Archive for the Medieval Category

Medieval and Renaissance Music: Why is it Important?

Posted in Medieval, Music, Renaissance with tags , on February 26, 2012 by Nell

Guide: Vocal Music in the Medieval and Renaissance Periods

Historians often point to the Medieval period as the beginning of the unbroken tradition of notated (written down) Western music that developed into what we now consider “classical” or “art” music. Although the earlier Ancient music of Greece was very important and influential, only a few fragments of Ancient Greek music have survived. The Medieval period lasted from the fall of the Roman Empire in the 5th century (specifically 476 AD) through roughly the 15th century.

It was in Medieval cathedrals and abbeys that explorations of the nature of pitches and rhythms began evolving into what would become the practices of composing and performing standardized much later in the 18th century. Important technical tools such as written musical notation and solfege (a method for sight-singing) also first appeared in the Medieval period. Music with increasingly sophisticated counterpoint–simultaneous melodic lines–began appearing in the 1100s.

Music by Orlando di Lassus

16th c. music by Orlando di Lassus (click to view source)

The following centuries after the Medieval period saw new developments in musical style, and Renaissance style reached its peak during the 16th century with the music of Palestrina and Lassus.

Tastes and ideas eventually changed and composers like Claudio Monteverdi paved the way for the new Baroque style of music, which began in the 17th century.

While there were a lot of different musical styles during the Medieval and Renaissance periods, there was a clear continuity of musical forms and similarities in the way that people composed, performed, and listened to music during this entire period.

Vocal Music

Instrumental music was popular in the Medieval and Renaissance periods in the contexts of out-of-doors dancing, lords’ banquets, town festivals and ceremonies, popular songs, etc. The surviving documentation of instrumental music is unfortunately not very good, partly because music notation from this time isn’t always very specific about what instrument or voice should be performing a musical part. A lot of instrumental dance music was also learned and passed on orally—that is, by ear rather than by writing—so we don’t know exactly what it was like.

Vocal music held an important position in the Catholic church, which was the dominant cultural and political force in Western Europe, and many of the most highly respected composers specialized in vocal music. On the whole, instrumental music wasn’t considered as worthy of development in the church as vocal music was until, arguably, the late 1500s-early 1600s, with the beginning of the Baroque period.

For these reasons, vocal music is a good focus of study to trace important developments in music during the Renaissance and before, although a consideration of instrumental music during this time is important for a complete understanding of the history of music.


Posted in Medieval, Music with tags , on January 30, 2012 by Nell
Gregorian chant

Gregorian chant

Guide: Vocal Music in the Medieval and Renaissance Periods

Gregorian chant, plainchant, plainsong, or simply chant are terms referring to a genre of church music codified and written down during the 10th to 13th centuries, mostly created by anonymous composers.

This music represents the first significant body of music in Western culture that was notated and preserved in writing (although it was very different from our modern notation).

What to listen for:

  • Chant (in its original state) is all monophonic, meaning there is a single melodic line which all singers perform simultaneously.
  • In organum, composers began using chants to create a cantus firmus—a fixed melody—and they would compose new, original music on top of the chant. Chants are often still present and intact in very complex polyphonic music by 16th century composers, even though they are somewhat hidden and obscured.
  • Chant was written using a system of musical scales called the church modes (which were derived from ancient Greek modes). As a result, chant may sound strange or exotic in comparison to later music, which is built around different rules of music theory.

Recommended listening:

Further reading:

Wikipedia article on Gregorian chant


Posted in Medieval, Music with tags , , on January 30, 2012 by Nell

Guide: Vocal Music in the Medieval and Renaissance Periods

Organum is a genre of Medieval polyphonic music (music with two or more simultaneous, different voice parts) that reached the peak of its sophistication during the late 1100s-early 1200s in France. In organum, new music would be composed and sometimes improvised on top of the “fixed” music of older Gregorian chant.

At first there were just two parts — one for the chant and the other to provide harmony or, in later music, to provide a faster, melodic part that decorated the chant. As more voices were added and the rhythmic and harmony behind the music became more sophisticated, it evolved into new musical forms such as the motet.

What to listen for:

  • In organum, the chant is always in the “tenor” voice (this is different from the kind of singer—“tenor” is a Medieval term referring to the lowest voice part, basically, and could actually be an alto or bass singer).
  • A notable feature of most forms of organum is that the tenor voice is usually singing very long notes (the chant has been stretched out in time) while the upper voice(s) are singing much faster music, creating a sense of two different tempos happening simultaneously.
  • Like the chant on which it is based, organum is derived from a modal pitch system rather than the tonal system.

Recommended listening:

These two are from a useful playlist of Medieval music created by a YouTube user. Check out those video descriptions for more information.

Further reading:

Wikipedia article on organum


Posted in Medieval, Music, Renaissance with tags , , , , , , on January 30, 2012 by Nell

Guide: Vocal Music in the Medieval and Renaissance Periods

Music by Orlando di Lassus

Music by Orlando di Lassus (click to view source)

The term polyphony can be used to describe a general style of music from the Medieval and Renaissance periods or, more broadly, to refer to any musical texture of more than one distinct, simultaneous melodic lines.

Polyphony emerged out of Medieval church music (chant) around the 12th century with the invention of organum (the earliest named composers of organum were Leonin and Perotin, both working at Notre Dame in Paris).

This form of music reached the peak of its popularity and sophistication in the Renaissance in the 16th century (Palestrina and Lassus, aka Lasso, are considered the defining composers of that period).

Polyphony may be found in motets, masses, and madrigals, the dominant genres of vocal ensemble music during the 14th-16th centuries.

What to listen for in Renaissance polyphony:

  • Polyphony utilizes mostly contrapuntal textures (often mixed with short passages of homophony, in which all the voices sing in the same rhythm but with different pitches), rather than melody-and-accompaniment type of textures (what we think of as “song”).
  • Each of the different voices have equal importance in the overall sound of the music. (This is in contrast to monophony, in which there is one melody which performers would sing simultaneously.)
  • Polyphony often involves canon, a compositional technique utilizing imitative counterpoint, where two or more voices perform the same, or very similar, melodies in a sequence of overlapping entrances. (Think “Row, Row, Row Your Boat.”) Sometimes the melodies are transposed (i.e. starting on a different pitch) or otherwise altered.
  • The harmonic system used in this music was derived from the church modes (see chant for more info) and therefore sounds noticeably different from the tonal music of the Baroque and Classical periods.

Recommended listening:

See organum to hear the very earliest polyphony, which is stylistically and technically different than this later music.

Late Medieval polyphony:

Renaissance polyphony:

Further reading:

Wikipedia article on polyphony

Vocal Music in the Medieval and Renaissance Periods [GUIDE]

Posted in Guides, Medieval, Music, Renaissance, Videos with tags , , on January 30, 2012 by Nell

 Vocal music in the Medieval and Renaissance periods is some of the most interesting and beautiful music of all time. Use this guide as a jumping-off point to explore some of the more important genres and techniques in the Medieval era through the Renaissance (ending around 1600).



…video coming soon!