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Many people might disregard medieval music for being old and outdated.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.

10 Medieval Instruments That Survived or Adapted to Classical Music Today

The Medieval period is a musical stretch roughly between 500 A.D. and 1400. The instruments than we’re not as refined as today’s West-European instruments or lost popularity, but some of them survived through the ages or were adapted and refined into the instruments we know today. Many percussion instruments also survived, but we will not go over those today. So, here are ten Medieval instruments that survived today:

1. Bagpipes
This ancient woodwind instrument consists of at least an air supply, a bag, and a chanter (and usually a drone). Bagpipes were used by the poorest people and were usually made with goat or sheep skin and reed pipe. This instrument is used in ceremonies and movie soundtracks.

2. Dulcimer
This string instrument is described as having metallic strings strung and either plucked or in this case, struck with hammers. The dulcimer has made a comeback in recent years being used in several movie soundtracks.

3. Flute
Very similar to today’s modern flute. It is a wood instrument where you blow across a hole and has holes that are covered by fingers and keys. The modern flute is used in many settings, including orchestral.

4. Harp
This harp would have normally been 30 inches in length. This string instrument is played with fingers and at the time sometimes had pedals. This instrument is used in symphonies.

5. Harpsichord
This instrument looks very much like the grand pianos we see today. The biggest difference is that the harpsichord has quills that plucks the strings inside verses the later piano that hammers the strings. It has been used in some recent films, such as “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.”

6. Pipe Organ
This instrument is has long been used in churches and is still used today. You can also find them in many major concert halls.

7. Rebec
Often played with three strings. This bowed instrument that was played on the shoulder or in the armpit may have influenced the creation of the violin.

8. Recorder
While recorder might have lost popularity in the concert hall, it certainly has gained popularity in the public school education setting, though they usually use plastic instead of wood recorders. The recorders that are made of would, are virtually unchanged from medieval times,

9. Sackbutt
This instrument likely seems to be the predecessor to trombone. It had nine or ten slides. It was later developed into slide trumpet and then trombone.

10. Shawm/Hautboy
These double reed instruments were loud instruments. The Shawn was typically played in the streets. They were predecessors that would have been modified into the instrument we know today as the oboe.

It is interesting to see the similarities and differences between instruments, and how over time people are creative enough to not only create so many unique sounds, but modify them as well.

Medieval Life and Times, as well as Iowa State University in no way sponsored this article, but did influence some of the writing.

6 Facts About Kassia

Much of European Medieval music has been lost over time; it seems that many names of composers have been lost as well. Although, most composers known are male, a few female composers’ identities have lasted through the centuries, one of which, is the composer known as Kassia or Kassiani. So, here are 6 facts about Kassia.

  1. She could have been empress.

Born around 810 CE in Constantinople, Kassia grew up to be a beautiful and intelligent woman in the Byzantine empire. Three Byzantine chroniclers claim that she was among other women to be chosen as the bride to emperor Theophilos. Taken by her beauty, Theophilos approached and exchanged a few words, but Kassia’s rebuttal wounded Theophilos’ pride and so he rejected her and chose Theodora as his wife.

  1. She was an abbess.

In 843, Kassia founded a convent in the west of Constantinople and became its first abbess. A close relationship with the nearby monastery motivated her for wanting a monastic life.

  1. At least twenty-three genuine hymns are ascribed to her.

The exact number of works is hard to assess, as many hymns and other works are ascribed to different authors in different manuscripts and are often identified as anonymous. Twenty-three of those hymns are ascribed to Kassia.

  1. She wrote Secular versus as well.

Kassia is notable as one of only two Eastern Roman women known to have written in their own names during the Middle Ages. She wrote many non-liturgical verses as well. Many of her epigrams consists of meaningful sayings put into verse to aid the memory. For example, “I hate the rich man moaning as if he were poor.”

  1. Kassia was courageous.

We already know that Kassia was not afraid to speak her mind, but 9th-century Constantinople was rocked by fierce debate over the legitimacy of religious images. Kassia stood up to defend the veneration of the icons, through writing and action.

  1. Kassia is the earliest known female composer in Europe.

Kassia is the earliest woman composer whose works survive. The monastery of Stoudios re-edited the Byzantine liturgical books in the 9th and 10th centuries, which would ensure the survival of her work. Many of her hymns are still used in the Byzantine liturgy to this day.

1. British Library/Mary Wellesley & Peter Toth. 2016. Kassia: A Bold and Beautiful Byzantine Poet. [ONLINE] Available at: http://blogs.bl.uk/digitisedmanuscripts/2016/03/kassia.html. [Accessed 19 August 2018].
2. Feminism and Religion/Carol P. Christ. 2015. Kassiani: Placing a Woman at the Center of the Easter Drama. [ONLINE] Available at: https://feminismandreligion.com/2015/04/13/kassiani-placing-a-woman-at-the-center-of-the-easter-drama-by-carol-p-christ/. [Accessed 19 August 2018].
3. Naxos Records. 2018. Kassia. [ONLINE] Available at: https://www.naxos.com/person/_Kassia/106294.htm. [Accessed 19 August 2018].
4. Wikipedia. 2018. Kassia. [ONLINE] Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kassia. [Accessed 19 August 2018]