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  • 7/13/2004

The Medieval Era

(800 - 1400 C.E.)

     The Medieval Era is the longest and most remote period of musical history. It is important to note that this musical era consists of almost a thousand years worth of music. For most of the middle ages, the Church was the focal point of social life, learning, and the arts. Saint Gregory, who was pope from 590 - 640 C.E., is said to have organized a huge repertoire of chants that developed during the first centuries of the Christian church. Thus the term of "Gregorian Chant" came about.

     Early Medieval music notation did not look like the notation that is used in present day music. The earliest signs of a notational system notational system for music used neumes. For a long time, musical notation consisted of thepitchpitchor note that was to be sung. Other musical notation, such as rhythm didn't begin until the 12th or 13th centuries.

     Gregorian chant ismonophonic, having one melodic line without an accompaniment. It is said to be very serene, with pure shapes of melody. It is not known who wrote the melodies of the Gregorian chant. Similar to folk melodies, it probably changed over time as it was passed down through generations.

     Toward the latter part of the middle Ages, music consisted of two or more melodic lines that were heard simultaneously, calledpolyphonypolyphony. This appeared around the 1200s. Polyphony was more difficult to compose than the monophonic chant, because a composer had to combine multiple melodic lines in a way that would be pleasing to the listener. Most of the Medieval polyphonic music was anonymous, as the names of composers were never written down. However, there are a few exceptions, as some composers had works so important that their names were preserved along with their music.

     Although little of it has been preserved,secularsecularsong was important to the medieval era.. Secular song was monophonic and stylistically more diversified than plain song. It was stronger, and utilized regular rhythms, and had short rhythmic patterns. It was generally modal but favored major (Ionian) and minor (Aeolian) modes.


     During the Medieval Era, there were many forms of vocal music. They were very simplistic in nature.



 One of the most common vocal forms of the time was called plainchant, the Gregorian chant or plainsong. It is known that this form of vocal music was the main root ofpolyphonypolyphonyduring both the medieval era and in the Renaissance era.

Secular Song

While little secular song had been preserved to date, it was still a very important musical form during the medieval era. It was very similar toplainsongplainsongin that it had single note notation, had no accompaniment, and was written in themonophonicmonophonicstyle. The difference between secular song and plainsong was its meter. It was mostly written in triple meter. Additionally, it also dealt with a wider range of subjects than the very religious plainsong. Furthermore, secular song had clear phrase and sectional structure, was written in most vernacular languages instead of the Latin-only plainsong, and used shorter and more regular rhythms.

     One of the greatest musical achievements in the history of music occurred during the medieval era. This was the coming of polyphony. Polyphony is two or more vocal parts, each with its own individual melodic importance within a work. The earliest known polyphony occurred insecular musicsecular musicof the 8th century. However, from the 9th to the 13th centuries, polyphony grew in style and popularity and evolved into church music, which was based on plainsong.


     Ars Antiqua is the time period between the mid 1100s to the end of the 1200s. This phrase means "The Old Art." This was a time during the Medieval Era when polyphony developed even further.

Notre Dame Organum
The Notre Dame organum developed shortly after the year 1150. In this form of polyphony, there were two parts sung by solo voices, alternating with sections of plainsong sung by a choir. Appearing for the first time was dicant style. This style had sections in which the tenor part contained shorter and measured notes.

Polyphonic Conductus
     The polyphonic conductus was in wide usage during the beginning half of the 13th century. The tenor part of this musical form was composed, instead of borrowed from plainsong, as it was in organum. Additionally, the parts moved together rhythmically, and the piece was written for two to four parts. The polyphonic conductus was composed in non-liturgical or secular form.

     Around the year 1250, themotetmotetbecame the main polyphonic form. It started to replace organum and conductus. A motet consisted of specific musical guidelines. A plainsong was sung by the tenor voice, and above it, two other parts were sung in faster moving notes. It was written in either sacred or secular style (in Latin or in vernacular) and usually was played in triple meter with clashes ofdissonantdissonantintervals.

     Hocket was a form of polyphony that was often found in the music of the late 1200s to the 1300s. It was a technique that interrupted the melody line by frequently placing rests (which alternated between two voice parts) into the piece.

     Although not many works had this form during the Ars Antiqua stage of the Medieval Era, the rota still was present. It was a round or cannon in which two or more parts carried the same melody at different times.

The rondellus was a three part, secular form, in which exchange occurred between the three different melodies. This polyphonic work involved all the parts starting together rather than starting consecutively. Each part then rotated the melody.


The Ars Nova, or "The New Art," took place during the end of the medieval era while foreshadowing some of the Renaissance trends that were to ome.

     Written in two vocal parts, this musical form was the first polyphonic form to appear in Italy. Themadrigalmadrigalhad each stanza written in duple time and ended with a ritornello section in triple meter.

The caccia was at its musical height from 1345 to 1370. It was the primary musical form that employed the canon within it. The canon was based on a continuous imitation of two or more parts. The two upper parts were sung in strict imitation with long intervals between the two parts while the third lowest part was composed in slow moving notes and was probably played on an instrument.

This form came about after the madrigal and the caccia and originated as a dance song. The ballata had a sectional structure with refrains, called ripresa sung at the beginning and end of each stanza.


Guillaume Dufay(1400-1474)

Guillaume Dufay composed music from the late medieval era into the early Renaissance. He was born in the Duchy of Burgundy, which is today known as Cambrai, located in France. His birthplace was one of the major musical centers of the world. This area influenced many of the composers who lived during the Renaissance. Throughout his life, Dufay resided in many different Italian cities, which brought a high degree of worldliness to his music.

The music of Dufay was very calm, soothing, and had direction and clear distinctions. This was in opposition to the typical music of the late medieval era, which was often harsh and rhythmically complex. As time progressed, and musical norms started changing, so did the music of Guillaume Dufay. He began to explore the music of four voice vocal texture, which became a distinct Renaissance musical characteristic. He was one of the catalysts who helped medieval music to move forward and transition into the Renaissance age.

Phillipe de Vitry(1291-1361)

Phillipe de Vitry was one of the most important composers involved with Medieval music. He was the author of a prominent music theory text, called the Ars Nova. In this work, he showed how he would like to expand the rhythmic resources offered to composers, introduced new rhythmic schemes and a new mensural notation system. This new system remained an important notational device for over a century after his death. He made the first use of binary rhythm and is thus considered to be a mathematical and philosophical genius of his time period. Additionally, he is credited with being one of the main developers of the motet. He is one of the first composers to discover and use isorhythm; a single rhythmic figure continually repeated by a voice.

The only surviving works of Phillipe de Vitry were his motets. They are mostly secular, although some took on religious tones. Most of his motets were on political, as opposed to romantic, topics. He wrote his secular pieces in Latin, instead of French. He was seen as a prodigy, as he wrote about the issues of his time period and put them into musical form. Vitry is hailed today for his music theory that spurned the whole Ars Nova era of the medieval era and for his own emotional motets. He used new modes of musical idiom that would not be refined until years after his death. He left a lasting impression on the musical world.

 Guillaume de Machaut(1300-1377)

Born around the year 1300 in France, Guillaume de Machaut was one of the most famous composers of the medieval era. His most well known work is the Mass of Notre Dame. Written in four voice form, this piece showed his mastery of composition, and served as a textbook example of medieval counterpoint. He was also well known for his French poetry, songs, and manuscripts prepared for French royalty.

Guillaume de Machaut travelledEurope during his lifetime. In addition to composing, he also was involved with the political events of the time. He surrounded himself with royalty and honorary people.

Guillame de Machaut is considered to be an avant garde composer. His style dominated the Ars Nova period of the Medieval Era. He made little changes to rhythm and meter in his music but added his own interpretation and emotional depth to his pieces. He was also famous for his poetry, which was often set to music and conveyed messages of love.

Taken From: http://library.thinkquest.org/15413/history/history-med-comp.htm

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