imperfect), and prolatio (major and minor). There were 4 mensuration symbols: tempus perfectum/imperfectum prolatiomaior and tempus perfectum/imperfectum prolatiominor. The minim was first introduced in Ars nova, and a clear duple meter was established.[/list] [*]De Vitry is also credited with developing isorhythm, where one voice uses a repeated melodic pattern in conjunction with a repeated rhythmic pattern. [list][*]“Classic” isorhythm is most often found in the tenor voice of motets. [*]The talea is the repeated rhythmic pattern. [*]The color is the repeated melodic pattern. [*]Typically the talea and the color have different lengths (otherwise you would simply have an ostinato). When the two patterns meet up again, the rhythmic values may be cut in half (diminution).[/list] [*]Roman de Fauvel (Fauvel is an acrostic of disreputable qualities: flaterie, avarice, vilanie, variété, envie, and lascheté) is a 14th century French poem attributed to Gervais du Bus known for its musical arrangement by de Vitry. Fauvel is a donkey, and the story is a satirical allegory for the Catholic Church written when the papacy split between Rome and Avignon. [list][*]The play was banned but immensely popular, copied into over 14 manuscripts. One of the manuscripts contains de Vitry's music and is a sort of musical anthology. This manuscript is the largest source of early 14th century music, especially isorhythmic motets.[/list][/list]

France and Guillaume de Machaut

[list][*]This composer served as a bridge between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, writing both traditional pieces and compositions for the future (a proponent of ars nova). He wrote both monophony and polyphony, was known for both music and poetry, and was so famous that during his lifetime compilations of his works were created. [*]All of his works are secular except the [i]Messe de Notre Dame[/i], which is a 4-voice setting of Mass Ordinary in 6 movements (because it includes the Ite Misse Est). Intended as a unified whole, this was the first mass of its kind. (The Mass of Tournai was an earlier polyphonic mass setting in 3 voices, but it was a compilation by various composers and not unified). A setting of the Mass Ordinary in which each movement shares a common musical theme is known as a cyclic mass. [*]He was the most celebrated composer of the 14th century and the most important composer of formes fixes.[/list]

Italy and Francesco Landini

[list][*]There were about 450 trecento (14th century) compositions discovered in Italy and Francesco Landini wrote about 150, so he is considered the most prolific composer of trecento pieces. Landini was blind at a young age but learned organ and other instruments. [*]The [i]Squarcialupi Codex[/i] from the 15th century contains almost all surviving works of the trecento, especially Landini's works.[/list]

secular music forms in the 14th century


[list][*]The ballade, virelai, and rondeau were the formes fixes, poetic structures set to music. They evolved late in the 13th century and are most often polyphonic. [*]ballade [list][*]aabC form (and it repeats itself) [*note that a capital letter denotes a refrain], stanzaic/strophic, usually 3 stanzas[/list] [*]virelai [list][*]AbbaA form, normally contains more than 1 stanza, is strophic, and a 1 stanza virelai is called a bergette[/list] [*]rondeau [list][*]ABaAabAB form and not strophic[/list][/list]


[list][*]ballata (like French virelai, AbbaA) [*]madrigal (normally stanzaic, aab or aaab, with much melisma; typically in 2 voices) [*]caccia (3 voices, top voice in strict canon, text has to do with chasing things, often involves cries or shouts, similar to French chace, important because of imitation)[/list]

turn of the century and into the Renaissance - ars subtilior (the “more subtle art”)

[list][*]This musical style developed around Avignon and northern Spain in the late 14th century. It was a movement obsessed with complexity and challenge that led to the introduction of new notes (which were probably created to transcribe that which did not fit in with black mensural notation). The presentation of music was important; ars subtilior is often an example of eye music (augenmusik). The [i]Chantilly[/i] is the main manuscript for this music.[/list]

instrumental music

[list][*]During the Middle Ages there was no idiomatic instrumental music (composers did not indicate which instruments would play a musical line). In fact there was little written instrumental music because instrumental ensembles would commonly play from vocal scores. Sometimes instruments were used to double one or more vocal parts, and occasionally an instrument may have even been used in place of a singer. Textless polyphonic music was probably meant to be played by instruments (there are some textless 13th century motets and 14th century cacce and ballate). Music clearly intended for instrumental performance was usually dance music. [*]Almost all known dance forms were written in a monophonic style, usually made up on the spot or passed down aurally and played from memory. The most common dance form of the 1400s was the estampie, a dance with many repeated sections almost always played in triple meter. Other dances included the danse royale, ductia, saltarello, and istanpitta. The finale of a dance work involved a change of meter and was known as a rotta, rotte, or rota. [*]One surviving manuscript that contains instrumental music is the [i]Faenza Codex[/i] from the early 15th century. It has works of Landini and Machaut arranged for keyboard. Generally the compositions take a tenor line from a secular song and add a highly embellished line above it. Some of the arrangements in the collection may have even been played by two instruments, although the chant arrangements were probably played solely on organ. An organ was sometimes used in alternatim performance, a practice that involved the singing of a chant verset by a choir followed by the playing of a verset on the organ.[/list]

Composers to remember


  • Hildegard von Bingen
  • Notker Balbulus
  • Adam of St. Victor[/list]


  • Léonin (Leoninus)
  • Pérotin (Perotinus)

vernacular tradition

  • Colin Muset
  • Bernart de Ventadorn
  • Walter von der Vogelweide
  • Adam de la Halle
  • Philippe de Vitry
  • Guillaume de Machaut
  • Francesco Landini
  • Anthonello da Caserta (transitional)
  • Johannes Ciconia (transitional)
  • Baude Cordier (transitional)