Medieval Music

Medieval music was completely different from modern-day music. Medieval music consisted of Gregorian chants that featured trance-like quality notes. Domingo de Silos composed many of the chants and popularized them. The character of the music featured only a few rhythmic patterns sung in a half a dozen notes and contained absolutely no harmony. Nearly all of the music created sounded the same. Medieval music was almost hypnotic since it was played and chanted as an organum; the constant doubling or simultaneous singing of a song at intervals of a fourth or fifth part or octave, creating a spiritual or mystical atmosphere.

There are two basic categories to medieval music: secular and sacred. Since Christianity was an integral part of medieval life and culture, a complete set and style of music was created dedicated to it. Much of sacred music contained either texts from the Bible or was inspired by the Bible. It was therefore necessary for any person wanting to compose sacred music to have had a religious education along with musical instruction, which was not very common in medieval times. People without the necessary training to compose sacred music would compose less sophisticated, but just as important, secular music.

The intent and goals of secular and sacred music were quite different. The goal of composers of sacred music was to incorporate the words of the Bible into music and to bring a more divine feature to prayers than was derived from simply reading the text of the Bible. It was a new way of expressing devotion to God. Those who composed secular music did so strictly for entertainment purposes whether to express love or to dance. There was a major difference between the composers of sacred music and those who composed secular music; the former had musical and religious training while the latter did not. Not only did the two types of music serve different functions, but they also catered to different parts of society; sacred music to the rich and educated and secular music to the poor and uneducated.

This kind of societal division exists today between those who have musical training and those who do not. Today, those people who have musical training do not write sacred music, but rather classical music, sometimes characterized as art music. The part of society known as commoners usually listens to rock, country, pop or folk music, which are more simple forms of music. Today the dividing line between the two types in society is not in the religious aspect, but rather between those that have access to formal college musical education programs and those who do not.

Very little of medieval music survived the generations, since it was passed along orally and was not committed to writing. Also medieval musical composers did not see the need to pen their name to their music, so very little is known about the composers or who they were. Whatever music has survived from the Middle Ages is anonymous music. Medieval music scholars have been able to identify certain pieces of music that are similar and match them as belonging to the same composer.

Christianity had a very strong influence on medieval music. At first mass meant simply reading passages from the Bible. However, copying from the Jewish tradition of praying, chanting and singing became part of the mass. Texts from the Bible were chanted in unison, while some parts were chanted by the clergy. Most of the chanting was called plainchant which was musically monotonous with very few variation of pitches even though much was sung by the choir.

Around the 12th century, composers of sacred music became bored with plainchant and starting composing songs that involved more melodious tunes with a rhythmic beat. They slowly started introducing songs with notes on higher or lower octaves and added harmony to the music. Slowly more variations were introduced and added and suddenly there was a revolution in medieval sacred music. The introduction of harmony into music spread to secular music and quickly the gap between sacred music and secular music narrowed. Many composers of sacred music started composing secular music and vice versa.

Selected full-text books and articles on this topic

Music in Medieval Britain
Frank L. Harrison.
Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1958
The Early Middle Ages to 1300
Richard Crocker; David Hiley.
Oxford University Press, 1990
Librarian’s tip: This is a volume in the series "The New Oxford History of Music"
Ars Nova and the Renaissance, 1300-1540
Dom Anselm Hughes; Gerald Abraham.
Oxford University Press, 1960
Librarian’s tip: This is a volume in the series "The New Oxford History of Music"
A History of Western Music
Donald Jay Grout; Claude V. Palisca.
W. W. Norton, 2001 (6th edition)
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 2 "Chant and Song in the Middle Ages," Chap. 3 "The Beginnings of Polyphony and the Music of the Thirteenth Century," Chap. 4 "French and Italian Music of the Fourteenth Century," Chap. 5 "England and the Burgundian Lands in the Fifteenth Century"
Studies in Medieval & Renaissance Music
Manfred F. Bukofzer.
W. W. Norton, 1950
The Seven Liberal Arts in the Middle Ages
David L. Wagner.
Indiana University Press, 1983
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 7 "Music"
Giving Voice to Love: Song and Self-Expression from the Troubadours to Guillaume de Machaut
Judith A. Peraino.
Oxford University Press, 2011
The Death of the Troubadour: The Late Medieval Resistance to the Renaissance
Gregory B. Stone.
University of Pennsylvania Press, 1994
Inside Early Music: Conversations with Performers
Bernard D. Sherman.
Oxford University Press, 1997
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 1 "Medieval Music, Plainchant, and 'Otherness'"
The Social Status of the Professional Musician from the Middle Ages to the 19th Century
Walter Salmen; Herbert Kaufman; Barbara Reisner.
Pendragon Press, 1983
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 1 "The Social Status of the Musician in the Middle Ages"
The Flower of Paradise: Marian Devotion and Secular Song in Medieval and Renaissance Music
David J. Rothenberg.
Oxford University Press, 2011
The Medieval Latin Hymn
Ruth Ellis Messenger.
Capital Press, 1953
A Dictionary of Old English Music & Musical Instruments
Jeffrey Pulver.
Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner, 1923
A Biographical Dictionary of Old English Music
Jeffrey Pulver.
Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner, 1927
Music in Late Medieval Bruges
Reinhard Strohm.
Clarendon Press, 1985 (Revised edition)
The Civic Muse: Music and Musicians in Siena during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance
Frank A. D'Accone.
University of Chicago Press, 1997
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