Music of the Middle Ages

Welcome back, music history friends – let’s look at the music of the Middle Ages. The early music of this time probably would not excite you very much. You would probably think it was quite boring. Gregorian Chant or Plainsong was the main music of this time.  The music changed so much that by the end of the Middle Ages the music was much more familiar to us. So, let’s see what changed.Music of the Middle Ages

Changes in the Sound of the Music of the Middle Ages

Middle Ages music started as monophonic music – music that was sung in unison. There were no chords, no harmony, no instruments playing with the singers. The only sound was the melody – everyone in the choir sang the same notes. And all the music was memorized – no written music, remember? Because almost all the music was sung in the church, and because it took so long to learn all the music, the church decided to start a singing school for younger boys. That way by the time the boys grew up they would know the music and could continue in the choir. Only problem – boys can’t sing as low as most grown men. So, the choir director had the boys sing the same note as the men, but an octave higher. Now you had two lines of music – still both lines were singing melody, but one line sang higher and the other sounded lower. Here is a link to what monophonic Gregorian Chant sounded like:

And this gives us polyphony – music with more than one vocal line. Over time someone got adventurous and wondered what would happen if he changed some of the notes. What if the lower voices continued to sing their part, but the higher voices sang just four or five notes higher than the melody line? They tried it, and evidently, they liked what they heard. They called this sound “organum” because they thought it sounded like the organ. (Remember – the ancient Greeks and Romans had organs.) And then they added another part – a drone sound lower than the melody. A drone sound is just the same note sounding throughout the entire piece. It was terribly boring to sing the drone part! Eventually the choir director had an instrument (like the organ or the psaltery) play the drone part. Here is an example of early organum music:

By the 1100’s music got another big change. A musician/composer named Pérotin started writing song with 3 or 4 musical lines. He wrote music with chords and three or four part harmonies. No one had done that before!

Changes in Music Notation of the Middle Ages

When the Middle Ages started, performers memorized all their music. If you were in the choir, you had to listen to other people sing the music and learn it from them. Definitely not an efficient way to learn music! Choir directors were looking for a better way to teach music!

The idea of writing music started with notations called neumes. Neumes were small markings above the words of the song to give some instruction to the singers. The neumes would show the correct way to pronounce the words of the song. They would give the singer some basic idea about whether the notes of the song went higher or lower. But basically, the neumes would just remind the singer of the songs they had already learned.

Breakthrough!! Shortly after 1000 A.D. Guido de Arezzo, an Italian musician, got some ideas. He was tired of trying to teach new choir members how to sing all the songs they needed to know. It just took too long – like 10 years! He had to come up with a new system. He standardized  the way musicians wrote neumes and made them easy to read and understand. Then he began to write the neumes on sets of four horizontal lines – like a staff with just four lines. The position of the neume on the set of lines gave a pitch position – whether the sound should move higher or lower. The French musician, Pérotin, came up with a written way to indicate rhythm. Now the choir members could learn their music by reading it from paper instead of learning it just by listening. And as the music got more complex, it became even more important to have a way to learn the music faster.

Changes in Music Creation in the Middle Ages

Being able to write music on paper changed the way musicians “wrote” music. Before this, if a person came up with a new song he would sing it over and over to everyone he knew. Then they would sing it repeatedly to people they knew, hopefully without changing the song at all. But now a person could think of a new song, write it on paper, pass the paper around, and people could learn it exactly the way the composer wrote the song. Being able to write the music down also allowed musicians to write more complex music. Now composers had a way to claim ownership of their music. They could sing their names on the paper with their music.

Musical Instruments of the Middle Ages

Most of the instruments we are familiar with today did not exist in the Middle Ages. But some of the “ancestors” to our modern instruments were available. Musicians had several different pipes (wind instruments). The bagpipes were around during the Middle Ages. There were also many stringed instruments: the dulcimer, the psaltery, the hand-held harp, the lute, and the viol. Sometimes a group of instrumentalists played together to entertain at a banquet or to provide music for dancing. They did not use groups of instruments to accompany singers.

Important Composers of the Middle Ages

Hildegard von Bingen, a German woman born in 1098, was one of the earliest named composers. She was also a scientist and a diplomat. People today still perform some of her music. Here is a link to some of her music:

Pérotin was a French composer from the 1100’s. He experimented with chords, written notation for rhythm, and placing neumes on a set of four lines to show pitch.

Guillaume de Machaut wrote music with repeating pitch-sequences and duration-value sequences (melodic and rhythmic patterns). His music was much more complex than composers before him. This is what his music sounded like:

John Dunstable’s contribution to composition was the concept of chords, especially triads. He is known as the father of the triad.

Guillame Dufay took all these new ideas for musical compositions and put them all together. He wrote music that had an identifiable melody, harmonious chords, a logical chord progression that led to a satisfying ending, and an organized rhythm structure. His music would sound familiar to you. Here, in the music of Dufay, you can see how the music changed since the beginning of the musical era:

So, by the end of the 1300’s almost all the important elements of western music had been discovered. Musicians found a way to write music on paper. They progressed from just a single melodic line to multiple voices layered together, their music contained organization and structure. The basic foundation of western music had been created.

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