Overview of Medieval Music


Gemshorn Alt

Gemshorn Alt

Instruments used to perform medieval music still exist, but in different forms. The flute was once made of wood rather than silver or other metal, and could be made as a side-blown or end-blown instrument. The recorder has more or less retained its past form. The gemshorn is similar to the recorder in having finger holes on its front, though it is actually a member of the ocarina family. One of the flute’s predecessors, the pan flute, was popular in medieval times, and is possibly of Hellenic origin. This instrument’s pipes were made of wood, and were graduated in length to produce different pitches.

Medieval music uses many plucked string instruments like the lute, mandore, gittern and psaltery. The dulcimers, similar in structure to the psaltery and zither, were originally plucked, but became struck in the fourteenth century after the arrival of the new technology that made metal strings possible.



The bowed lyra of the Byzantine Empire was the first recorded European bowed string instrument. The Persian geographer Ibn Khurradadhbih of the ninth century (d. 911) cited the Byzantine lyra, in his lexicographical discussion of instruments as a bowed instrument equivalent to the Arab rabāb and typical instrument of the Byzantines along with the urghun (organ), shilyani (probably a type of harp or lyre) and the salandj (probably a bagpipe). The hurdy-gurdy was (and still is) a mechanical violin using a rosined wooden wheel attached to a crank to “bow” its strings. Instruments without sound boxes like the jaw harp were also popular in the time. Early versions of the organ, fiddle (or vielle), and trombone (called the sackbut) existed.


Medieval music was both sacred and secular. During the earlier medieval period, the liturgical genre, predominantly Gregorian chant, was monophonic. Polyphonic genres began to develop during the high medieval era, becoming prevalent by the later thirteenth and early fourteenth century. The development of such forms is often associated with the Ars nova.

The earliest innovations upon monophonic plainchant were heterophonic. The organum, for example, expanded upon plainchant melody using an accompanying line, sung at a fixed interval, with a resulting alternation between polyphony and monophony. The principles of the organum date back to an anonymous ninth century tract, the Musica enchiriadis, which established the tradition of duplicating a preexisting plainchant in parallel motion at the interval of an octave, a fifth or a fourth.

Of greater sophistication was the motet, which developed from the clausula genre of medieval plainchant and would become the most popular form of medieval polyphony. While early motets were liturgical or sacred, by the end of the thirteenth century the genre had expanded to include secular topics, such as courtly love.

During the Renaissance, the Italian secular genre of the madrigal also became popular. Similar to the polyphonic character of the motet, madrigals featured greater fluidity and motion in the leading line. The madrigal form also gave rise to canons, especially in Italy where they were composed under the title Caccia. These were three-part secular pieces, which featured the two higher voices in canon, with an underlying instrumental long-note accompaniment.

Finally, purely instrumental music also developed during this period, both in the context of a growing theatrical tradition and for court consumption. Dance music, often improvised around familiar tropes, was the largest purely instrumental genre. The secular Ballata, which became very popular in Trecento Italy, had its origins, for instance, in medieval instrumental dance music.

Theory and Notation

During the Medieval period the foundation was laid for the notational and theoretical practices that would shape western music into what it is today. The most obvious of these is the development of a comprehensive notational system; however the theoretical advances, particularly in regard to rhythm and polyphony, are equally important to the development of western music.


The earliest Medieval music did not have any kind of notational system. The tunes were primarily monophonic and transmitted by oral tradition. However, this form of notation only served as a memory aid for a singer who already knew the melody. As Rome tried to centralize the various liturgies and establish the Roman rite as the primary tradition the need to transmit these chant ideas across vast distances effectively was equally glaring. The first step to fix this problem came with the introduction of various signs written above the chant texts, called neumes. The origin of neumes is unclear and subject to some debate; however, most scholars agree that their closest ancestors are the classic Greek and Roman grammatical signs that indicated important points of declamation by recording the rise and fall of the voice. The two basic signs of the classical grammarians were the acutus, /, indicating a raising of the voice, and the gravis, \, indicating a lowering. These eventually evolved into the basic symbols for neumatic notation, the virga (or “rod”) which indicates a higher note and still looked like the acutus from which it came; and the punctum (or “dot”) which indicates a lower note and, as the name suggests, reduced the gravis symbol to a point. These the acutus and thegravis could be combined to represent graphical vocal inflections on the syllable  This kind of notation seems to have developed no earlier than the eighth century, but by the ninth it was firmly established as the primary method of musical notation. The basic notation of the virga and the punctum remained the symbols for individual notes, but other neumes soon developed which showed several notes joined together. These new neumes—called ligatures—are essentially combinations of the two original signs.This basic neumatic notation could only specify the number of notes and whether they moved up or down. There was no way to indicate exact pitch, any rhythm, or even the starting note. These limitations are further indication that the neumes were developed as tools to support the practice of oral tradition, rather than to supplant it. However, even though it started as a mere memory aid, the worth of having more specific notation soon became evident.

Beneventan music manuscript example

Beneventan music notation showing diastamatic neumes and a single-line staff. Montecassino, Italy, second half of twelfth century.

The next development in musical notation was “heighted neumes,” in which neumes were carefully placed at different heights in relation to each other. This allowed the neumes to give a rough indication of the size of a given interval as well as the direction. This quickly led to one or two lines, each representing a particular note, being placed on the music with all of the neumes relating back to them. At first, these lines had no particular meaning and instead had a letter placed at the beginning indicating which note was represented. However, the lines indicating middle C and the F a fifth below slowly became most common. Having been at first merely scratched on the parchment, the lines now were drawn in two different colored inks: usually red for F, and yellow or green for C. This was the beginning of the musical staff as we know it today. The completion of the four-line staff is usually credited to Guido d’ Arezzo (c. 1000-1050), one of the most important musical theorists of the Middle Ages. While older sources attribute the development of the staff to Guido, some modern scholars suggest that he acted more as a codifier of a system that was already being developed. Either way, this new notation allowed a singer to learn pieces completely unknown to him in a much shorter amount of time. However, even though chant notation had progressed in many ways, one fundamental problem remained: rhythm. The neumatic notational system, even in its fully developed state, did not clearly define any kind of rhythm for the singing of notes.

Music Theory

The music theory of the Medieval period saw several advances over previous practice both in regard to tonal material, texture, and rhythm.


Cover from "Synónoma magistri", by Johannes de Garlandia.

Cover from “Synónoma magistri,” by Johannes de Garlandia, 1495.

Concerning rhythm, this period had several dramatic changes in both its conception and notation. During the early Medieval period there was no method to notate rhythm, and thus the rhythmical practice of this early music is subject to heated debate among scholars. The first kind of written rhythmic system developed during the thirteenth century and was based on a series of modes. This rhythmic plan was codified by the music theorist Johannes de Garlandia, author of the De Mensurabili Musica (c.1250), the treatise which defined and most completely elucidated these rhythmic modes. In his treatise Johannes de Garlandia describes six species of mode, or six different ways in which longs and breves can be arranged. Each mode establishes a rhythmic pattern in beats (or tempora) within a common unit of three tempora (a perfectio) that is repeated again and again. Furthermore, notation without text is based on chains of ligatures (the characteristic notations by which groups of notes are bound to one another). The rhythmic mode can generally be determined by the patterns of ligatures used. Once a rhythmic mode had been assigned to a melodic line, there was generally little deviation from that mode, although rhythmic adjustments could be indicated by changes in the expected pattern of ligatures, even to the extent of changing to another rhythmic mode. The next step forward concerning rhythm came from the German theorist Franco of Cologne. In his treatise Ars cantus mensurabilis (“The Art of Mensurable Music”), written around 1280, he describes a system of notation in which differently shaped notes have entirely different rhythmic values. This is a striking change from the earlier system of de Garlandia. Whereas before the length of the individual note could only be gathered from the mode itself, this new inverted relationship made the mode dependent upon—and determined by—the individual notes or figurae that have incontrovertible durational values, an innovation which had a massive impact on the subsequent history of European music. Most of the surviving notated music of the thirteenth century uses the rhythmic modes as defined by Garlandia. The step in the evolution of rhythm came after the turn of the 13th century with the development of the Ars Nova style.

The theorist who is most well recognized in regard to this new style is Philippe de Vitry, famous for writing the Ars Nova (“New Art”) treatise around 1320. This treatise on music gave its name to the style of this entire era. In some ways the modern system of rhythmic notation began with Vitry, who completely broke free from the older idea of the rhythmic modes. The notational predecessors of modern time meters also originate in the Ars Nova. This new style was clearly built upon the work of Franco of Cologne. In Franco’s system, the relationship between a breve and a semibreves (that is, half breves) was equivalent to that between a breve and a long: and, since for him modus was always perfect (grouped in threes), the tempus or beat was also inherently perfect and therefore contained three semibreves. Sometimes the context of the mode would require a group of only two semibreves, however, these two semibreves would always be one of normal length and one of double length, thereby taking the same space of time, and thus preserving the perfect subdivision of the tempus. This ternary division held for all note values. In contrast, the Ars Nova period introduced two important changes: the first was an even smaller subdivision of notes (semibreves, could now be divided into minim), and the second was the development of “mensuration.” Mensurations could be combined in various manners to produce metrical groupings. These groupings of mensurations are the precursors of simple and compound meter. By the time of Ars Nova, the perfect division of the tempus was not the only option as duple divisions became more accepted. For Vitry the breve could be divided, for an entire composition, or section of one, into groups of two or three smaller semibreves. This way, the tempus (the term that came to denote the division of the breve) could be either “perfect,” (Tempus perfectus) with ternary subdivision, or “imperfect,”(Tempus imperfectus) with binary subdivision. In a similar fashion, the semibreve’s division (termed prolation) could be divided into three minima (prolatio perfectus or major prolation) or two minima (prolatio imperfectus or minor prolation) and, at the higher level, the longs division (called modus) could be three or two breves (modus perfectus or perfect mode, or modus imperfectus or imperfect mode respectively). Vitry took this a step further by indicating the proper division of a given piece at the beginning through the use of a “mensuration sign,” equivalent to our modern “time signature. Tempus perfectus was indicated by a circle, while tempus imperfectus was denoted by a half-circle (our current “C” as a stand-in for the 4/4 time signature is actually a holdover from this practice, not an abbreviation for “common time”, as popularly believed). While many of these innovations are ascribed to Vitry, and somewhat present in the Ars Nova treatise, it was a contemporary—and personal acquaintance—of de Vitry, named Johannes de Muris (Jehan des Mars) who offered the most comprehensive and systematic treatment of the new mensural innovations of the Ars Nova. Many scholars, citing a lack of positive attributory evidence, now consider “Vitry’s” treatise to be anonymous, but this does not diminish its importance for the history of rhythmic notation. However, this makes the first definitely identifiable scholar to accept and explain the mensural system to be de Muris, who can be said to have done for it what Garlandia did for the rhythmic modes.

For the duration of the medieval period, most music would be composed primarily in perfect tempus, with special effects created by sections of imperfect tempus; there is a great current controversy among musicologists as to whether such sections were performed with a breve of equal length or whether it changed, and if so, at what proportion. This Ars Nova style remained the primary rhythmical system until the highly syncopated works of the Ars subtilior at the end of the 14th century, characterized by extremes of notational and rhythmic complexity. This sub-genera pushed the rhythmic freedom provided by Ars Nova to its limits, with some compositions having different voices written in different tempus signatures simultaneously. The rhythmic complexity that was realized in this music is comparable to that in the twentieth century.


Of equal importance to the overall history of western music theory were the textural changes that came with the advent of polyphony. This practice shaped western music into the harmonically dominated music that we know today. The first accounts of this textual development were found in two anonymous yet widely circulated treatises on music, the Musica and the Scolica enchiriadis. These texts are dated to sometime within the last half of the ninth century. The treatises describe a technique that seemed already to be well established in practice. This early polyphony is based on three simple and three compound intervals. The first group comprises fourths, fifths, and octaves; while the second group has octave-plus-fourths, octave-plus-fifths, and double octaves. This new practice is given the name organum by the author of the treatises. Organum can further be classified depending on the time period in which it was written. The early organum as described in the enchiriadis can be termed “strict organum” Strict organum can, in turn, be subdivided into two types: diapente(organum at the interval of a fifth) and diatesseron (organum at the interval of a fourth). However, both of these kinds of strict organum had problems with the musical rules of the time. If either of them paralleled an original chant for too long (depending on the mode) a tritone would result. This problem was somewhat overcome with the use of a second type of organum. This second style of organum was called “free organum.” Its distinguishing factor is that the parts did not have to move only in parallel motion, but could also move in oblique, or contrary motion. This made it much easier to avoid the dreaded tritone. The final style of organum that developed was known as “melismatic organum“, which was a rather dramatic departure from the rest of the polyphonic music up to this point. This new style was not note against note, but was rather one sustained line accompanied by a florid melismatic line. This final kind of organum was also incorporated by the most famous polyphonic composer of this time—Léonin. He united this style with measured discant passages, which used the rhythmic modes to create the pinnacle of organum composition. This final stage of organum is sometimes referred to as Notre Dame school of polyphony, since that was where Léonin (and his student Pérotin) were stationed. Furthermore, this kind of polyphony influenced all subsequent styles, with the later polyphonic genera of motets starting as a trope of existing Notre Dame organums.

Codex Manesse, from between 1305 and 1315, showing musicians

Another important element of Medieval music theory was the unique tonal system by which pitches were arranged and understood. During the Middle Ages, this systematic arrangement of a series of whole steps and half steps, what we now call a scale, was known as a mode. The modal system worked like the scales of today, insomuch that it provided the rules and material for melodic writing. The eight church modes are: Dorian, Hypodorian, Phrygian, Hypophrygian, Lydian, Hypolydian, Mixolydian, and Hypomixolydian. Much of the information concerning these modes, as well as the practical application of them, was codified in the eleventh century by the theorist Johannes Afflighemensis. In his work he describes three defining elements to each mode. The finalis, the reciting tone, and the range. The finalis is the tone that serves as the focal point for the mode. It is also almost always used as the final tone (hence the name). The reciting tone (sometimes referred to as the tenor or confinalis) is the tone that serves as the primary focal point in the melody (particularly internally). It is generally also the tone most often repeated in the piece, and finally the range (or ambitus) is the maximum proscribed tones for a given mode. The eight modes can be further divided into four categories based on their final (finalis). Medieval theorists called these pairs maneriae and labeled them according to the Greek ordinal numbers. Those modes that have d, e, f, and g as their final are put into the groups protus, deuterus, tritus, and tetrardus respectively. These can then be divided further based on whether the mode is “authentic” or “plagal.” These distinctions deal with the range of the mode in relation to the final. The authentic modes have a range that is about an octave (one tone above or below is allowed) and start on the final, whereas the plagal modes, while still covering about an octave, start a perfect fourth below the authentic. Another interesting aspect of the modal system is the universal allowance for altering B to Bb no matter what the mode. The inclusion of this tone has several uses, but one that seems particularly common is in order to avoid melodic difficulties caused, once again, by the tritone. 

These ecclesiastical modes, although they have Greek names, have little relationship to the modes as set out by Greek theorists. Rather, most of the terminology seems to be a misappropriation on the part of the medieval theoristsAlthough the church modes have no relation to the ancient Greek modes, the overabundance of Greek terminology does point to an interesting possible origin in the liturgical melodies of the Byzantine tradition. This system is called oktoechos and is also divided into eight categories, called echoi. For specific medieval music theorists, see also: Isidore of Seville, Aurelian of Réôme, Odo of Cluny, Guido of Arezzo, Hermannus Contractus, Johannes Cotto (Johannes Afflighemensis),Johannes de Muris, Franco of Cologne, Johannes de Garlandia (Johannes Gallicus), Anonymous IV, Marchetto da Padova (Marchettus of Padua), Jacques of Liège, Johannes de Grocheo, Petrus de Cruce (Pierre de la Croix), and Philippe de Vitry.