Singing and Polyphony in the Middle Ages and Renaissance

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  • 1:16 Polyphony & Organum
  • 2:07 Melismas
  • 2:43 Medieval Motets
  • 3:49 Renaissance Motets
  • 4:47 Medieval Minstrels &…
  • 5:13 Renaissance Madrigals
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Liz Diamond-Manlusoc

Liz has taught music for K-12 and beyond. She holds a master's degree in Education Media and Design Technology.

Vocal music was important in both sacred and secular music in the Medieval and Renaissance periods. In this lesson, you will find out about the development of vocal styles during these time periods.

Early Medieval Period

Singing went through some serious development between the Medieval period, sometimes referred to as the Middle Ages and considered to be roughly 500-1450 in music history, and the beginning of the Renaissance period, which is typically thought of as 1450-1600 in music history. It all started in the medieval church. The church was incredibly powerful at the time, and it regulated music with specific rules, including what notes were allowed or not allowed to be sung.

Church-approved singing was one melody without harmony, resulting in just one musical part. This was called Gregorian chant. Gregorian chant is commonly defined as church music sung in a single vocal line. Each syllable was given one pitch, so it sounded like this (please see the video at 00:53 to hear this chant). It may not sound very exciting by today's standards, but it was the choice of church-going Medieval Europeans from the year 800 on.

Polyphony and Organum

Eventually, the rule of singing only one part went by the wayside, and polyphony, or music with two or more musical parts played simultaneously, was allowed. Around the year 900, a simple 2-part medieval harmony, called organum, developed. The singers were still confined to following the chant pitches and rhythms from earlier days, but at least they could have some harmony.

Later, around the 1100s, the higher-pitched singer was allowed to improvise pitches to go along with the chant, as long as they were creating harmony that fit within the constraints of the prescribed pitches.


A mere 100 years later, the melody became less restricted, and the highest-pitched singer was given melismas, or a succession of pitches sung on one syllable. French composer Léonin was quite masterful at this and created 2-part compositions with extended melismas. His successor, Perotin, went a step further and added 3- and 4-part harmony with the melismas, resulting in songs like this (please see the video at 02:28 to hear this example). These two composers exemplify the late medieval organum style.

Medieval Motets

The complex organum developed by Léonin and Perotin inspired motets, which were sacred songs with multiple vocal parts of varying texts. The earliest motets were written in the late 1200s. The motet was more complex than organum, both musically and in text. Musically, the motet had added differing vocal parts. The text was also highly complex, as it was often two or more different texts sung simultaneously, sometimes even in two different languages.

As secular ideas gained popularity at this time, many motets included secular text. Guillaume de Machaut was a key composer of motets in the 1300s, and his efforts made great strides in reaching new musical ideas in the Renaissance. His Quant en Moy is a famous example.

Renaissance Motets

The motet remained popular during the Renaissance period, which immediately followed the Medieval period, but it was quite different than the medieval motet. Compared to the medieval motet, the Renaissance motet is smoother and imitative, meaning it has successive voice parts that echo each other. Surprisingly, the Renaissance motet is also simpler, with more singable melodies than the medieval motet. The sacred Renaissance motet is always in Latin and is for the ordinary mass. Josquin des Prez is a well-known composer of Renaissance motets, and his Ave Maria can be heard here (please see the video at 04:24 to hear this song).

Medieval Minstrels and Troubadours

Not all medieval music and musicians were regulated by the church. Royal courts also hired musicians since they could afford to pay for entertainment. Two types of court musicians and poets, called minstrels and troubadours, sang songs of courtly love and heroic tales. Though they were similar, troubadours held a higher status than minstrels and, as such, made more money and got to travel.

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