Medieval Music

Music of the Middle Ages made great advancements through the centuries, which many

are still evident today.

The Christian Church effected the development of music greatly during the middle ages.

The first major type of music of this time was chanting. “The early Christians inherited the

Jewish chants of synagogues.”(Bishop-324) Chants didn’t have constant rhythm, every note was

about the same length. They had only one melody ,usually in the major key of C. All the singers

sang the same notes together, this is called monophonic. Chants became an significant part of the

church service, they were sung throughout the mass. These first chants were just sung by the

congregation, later on choirs took over.

“Roman Chant became known as Gregorian chant after Pope Gregory I, the great, who

may have composed some of the melodies and who actively encouraged an orderly, ritualized

use of music by the church.”(MS Encarta-1) He also supported the schola cantorum, a singing

school, to teach boys how to chant.

During the ninth century many musicians began to use more than unaccompanied

melody. A new type of chant was formed called organom. Organum was two octaves of

chanting simultaneously. “Organum was important to the history of music, because it was the

first step toward the development of the musical texture known as polyphony (multipart music)

the extensive use of which is the most distinctive feature of Western music.” (MS Encarta-1)

Around the twelfth century Organum was mostly being developed in France, but the English did

have their own version called gymel.

If musicians were to chant many pitches at the same time, they needed a more accurate

musical notation. Before this, the notation being used wasn’t precise at all. “Music notation was

originally merely a set of small marks, a sort of short hand, written above the words to indicate

the rise and fall of the voice and changes in emphasis, without specifying the duration of the

notes or the exact pitch.”(Bishop-325) The new way of writing musical notes was black squares

and diamonds attached to little poles on a staff of four or five lines, very similar to how we write

music today.

Music, during the fourteenth century, made great changes in style. “The new style was

called ars nova (Latin, “new art”) by one of it’s leading composers, the French prelate Philippe

de Vitry. The resulting music was more complex than any previously written, reflecting a new

spirit in Europe that emphasized human resourcefulness and ingenuity.”(MS Encarta-2) De

Vitry also invented the earliest version of the time signature, making it easier to play and write

more complicated patterns. Ars nova composers began to repeat the same patterns of either one

or more voice parts, usually from Gregorian chant, throughout the piece. Over that they would

put other melodies making it polyphonic.

“Nonreligious, or secular, music was composed by wandering poets who sang of chivalry

and courtly love in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries.”(Comptons-1) Some of these musicians

made a living of singing, others did it for the enjoyment. These singers, Troubadours and

Goliards, didn’t have a wide range of singing styles. Over 2,000 of these songs have been

written and saved in old documents made after the twelfth century though. “The musician of the

early Middle Ages seems usually to have been minstrel either resident in a large establishment or

traveling from establishment to another, singing the lays and sagas to his own


Musicians were needed to support other types of entertainment as well. Acrobats would

perform to music, just like jugglers, and dancing bears. Poor workers didn’t have much to do for

entertainment except for music. They would tell stories to music or have people sing while they

danced. They probably sang while working together too, like a type of sea chantey. Even

though they were enjoyed by many people, musicians were still considered a very low class.

Many of the first instruments of the early Middle Ages were taken from the earlier

Roman Empire, or from other cultures around the world. One string instrument used a lot was

the lyre. “It is possible that the lyre was carried into northern Europe from Constantinople

during the late Roman Empire, for many of the Byzantime armies, especially the Imperial

Bodyguard, were recruited from the northern peoples.”(Montagu-13) During the early medieval

times it was played by plucking the strings with a plectrum or fingers,. Later in the tenth century

bows became more popular and the lyre was also played with one. The other string instrument

that was popular was the harp. The first harps