Medieval Music 500-1400AD
|When did music begin? Nobody really knows, although some researchers such as Steven Mithen have suggested that we humans have been making music longer than we have been speaking. But when it comes to knowing for sure what music sounded like in the past, we can only go as far back as the oldest written manuscripts which survive today.|
The oldest music manuscripts which we have today mostly date back to the Medieval era. This period started in about 500AD and finished at around 1400AD. That’s quite a long time span, and a lot of developments took place along the way. Let’s take a brief look at how music sounded all those centuries ago!
Texture & Harmony
Early Medieval music started off as monophonic. This means that there was just one line of melody, with no chords or other kind of accompaniment. In the sixth century, Pope Gregory collected together a large number of religious songs, which were called “plainsong”. Today we often refer to this type of music as “Gregorian chant”, and it is still widely sung today. Here’s an example of Gregorian chant; you can also try to follow the ancient notation system used at that time!
During the ninth century, musicians began to experiment with chords and harmony, by adding one or more different musical lines to the original chant. How did this happen?
As a quirk of nature, people’s voice ranges tend to differ by about a fourth or a fifth, for example a tenor voice is about a fifth higher than a bass voice. When people with different voice ranges want to sing the same melody together, they often naturally start to sing on a note which is comfortable for them, so a bass voice and tenor voice singing the “same” song, might actually sing it a fifth apart. Interestingly, this phenomenon can be observed even today at football matches, when a large group of men attempt to sing something like “You’ll Never Walk Alone”, the higher voiced men will sing the tune about a fifth higher than the lower voiced men. Probably none of them realise that they are mimicking the beginning of polyphony (combining more than one line of music)!
This first step towards harmony as we know it was called organum. The single melodic line from Gregorian chant remained the foundation for a piece, and then other voice parts were added as decoration. As the years went by, composers became more and more experimental. Here’s an example of organum, where the voices mainly sing in fourths, fifths or octaves:
Polyphony became more and more involved; composers would add in intervals of a third, include extra voices, or have the musical lines move in a non-parallel way. Most of the music we have today from this time was written down by monks, and so it is religious (liturgical) music. However, sometimes they also wrote down secular songs, such as “Sumer is i-cumen in” which dates to about 1240AD:
This song is in “Middle English” – you can find the lyrics here as well as the modern English equivalent, and this is the first part of the original notation:
Medieval music was not based on the major/minor key system we use today. Instead, it was built on modes. Each mode had a slightly different “flavour” and a composer would pick a mode which best corresponded to the emotions in the music. The subject of modes is quite large and beyond the scope of this article. For further reading, a good place to start is here.
As we’ve seen, the majority of music from this time was vocal. Musical instruments did exist of course, but they were not often used in church music, and were quite primitive in nature. Instruments which were in existence at the time include the flute, plucked string instruments such as the harp and lute, and an early version of the trombone.
Musical pieces were simple in their structure. A song would involve a great deal of repetition, for example, and common musical forms were the round or canon, where the same tune would be repeated by each voice but at staggered intervals. Many songs consisted of simply a verse plus a chorus, as they do today.
So we have seen that Medieval music was really the beginning of “classical” music as we know it, and that many changes took place in this period. Despite this, we still use some of the same instruments today, we employ similar techniques in popular song writing and the genre of Gregorian chant is still hugely popular.
Medieval music gradually evolved into Renaissance music, our next port of call.