What Is Secular Music? - Definition & History

What Is Secular Music? - Definition & History
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  • 0:00 Defining Secular Music
  • 0:59 Secular Music's Purpose
  • 2:30 History of Secular Music
  • 4:08 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Chris Chouiniere

Chris has taught music and has a master's degree in music education.

Simply put, secular music is any music not written for the church. This lesson will examine the history of this important musical genre and look at how it became what it is today.

Defining Secular Music

Secular music is any music not written for the church. There's got to be more to it than that, right? Nope, that's it. It's a really broad category that encompasses everything from contemporary pop music to early troubadours.

Here's the thing about that though: the earliest forms of written music were almost entirely for the church, called sacred music. Secular music wasn't typically written down. Why? A couple of reasons really. First, paper was expensive and hard to get in the 900s, so why waste it on music that didn't need to be written down? Second, sacred music was written down so it could be passed out to congregations to perform. If you're making money as a secular musician, you don't want somebody else to have access to your music and take money away from you. Third, early secular music was an oral tradition, the purpose of which was purely entertainment.

Secular Music's Purpose

Quick, picture a troubadour. Did you picture the classic, Shakespearean troubadour, traveling town to town with their lute? Or the bard character from your Dungeons and Dragons game? Either way, that's not actually a troubadour. What you're picturing is a minstrel. A troubadour played music for the rich, was associated with the upper class, and quite frequently was a part of the upper class (like the knight Philippe de Remi, for example).

Where the purpose of sacred music was to unify church congregations, typical early secular songs were either epic poems or love ballads. Though, the earliest written secular songs discovered so far were particularly raunchy party music, spread by goliards, the wandering students and clerics of medieval Europe. These Goliard Songs were monophonic, meaning they had a singular melodic line, typically unaccompanied, and were notated in a manner that we're still unsure how to decipher exactly. The lyrics were about women, wine, and satire.

Early creators and performers of secular music were called either troubadours or trouvères, depending on the region. They both mean basically lyric poet, and there were some seriously important musicians who can be counted as early troubadours, including Adam de la Halle, Josquin des Prez, and Guillaume Dufay. tThe final two were prolific sacred music composers as well.

History of Secular Music

As we saw with the earliest forms of recorded secular music, there is a sharp distinction between sacred and secular music. This continues to be the case today, though there are certainly some examples of crossover musicians.

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