Western Music History/Medieval Music

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The Medieval period dates approximately from 700 A.D. to 1400 A.D

During this time European society was rigidly divided into three social classes: the nobility, consisting of kings, queens, barons, princes and lords; serfs and peasants; and thirdly, the clergy of the Roman Catholic Church. All segments of society felt the power of the Roman Catholic Church because Christianity had risen in western Europe to fill the power vacuum left by the demise of the Roman empire around the fourth century. Rome still exerted a powerful influence over western Europe especially after the Roman Emperor, Constantine, converted to Christianity. Rome at the beginning of the Medieval period was still a distributive base of regional information and a central hub of European learning. It was also the cumulative center of Christian liturgical musical life. Many musicians were priests or members (predominantly of minor orders) of the clergy, and as such liturgical singing played an important role in worship. It is thought that the church discouraged the use of musical instruments although we can infer from period paintings and literary descriptions that instruments were played. It is thought that instruments were used when good singers were not available. The instruments would then either replace the vocal part or help the voice stay in tune. The church discouraged instruments because it was the desire of the church leaders to keep the congregation's focus on the words that were being sung. Anything that would detract from that was considered at odds with the holy purpose of the music.

Gregorian Chant (plainsong)

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Pope Gregory by Francisco de Zurbarán - painted 1626-1627. Though there are no contempoary images existing, the life of Gregory has inspired generations of artists to put brush to canvas.

For over 1000 years, the official music of the Roman Catholic Church was the Gregorian Chant, which was named after Pope Gregory I. He began the task of organizing and codifying the chants in the 6th century used by the church. By the era of Charlemagne in the early 9th century, Gregorian Chant was a mostly unified body of music throughout western Europe.

With Gregorian Chant, there is no definite sense of rhythm, the timing is very flexible and there is no sense of beat. This creates a floating, improvisational quality to the music. The chant essentially consists of a Melody, set to a sacred Latin text, sung unaccompanied which moves predominantly in stepwise motion within a narrow range of pitches. It may be either Syllabic - one note for each syllable - or Melismatic - many notes to one syllable. The composers of the chants were anonymous, and the chants were based on church modes (Ionian, Dorian etc...).

Development of Polyphony

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Polyphony was developed during the period of 700 A.D. to 900 A.D. where the chant melody was duplicated at an interval of a 4th or a 5th. The voices moved in parallel motion with the actual chant being sung by the bottom voice. Medieval music consisting of Gregorian chant and one or more melodic lines moving in parallel motion is called Organum.

From 900 A.D. to 1200 A.D Organum became truly polyphonic, with the melodic lines becoming independent and each line had its own rhythm and own melody. Generally, the chant in the bottom voice was sung in very long, drawnout notes, while the added melody on top moved in shorter note values. Early polyphony was still quite rhythmically free.

Then during the period of 1170 A.D. to 1200 A.D. the Notre Dame School of Composers developed rhythmic innovations. The leading composers at the school were Leonin and Perotin, who used measured rhythm with definite time values and a clearly defined meter. The newly developed notation indicated precise rhythms and pitches. However, the beat could only be subdivided into threes, which was symbolic of the Trinity. Few triads were used, resulting in Medieval polyphony sounding very hollow, thin and stark to the modern ear. The interval of a 3rd was hardly ever used as it was considered to sound dissonant...

Guido d'Arezzo

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Guido of Arezzo in a manuscript.

Guido of Arezzo was a well-known music theorist and pedagogue in the Middle Ages. He was born in Italy ca. 990-992 (though there is no exact or accurate birth date). Historians and musicologists have estimated it to be so through an explicit record of a manuscript in the Micrologus. The document is now lost, but it stated that it was completed at the age of 34 under the papacy of John XIX.

Guido is known today for his innovation of an exact pitch notation through the depiction of lines and spaces. Many regarded him as the sole inventor of modern staff notation, which greatly influenced Western Musical notation and practice. He also developed a method of sight-singing which relied upon the syllables of Ut-Re-Mi-Fa-So-La. He wrote a treatise, the Micrologus, which according to Claude V. Palisca, "was the most copied and read instruction book on music in the Middle Ages" next to the treatise of Boethius.

"Early life"

Through a letter dedicating his Micrologus to Bishop Theodaldus, a few of the most important moments in Guido's career can be pieced together. It begins in his "early life", or the earliest times that are known to date. D'Arezzo was educated in the abbey of Pomposa, Italy, where he later became a teaching Benedictine monk. He became renowned through his 'starting' principles on staff notation. He began to draft his second work, known today as the antiphonary Regulae Rhythmicae, which he probably worked on with his friend and colleague Michael of Pomposa. In 1013 he built a reputation for his work in training singers to learn new chants in short periods of time. In the prologue of his antiphony, he expressed how frustrating it was to have singers take such a long time in order to memorize music. According to his new system, this would greatly decrease the time spent learning and memorizing music, giving the singers more time to concentrate on learning other religious texts.

His unique way of teaching and his second work, known as Prologus in Antiphonarium, earned him jealousy and resentment from his fellow teachers, so around 1025, Guido moved to Arezzo, where a bishop named Theodaldus took him under his wing from 1023 to 1036. With his reputation following close behind, Guido was tasked with training singers for the city's cathedral. With his new method of staff notation, he had singers learning various amounts of music in a very short time. There, in the city of Arezzo, he wrote the famous Micrologus, which was dedicated and commissioned by none other than Bishop Theodaldus himself.

According to the records of the Micrologus, this document was primarily a musical manual for singers, and it is said to have discussed a variety of topics, including chant, the monochord, polyphonic music, melody, syllables, modes, organum and neumes, as well as a variety of his teaching methods. At this time, the successful training of an ideal singer took them around 10 years of completion. However, Guido d'Arezzo shortened that significantly to only two years of training.

After the completion of his treatise, the Micrologus, Pope John XIX, called Guido back to Rome as he had heard of the antiphoner and his staff notation technique. He didn't last long in Rome due to the heat and humidity as well as health issues, so off he went promising to return to explain more of his antiphoner and notation. On his way back to Arezzo, he visited Abbot Guido of Pomposa, who had been one of the reasons Guido left the Pomposa abbey in the first place. At this time, monks and bishops were being accused of 'simony', so Abbot Guido encouraged him to avoid the cities. Guido d'Arezzo chose to settle in a monastery near Arezzo, and it is speculated that it was the monastery of Avellana of the Camaldolese, as several of their manuscripts are shown to use the Guidonian notation.

Guido d'Arezzo's works

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There are four known works that can be attributed to Guido of Arezzo without question:

-The Micrologus -Prologus in Antiphonarium -The Reguale Rhythmicae -Epistola ad Michaelem

The Epistola ad Michaelem is the only not-formal musical treatise, and it was written right after Guido's trip to Rome. The Epistola mentions all three treatises in it, which can only mean it was written last.


It is known that Guido developed new ways of teaching, such as staff notation and the famous use of "ut-re-mi-fa-so-la" (solmization). The syllables were supposedly taken from the initial syllables of each of the first major philosophical concepts back in the Middle Ages, which are:

Do: Dominus (which was originally "Ut", was changed by Giovanni Batista) Re: Rerum, Mi: Miraculum, Fa: Familias, So: Solis, La: Lacteal Via, Si: Siderae (the syllable "si", also the seventh note, comes from the initials of "Sancte Iohannes", which is the Latin for Saint John the Baptist, and it was added to complete the diatonic scale)

According to the Catholic church, however, these lines and notes come from the first stanza of a hymn, "Ut Queant Laxis", in which the notes are continuously raised by one step.

The Guidonian Hand

His most known "invention" yet is the Guidonian Hand. "A Widely used mnemonic system where note names are mapped to parts of the human hand." This very handy tool consisted of naming each joint and fingertip in the human hand with the gamut, allowing musicians to sight sing, learn with ease and memorise music as well as solmization syllables. It is known that the popularity of the use of the Guidonian hand reached even the 17th and 18th centuries, making it a standard learning tool in music. This marvellous tool also allowed musicians to transpose and identify intervals with ease and aid in creating new music and its notation.

Guido d'Arezzo's developments and creations, such as the hexachord, the solmization syllables, and his music notation system, most definitely revolutionized the teaching and learning methods of music during his own time and laid the foundation for the system of music we know today.

Secular Music

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The first large body of decipherable, secular songs that have survived comes from the 12th and 13th centuries. It was written by French noblemen Troubadours (coming from Southern France) and the Trauvéres (coming from Northern France). Most of the songs deal with the subject of love. There were also dance and spinning songs (spinning songs come from when the maidens would spin cloth and sing songs to pass the time). Their songs were played mainly by court minstrels. Many of the songs have been preserved because the nobility had clerics to write down the songs.

Secular songs also appear in Italy, Spain, England and Germany. They use a regular beat, unlike the Gregorian Chant. Instruments used included : Harps; Fiddles, Recorders; Lutes; Flutes; Shawms; and Bagpipes.

Ars Nova (new art)

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Ars Nova began in the 14th century as a result of a conscious effort to write music in a new style. An essay entitled “Ars Nova”, by Phillipe de Vitry (a musical theorist), was published describing the new characteristics of style in music.

A significant development in rhythm which occurred during this period was that the beat could now be subdivided into two equal parts. Syncopation was introduced and polyphonic compositions became increasingly complex and sophisticated. One important form of music was the Mass, consisting of the PROPER and the ORDINARY. Composers set the ordinary to music which contained five sung prayers : Kyrie; Gloria; Credo; Sanctus; Agnus Dei.

Hildegard von Bingen (1098 - 1179)

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The youngest of ten children, Hildegard von Bingen was born to Hildebert and Mechtilde, who were members of the nobility. From childhood, Hildegard demonstrated visionary abilities. It is believed that her parents did not know what to do with her "condition," so they dedicated her to God as tithe, sending her to a Benedictine monastery[1]. At eight years old, Hildegard became a companion to Jutta von Sponheim, the current abbess who lived in hermitage. From Jutta, Hildegard learned how to sing and read in Latin, both critical skills Hildegard needed to do her most famous work.

Hildegard von Bingen receiving a vision.

As more noble people sent their daughters to the monastery, there gradually became enough girls to form a small convent. Hildegard practiced and grew her musical skills, learning to arrange and perform the Opus Dei without the monks. In 1136, Jutta died and Hildegard became the new abbess. Although this was a big step in her life, the real change for Hildegard came in 1141 when she received a blinding vision to "tell and write."[1] Hildegard fell quite ill afterwards and first kept this vision a secret in her humility. After telling her lifelong friend and monk, Volmar, about the vision, she was encouraged to follow its telling and write about her visions. Volmar's enthusiasm and advice led to her most famous visionary writing Scivias.

Scivias is shorthand for "Scrito vias Domini" (Know the Wars of the Lord).[2] Scivias contains very detailed descriptions and explanations of 26 visions, separated into three sections: six, seven, and thirteen visions. For each vision, Hildegard uses the words or some close variation on "voice from heaven" to differentiate between her explanation and the vision itself[1]. The topic of her visions are numerous: the Trinity, the final judgment, Lucifer's fall, the fall of Adam, human knowledge, etc. Her writing went up the chain of command in the church from Volmar to Abbott to the archbishop and finally to Pope Eugenius III. The pope was so impressed with Hildegard's work that he sent her an approval letter. His approval welcomed her writing and accepted Hildegard as a visionary of the church[1].

Because of her growing fame, numerous girls were coming to the convent. The monastery was running out of space, and after Hildegard received a vision telling her to move her women, she wanted to start her own convent in Rupertsberg. This desire faced opposition from the monks at Disibodenberg. Hildegard's presence as a "holy woman" brought the monastery gifts, visitors, and financial gain. Hildegard leaving would give the women more independence and ultimately hurt the monastery. After falling ill, Hildegard was finally granted allowance to purchase the abandoned building in Ruperstberg. The building needed renovations and Hildegard’s health seemed to get better when work was going well and worse when there was trouble with the building.[2]

During the 1150s, after her move to Rupertsberg, Hildegard wrote two volumes in natural science: Physica and Causae et curae. Historians believe that even if Hildegard never wrote any theological or musical works, her two scientific volumes would be enough to put her as a valued female in history. Physica contains nine books, each covering one component of the natural world: plants, elements, trees, stones, fish, birds, animals, reptiles, and metals.[2] Each section describes the natural world Hildegard would have been able to observe and describes things she would have had to read or heard about, such as unique trees or animals such as the elephant and camel that were not present in her area. Hildegard's work in this text was complete and thorough. For example, up until the 1920s, Hildegard's descriptions of fish in the Rhine River were the most accurate listing.[2]

Causae et Curae contains six books. The last consists of "astrological predictions of character" and are considered the least genuine of her writings. The other books in this volume are closer to the other trusted work of Hildegard. Including descriptions of the physical world and how that relates to the theological one. In this volume, Hildegard briefly discusses the harmony of the spheres, an Ancient Greek idea. Though she provides many of the same diseases and remedies as seen in Physica, Hildegard goes much more in-depth in this volume and classifies illness from head to toe. She included cures for things like migraines, toothaches and hiccups. Hildegard quite frankly talks about the sexual act, sexual health, and even gives instructions for an abortifacient. Hildegard is likely "the first scientific writer to discuss sexuality and gynecology from a female perspective."[2] Because of the controversial nature of how Hildegard would know intimate and specific details on sexual topics as a nun, many 19th century writers took this work out of her Opus. However, Hildegard would have received calls from noblewomen in the community and likely aided them with their health issues and listened to their needs. Hildegard also had widows join her nunnery. It is through listening and helping other women that Hildegard would have gained knowledge in this area and thus it is acceptable to recognize her as having this knowledge.

Hildegard's most unusual works are her Lingua ignota and Litterae ignotae. They mean Unknown Language and Unknown Writing, respectively.

Hildegard von Bingen - Litterae ignotae

Hildegard established her own 23-letter alphabet and created over 900 made-up nouns. Her words are arranged from what she considered the highest, her created word for God, down to lower things of the earth like plants and animals. The use of the language is debated. It is generally agreed that it was for intellectual reasons versus practical ones, meaning her made-up words were likely not implemented as part of regular speech.

By 1158, Ruperstberg was financially independent of Disibodenberg and had finally achieved some stability. Because she no longer worried about the state of her house, Hildegard started another theological work, Liber vite meritorum and started preaching tours. Historians believe that Hildegard completed four tours from 1158-1171. This outreach was a big step for Hildegard, especially since female preachers at this time were prohibited. Despite this fact, the little documentation of the tours accepts the tours as a success and shows that the religious and laypeople accepted Hildegard's preaching. Hildegard's popularity continued to grow, and in 1165, a daughter house was founded in Eibingen. This abbey is still running today.

Hildegard died in 1179.


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The Riesencodex is a canonization of almost all of Hildegard's works. It was mostly completed before her death but there were some texts that were copied afterwards. The volume is enormous, weighing 33 pounds, it is 49 cm x 32 cm and contains 481 folios. It was nicknamed the "Giant Codex."[2] The volume includes:

  • three theological and visionary works (Scivias, Liber vitae meritorum, Liber divinorum operum),
  • Symphonia"" and ""Ordo virtutum,
  • a collection of Hildegard's letters
  • Lingua ignota, Litterae ignotae
  • a collection of homilies on the Gospels
  • her biography by the monks Gottfried and Theoderich (Vita),
  • the letter to the prelates of Mainz

Books were expensive at this time, so it is incredible to see a volume so large and complete. Noticeable absences are her scientific works. This absence accounts for some questioning on the authenticity of Physica and Causae et Curae as Hildegard's writings. As these texts share many themes and the style of her other works, the scientific works can likely be attributed to Hildegard.

Hildegard's Music

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Sample of Hildegard's music and notation from the Riesencodex

Hildegard's music was a reflection of her visionary and theological work. Her music would often contain exact phrases or clear references to her writings. Her writings themselves are also filled with numerous musical references and analogies. Hildegard believed that music had great theological power and connected musical life on earth with heavenly paradise.[2]

The typical early staff was made up of four lines. This score was perfect for the music of the Medieval Period that consisted of limited ranges, but Hildegard wrote music that exceeded the octave and used both C and F clefs on the four-line staff to accommodate such range eliminating the use of ledger lines.

Hildegard's music fits in the category of plainchant, meaning her music was performed without accompaniment and was written as single melodic lines. Though still classified the same as earlier plainchant, her music is quite different. Hildegard has her own unique compositional voice, making it easy to identify her music. Though mainly stepwise, her music uses leaps much more frequently than other plainchants of the time. Popular in her music is to leap up a fifth, followed by another upward leap of a fourth. This motion outlines the fifth and octave of whatever mode was being used. These two consecutive leaps are a musical thumbprint, especially in Hildegard’s Ordo virtutum. This musical chunk also contrasts the common practice of following a leap of a fifth with a leap in the opposite direction[2].

Ordo virtutum

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One of Hildegard's famous musical works is her Ordo virtutum or The Play of the Virtues. The latest possible date for completion is 1151, as much of the text is mirrored in Scivias and thorough analysis is seen to originate with the play and not the visionary volume. The most reliable source for the play is found the Reisencodex. The other version is the text found in Scivias, and the third is not musically reliable. The Ordo virtutum is unique in many ways. For example, it is one of the only medieval plays that's complete text and music can be attributed to a known author and composer, and it is the earliest known morality play yet discovered[3]. The play employs an entirely allegorical cast, which became popular much later, around the 14th century. Hildegard's talent as a musician and author is evident throughout the play, especially as she makes biblical allusions and references Song of Songs and Isaiah extensively but still manages to create unique poetic originality among medieval works.[4]

The play contains mostly female roles, as it was written to be performed by Hildegard's nuns. Characters consist of Anima, Diabolus, the Devil, Patriarchs and Prophets, Humility and 16 Virtues: Knowledge of God, Charity, Hope, Chastity, Heavenly Love, Discretion, Faith, Contempt of the World, Discipline, Patience, Modesty, Fear of God, Obedience, Innocence, Mercy, and Victory.

The plot follows Anima, anima meaning soul in Latin, who is one of the fallen souls who has lost their place as "daughters of the King."[4] In the group of souls, Anima is so focused on returning to be with the King that it seems real, and she is happy. The Virtues praise Anima for her happiness but remind her of the battle ahead, making Anima turn to lament. Anima then acts in reference to Adam and Eve, casting off her clothes, hiding from the creator and turning to the world for enjoyment. Diabolus finds Anima this way and convinces her further to live of the world. The Virtues grieve her loss. After the chorus of Virtues sings, they find Anima weary and try to call her back like the lost sheep. She is too weak to come to them, so the Virtues must carry her. They are interrupted by Diabolus, but now Anima, strengthened by the Virtues, can defeat him.

The text for the play is considered free verse. Though there is some syntactic parallelism and rhyme, nothing is purposeful enough to create a rhyme scheme or verse structure. Hildegard also employed word-painting, which is unique for her time. Diabolus' speech is disjunct and more staccato, whereas the Virtues have melodic, lyrical lines. Anima usually speaks like the Virtues, but in her moments of defiance against them has speech more like Diabolus. Hildegard uses musica poetica by using musical elements to convey different human characteristics, a method that had yet to be developed and defined.[4]

Leoninus (died c. 1201)

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Leonin, a French composer, was the first-known significant one to write in polyphonic organum. He most likely worked at the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, and heralded the Notre Dame school of polyphony. His widely known moniker is the French form of his Latin name, Leoninus. He wrote a book called Magnus liber organi, which was a great book of religious music. Later it was revised by Perotinus.

Perotin (fl. c. 1200)

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Perotin is arguably the most well-known figure in the Notre Dame school of polyphony. Like Leonin, he is assumed to be French, and the name Perotin is derived from his Latin name, Perotinus. He is often paired with Leonin as they both pioneered choral polyphony. He expanded on the developments of Leonin, and helped create three and four-part polyphony. Viderunt omnes is an example of a Gregorian chant, written centuries before, in which Perotin inserted an organum.

Guillaume de Machaut (1300 - 1377)

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Guillaume de Machaut was arguably one of the most important composers of Medieval Music. He was a poet and musician born in France who wrote in the Ars Nova style. He mainly composed secular music and worked for various royal families. He travelled extensively and his output consisted mainly of love songs for two voices and instrumental accompaniment. He is most famous for his ‘Missa Notra Dame’ (Notre Dame Mass), which is one of the finest compositions of the 14th century. It was the first polyphonic setting of the Mass Ordinary and was written for four voices – possibly doubled by instruments.

Agnus Dei movement Arranged for four voices – one soprano, two altos and one tenor. It made use of triple meter – symbol of the Trinity - and consisted of complex rhythms and syncopation. The two upper parts are rhythmically active while the two lower parts move in longer note values and play a supportive role. The movement includes dissonances and triads which sounds fuller than previous Organum.[5]

[6]Francesco Landini (c. 1325 - 1397)

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The Italian Landini, like Hildegard, fits the characteristics of a Renaissance man. He was a composer, singer, organist, instrument maker, and poet. He was a master of the trecento. Though considered a Medieval composer by most musicologists, his music paved the way for the musical quattrocento and the early Renaissance, both of which began around 1400.


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  1. a b c d Vision: The Life and Music of Hildegard von Bingen, Penguin Studio Books, 1995.
  2. a b c d e f g h Hildegard of Bingen, University of Illinois Press, 2018.
  3. Hildegard of Bingen's Ordo virtutum: The Earliest Discovered Liturgical Morality Play, The American Benedictine Review, 1975.
  4. a b c Nine Medieval Latin Plays, Cambridge University Press, 1994.
  5. Taruskin, Richard. Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. 2005.
  6. Murray, Russell Eugene. “Guido d’Arezzo, Ut queant laxis, and Musical Understanding.” In Music Education on the Middle Ages and Renaissance, edited by Russell E. Murray, Jr., Susan ForscherWeiss, Cynthia J. Cyrus, 25-33. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2010.
  7. Claude V. Palisca, revised by Dolores Pesce. Guido of Arezzo [Aretinus]. Published online: 2001. https://doi.org/10.1093/gmo/9781561592630.article.11968