Music of the Middle Ages

Music of the Middle Ages

The music of the Middle Ages can be divided into the sacred (religious) and the secular.  However, there was little division between the sacred and the secular during the Middle Ages.  The church was the center of the religious, educational, and social center of the community.


Rome borrowed from the cultures of the nations and regions it had conquered.  The music of Rome incorporated the modes from ancient Greece, but also included music from Turkey, Egypt, and other cultures.

Emperor Constantine issued the Edict of Milan, A.D. 313.  With this edict, Rome adopted Christianity as the state religion.

Gregorian Chant  was the official music of the Roman Catholic Church.  There were similarities between the chants sung in churches around the Empire, but there were also significant differences.  In order to organize the music of the church, Pope Gregory the Great (590-604) supervised the collection of chant melodies from all over Europe, and then edited and published them.  These became known as Gregorian chants.  They are available in the Liber Usualis, which was used into the middle of the 20th Century.

Notation evolved through the years, became more understandable and specific through time as musicians sought to be more and more specific in their notation   The notation of the chants indicated pitch, but the notation of rhythm was to evolve over the next few hundred years.

There were six church modes: Ionian, Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, Mixolydian, Aeolian. Modes are scales that can be played entirely on the white keys of the piano.

Neumes:  notation used in the middle ages

Ordinary of the Mass:  the musical part of the Mass that is sung every Sunday. There were five significant portions of the Mass:

Kyrie – Greek – Lord Have Mercy, Christ Have Mercy

Gloria in Excelsis – Glory to God in the Highest

Credo – Nicene Creed

Sanctus – Holy, Holy, Holy

Agnus Dei – Lamb of God


Sequence, Dies Irae – A sequence is a substitution text.  The Dies Irae is the most often heard sequence.  It is from the Requiem Mass, which is the funeral mass.  In it, the fear of death is examined.  The lyrics are colorful and descriptive.  It is sung in place of the Gloria.  Many composers have composed Requiem Masses, and the composers use the Dies Irae as a dramatic, intense, and colorful piece.

There are three types of chant:

Syllabic – one or two notes per syllable

Neumatic – two or three notes per syllable

Melismatic – several notes per syllable

Examples of the three types of notation and other neumes can be found at

Other information about this topic can be found at

Tropes – additions to the ordinary, part of the creative element of church musicians.  The use of tropes fell in and out of favor depending on the focus of the officials of the church.  Composers would add more and more tropes until the officials would ban their usage in order to return to the ordinary of the mass.

The 11th Century saw the completed ordinary of the mass.  By this time, the staff  was able to express the complete range of an octave.

Guido d’Arezzo (c. 990-1050) – monk who was the first significant music teacher.  Guido is the first writer of this time period that is remembered today.  Guido was put in charge of training new singers.  Guido used a mnemonic device now called the Guidoan Hand.  Each portion of the hand represented a pitch.  The pitches were originally defined by a chant whose phrases began on successively higher pitches.

Guido originated the use of solmization syllables, hexachord – solfege (do, re, me…).  These syllables are still used today.  Guido found a chant, the phrases of which began on pitches that rise in stepwise motion.  He used the first syllable of each phrase to show the singers the pitches they were to sing.

Leonin (flourished 1175) was the first significant composer of discant clausulae.  Leonin used syllabic chant and then added parts (one or two).  The discant parts would be sung on the same syllable as the word in the chant.

Perotin (fl. 1200) was Leonin’s student.  He added more voices up to four parts.

Anonymous IV was a writer who names Leonin and Perotin as the finest composers of discant music.  Anonymous IV paved the way for our egocentric approach to music making.

Goliard Songs – Goliards were travelling monks.  For one reason or another, they weren’t connected a monastery.  They may have been expelled from the monastery, or perhaps couldn’t handle the monastic life.  They were educated.  They flourished mostly in Germany.  Their songs could be rather risqué.  These songs are important because they are the first notated secular songs. Carmina Burana is the definitive collection of Goliard Songs.  Later, the composer Carl Orff used these songs in his Carmina Burana.

Trouveres, Troubadors, Minnesingers, Meistersingers – Popular performers of the Middle Ages. Troubadors flourished in the south of France, Trouvere’s in the north.  Minnesingers and Meistersingers flourished in Germany.  Contrary to popular belief, they did not travel, but instead were employed in a wealthy household to provide musical entertainment.  At times, households would exchange their musicians for short periods of time.

Questions for Quiz:

1.  List the modes in order.

2.  Discuss Gregorian Chant.

3. What were the three types of chant and how do they differ from one another?

4. Discuss the Guidoan Hand.

5.  Who were Leonin, Perotin, and Anonymous IV?

6.  Who were the Goliards and why are the Goliard songs important?