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Medieval Period Music

Medieval Music 

From the collapse of the Roman empire to the dawn of the Renaissance, the medieval music era lasted approximately 900 years. While it mostly centered around the Church, various types of secular music also emerged, albeit in small numbers. Thus, marking the onset of the history of classical music. Read this article to know more about the medieval music era, its history, high points, interesting facts, and more.

When Was the Medieval Period of Music?

The medieval period of music dates between the 6th and the 15th centuries, making it the first and the longest period of music in the history of mankind. For the sheer length of this period, it was divided into 

  • Early Medieval Music (500-1150), 
  • High Medieval music (1150-1300) 
  • Late Medieval music (1300-1400).

During this period, the foundation of music notations and music theory was laid, a practice that would go on to become the norm of all kinds of music produced from there on. Before this, music was taught by ear from one person to another, severely restricting the number of individuals who could learn and spread it. However, the invention of notation and music theory made it much simpler to spread to a broader audience.

Brief History of Medieval Music

Medieval Period Music
Medieval Period Music, by JIP, is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

Medieval Music has certain distinct traits as the first form of classical music. The majority of it was based on a Monophonic Chant, with standardised rhythmic patterns and music notation based on Ligatures. Despite the fact that liturgical music constituted the majority of Medieval music, troubadours, and trouvères (travelling musicians) also performed secular music.  Also, the number of instruments used was very limited including flutes, pan flutes, lutes, dulcimers, and sackbuts. 

Monophonic Chant

A majority of Medieval Music was monophonic, with only one single-line melody. Monophonic chants were very popular across countries like Rome, Spain, and Ireland. These sombre religious chants were also referred to as plainchants or plainsong. 

Gregorian chant: 

One of the most popular forms of music at that time, the Gregorian chant was a single line of vocal melody, unaccompanied by free rhythm. 

Development of Heterophonic

With time, medieval musicians started experimenting, adding another vocal line to monophonic music. These were slightly more sophisticated than monophonic chants that further developed into motets.


This was a crucial development away from monophonic music. It consisted of two lines of voices in different heterophonic textures. Organums were mainly categorized into parallel or strict organum, free organum, and melismatic organum. 

Secular Style of Medieval Music

While most medieval music was holy, with vocal music being liturgical, significant aberrations began to emerge in particular places of Europe. The motet gave birth to secular music, which was mostly about declaring courtly love. It was typically performed in casual settings, with troubadours and trouvères performing secular plainsongs as they travelled across Europe. Secular music became popular primarily in the Romance languages of Occitan and Italian madrigal.

Ars Nova in Late Medieval Music

With time, medieval music also underwent formal changes. Towards the late medieval period, a music form called Ars Nova gained immense popularity. Embracing the polyphonic sounds fully and adopting different rhythmic patterns that limited the early medieval music, Ars Nova was quite a departure from the kind of music that was popular thus far. While it made its presence felt in all of Europe, France was surely the epicenter of this form of music. Ars Nova promoted chanson, a type of music that made extensive use of poetry.

Popular Medieval Composers

Popular Medieval Composers
Medieval Composers, by LMoonlight

Not much of medieval music has been preserved or followed through centuries. This was mainly because of its limiting nature and inconsistent compositions. However, a few composers and their music has stood the test of time. These are:


He was a French musician who pioneered polyphonic compositions in the form of organum. Léonin was a part of a music group called the Notre Dame School of Polyphony and he worked at the Notre Dame cathedral in Paris. He is known as the author of Magnus Liber. (the great book)

Perotinus Magnus: 

Popularly known as Pérotin, Perotinus became popular around the same time as Léonin and was also a part of the Notre Dame School of Polyphony. He worked within the musical style known as Ars Antiqua and some of his popular compositions include Salvatoris Hodie and Magnus Liber Organi (Great Book of Organum).

Hildegard von Bingen: 

Quite a departure from what the norm was at that time, Von Bingen was a female composer in Germany who composed monophonic chants for the Catholic Church in the 12th century. Her forte was composing for women’s voices. Some of her popular works include a musical morality play Ordo Virtutm and a collection of songs called Symphonia Armoniae Celestium Revelationum. 

Guillaume de Machaut: 

A composer of the Ars Nova school and a master of the isorhythmic motet, Guillaume was a musician, poet, and author. He is known for his exemplary works like Messe de Notre Dame.

Characteristics of Medieval Music

Even though medieval music is the earliest form of classical music, it had some unique characteristics. It was mostly composed in Monophony, had standardized rhythmic patterns, and ligature-based notations and was accompanied by limited kinds of musical instruments.

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