Music in the Middle Ages

All cultures and epochs throughout history have music as a part of their culture for entertainment, devotional, or other purposes.  The timing of Middle Ages music is generally agreed upon my music historians to encompass the time between approximately 550-1400 CE. 

Medieval music can be further subdivided into early medieval music from before 1150, high medieval music from 1300-1400, and then Renaissance music began after 1400.  Many regional varieties develop in medieval music, and it is difficult to classify a single style.

Types of Instruments

A variety of instruments were used to create Middle Ages music.  Some of these instruments are still used in modernity though in a different form, material, or other change.  Primarily woodwind and stringed instruments were used  in musical compositions, and often singing was an integral part as well.

Woodwind instruments were popular in the Middle Ages and were almost exclusively made from wood.  The recorder, which remains virtually unchanged in modernity, is an instrument with finger holes on the front and is held at a downward angle.  The pan flute was a common feature of Greek images of Pan, the satyr, and it’s popularity was carried over into the medieval period. 

Unlike the recorder or flute where covering a combination of holes produces different tones, the pan flute consists of several lengths of wooden tubes, each producing a different tone.  The recorder was held in place while fingering created notes, but with the pan flute the entire instrument needed to be moved to produce the correct notes.

Stringed instruments were also common to add depth of sound and composition to the woodwind instruments.  Unlike the woodwinds, playing a stringed instrument left the mouth unoccupied, thereby allowing the musician to sing and play simultaneously.  The lute is one of the more recognizable medieval instruments.  The gittern is the predecessor of the modern guitar and originated in Muslim-occupied Spain. 

The pear shape of the gittern blurs the boundary between the body and the neck that is so clear in the lute.  The psaltery was a hand-held member of the harp family.  Most stringed instruments in the Middle Ages were plucked or strummed, but Byzantium is noted as developing the lyra, which was one of the earliest bowed string instruments.

Musical Compositions

The development of Middles Ages music stems from Jewish musical traditions.  Christians adopted the use of plainsong chanting Psalms for use in their liturgy.  These early chants tended to be very simple in composition, but over time became more advanced and complex.

Medieval music was often anonymous and often untitled, as a result songs were known by principal lyrics.  Music from the Late Middle Ages shows an increase in claimed authorship of music.  It is from approximately 1300 that musical composers become known for their work.  In the early 14th-century more sophisticated regional composition styles develop. 

In France the Ars nova period saw an evolution of secular music to match the sophistication of religious composition.  The Trecento of Italy is similar to the contemporaneous French style, but are sung in Italian and often feature a two-voice harmony structure.  In Germany the Geisslerlieder style focused on religious music of a penitent nature, using song to atone for sins.

Uses of Medieval Music

Whereas art tended to be almost exclusively within the realm of the Church, music had both secular and religious uses.  Within church services, prayers were often chanted and throughout the Middle Ages were set to polyphonic music.  The early medieval chants used a small tonal range and used only a single note at a time, but this evolved to more varied and complex compositions.

In the early organization of the church, music was used to unify the different Christian practices throughout Europe.  Before the 11th-century different regions in Europe practiced different traditions, and in an effort to standardize Catholicism the Gallican chant from Gaul and Roman chant were combined to form a new form of chant known as Gregorian chanting.

Combing music, theatre, and religion, the Middle Ages saw the development of the liturgical drama.  The complex productions of liturgical drama sought to convey scriptural stories but using instrumental music and singing to add drama and entertainment.  Liturgical drama would also be more accessible to those parishioners who were illiterate or less-knowledgeable about the practices of the Church.

Medieval music was used for secular purposes by Goliards, troubadours and trouveres.  Goliards originated in the early Middle Ages and their compositions were in Latin.  These itinerant musicians travelled throughout Europe.  Troubadours were musician-poets who sang in Occitan, a language common in Southern Europe. 

Trouveres were very similar to the troubadours, though they used the Old French language in their compositions.  Both the poetry and accompanying melodies of a number of troubadors and trouveres survive, and it can be seen that common themes in the lyrics are war, chivalry, and love.

Legacy of Medieval Music

At the end of the Middle Ages before music fully evolved into Renaissance trends, the style known as Ars subtilior was developed encompassing aspects of French and Italian traditions.  This style of music is described has highly manneristic and complex, and it has been noted that the complexity of rhythm was not paralleled until the early-20th-century when music again became notoriously difficult.

In 1958, a modern interpretation of the Play of Daniel, a surviving medieval liturgical drama, was staged and performed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The 13th-century drama is based on the Book of Daniel, and the modern adaptation was recorded to increase exposure to the impressive work.

Musical notation was in its early stages during the Middle Ages, and, as a result, compositions were transmitted as a sort of oral tradition instead of written sheet music.  The lack of records, or the presence of lyrics without melody, makes obtaining a detailed knowledge of Middle Ages music difficult.   What does remain has been influential on subsequent classical music and there was even a small trend of creating a new genre of Medieval Metal or Medieval Rock.

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