Music of the Middle Ages
• The spread of Christianity
• The development of a European culture
• The influence of Islamic culture
• The music of the church
• The beginning of musical notation
• The birth of polyphony
• The rise of courtly culture
• For such a vast period of time, there is a remarkable continuity in musical
styles in the Middle Ages. In order to understand them better, it is a good
idea to group their distinctive features within the broad categories of
monophonic and polyphonic styles.
– Monophonic Style
– Polyphonic Style
The Spread of Christianity
• The Christian religion began as an
underground sect of messianic Judaism in
the first century C.E. Its practitioners were
first persecuted, then tolerated; finally
Christianity was accepted as the official
religion of the Roman Empire. After the fall
of the Western Empire, it emerged as the
central unifying force in medieval Europe.
The development of a European culture
• After the fall of the Roman Empire in the
fifth century, the former Roman lands were
ruled by various barbarian lords. These
lands were eventually united by the Frankish
kings, culminating in the crowning of
Charlemagne (742-814) as Holy Roman
The influence of Islamic culture
• As the followers of the prophet Mohammed
(570?-632) expanded their territory through
the Middle East and the Mediterranean,
they preserved and built on the knowledge of
the ancient Greeks and Romans.
• Through conflict (the Crusades) and
coexistence (the multicultural Iberian
Peninsula), Europe gained much from its
contacts with this rich culture.
The Music of the Church
• Music was an integral part of Christian
worship. The daily liturgy provided
innumerable texts, all set to music in the style
we call Gregorian chant.
• The church served as an important patron of
the arts, specifically of music .
• Throughout the period, the majority of
composers were associated with and
supported by the church.
The Beginning of Musical Notation
• As in many non-Western cultures, music in early
medieval Europe did not have a system of notation. It
was not until perhaps the ninth century that a basic
system of notation was developed.
• Notating music was a difficult and time-consuming
process. It was only in the cathedrals and monasteries
that such work could be done on a regular basis.
• Therefore, nearly all the music preserved (until the
twelfth century) was written for the church.
• The advent of notation also produced a markedly
stable body of music, one of the features of Western
The Birth of Polyphony
• Descriptions of polyphonic singing date back to the ninth
century, but the practice actually began earlier in improvised
• Polyphony is a distinctive feature of Western music. Its
development became the primary focus for composers from
the thirteenth century on.
• Complex polyphony demanded specialized training for
• The composition of plainchant was primarily an activity of
the monastery and convent, but by the fourteenth century,
composers were more often members of the university-
trained elite of the church.
• This change explains, in part, the lack of female composers
The Rise of Courtly Culture
• The nobility of southern France created an elaborate
society centered on the court, a practice that spread
throughout the whole of Europe.
• Music was an important activity of these courts, and the
aristocracy took part in the performance and composition
of secular works. Surviving examples are found in music of
the troubadours and trouvères, beginning in the twelfth
• By the fourteenth century, the polyphonic style took
hold in secular music.
• Secular polyphony was produced by highly trained
specialists in the art of music rather than by the
• A simple monophonic texture might be enriched
by the use of drones and (in secular music)
• Rhythm was often not notated. We assume that
it was tied to text in vocal music and to dance in
• Melodies are often long and flowing. Texted
music is often melismatic.
• Form comes from text in vocal music. The
structure of instrumental music is based on
• Voices and instruments were often mixed.
• Nonimitative counterpoint, with voices moving at
different rhythmic speeds, is the primary texture.
• Rhythms are often restless and active.
• Melodies are long and asymmetrical.
• Harmony is based on open fifths and octaves.
• Dissonances are often sharp and unexpected.
• Pieces are often built on a cantus firmus, and
the structure is formed from repetitions of that