Medieval Music

Major Music History Periods and Representative Composers:
Medieval Period: ~500 – 1400 AD (Hildegard von Bingen, Guillaume de Machaut)
Renaissance Period: ~1400 – 1600 AD (Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, Thomas Tallis, William Byrd)
Baroque Period: ~1600 – 1750 AD (Johann Sebastian Bach, George Frederick Handel)
Classical Period:  ~1750 – 1825 AD (W.A. Mozart, Franz Joseph Haydn)
Romantic Period:  ~1825 – 1900 AD (Ludwig van Beethoven, Franz Schubert)
Modern/20th Century Period: ~1900 – Present (Igor Stravinsky, Aaron Copeland, Phillip Glass)

When we talk about Early Music, the date range can be pretty large depending on who you ask.  Some define it as all music from the “earliest times” up to the Baroque Era, some narrow the time frame to the Middle Ages through the Baroque, and some add some or all of the Classical period to the mix.  For our purposes and study here, we’ll keep it within the Medieval, Renaissance, and Baroque periods (about 500 – 1750 AD).

Medieval music has deep roots in ancient Greece and Rome, and particularly in the Roman Catholic Church.  Stemming from Gregorian Chant and the Catholic Mass, music was an important part of academics, the church, and everyday life.  As European nations began to develop, their music became more sophisticated and more of it was written down (and written about).  A system of scale patterns (modes) and written notes (neumes) developed for musicians.
  There are few surviving (written) pieces of music for medieval instruments, but instrumentalists were mentioned quite a bit in writings of the time.  Most melodies were passed down by rote, or by memory.  Dances were particularly popular for instruments, with and without singers.

Instruments from the Medieval Period included some familiar ones like horns, trumpets and percussion, and some lesser-known instruments like the shawm:

and the hurdy-gurdy:

Vocal music moved in complexity from single line chant:


to multi-lined organum (meaning planned or organized):


   to secular motets:

  Whereas chant and early organum were improvised (made up on the spot), later organum and motets were generally written down.  The first written manuscripts usually showed the direction of the notes rather than definite pitches or rhythms.  As notation developed, more specifics were given for pitch and rhythm.   

Stolba: The Development of Western Music