10 Facts About Medieval Music

Many people might disregard medieval music for being old and outdated. However, the adaptions made during the period may have shaped the West-European music we know today. So, here are 10 facts about medieval music.

1. Singers Were Imported
Back during a time when music was not written down, when churches were interested in a new song they would import a singer from another part of Europe that was familiar with the tune.

2. The Growth of Feasts
Beginning in the 9th century, more feasts were being added to liturgical calendar. With that, new texts and/or melodies were adapted for each service.

3. Liturgical Drama’s
Around the year 980, liturgical dramas were starting to emerge. They would later expand to lengthy plays with scenery and costumes, singing and later dialogue.

4. Polyphony
Church music began as plainchants, which were songs with one sung melody, no other parts or instrumentation. Polyphony, which is known as two or more melodies at once, would come later and start as an elaboration of the plainchant and evolve into its own entity.

5. First Signs of Rhythm in Europe
Notre Dame’s school contributed to replacing even, unmeasured polyphony and plainchants with recurrent patterns of short and long notes, known as rhythmic modes. However, the rhythmic notations we are familiar with would take longer to develop.

6. Earliest Signs of Secular Music
Monks during the medieval period did most of the documenting during the time. This is the speculated reason why the first traces of secular music (non sacred music) is not seen until the 11th century when there was a surge in development and preservation of secular music.

7. Troubadour Music
The first troubadour was William IX of Aquitaine, but troubadour music became most popular during the 2nd half of the 12th century. Today, 2600 poems by more than 450 authors survive. Of those, about 275 melodies by 42 troubadours survive.

8. Instrument Participation
Literary and pictorial evidence shows instrument participation in troubadour and trouvère songs. They do not depict how much instrument participation there was, but scholars believe that the instrument participation could be: strings playing unison with voice, playing opening or ending phrases, playing during interludes, or playing drones (a long held note).

9. The Lack Of Instrumental Music
While there are references of instrumental music for nearly every social situation, not much medieval instrumental music survives. This is likely because people like peasants and Jongleurs probably had a repertory of both song and dance music that was passed by oral tradition. It was also like because much medieval music was passed through poems instead of music notation.

10. Content of Secular Music
Musicians such as Minstrels, Troubadours, Trouvères, and Jougleurs performed music that often depicted a story. Whether this was a love story, a mythilacal story, or a story depicting the news they have heard during their travels.

All in all, there are aspects from our modern music that we can also see in medieval music, such as storytelling, dramas (musicals), styles, and even the use of instruments supporting the voice. There are also aspects that would have not been possible if not for the innovations during the Middle Ages, such as rhythmic notation, and the expansion of styles such as polyphony. Yet, we should also remember the aspects of medieval music that made it unique to its own period.

Sources: Hoppin’s “Medieval Music.” 1978. W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.

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