What Is Medieval Music? - History, Church Music & Composers

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  • 0:07 The Fall of Rome, The…
  • 0:31 Music for the Church
  • 1:08 Early Medieval Church Music
  • 2:23 Mid-Medieval Church Music
  • 3:40 Late Medieval Church Music
  • 4:34 Medieval Music Outside…
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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.

In this lesson, you will learn about the characteristics of medieval music. You'll learn about the influence and power of the church in music and composers who exemplified these ideals, as well as those who brought music out of the church and into the streets and kingdoms across Western Europe.

The Fall of Rome, The Rise of the Western European Church

What do you do after the fall of Rome? You party! (Church-style, of course.) The medieval period lasted from approximately 500-1450 A.D. and was a time of heavy church influence. Music was obviously around before this time and had various developments, but during the medieval period, the use and creation of music was regulated by the church.

Music for the Church

Why could the church suddenly inflict rules on such a free-spirited art? Money and fear. The church was a main patron of the arts, including music. Many musicians were trained in the church, and the church had the financial means to buy such extravagant items like paper, where eventually music was written down. Our current system of music notation is even rooted in the developments made in the medieval church! The church was also full of God-fearing Christians who were devoted to serving God and not making him angry, and this of course included only making music that would align with this purpose.

Early Medieval Church Music

Because of these circumstances, medieval church music had very specific rules, including what was acceptable in chanting prayers. Chanting of this time period is called plainchant and is sometimes referred to as Gregorian chant, since Pope Gregory standardized chant for the liturgy. It was standardized to promote unification of the churches throughout Europe and to rid the churchgoers of their pesky pagan tendencies. Pope Gregory was actually credited with quite a few things he may or may not have done, including the dictation of these chants from a dove who flew down from the heavens and perched on his shoulder. Even his scribe didn't quite believe him and had to peek behind the screen to see for himself. In any case, Pope Gregory remains the legendary transcriber of these chants.

The music itself was monophonic, meaning it was one melody without harmony, resulting in just one musical part. Monks would sing the prayers together in unison, so it sounded like this. You should notice that there are no background singers or instruments.

Mid-Medieval Church Music

Around the year 900, some simple harmony of two vocal parts was allowed. This was possibly because singing one part all of the time is boring or because some monks couldn't sing in tune. This type of simple two-part medieval harmony is called organum. The harmony was made in one of two ways: Sometimes a drone, or low, continuous note, was sung while the main melody was sung at the same time. Drones are still used often in bagpipe music today. Other times, the words of the song would be sung on two different pitches at the same time.

One composer of mid-medieval music was a nun named Hildegard von Bingen. Hildegard was a German nun who wrote over 70 works of plainchant. She is known for writing songs that were uncharacteristically melodic for the time period.

Late Medieval Church Music

By the late 1100s, church music was becoming more and more polyphonic, with two or more differing parts. The French composer Leonin of the Notre Dame cathedral, and his student, Perotin, are generally credited with composing the first significant polyphonic church music and creating plausible guidelines for composing polyphonic music. Both composers added more vocal parts and developed rhythmic notation into measurable notes. Later, motets, which were sacred songs with multiple vocal parts of varying texts, also became popular.

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