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.

Pay Your Music Teacher!

Please Pay your Music TeacherPay your music teacher! Music lessons are not cheap. There, I said it. I know that from experience. But I have also learned that, for the most part, you get what you pay for. Not always true, I know, but most of the time it is. When you want quality, it costs you. And you should want quality for the music lessons you pay for. Granted, a beginner does not need a symphony-level instructor, but you should expect quality from your child’s music teacher. And that means you pay for it. Now, I’m not going to tell you where to come up with the money to pay for your child’s lessons, but I want to help you understand what determines the price your music teacher charges, and how he/she expects to be paid.

Your Music Teacher is a Professional

First of all, understand that a qualified music teacher has put in a lot of time and effort to become qualified. The teacher probably started practicing at a very young age and put in countless hours of practice before he/she even started college! Many music teachers studied music in college – they could have been performance majors, music education majors, or pedagogy majors. They put in the time and effort to be prepared to teach your child. Your music teacher is a professional, and he deserves to be paid as a professional.

Factors that Determine the Cost of Music Lessons

What determines the cost of music lessons? First, your location plays a role in the fees a teacher charges. Teachers in urban areas often charge more than teachers in more rural areas. Competition is greater in cities, living expenses are often greater in cities, studio space rental fees are usually higher in cities. Remember, your music teacher is a small business professional. This is her job. She must pay expenses, taxes, insurance, etc. Secondly, your teacher’s education and experience help determine his/her pay scale. The greater his experience, the more he is justified in charging for lessons. Usually a music teacher will study the market, get a feel for reasonable lessons charges, and try to set a comparable rate.

Frequency of Payments

How or when does my child’s teacher expect me to pay? Good question. When I was in grade school, I remember walking to my piano teacher’s house after school, handing her a $5.00 bill, and sitting down to take my lesson. Things have changed since then! Some teachers still ask to be paid each week when a child comes to a lesson. Others request to be paid monthly (number of lessons in a month multiplied by the amount per lesson). Many other teachers operate on a term or semester basis. They will calculate how many lessons are in the given term, how much per lesson, then give you a total amount you owe for the term. They may expect you to pay for the entire term at the beginning of the term, or half at the beginning of the term and the other half at the midpoint of the term. Usually, paying your music teacher by check makes it easier for them to keep their records correct. Some will even take credit cards.

Cancellations and Missed Lessons

What about missed lessons or cancellations? Be sure to discuss this with your music teacher when you start lessons. Each teacher or studio has its own policy. Find out what it is and keep a copy of the studio policy. Some teachers will work with you to reschedule in case of sickness or emergencies. Some build an extra lesson into their studio term. Others will reschedule if the teacher misses a lesson, but not if the child skips the lesson. It is your responsibility to know the teacher’s policy. Don’t expect the music teacher to make exceptions just for you.

Pay the Music Teacher

Finally, most importantly, pay your music teacher promptly! Remember this – your child’s music teacher is teaching because she loves to teach and see children learn, but this is still her job. She has bills to pay, expenses to meet, and she is depending on your payments to meet those expenses. The teacher still must pay her bills on time whether you have made your payment or not. So, pay your child’s music teacher with a smile!


Music Notation – The Basics

Music Theory BasicMusic theory tells us the symbols and rules for music notation – how to write music on paper. Musicians use standard rules so everyone can understand how they want the music to sound. Maybe you are just starting to learn about music and haven’t learned any of these things yet, but someday you will need to learn them. So now you can get a head start! I will help you learn some very basic music symbols today.

Basic Notation – The Musical Staff

Treble clef signThis is a treble (or G) clef sign. The treble clef sign tells us that the notes written after it will have a higher sound. People who play the violin, viola, flute, oboe, clarinet, saxophone, French horn, trumpet, xylophone, marimba, piano, organ read treble clef notes.

Bass Clef SignThis is a bass (or F) clef sign. The bass clef sign tells us that the notes written after it will have a lower sound. People who play the cello, bass, trombone, baritone, tuba, timpani read bass clef notes. People who play piano, organ, marimba also read bass clef notes. (They know how to read bass clef and treble clef!)

Staff LinesWe write music on lines and spaces. We call a group of these lines and spaces a staff. Each staff has 5 lines and 4 spaces between the lines. We write treble and bass clef signs on a staff. When we talk about more than one staff, we use the word “staves”. Usually staves go across an entire piece of paper.

Grand StaffThis is what we call a grand staff. We have taken a staff with a treble clef sign, and a staff with a bass clef sign and connected them together with a brace at the beginning. This is what we use when we want to write treble clef and bass clef music at the same time. If you play the piano, you will read music from a grand staff.

Music Notation – Measures

bar lines and measuresIt would be way too hard to read an entire line or page of music if the music was not broken up into smaller sections. We do that by using vertical (up and down) lines through the music. We call these bar lines. Bar lines are vertical lines that go through the staff to divide the music into smaller segments. We call these segments measures. Only so much music can fit into each segment, or measure.

Time SignaturesSo we learned that bar lines divide the music into smaller segments, called measures, and that each measure can only hold so much music. But how do we know how much music can fit in a measure? Time signatures tell us! Each time signature has two numbers. The top number tells how many “beats” or “pulses” can fit in each measure. The bottom number tells us what kind of note gets one “beat” or “pulse.”

Rhythm Notation – Notes and their Values

The way a note is written on the lines and spaces gives some of the clues we need to know how to play the note. The way a note is drawn (shape, with a line attached, with flags) gives information about how long to play the note.

Whole NoteThis is what a whole note looks like. I used to tell some of my very young students that a whole note looks like a chocolate doughnut. Usually, a whole note gets 4 beats, or pulses. In 4 /4 or 3 /4 music a whole note fills up an entire measure of music.

Half NoteA half note looks like a chocolate doughnut with a straw beside it – a circle with a stem. A half note usually gets 2 beats – half of a whole note.

Quarter NoteA quarter note looks like a half note that has the circle filled in. A quarter note usually gets one beat.

Eighth NoteAn eighth note looks like a quarter note with a flag on its stem. An eighth note is half a quarter note, so it gets half a beat. Or we could say that two eighth notes take up the same musical space as a quarter note.

Rhythm Notation – Rests and their Values

Musical notes tell us when to play our instruments, or when to make sounds. But what does a composer do to tell you not to play? We use rests to show us when to be silent, or not to play. Just like the shape and coloring of a note told us how long to play that note, the shape of a rest tells us how long to be silent.

Whole RestA whole rest is our longest rest. We can say that it is the “heaviest” rest, because when we write it on a line it is too heavy to sit on top of the line – it always flips over and hangs from the line. Just a like a whole note, a whole rest gets 4 beats.

Half RestA half rest looks like a whole rest, except it can sit on top of a line – it isn’t as heavy as a whole rest. A half rest gets 2 beats. I used to tell my students that a half rest looks like a little hat sitting on a line.

Quarter RestA quarter rest looks different. It looks like a 3 with a fancy tail underneath it. A quarter rests tells us to be silent for 1 beat.

Eighth RestThis is an eighth rest. Like an eighth note, it only gets ½ a beat. You need two eighth rests to make one beat.

You now should have a good idea of what many of the things are that you will see on a page of music. Come back next week and we will learn some more about time signatures and rhythm.