The tradition of Western classical music stretches all the way back from 500AD right up to the 20th and 21st Centuries, and can be split into six main periods or eras. The Medieval period is the first of these and, at around 900 years in length, is by far the longest. This guide will look at some of its history, key figures and important musical features, to help give you an understanding of what makes a piece from this time sound the way it does.
The music and composers of the Medieval period may not be as widely known, or as commonly performed, as those of later years, but the era is incredibly important for a number of reasons. As well as producing some beautiful music – much of it written in a religious context – it saw some key theoretical and musical developments that laid the groundwork for the periods that were to follow.
Medieval Period of Music
Because it covers such a long time frame, stretching from 500-1400AD, historians like to split the Medieval era into three mini-periods, each of which saw various new musical developments.
- Early Medieval music (500-1150)
- High Medieval music (1150-1300)
- Late Medieval music (1300-1400)
These mini periods saw different styles of medieval music that we’ll cover in this article.
If you’d like a broader overview of the entire history of Western art music tradition, do take a look at our guide to classical music eras here.
The dominant form of music in the Early Medieval period was Gregorian chant, which was named after Pope Gregory, who was credited with bringing it to the West.
Otherwise known as plainsong, it was liturgical, meaning that it was sung by monks as a ceremonial part of Mass in the Catholic Church.
This was monophonic music, meaning that it contained just a single melodic line, sung by the monks in unison, with no accompanying harmony parts or instrumental accompaniment.
Here is an example of a monophonic plainsong, sung by the Gregorian Choir of Paris:
The 9th Century saw the development of organum.
This is where an extra voice is added above the main melody, usually at a fixed interval of a perfect fourth or fifth away.
This can be seen as an extremely primitive form of counterpoint (the relationship between simultaneous interdependent musical lines), and the beginning of harmony as we now know it.
Here’s a video of some early organum where you can hear the second voice singing the second line.
The first liturgical dramas were probably seen in the 10th Century.
A liturgical drama was a sort of religious musical play, where monks, nuns and priests sang and acted out biblical stories or scenes, including dramas that told the stories of Christmas or Easter.
Secular Music and Development of Polyphony
Although most music in the medieval period was religious, the High Medieval period saw the birth of the troubadour in France.
These wandering minstrels would make a living by travelling from town to town, and were some of the earliest professional musicians.
They performed monophonic secular songs on topics including war, chivalry and ‘courtly love’ – the love of an idealised woman from afar.
The Minnesinger was the Germanic equivalent of this tradition.
Ars Nova was an artistic movement that gained traction in the Late Medieval period, at the beginning of the 14th Century.
Meaning “new art” in Latin, this was secular music that was increasingly expressive and varied.
Polyphonic writing (which has two or more simultaneous independent melodic parts) had begun to develop in the High Medieval period, and this now became the dominant style.
This shift led the way towards the Renaissance era that was to follow, which would be characterised by a grander and more complex style.
Here is a piece of polyphonic music by Guillaume de Machaut, a major composer of the late Medieval era:
Music Notation in the Medieval Era
It was during the Medieval period that the foundations were laid for the way that we write down music today.
Until around the 9th Century there was no written music, so pieces had to be taught “by ear” from person to person.
An early solution to this in the world of plainsong was the introduction of neumes, a series of symbols placed above the words, which indicated whether the pitch went up or down.
To begin with, the notation was not sophisticated enough to accurately record every aspect of a tune, so it was used as more of a memory aide, rather than as a comprehensive informative document.
As a result, interpretation of pieces would vary significantly from region to region.
Gradually, the notes began to be placed at different heights to give a rough indication of the size of the interval between each note then, gradually, horizontal lines were added for more accurate placement: this would ultimately lead to the five-line stave that we use for music notation today.
Now that pieces could be notated on parchment or paper, composers were able to share their music much more easily and widely, which allowed the Church to standardise the musical material for its religious ceremonies.
Incredibly, there was no way of notating rhythm until the 13th Century, when a system of rhythmic modes was developed.
These were set patterns of long and short note durations.
German theorist Franco of Cologne then came up with a system which laid the foundations for the way we write rhythms today, whereby differently shaped notes signified different note lengths.
This approach was popularised by Phillipe de Vitry, one of the most important composers of the Ars Nova period.
The functional tonal harmony and cadences that would dominate the Baroque, Classical and Romantic periods had not yet been developed.
Medieval music was based upon a series of scales called modes whereby a melody would be built upon a particular scale.
There were eight ‘church modes’, which were all considered to have different effects upon the listener:
- Hypodorian (which we would now call Aeolian)
- Hypophrygian (which we now call Locrian)
- Hypolydian (which we would call Ionian)
- Hypomixolydian (which is like a Dorian scale, but with the fourth degree as its ‘Finalis’, or ending note)
These modes can be accessed by playing a scale starting on various degrees of the major scale.
For example, a D dorian scale contains the same notes as a C major scale, but has quite a different character.
The modal approach would return centuries later in some 20th Century classical music and jazz.
As we’ve discovered, the Early Medieval period was dominated by vocal music.
But instrumental music began to develop alongside this, and many of the instruments used then are ancestors of instruments used by musicians today.
Flutes were made of wood rather than metal, and had holes instead of the complex system of keys we see now.
The lute, a fretted instrument with a hollow body, is a predecessor of the guitar, while the gemshorn, made from the horn of a goat, is a member of the ocarina family.
Meanwhile, the wooden recorder is a rare example of an instrument that has essentially retained its form since the Medieval period.
Other instruments included an early bowed string instrument called the lyre, and the hurdy-gurdy, a kind of mechanical violin.
Key Medieval Composers
Here are some of the key composers from the Medieval period:
- Stephen of Liège (850 – 920) – Belgian bishop, hagiographer and composer of church music who was active towards the end of the Early Medieval period
- Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179) – one of the best known composers of sacred monophony. Also a writer, abbess, philosopher and polymath
- Franco of Cologne (dates unknown) – German theorist and composer of the Late Medieval period who was instrumental in developing the notation of rhythm
- Guillaume de Machaut (1300-1377) – French poet and composer. Central figure of the Ars Nova style
So, that concludes our guide to the Medieval period of music.
We’ve learned about early developments in music theory, notation and harmony that would go on to help shape Western art music as we know it today, and about early changes in religious and secular music.
We hope you’ve enjoyed finding out about this vast, mysterious and fascinating era, and that you’ve loved some of the pieces of music that we’ve shared.