The development of music through time: Medieval music era

By Hayley White

Reading time: 5 minutes

Music is everywhere. Some could argue that it is the very fabric of human expression; love, hate, sadness, anger; all are conveyed through music. The music we have today is vastly different to the music our ancestors played at the dawn of time. The development of music through time is known as the six (so far) musical periods or eras. It goes without saying that music has existed well before we have documentation of it, but the earliest records of music span the years A.D. 500-1400, and are known as Medieval music.

The Medieval period is the first where researchers know for sure what European musical composition sounded like. Medieval music, is the longest period of musical history. It is stretched across 900 years, starting around the time of the fall of the Western Roman Empire and ending around the Renaissance time. Sacred music and secular music were the two main genres of music during the Middle Ages, of which much was performed in Latin.

By Hayley White

Reading time: 5 minutes

Music is everywhere. Some could argue that it is the very fabric of human expression; love, hate, sadness, anger; all are conveyed through music. The music we have today is vastly different to the music our ancestors played at the dawn of time. The development of music through time is known as the six (so far) musical periods or eras. It goes without saying that music has existed well before we have documentation of it, but the earliest records of music span the years A.D. 500-1400, and are known as Medieval music.

The Medieval period is the first where researchers know for sure what European musical composition sounded like. Medieval music, is the longest period of musical history. It is stretched across 900 years, starting around the time of the fall of the Western Roman Empire and ending around the Renaissance time. Sacred music and secular music were the two main genres of music during the Middle Ages, of which much was performed in Latin.

Medieval music was first identified through the Gregorian Chant. The chant, known also as plainchant or plainsong, was named after Saint Gregory I, a Roman Catholic Pope in the years A.D. 590-604. It consists of monophonic (a single melody line) and unison (everyone together) singing (Treitler, 1981). It was used for the Roman Catholic Church and sung commonly by monks, so it is ceremonial in purpose.

The most important thing to note about the Gregorian Chant is that it is an oral form of music and was done purely through memory. This is a contested point of history since it’s hard to find evidence of music that has never actually been written down. It wasn’t until staff notation was created by Guido D’Arezzo that plainsong was ever able to be written. Guido D’Arezzo was an Italian monk and music theorist who created the form of music notation that we have now, using a four-line staff and clefs.

While there is little known about Guido D’Arezzo, it is claimed that he developed this new system of music between A.D. 1025 and 1030, and mainly invented it as a new way to write the Gregorian Chant (Miller, 1973). In turn, the introduction of the staff notation made it possible for polyphonic music to develop from that time as well. Defined as music that has two or more parts with a melody of their own, the earliest piece of polyphonic music is a plainsong from the 10th century dedicated to Boniface, the patron Saint of Germany.

Secular music was made by minstrels during this musical era, too – made for non-religious purposes. It was pretty much the Medieval equivalent of pop music. This is the kind of music we hear in period drama movies; for example, atmospheric music playing in the background of a really intense dinner scene or during jousting tournaments.

Secular music was an essential part of court life and provided entertainment during ceremonies, dinners, tournaments and dances. The ability to sing and dance well was the mark of a nobleman or noble woman. Secular music consisted of love songs, political satire and some subjects that were religious, but not for church use. It makes me wonder who the Michael Jackson or Adele counterpart was around this time!

The minstrels – otherwise known as troubadours or trouvères in France and minnesingers in Germany – who performed secular music, did not start writing it down until the 14th or 15th century. The minstrels also had an accompaniment – the equivalent to what we would call a band – who would travel to gain popularity and status. The instruments played were not dissimilar from the instruments we have now. The lute was the Middle Ages equivalent of a guitar and the lap harp was also extremely common, so too was a flute and fiddle.

Until around the 1700s, scholars say that sacred music like plainsong was much more prolific than secular music. Whether this is just because more information was found about sacred music rather than secular music is hard to say, but the progression of music at that time has allowed it to evolve into what we have today.

Lute, pixabay

 

Sources: 1. Oral, written, and literate process in the transmission of medieval music, Speculum 2. Guido D’Arezzo: Medieval musician and educator, Journal of Research in Music Education 3. Secular Medieval Music, qacps

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