What were the historical periods of music history? And how did they shape music as we know it today?

In this series, we’re diving into the music of the past, from Ancient to Modern times.

Today, we’re diving into the music of the Medieval world.

The Medieval Period

The Medieval period, often called the Middle Ages, began in 476 AD, after the fall of Rome. The Church took the old Empire’s place as the main unifying force in the Western world.

The Medieval period ended somewhere around 1450, when the Renaissance began to flourish (the exact beginning of the Renaissance period is hard to pinpoint, but most scholars place it around the mid-fifteenth century).

Medieval Composers

The advent of modern musical notation occurred around the eleventh century, spearheaded by music theorist Guido de Arezzo of Italy.

With this invention came another important development in music history: for the first time, a given piece of music could be easily traced back to its original composer.

Not all Medieval composers can be discussed here, of course, but I’ll try to cover the main ones:

Greek hymnographer Kassia of Constantinople composed sacred plainchant. Hildegard of Bingen was a German abbess who also wrote plainchant and a sacred musical drama.

The exact idenity of La Comtessa de Dia has never been determined, but scholars believe she was a troubairitz (a female troubadour). Her A chanter m’er (I Will Sing) is the only troubairitz song to be preserved with its original music (for the other troubairitz songs, only the lyrics remain).

Franco of Cologne is believed to have been a composer, however none of his works survive. His most significant contribution was the writing of Ars cantus mensurabilis (The Art of Measurable Music). This treatise on music theory helped the practice of rhythmic notation become more widespread.

Maria de Ventadorn was not only a troubairitz herself, she was also a patron of troubadours and many of their songs mention her.

Queen Blanche of Castile was a composer and may have been a trouveresse before marrying King Louis VIII of France.

Adam de la Halle was one of the last French trouveres as a time when it was falling out of fashion. His Le jeu de Robin et de Marion (The Play of Robin and Marion) is considered to be the forerunner of the comic opera.

Philippe de Vitry made a name for himself in medieval France as both a composer and a respected music theorist. His Ars nova (New Art) treatise also influenced the developing practice of musical notation.

French composer Guillaume de Machet is one of the most important figures in Medieval music history. He left behind a large repertoire of both sacred and secular music, and his works were popular throughout Europe.

Francesco Landini was an Italian virtuoso on many instruments and a master of improvisation. He wrote many songs, helped develop Medieval Italian music styles, was an expert performer, and developed a cadence so distinct that it was named after him. This was all the more impressive since smallpox had left him permanently blinded since childhood.

English composer John Dunstable was one of the leading writers of the special “English manner” music which fascinated the rest of Europe (see “Medieval Innovations” below).

The poetic Je vous pri (Please) is thought to have been composed by French trouveres Dame Marie de Diergnau de Lille and Dame Margot.

Medieval Innovations

The most earth-shattering musical innovation in the Medieval period was the development of staff notation in the 1000s.

No longer did music have to be passed down aurally, memorized, and/or improvised as it had been all throughout the Ancient period. Now there was a way to write music down.

This not only changed the way music was learned and taught, it also opened up new possibilities for composers.

They could experiment with new styles and harmonies and make more complex music than they could have before, because performers could read it instead of having to learn it by ear.

Notated music could now be sightread, analyzed, and experimented with in a way that purely auditory music never could. Most of the beloved compositions in Western music history could not have existed without this development.

Music notation also changed the world’s idea of what music is: up until then, music had only been an auditory experience, but now there was a visual dimension to music as well.

Composers and publishers took advantage of this by ornately decorating many of their music manuscripts, making them as beautiful and pleasing to the eye as possible.

At the very end of the Medieval period, another innovation rocked the world. The printing press was developed.

Not only did this change the way books and information found its way into people’s hands, but it also opened up the possibility of printing music.

Up until then, notated music had to be written by hand, and any subsequent copies were done by hand also. That made copies of sheet music very expensive.

But printed music could be produced and reproduced at a much faster rate, and for significantly cheaper prices. This changed music at a fundamental level: it was no longer only for the very wealthy. Sheet music could now be easily acquired by most people in the middle class.

It also redefined what it meant to have a career in music. Composers, who had been reliant on the Church and wealthy patrons for employment, now had a larger market in which to sell their creations.

This change was a slower one. Patronage and church musicianship still remained the bread and butter of most Medieval musicians, but they did have a few options now that would slowly evolve into the music market as we know it today.

Medieval Instruments

The organ, which had prototypes dating back from the Ancient Period, became popular during the Medieval period.

Portative organs were the smallest type, small enough to be carried from place to place and set on the organist’s lap. Positive organs were slightly larger; they were placed on tabletops.

Fiddle music was common, especially among the troubadours who traveled with their music from town to town. These Medieval fiddles, also called vielles, were the forerunners of the violin.

Brass instruments and harps came into vogue as well. Wind instruments such as flutes and shawms remained popular as they had in been in Ancient times.

Many royal and noble courts had their own trained instrumentalists. However, the voice remained the most important instrument in Medieval times by far.

Almost all sacred music was written for unaccompanied singers, since instrumental music in worship had been banned since the Ancient period. Dance music was often provided by singers, rather than instrumentalists as is common today.

It wasn’t until fairly late in the Medieval period that organs became commonplace in churches. These were usually large pipe organs that were permanently installed in the church building.

Medieval Musical Styles

During the early Medieval period, the musical practices of the Church were codified into a standard liturgy known as the Mass and the Office.

The musical portion of the Mass included the Kyrie Eleison (Lord, Have Mercy), Gloria, and Agnus Dei (Lamb of God).

The Office consists of a set of prayers and praises meant to be sung throughout the day.

Plainchant, especially Gregorian chant, was the most common kind of unaccompanied vocal music found in church services.

The troubadour tradition remained strong through the 1200s. There were many courtly love songs and a great deal of festive music for holidays and special occasions/.

Italian musicians were fond of flowing and elaborate melodies. In France, the Ars Nova (New Art) introduced the idea of music in duple meter while setting poetry into fixed musical forms.

The English had the most distinct musical style. Their use of jolly-sounding third and sixth intervals in their harmonies, while commonplace today, were revolutionary at a time when most music used more dissonant and somber. Musicians of other nations were so intrigued by this that they dubbed it the Contenance Angloise (English Manner).

Below is a rendition of Sumer is icumen in (Summer Has Come In), an English composition from the 1200s. It is one of the oldest surviving English compositions.

And that is the story of the Medieval period. What are your thoughts?

Other Periods of Music History Featured in This Series:

The Ancient Period, The Renaissance Period, The Baroque Period, The Classical Period, The Romantic Period, The Modern Period

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