Medieval Europe 814-1450: Music

Arts and Humanities Through the Eras. Editor: Edward I Bleiberg, et al. Volume 3. Detroit: Gale, 2005.

Musical Performance

Music Everywhere

During the Carolingian era—that is, the age of the Frankish emperor Charlemagne and his dynasty (eighth to tenth century)—and continuing through the late Middle Ages, the sound of music was, quite literally, everywhere. Music was so much a basic part of everyday life that it would be difficult to discuss many significant daily events or activities without noting its presence. From the nobles at the highest level of society to the simple peasants who worked the land and the monks who lived in the isolation of monasteries, music, in its various forms, served as one of the stable elements in their lives. It rang in the banquet halls and private chambers of the palaces of the wealthy nobles, resounded through the monastic cloisters and in the churches, and echoed in the streets and taverns of the cities and villages. Music served to mark the presence of nobles in public, it accompanied the tasks of the workers in the field, and it was an inseparable part of the many hours each monk spent daily in the worship of God. And for everyone, the sound of songs and music for dance filled the leisure hours.

Lost Evidence

What has survived over the centuries is only a pale reflection of the quantity and variety of music that flourished during the early centuries, and, unfortunately, this material represents only certain parts of the repertory—that is, the entire body of works available for performance. Almost completely lost is the music of the lower classes—the songs they sang in the fields, around the hearth, and in the village inns, as well as the dance tunes they sang and played. All of their repertory was learned by ear and passed on in the same manner; nothing was written down. Music of the upper classes—the nobles, and, later, the merchants, teachers, doctors, and lawyers in the developing middle class—fares a bit better since that level of society could read and write and could afford to have written copies made of their favorite repertory, although what remains is rather fragmentary and quite incomplete. Largest by far is the surviving music of the Christian church that comes down to us in thousands of manuscripts that preserve the music that accompanied the weekly Mass in the larger churches and the daily ceremonies in the many monasteries that dotted the landscape all over Europe. The Latin Church was highly organized and had a more or less uniform body of works that was written down and distributed throughout Europe and preserved in church archives through the centuries. For secular society there is a far smaller body of preserved evidence.

The Written Record

The beginning of the Carolingian Era almost exactly coincides with the earliest written music, and therefore it is possible to obtain an actual sound image of some of the repertory that dates back to the very beginning of the period. But the earliest manuscripts are all from churches and monasteries, meaning that they record only sacred music; manuscripts containing secular music did not appear until the twelfth century. By supplementing the surviving music with information gained from literary accounts, archival documents, personal letters, diaries, and iconography, some of the missing pieces can be filled in, providing a general impression of how music functioned in late medieval society.

A Culture of Singing

A great variety of musical instruments—plucked, hammered, and blown—populated the medieval world, adding their sounds to most formal and informal occasions. There is little doubt, however, that the vast majority of music heard and performed during this period was vocal. Everyone sang, and most of the occasions for music involved singing, including music for dance. The daily activities of monks in the monasteries revolved around the chanting of prayers every few hours, and for those who lived outside of monasteries, singing was the most common form of entertainment and relaxation. The professional musicians also were mainly singers; the minstrels who entertained in the village squares, the inns, and the courts had vast repertories of songs of all types. Even the narrator of heroic poetry, the teller of tales, often performed his verses by improvising a melody while accompanying himself with an instrument. In the later centuries of the Middle Ages the wealthier courts employed resident musicians who sang both the traditional chant and the new polyphonic music in the chapels, as well as entertaining their noble patrons with songs and instrumental music at dinnertime and on all festive occasions.

Voices and Instruments

In striking contrast to modern practices, the combination of musical instruments with voices was found in only certain circumstances. Solo singers often accompanied themselves, usually with a lute or a harp, and on extremely festive occasions, massed instruments and singers would march in procession through the city streets. Chant, however, was performed only vocally, and the common practice for the performance of polyphonic music—that is, music with multiple parts—was totally by instruments or totally by voices, but rarely a combination of the two. In church an organ would be used to play processions or devotional music, but it performed in alternation with the choir, never at the same time. Further, the choir as a whole usually was restricted to singing monophonic chant. Polyphonic music, no matter what the repertory, sacred or secular, was usually sung by an ensemble of soloists. Choir performance of polyphonic music, meaning several voices on each musical part, was not part of the performance tradition during this period. A mixture of voices and instruments in a polyphonic performance did not become standard practice until the sixteenth century.

Music in Private and Public

Music for the Lower Classes

Singing and playing musical instruments was one of the main forms of private entertainment, and the usual time for music making was in the evening, following dinner. Everyone sang, and from the literary accounts, it would seem that a large number also played musical instruments. For the lower levels of society—the peasants, small merchants, and artisans—most of this type of entertainment was home grown, meaning that they entertained one another. Professional instrumentalists would be hired only for special occasions such as weddings where, as images from manuscript illuminations and tapestries affirm, they played dance music.

Music in Wealthy Households

The nobles and wealthier merchants also sang and played instruments, and it is clear that they too often performed for one another in a family setting after dinner. In addition, in contrast to the less affluent people, they often hired professional singers and instrumentalists who would entertain their dinner guests with songs and instrumental music during and after dinner. The distinction as to who performed on any given occasion, however, was not so finely drawn as in the modern world. The troubadour tradition that flourished between the eleventh and thirteenth centuries included noblemen as well as people of lower social levels, meaning that this highly demanding repertory of song was performed by both professionals and amateurs. Many of the wealthier aristocrats had a permanent staff of household musicians, but an evening’s entertainment could just as easily include one of the nobles singing his own poetry while accompanying himself on a lute or harp. The duties of the palace and court musicians usually included teaching music to the children and, often, singing for daily Mass in the nobleman’s private chapel, in addition to the performances of secular music at dinnertime.

Singing in the Cloisters

Music within the monastery consisted of the daily celebration of the Mass and eight services spaced throughout each day known as the Office or the Hours. Most of these included the singing of chant, meaning that on ordinary days all of the monks sang for a total of several hours. On special days—Sundays, or special holy days (e.g. Easter)—the chants were particularly elaborate, and everyone processed through the halls of the monastery while singing. The earliest written music was the sacred plainchant of the church, which is found in a few manuscripts that date from the middle of the ninth century (see Notation, below). This body of works, as well as the bulk of all recorded compositions throughout the entire period, consists of sacred music intended for the various services of the Christian church.

Music in the Streets

Music heard in the city streets took many forms. Songs and chants of the many daily sacred services wafted out of the churches that were located every few blocks. Many of the municipalities employed instrumental ensembles that provided music for the frequent civic ceremonial occasions that happened in public, and for public dancing as well as church celebrations. Wedding receptions included singing and dancing and often took place in a public square; minstrels played and sang in the plazas everywhere; and amateur and itinerant “vagabond” musicians were a common presence—and often a common nuisance—on the streets and in the taverns and barber shops of cities and villages in all regions. Laws imposing a curfew that limited the hours music could be made in public were established in most large communities. The frequency with which these prohibitions were reiterated, as well as the numerous judicial records of people fined for playing instruments such as a bagpipe or singing in the streets after curfew, suggests that the curfews were not always observed.

The Ceremonial Trumpet

One of the most frequently heard instruments in public places all during the late medieval period was the trumpet. Because of its volume it performed a number of different functions, accompanying ceremonial occasions, celebrations, and military advances in the field. Trumpets, usually in sets of two, were the symbol of power and authority, a tradition inherited from ancient times. In every locale the political leaders and other powerful, wealthy men employed trumpet players as heralds to precede them whenever they went out in public, announcing their presence. These trumpets would often be made of silver with banners suspended from them emblazoned with the coat of arms of the lord or of the community, and the trumpeters wore livery, colorful costumes identifying them as the retainers of civic entities or wealthy lords. Public events, such as jousts, horse races, mock naval battles, and athletic contests, also employed trumpets to heighten the excitement and to signal the beginning and end of various activities. Trumpets were also used by the town criers, who often played from horseback, traveling from one neighborhood to the next where they would sound their trumpets to call the citizens together to hear the latest pronouncements, banishments, or sentences of deaths. In many cities there were watchmen on the towers looking for signs of fire, curfew violations, or an advancing enemy, who signaled their messages with trumpet calls. Both trumpets and drums were a staple of the military where they served to frighten the foe with their loud noise and also to sound attacks and retreats because they could be heard over the din of battle.

Musical Instruments

Loud Versus Soft

Musical instruments were divided into two fairly discrete groups—loud and soft—each group having specific functions and repertories; the two groups were rarely mixed together. The “loud” instruments were trumpets, bagpipes, shawms (double-reed instruments rather like the modern oboe), and drums. These instruments were assigned ceremonial functions, mostly out of doors, and were never found in the company of voices. The remaining “soft” instruments—bowed and plucked strings, woodwinds, and keyboard instruments—were played individually or in ensembles; some of them accompanied voices. The instruments that are described in this section are those most often seen in visual art and mentioned in literature.


Trumpets came in several sizes, shapes, and materials. Straight trumpets approximately six feet in length and often made of silver were the instruments usually associated with governmental authority. Military trumpets were approximately the same length and made of brass, but beginning in the fourteenth century they were, for practical reasons, folded (similar to a modern bugle). Another popular shape was one resembling an “S,” which was used for the smaller trumpets (approximately four feet of pipe) that are often depicted being played at indoor ceremonies such as banquets. All trumpets were without valves or keys, which restricted their notes to those of the natural acoustic overtone series, that is, something similar to the sounds of a modern bugle call. By 1400 a trumpet with a sliding pipe was invented to allow the players to access the complete scale. This was refined by 1480 to a double slide, which improved both speed and accuracy. The new instrument was called trombone in Italy, sackbut in England, and saqbutte in France.


The shawm, also considered “loud,” is a double-reed instrument much like an oboe. It resembles similar instruments popular in the Arab countries and is first depicted in Spanish sources of the late thirteenth century, suggesting that it had been introduced to Europe during the Arab or Moorish occupation of Spain. Since the shawm had a fairly large range and could play many of the chromatic notes, it was capable of performing all of the repertory of the period. By the mid-fourteenth century there were two sizes, the traditional alto range instrument and a newer one that played at a lower pitch (tenor range) called a bombarde because of its resemblance to a cannon. Instruments of these two sizes often performed in pairs. By the early fifteenth century an alto and tenor shawm were often depicted with a slide trumpet as a standard dance music ensemble.


The bagpipe is found throughout the Middle Ages in most areas of Asia and the Middle East as well as in Europe, with a heritage that goes back to ancient times. There are many different sizes and shapes, but what they all have in common is that the sound is made by squeezing a bag (originally the skin of a goat) and the melody is played on a chanter pipe with finger holes. Instruments could have one, two, or three drone pipes or even none, and there are examples of both one and two chanter pipes. The bagpipe is most often seen playing alone, mostly for dancers, and it is usually associated with rural or pastoral scenes.


The percussion instruments make up the final group in the “loud” category. The type most frequently depicted is nakers, a pair of small “kettle” drums, usually tied to the performer’s waist or over the neck of a horse; tabor, a larger barrel-shaped drum, often called a “side drum,” usually associated with the military; and tambourine, a hand-held instrument with jingles, which is usually depicted in conjunction with dancing.


The keyboard group, considered “soft” instruments, included organs, harpsichords, and clavichords. Two types of organs were in common use: a portative organ (i.e. small and portable), which was usually held on the lap of the player and played with one hand while the other hand worked the bellows; and a larger positive organ that was not portable and was usually found in church, some of which had multiple keyboards, pedals, and several ranks of pipes. Medieval harpsichords were similar to those in use today. The earliest evidence of their existence comes from the mid-fifteenth century. They had a single keyboard with one wire string for each note, and a sounding device that plucked the strings with a pick called a plectrum, which could be made of leather or quill. The clavichord (also called exchequer in England) appears as early as the fourteenth century. It differs from the harpsichord in several ways: it had a very soft volume; it made its sound by striking the strings with a metal strip called a tangent; and some of its strings could make more than one pitch according to the amount of force applied to the key—that is, a stronger pressure would result in a higher pitch.


The woodwind group was quite small, including only the flute and the recorder. These instruments were similar to those of today, but without keys. Only the higher-pitched (soprano) members of these families existed until late in the fifteenth century. The flute is often depicted with drums in a military setting, while the recorder was used for domestic music making.

Bowed Strings

Bowed strings in the Middle Ages ranged from those that are obvious ancestors of modern instruments to some that are much less familiar. One of those that is less well known today was the hurdy-gurdy, which made its sound by the turning of a crank that caused a wheel to scrape against two or three strings. A set of keys or levers could be pressed against one of the strings to change the pitch, while the other(s) provided a drone. By the late Middle Ages it was played by a single performer, usually in a lower-class setting, but an earlier version, known as an organistrum or symphonia, requiring two performers, can be found depicted in a sacred setting in the form of stone sculptures on Gothic churches. Other bowed instruments of the period were distinguished mainly by size and pitch. The rebec, a small three-string instrument, played in the soprano range, while the vielle (Italian viola, English fiddle) was a four-or five-string instrument with a range similar to a modern viola. In Italy the lira da braccio was used to accompany improvised song. It was a bit larger than a vielle/viola although it was still played while held against the shoulder. It had seven strings, five of which could be “stopped” (i.e. the player could change the pitch with the fingers of his left hand, similar to a modern violin), and two more that were plucked by the thumb of the left hand, adding a strummed drone.

Plucked Strings

Lutes came in several sizes, with frets and four “courses” (paired sets) of strings and a fifth solo string called achantarelle, used for playing melodies. During this period it was usually plucked with a quill plectrum and played mostly single-line melodies with drones. It is clearly descended from the Arab instrument oud. The gittern, in contrast, was smaller and higher-pitched than the lute. It also had frets and was plucked with a plectrum and is depicted with three to five single strings. The final member of the group was the harp. Although harps existed in a variety of sizes and forms, the instrument most often depicted was a small portable harp with 24 or 25 strings.

Music for Instruments

Although musical instruments were present all through the period and were played at many different kinds of occasions, very little music intended solely for instruments has survived. The repertory of instrumentalists consisted mainly of improvised music and melodies that circulated aurally. The only materials recorded in written form were ornamented versions of some pieces originally written for voice and a small number of dances. It is clear that throughout the period instrumentalists often performed vocal music, but it was not until the period of the Renaissance, beginning at the very end of the fifteenth century, that we begin to find a sizable body of music specifically composed for instrumental performance.

Plainsong and the Monophonic Tradition

Origins of Plainchant

Music can be easily divided into two large categories according to how many parts are performed simultaneously—that is, monophony and polyphony. Monophonic music, which consists of a single line whether performed by a soloist or by many performers in unison, is the oldest tradition of European music and one shared with all other cultures. At the beginning of the Carolingian period, the music of the Christian church was a monophonic type called plain-chant, a style of music that was originally adopted in the first and second centuries from the traditions of a number of other religious sects—mainly, but not exclusively, Judaism. In the early centuries this repertory was passed on orally, growing and adapting as Christianity and its ceremonies gradually evolved. The name “Gregorian Chant” is often used for this music, based on the erroneous belief that it was composed by Pope Gregory the Great in the seventh century. It is true that some of the chant comes from his era, and Gregory probably had a hand in its organization and promotion. But chants continued to be composed throughout the later centuries of the Middle Ages, and therefore it has recently become the custom to refer to the entire corpus as plainchant (or chant). Chants range from the fairly simple, which involve only a few different pitches and assign a single note to each syllable, to elaborate melodies with large ranges of notes and dozens of ornate melodic passages for a single syllable. Some chants are performed by a soloist, some by the entire chant choir (or the entire monastery), and some alternate between soloist and choir. They occur in several principal styles.

Psalms and Antiphons

Psalms are sung to relatively elementary music with a single note for each syllable. This music usually involves no more than four or five different pitches, with the majority of each phrase of text chanted on a single note, known as the reciting tone (see Modes). The remainder of the phrase, its beginning and ending words, are sung to simple formulae specified by the mode itself. Since the psalm verses are all in prose lines of different lengths, the reciting tone can easily be adjusted to the length of each verse. When performed during the daily office, the singing of a psalm involved the entire monastic choir divided into two groups, each group alternately singing one of the two balanced phrases that make up the dozens of verses in each psalm. Antiphons, on the other hand, are usually quite melodic, with a somewhat wider range and more frequent variation of pitch, reflecting their performance by the entire choir. They are found in a number of different places in the Mass and office liturgies, often framing (that is, preceding and following) a psalm verse. An introit (entrance song), for example, would repeat a single antiphon in alternation with a succession of psalm verses, resulting in a performance that could be graphed as: Antiphon; Psalm verse 1; Antiphon; Psalm Verse 2; Antiphon; etc.

Hymns and Responsories

Hymns involve poetic texts with regular meter. Their musical construction, therefore, involves matching words to musical phrases, which are composed to fit all of the lines of the first verse of text and intended to be repeated for all successive verses. They are melodic but not overly complex or ornate, and are sung by the entire choir. In contrast, responsories are the most elaborate of all chants, and their music is divided between a soloist and the choir, with highly ornate passages throughout. Responsories are used in a number of the Office Hours, and for the Gradual and Alleluia in the Mass. One responsorial chant, the Mass Alleluia, is a rather special case because it includes a long, rhapsodic melodic section on the final “a” in Alleluia, sung by the choir. The extended melody is called the jubulus, and it was originally intended to be an expression of pure, wordless joy. After the ninth century the jubulus was frequently replaced by a new composition with a text, known as a Sequence (see Additions to the Sacred Repertory, below).


Central to the Christian demonstration of faith is the ceremony of the Mass, which includes the Communion service, a reenactment of the Last Supper. The ceremony itself evolved slowly over the centuries; various prayers and events were added, subtracted, and revised, reaching its present form only in the mid-sixteenth century following the Council of Trent. During the late Middle Ages the Mass included approximately twenty prayers and readings, half of which were spoken and half sung. The texts include some that remain the same throughout the year, known as the Ordinary items, others that change depending on the liturgical season (for example, Christmastime, Easter), and some, known as the Proper, that change each day and are particular to the saint being celebrated on that date (for example, St. Stephen is celebrated on 26 December, St. John the Apostle on 27 December, and so on). Of the many sung parts of the Mass, it is to five parts of the Ordinary that composers devoted most of their attention during the late Middle Ages. In the order in which they occur in the service the items are:

Kyrie elieson—”Lord have mercy,” a ninefold invocation for mercy;

Gloria—”Glory to God in the Highest,” a celebration of the glory of God (omitted during the forty days of mourning preceding Easter);

Credo—”I believe in one God,” a declaration of the essential beliefs of the Christian faith;

Sanctus—”Holy, Holy, Holy,” the cry of the multitudes when Jesus entered Jerusalem;

Agnus Dei—”Lamb of God,” a plea for personal peace.

Office Hours

In addition to the Mass, the clergy observe eight additional daily prayer rituals at various hours of each day, known as the Office or the Hours, beginning shortly after midnight and lasting until evening. In the monasteries, when it is time for each of the Hours, all of the monks stop whatever they are doing and gather in the Chapel to pray and chant together. Priests not part of a monastic community simply read the prayers to themselves. Most of the Hours have prayers that are sung, including antiphons, psalms, responsories, and hymns. An outline of Matins, the most important of the Hours, will provide an idea of the structure of the service and its contents:

Introduction: Deus in adiutorium meum intende (dialogue chant), Psalm 94 with antiphon, hymn

Nocturn I: three psalms with antiphons, three responsories.

Nocturn II: three psalms with antiphons, three responsories

Nocturn III: three psalms with antiphons, three responsories

Conclusion: Te Deum (hymn), Benedicamus Domino (dismissal)

All five sections in Matins involve the chanting of psalms: an introduction and conclusion, both of which remain the same each day, and three central sections known as Nocturns. The importance of the Psalms to the services is apparent from the fact that the services in monasteries are constructed so that all 150 can be sung each week.

Not all of the eight Offices are as elaborate as Matins, but it can be seen that a very large portion of a medieval monk’s day was spent in singing.

Additions to the Sacred Repertory

Continual Change.

It is tempting to view something as old and formal as the sacred liturgy—the Mass and the Hours—as immutable, with a body of works and system of practice that has remained unchanged since it began. Nothing can be further from the truth. The entire liturgy, both its format and repertory, was in a constant state of flux throughout the period. New compositions and ceremonies were added, older items were revised and altered, and regional variants of all types arose and were suppressed all during those centuries. Discussed below are some of the major changes that came about during this period involving music, although there were also numerous changes to the prayers and the format of the ceremonies themselves. The inclusion of musical drama, the addition of new chant items and devotional works, and the application of polyphony to new and old repertory are evidence of a sacred ritual that was constantly under revision.

Liturgical Drama

During the reign of Charlemagne in the early ninth century, the church authorities at his principal residence in Aachen (northern Germany) decided to dramatize the most important event in the liturgical year, the Resurrection of Christ on Easter morning, by acting out the scene in which the three Marys (Mary the mother of James, Mary Salome, and Mary Jacobi) visit Christ’s tomb and find it empty. Three monks were assigned to take the part of the Marys, impersonating women by raising their cowls over their heads, and another monk sang the part of the angel who tells the Marys that Christ has risen. Initially, the entire dialogue consisted of only three lines of text and music, sung during the procession on Easter morning and enframed by a number of processional antiphons. The idea of dramatizing the major celebrations of the Church spread quickly throughout all areas of Europe, where they became immediately popular and attracted additional creative inspirations. In some places the drama was enlarged by the addition of other scenes from the biblical account of the Easter story: the seller of spices, pilgrims who passed by the grave, apostles who arrived later at the tomb. By the twelfth century the tradition of dramatizing the liturgy had grown in some monasteries to include church celebrations at other times of the year, including biblical events such as the Adoration of the Magi, the Slaughter of the Innocents, and the Raising of Lazarus. In some places the enactments were removed from their original setting within a liturgical ceremony and presented as independent musical plays lasting over an hour. The most elaborate set of plays is found in a manuscript known as the Fleury Play Book (named for the French monastery where it is believed the manuscript originated), written in the early thirteenth century. This source contains a total of eleven grand plays, all set to music, on subjects such as the St. Nicholas legend, the Son of Getron, the Pilgrims, and the Conversion of St. Paul, as well as the original topic of the Resurrection.


Tropes were additions of new text phrases and music inserted at the beginning and between the existing text phrases of antiphons for the Mass. The new phrases served as a commentary on the original text. In the example of the ResurrexiAntiphon With Trope, the original text is underlined. Just as the new text phrases amplified the original text, the new music was written to match the melodic style of the old. Tropes continued to be added to antiphons to the point that they were even collected in separate manuscripts, called Tropers, which would provide a singer with a choice of a number of different sets of tropes to add to specific antiphons.


Sequences are additions for the end of the Alleluia, one of the chants for the Mass, as a replacement for the long, extended melodic rhapsody on the final syllable of “Alleluia.” The name “sequence” refers to the texts, which are in paired lines all with the same syllable count, although not rhymed. The music is very melodic (as opposed to psalm-tone), but not elaborate in that only one note is assigned to each syllable, much in the style of a hymn. Thousands of sequences were composed beginning in the Carolingian era sometime around 850 and continuing until the twelfth century. One of the earliest sources was the music written by Notker Balbulus (c. 840-912), a monk at the Swiss monastery of Saint-Gall, who gathered his sequences into a book (Liber Hymnorum), thus becoming the first known composer. Tropes and sequences continued to be sung until the reforms of the Council of Trent in the sixteenth century, when all tropes were eliminated from the liturgy, as well as all but four sequences.

Rhymed Office

The largest repertory of new sacred material during the late Middle Ages was written for the Office. Over a thousand new saints were added to the liturgical calendar during this period, meaning that new chants had to be written for their services. Although the earliest of the new texts were written in prose, as the older texts had been, by the twelfth century it became the custom to write them as poetry, in strict meter and rhyme. The matching or coupling element of a rhymed text inspired the composers to write music with similarly matching phrases, resulting in new office chants that were quite different from those that preceded them. Since many of the new saints were venerated only in a particular region, this provided the opportunity for new composers in each area to contribute material to their local sacred observances.

The Monophonic Secular Tradition

Regional Styles

At the same time plainchant was being sung in the churches and monasteries, there was a rich body of monophonic music developing for non-religious use. In contrast to the unified nature of chant, which was more or less standard throughout Europe, the music of the laymen varied by region. The entire Western Christian church was controlled centrally by an enormous, stable hierarchy in Rome that extended to all regions, with a single official language—Latin—all of which resulted in a single, uniform practice. The secular world, on the other hand, was divided into autonomous regions that were subject to sudden political change and maintained separate languages and customs. A discussion of secular music, therefore, takes on a geographical/national character, reflecting local cultures and preferences. There are a number of similar basic elements in all areas, but the differences are sufficiently large and striking to warrant a discussion by general regional types.

Lost Evidence

Although we know that there was a thriving tradition of secular music in all areas, not all are well represented by surviving music. Very little secular monophony is preserved from England, for example, in spite of the fact that in the twelfth century Eleanor of Aquitaine was a patron of troubadours and trouvères, and literary sources such as the writings of Geoffrey Chaucer make it clear that there was a great quantity of secular music. The entire English monophonic repertory that has come down to us consists only of three sacred songs attributed to St. Godric, a Saxon hermit who died in 1170, and a handful of love songs. The surviving repertory from Spain is equally slim, although we do have the sacred cantigas, discussed below. Given the basic similarities of the social milieu in all parts of Europe, however, we can imagine that repertories and musical practices existed in all of these areas, similar to those that have survived.

Troubadours in the Courts

Although much of the repertory of the minstrels was never recorded, we can catch a glimpse of it through one particular branch of the tradition that flourished in aristocratic circles: the courtly love songs written and performed by troubadours, and trouvères (men) and trobairitz (women). The name depended on where they lived and performed and the language in which they wrote: the troubadours mostly worked in southern France, northern Spain, and northern Italy, and wrote in the Occitan language (also called langue d’oc and Provençal), while the trouvères worked in northern France and wrote in a medieval version of French (Old French, langue d’oïl). The names come from the verb trouver,meaning “to find,” which suggests that they invented (“found”) their poetry and music. They were a talented group of professionals and amateurs that included nobles as well as members of the lower classes who lived and performed mostly in the courtly circles of France, England, and northern Italy (where they were known as trovatori) during the eleventh through the thirteenth centuries. In contrast to the other minstrels who led a somewhat insecure nomadic existence, these poets/composers were usually attached to a single location for long periods.

Courtly Love Songs

Much of our impression of courtly life of the period is taken from medieval song texts, although what they describe is often idealized—describing a perfect world—rather than factual. The subject matter of these poems is highly stylized, following a partially imaginary etiquette of courtly love and behavior that is both elaborate and complex. “Lancan vei la folha,” by the troubadour Bernart de Ventadorn is a good example of both the musical style of troubadour melodies and the convoluted and decorative language used in a typical love song; the lover expresses his devotion in reverential terms, vowing eternal devotion in spite of the woman being unattainable (often because she is married to someone else). In contrast, Bernart’s musical setting is relatively simple: the melody that sets the first four lines of the stanza is repeated for the next four; a new contrasting melody is introduced for lines 9 and 10 (that is, it descends rather than ascends), and then the last half of the earlier melody returns for the final two lines. All of the stanzas are intended to be sung to the same melody, although the singer would be expected to insert different ornaments (embellishing notes, rhythms, or any number of other vocal expressive devices) for each stanza in order to add variety and support the text message.

The Pastourelle

Another of the favorite formats in the troubadour/trouvère tradition was the pastourelle, which had as its theme the romantic pursuit of a shepherdess by a knight. Named after the French word for “shepherdess,” these poems usually told the story of a noble visitor to the countryside who catches sight of a pretty rustic girl, approaches her, and offers her gifts in exchange for her acceptance of his advances. Sometimes the nobleman forces his attentions on her, and other times she outwits him. A variant of this form, called the bergerie, changes the situation slightly. Now a hidden narrator overhears shepherds, or a shepherd and shepherdess, debating. The 1284 Jeu de Robin et de Marion (Play or Game of Robin and Marion), by the trouvère Adam de la Halle, is the most famous of these, and incorporates a number of charming songs for the two principal characters and a narrator who tells the story.

The Cantimpanca and the Improvised Tradition

Trovatori, the Italian equivalent of French troubadours, flourished at the northern Italian courts during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, producing a repertory similar to that of the troubadours. At the same time, outside of the court the centuries-old practice of the village bard survived in the person of the cantimpanca (singer on a platform), orcantastoria (singer of history), carrying on a tradition that lasted long after the trovatori died out. The cantimpanca was a poet and singer who improvised music while he sang verses about historical subjects, love, and any other topic that interested him. His verses often commented on current political events, and he accompanied himself with a lute or a lira da braccio. Some of these poet/musicians were quite famous and had regular followings; the Florentine cantimpanca Antonio di Guido, who performed on Sundays in the piazza in front of the Florentine Church of San Martino in the late fifteenth century, could count among his fans Lorenzo de’ Medici (Lorenzo the Magnificent), the great Florentine statesman and patron of the arts. Pietrobono de Burzellis, who was located principally in Ferrara, was widely acclaimed both for his virtuosity as a lutenist and for his singing voice, as well as his ability as an improvisor. Although some of the poetry of these popular entertainers still exists, not a note of the music has survived.


The German counterpart to the courtly tradition of the troubadour and trouvère in France was the minnesinger (Minne = love), a singer of love songs, popular during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Originally the kinds of songs—the subject matter and the forms—were similar to those of the troubadours, but in the late thirteenth century many of the minnesingers began to write on more popular themes, including parodies of the idea of courtly love. Many of the songs in this later period are quite humorous and earthy. The tradition lasted into the fifteenth century in Germany, nearly one and a half centuries after it had died out in France. A notable minnesinger of the later period was Tannhäuser, who was involved in the Fifth Crusade (1217-1221), and whose life inspired one of Richard Wagner’s operas in the nineteenth century. Tannhäuser’s song (minnelied) Est Hiut Ein Wunniclicher Tac (“Today Is A Wonderful Day”), written in four stanzas around the year 1250, is a song of penitence. Its narrow range and simple rhythms are typical of the genre.

The musical form is known as Bar, matching the form of the poetic stanzas. It consists of two unequal sections; the first section is shorter and is repeated immediately (setting the first eight lines of the text, 4+4), the second is longer (setting the last twelve lines) and includes material from the first section plus new melodic phrases. The tradition of the minnesinger gave rise to the highly organized guild of the Meistersingers in the Renaissance, another of Wagner’s opera subjects.

Carmina Burana

Another repertory of German songs is found in a manuscript known as the Carmina Burana, dating from the end of the thirteenth century, which contains over 200 secular poems. The collection is from the Benedictine monastery of Benediktbeuern (south of Munich), and consists of a number of poems in Latin as well as some in German. The repertory is quite broad, including drinking songs and parodies of religious songs, as well as some with texts of love, many of which are related to the minnesinger repertory in terms of style and subject matter. In recent times the composer Carl Orff (1895-1982) used the poetry and some of the melodies as an inspiration for his Carmina Burana, a substantial work for orchestra, chorus, and soloists.

Religious Music of the Layman

Songs of Personal Expression

Not all sacred music was for church or monastic services; laymen also participated actively in their faith by singing sacred songs. One of the uses of this repertory was the personal or familial expression of faith done at home, although there was also a widespread tradition of confraternities—societies of laymen who gathered together in a chapel or church to pray and sing devotional songs. These gatherings were not part of a liturgical service, and generally were not presided over by the clergy. The sacred songs of the different regions, sung in the vernacular language, differ from one another in several ways, including subject matter and style of melody.

Cantigas De Santa Maria

One of the earliest and most interesting repertories of sacred song has been preserved in three elaborate Spanish manuscripts, dating from the thirteenth century during the time of Alfonso X “el Sabio” (The Wise), king of Castile and León (regions of what is now Spain) from 1252-1284. His reign was one of enormous contrasts. On the one hand, there was political unrest and civil war, but on the other there were great advances in culture, science, and literature. The Cantigas de Santa Maria (Songs of Holy Mary) includes more than 400 songs, all of which are devoted to the Virgin. The subject matter of the texts concerns everyday people in contemporary Iberian life (encompassing Spain and Portugal), all of whom are assisted by miracles performed by Mary. As in the cantiga illustrated here, each song is introduced by a narrative passage that sets the scene. The poems that follow are all in strophes (stanzas or groups of lines in a single metrical form), usually of six to eight lines of verse, with a four-line refrain. The music that sets each of the cantigas is therefore in two parts, reflecting the poetic form and rhyme scheme. The music is fairly simple, having a modest range, simple rhythms, and, for the most part, only one note per syllable of text; all of the settings are monophonic. In “Aquela en que Deus,” there are really only two different musical phrases for the entire cantiga. The Cantigas show a number of interesting relationships. The melodies and their form—verse, refrain—are quite similar to the troubadour repertory; they coincide with the end of the era in which troubadours were active on the other side of the Pyrenees Mountains in France, although their subject matter is unique to Iberia. The artistic styles and patterns of the illustrations in the cantiga manuscripts indicate an obvious influence from the Islamic world. The Arabs had been in Spain for several hundred years at that point, and some of the musical instruments in the cantiga manuscript illuminations are clearly modeled on Arab instruments. The rhyme scheme of most of the Cantigas, one that was popular at Alfonso’s court, is known as zajal, an Arabic form. All of this suggests that while the music seems to be related to the northern repertory, the texts probably were influenced by Arabic literature.

Italian Laude

The small body of surviving Italian monophonic songs consists almost entirely of laude spirituali (spiritual praises), all of them in the vernacular language and on religious subjects. The laude were the repertory of the numerous religious confraternities (groups united for a common purpose such as the veneration of a saint or other figure) in many North Italian cities during the late Middle Ages. Citizens by the hundreds joined these societies, some joining several, which would meet regularly (sometimes weekly), and sing the laude in procession. Approximately 150 laude exist with music from before the mid-fourteenth century; most are fairly simple in terms of range and rhythms; nearly all of them are in stanza form with a verse and refrain, suggesting soloist-chorus performance.

The Earliest Polyphonic Music

Origins and Development

The most far-reaching addition to music during the Middle Ages was the invention of polyphony—music in more than one part—an aspect of Western art that is not duplicated in any other culture. The idea itself undoubtedly originated centuries earlier than the earliest written evidence or even the first mention in theoretical treatises. In its simplest forms polyphony can easily be improvised as, for example, when two or more performers simultaneously sing the same song at different pitches, and it still exists in that form in a number of cultures. But the musicians of Europe took the idea quite a bit further, developing and refining the practice to a level of complexity that could not be extemporized, but required long thought-out and calculated written composition. Monophonic music, both chant and the secular compositions, continued to be performed throughout the Middle Ages and long after, but once invented, polyphony invaded all forms with dramatic consequences. It added an entire new body of works to sacred music, supplementing the chant and even replacing it on special occasions. The effect was somewhat different on secular music, where polyphonic music became the treasured repertory of the upper classes, creating a musical class distinction that had not existed previously.

The Earliest Forms

Instruction and information about polyphony is found in theoretical treatises from as early as the De harmonica institutione (Melodic Instruction), written by the monk Hucbald c. 900, and later expanded and developed in a number of treatises including Micrologus (Little Discussion), by Guido of Arezzo. The basis of the technique comes from parallel motion, which is described by Hucbald as the sound that results when a man and a boy sing the same melody simultaneously, each one in his own range. Extensions of this idea include refinements made by one of the voices varying from exact parallel at different times, creating different harmonies, or one voice moving slowly while the other moves quickly, filling in the gap with ornamental passages. All of these techniques are known as “organum,” and the earliest written examples of the technique can be found in eleventh- and twelfth-century manuscripts from England and France. By the twelfth century additional experiments revolving around the monastery of Saint-Martial in Limoges (central France) involved composing two lines of music with separate melodic profiles, which resulted in constantly changing harmonies between the two parts. It is at this point that we can mark the true beginning of composed polyphony, the most distinguishing mark of Western art music.

Notre Dame Organum and the Substitute Clausulae

Along with the construction of the Gothic Cathedral of Notre-Dame in Paris in the twelfth century came distinctive and far-reaching experiments in composition of a new polyphonic repertory by two of the cathedral’s choirmasters: Master Leonin and Master Perotin. These compositions, called organum, consisted of a new added part above the traditional chant. Leonin (c. 1135-1201) is credited with originating the Magnus liber organi (Great Book of Organum), which contains several different kinds of innovative compositions, including organum sections for Graduals, Alleluias, and Responsories for the entire liturgical year. Leonin’s organum compositions were intended to be substitutes for those phrases of plainchant usually sung by a soloist. When organum passages are applied to a chant, the result is an interruption of the monophonic performance with a section in which a rapid upper part is sung by a soloist against the long, sustained lower notes of the original chant, followed by a return to the unison chanting of the choir. The new sections are known as substitute clausulae because their purpose was to take the place of a phrase (clausula) already present in the chant.


Perotin, who followed Leonin as leader of the Notre-Dame cathedral choir, took the next step and added to the substitute repertory in the form of a new rhythmic organization of the original chant notes with a much lower ratio between the number of notes in the upper and lower parts. Perotin’s style of composition, called discant, brings a heightened sense of rhythmic flow to the substitute sections. In performance, therefore, an Alleluia in which both organum and discant sections have been substituted would take on a format in which, for example, only three sections of plainchant performed by the whole choir might be alternated with six sections of organum or discant. The change from the original plainchant version of the Alleluia would be that the choir participation has been substantially reduced because both organum and discant sections are performed by two soloists, one of whom sings the original chant while the other adds the newly composed organum or discant melody above it.

Motets and Canons

The Motet: A New Favorite Form

The motet, which originated in the early thirteenth century, quickly grew to be one of the most important of the new polyphonic inventions. Through the final three centuries of the Middle Ages it became the form of choice for composers who were looking to experiment with techniques, to extend the boundaries of form, harmony, and interrelationship among the parts, and to try new ideas in notation. From its inception it was intended to mark a particular occasion, and this emphasis continued to grow, as did the size of the compositions themselves. The technique of motet writing itself came about as a natural extension of the substitute clausula practice. When composing a new upper part for the chant section, instead of duplicating the text of the lower voice part, the composer would add a new text for the new part. The name motet is a Latinized form of the French word “mot,” meaning “word,” referring to the additional set of words. In the earliest examples, the added text was related to the text of the original part, glossing or amplifying the sentiment. This can be seen as analogous to the trope tradition (see above), except that instead of interrupting the original text with the new commentary, it was sung simultaneously.

Motet Forms and Variations

The most common format for a motet throughout the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries was three voice parts: two new upper melodies composed above a borrowed (that is, preexisting) melody in the lowest voice. The lowest voice, the one borrowed from a chant (or later, from another composition) was referred to as the tenor, from the Latin tenere meaning “to hold,” referring back to organum in which the chant notes were slowed down—that is, “held out” for a longer duration. The next voice was called alto, meaning “high,” and the highest was the soprano, from the Italian sopra, meaning “above.” Shortly after its invention in the early thirteenth century, composers began to experiment with the motet, and the form quickly took on a number of different genre and variations. From its rather humble and subservient beginning as an addition to a chant section, the motet quickly became a completely independent composition that could be substituted for chants in certain places within the liturgy, for example at the Communion. At first the lowest part, the tenor, was usually chosen from an existing sacred source, and the text of the added part was related to that of the tenor. But many motets were designed for performance outside of the liturgy, some obviously intended for a secular setting. In these, the tenor was not necessarily from a sacred source, nor were the added texts in Latin; the vernacular (that is, the language of the region) could also be used. And the subject matter of the new texts, even for those built on sacred tenors, is sometimes on decidedly earthy topics. This was music for an educated class who reveled in the sophistication of the subtle cross-references among the texts as well as their harmonic, melodic, and rhythmic interplay.

Complexities and Puzzles

The motet was usually singled out as a format for introducing complexities of melody, rhythm, and tempo into compositional structures. The initial idea of simultaneous sets of words that played on one another suggested to the composers that such intellectual “games” could be extended to the actual construction of the music as well. The most interesting and long lasting of these techniques is known as isorhythm, a device in which a particular rhythmic sequence is chosen more or less arbitrarily and the melody is then sung in the chosen rhythmic sequence, repeating the rhythm exactly throughout the composition. Refinements and variations involve whether or not the rhythmic sequence coincides with the length of the melodic phrases, and how many voice parts of any one composition are set in isorhythm. One of the most spectacular displays of the isorhythmic technique can be found in the four-voice motet Veni sancte Spiritus-Veni Creator Spiritus by John Dunstaple. The composer writes all four voice parts in different isorhythmic patterns that do not coincide with the melodic material, and then further complicates the structure by speeding up the pace of each section of the piece by means of tempo signs based on a mathematical ratio. The imposition of such strict formal devices has the potential of stifling artistic creativity, but in the hands of a skillful composer like Dunstaple, the product is as much a musical triumph as it is a technical tour-de-force.


Another compositional device on the level of an intellectual game, applied to polyphonic music, was canon (canon = rule), which required the performers to solve a puzzle presented either in words or in symbols in order to perform the composition, only part of which was actually written down. The written form provided cryptic directions for deriving an added part from what was already on the page. “Cry without ceasing,” for example, the only direction given on one such composition, results in the addition of a complete second part if one singer performs only the notes but not the rests, while another singer performs the line exactly as written, including its rests. On a similar level are the compositions written as only a single part with several different symbols indicating tempo (known as mensural signs), which will yield a polyphonic composition when the piece is performed simultaneously at different pitches and speeds. In the “puzzle canon” illustration, the mensural signs indicate that the melody should be sung in the following manner (the first note is to begin where the sign itself is located).

The uppermost part begins on high D, and proceeds in duple time.

The next part ○ begins on G, and proceeds in triple time.

The next part 3 begins on lower D (the actual notated pitch), and proceeds in a faster triple time.

The bottom part begins on low G, and proceeds in a slow duple time.

Rounds and Catches

Other musical forms also employed the device of canon in performance, although not usually as complicated as those used in the motet. The most obvious of these is the “round” format, in which a single line of music is marked for successive beginnings in the manner of the well-known “Frère Jacques” or “Three Blind Mice.” A variation of this is found in the fourteenth-century repertory of both France and Italy, known as chace (French), or caccia (Italian). The word literally refers to a hunt, but thinly veiled beneath a superficially naive text, it always has an erotic double meaning. Because the second voice enters later than the first but starts at the beginning, the singers are always at different places in the same text and melody. The composer cleverly constructs the melodic line so that words from one line are interspersed among those of another, producing a completely new meaning, and one that cannot be seen by merely viewing the text itself. These are quite entertaining to hear, many of them containing onomatopoeic sounds such as dogs barking or trumpets sounding. The English “catch” of the seventeenth century is related to this form.

Polyphonic Secular Music and National Styles

From Dance to Art Music

Soon after its development, the new polyphonic technique was employed by composers to set non-religious songs, applying it to the different regional types that already existed as monophonic forms. Secular songs stemmed mostly from music intended for dancing, and, in their monophonic format, retained many of the characteristics of dance music, including regular rhythmic patterns and simple melodies with regular phrases. Once polyphony was adopted for this repertory, however, its relationship to dance became increasingly distant. Polyphony, with its potential for complex interrelationships among the parts, tempted the composers to experiment with refinements and sophistications on all levels. The result was a growing body of art music that set traditional poetic text forms, but was technically much more demanding than its monophonic predecessors. By the late fourteenth century the polyphonic secular repertory had replaced much of the monophonic in courtly circles, both in quantity and in prestige.

Court Musicians

The performance of these pieces required the ability to read music and therefore they were the domain of musically literate performers, both amateur and professional. The resident musicians in the major courts adopted this new collection of compositions in their daily performances; kings, counts, dukes, the pope, and cardinals in all areas prided themselves on the quality of their court musicians, and vied with one another to hire the highest quality performers and composers and to commission manuscripts of the new repertory. Musical establishments such as those at the French court in Paris, the Sforza’s in Milan, and the papal court first in Avignon and later in Rome became havens for the finest musicians, but none reached the prestige of that of the duke of Burgundy, whose ensemble of vocal and instrumental musicians set the standards for all of Europe well into the fifteenth century.

Burgundian Dominance

Initially the styles and techniques of the polyphonic songs were as regional as the monophonic secular repertory, but that soon changed. By the end of the fourteenth century the most influential musical style was that of the area known as Burgundy, including much of what is now northeastern France as well as Belgium and the Netherlands. As the political power of Philip the Bold (duke of Burgundy 1364-1404) grew in the last decades of the fourteenth century, so too did his cultural influence, spreading his musical preferences throughout Europe. Franco-Netherlandish sacred and secular music influenced the writing of composers in all of Europe, especially in Italy where not only the northern repertory was imported, but also the composers and performers themselves. A single example of the influence of the Burgundian musical tastes can be seen in the area of dancing: the fifteenth-century choreographed dances in Italy, Spain, Germany, and England all were modeled on the Burgundian basse danse. Not only was the idea of choreographed dancing itself of Burgundian origin, but also the way in which the music was formally composed as only a single line of long notes that was to be expanded in performance into polyphonic form by the musicians themselves. Even the make-up of the usual dance band was copied from the ensemble at the Burgundian court: two shawms and a slide trumpet. There is very little surviving secular polyphony from the other European countries, owing to a combination of factors that include the ravages of time and war, and a preference for the improvisatory style. Whatever the reason, we do not have a significant body of secular polyphony representing England, Germany, or Spain until the very end of the fifteenth century.

France and the Chanson

The French secular forms of the late Middle Ages were based on earlier dance music, all of which was built on a verse-refrain structure matching the construction of the poetry. The chanson (meaning “song”) repertory consisted of hundreds of compositions in the forms well established from the time of the troubadours: rondeau, ballade, and virelai. By the time they became polyphonic, however, around the year 1300, it is doubtful that they still had a practical dance association; their structure and the subtle nature of their rhythmic flow would make them difficult to dance. All of the forms were in two melodic sections, differing from one another only in the way in which the repeat scheme works and whether or not the music for the refrain was also used for part of the verse. The existence of a refrain in each of them suggests a performance in which a soloist sings the verse and everyone else (the chorus) sings the refrain. Undoubtedly this was the performance practice in the earlier Middle Ages, but the later, more complex, polyphonic songs probably were completely sung by soloists. There is a special repertory of chanson from around the year 1400 that is full of notational complexities that make them extremely difficult to read and transcribe into modern notation. They are often referred to as Ars subtilior (the subtler art), and when performed have a slightly “jazzy” sound because of their rhythms.

French Forms

The rondeau (round dance) is the most complex form because the standard two sections of music are both used as the performer sings first the refrain, then the verse, and then again the refrain. This is further complicated by the insertion of a half refrain in the middle of the verse, as opposed to all other forms, where the refrain is always sung in its entirety, either at the beginning or the end of the verse. (For an example of a monophonic rondeau see Dance Chapter, “Vocis Tripudio.”) A different complexity occurs in the ballade (which simply means “dance,” as in the modern English wordball). Although the music of a ballade is again in two sections, the relationship between the verse and refrain is unbalanced because the refrain is usually quite short and therefore occupies only a part of the second section of music. The third type, the virelai (twist) is more similar to the rondeau. In this case, the refrain both begins and ends the musical setting, although it is not inserted in the middle of the verse as is the rondeau refrain.


The texts of all of the chansons were usually the same idealized love topics found in the courtly love poems from the time of the troubadours and trouvères, although by the fourteenth century the language was not quite so stylized. There is one unusual type of text occasionally employed in the virelai, in which birds and their calls are included in the words and the music in order to symbolize particular sentiments. The bird symbolism included the following: the eagle, suggesting power or royalty; the lark, indicating mourning or warning; the crow, a sign of craftiness or mockery; the cuckoo, referring to cuckoldry; the falcon, suggesting power and danger; the peacock, a sign of beauty and vanity; the nightingale, symbolizing night and erotic love; and the turtle dove, indicating fidelity. In some of the polyphonic bird-song virelais, the singer professes one message in words while the bird sounds in the accompanying parts suggest something completely different.

Polyphonic Music in Italy

There is very little surviving secular polyphonic music from Italy until the mid-fourteenth century, owing to the prominence of improvisation. When we do find some written music, it is quite different from the French style in that the melodies are far more rhapsodic, often organized as elaborations of the notes in the scale in contrast to the French style of short rhythmic-melodic motifs with clear phrase shapes. The early Italian compositions appear to be rather close images of what must have been the free improvisatory style. The largest collection of Italian music from the fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries is contained in a beautifully illuminated manuscript that once belonged to Antonio Squarcialupi (1416-1480), Florentine organist, composer, and friend of the powerful Medici family. The Squarcialupi Codex (Florence, Biblioteca Medicea-Laurenziana, MS Palatino 87) contains 354 compositions by twelve of the most important Italian composers of the late Middle Ages, preceding the collection of each composer’s works with a portrait. Most compositions are for two or three voices, and all are on secular subjects, written in three of the most important Italian musical/poetic forms: madrigal, ballata, and caccia. Composers represented in the manuscript are known to have worked in important north Italian courts such as Milan, Ferrara, Venice, and Florence.


Although the madrigal is one of the dominant musical/poetic forms in late medieval Italy, its origins and even the meaning of the word itself are unclear. (The medieval madrigal should not be confused with the late Renaissance form.) Several theories have, however, been put forward. Its verse-refrain format suggests a possible relationship with dance forms, although what that might be is not certain. In any case its subject matter is usually a pastoral love theme, although there are some with strong political references. A typical madrigal format is in two musical sections—one for the verse and one for the refrain (ritornello).


The name ballata, from ballare (to dance), makes the original purpose of this form quite clear. In fact, one of the most striking images of the ballata in fourteenth-century Italian society can be found in Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron, a collection of 100 fictional tales told by ten young people assembled in a country home to avoid the plague. In the story, each of the refugees is called upon every evening after dinner to improvise a ballata while the others dance. The ballata is in the verse-refrain form with two musical sections and the subject matter is always love.


The caccia (hunt) is usually written as a single melodic line that becomes polyphonic when a second voice enters after the first, singing the same music (see “Complexities” above). A few of these compositions have a textless accompanying part, but the form in all of them is a single verse without a refrain. The texts, although superficially about hunting, fishing, market scenes, and fires, usually carry a double meaning that is revealed only when the words of one phrase are interspersed among those of another during performance.

Francesco Landini

Because the Squarcialupi Codex is retrospective, it includes compositions in the older Italian style with long, flowing, elaborate passages, as well as those composed later in the century by Francesco Landini. These are written with shorter, less elaborate phrases, demonstrating the strong influence of the French style. By the mid-fifteenth century, French culture had made such strong inroads into Italy that Italian courts began to import northern composers, performers, and repertory in preference to employing native musicians. Italian performers and composers continued to be hired in Italian courts throughout the fifteenth century, but the most prestigious positions were given to the northerners. It is worth noting that the motets commissioned for some of the most significant people and events in Italy were written by northerners, as, for example, by Johannes Ciconia for Michele Steno, Doge of Venice, in 1406; by Bertrand Feragut for Francesco Malpiero, Bishop of Vicenza, in 1433; and by Guillaume Dufay for the consecration of the Cathedral of Florence in 1436.

Dufay and the Late Medieval Ceremonial Motet

Music for Special Occasions

In addition to its role as the leading format for new and creative experiments, in the fourteenth century the motet expanded its prominence as the composition of choice for the most important occasions. From its origin it was written with a particular function in mind; the form had the flexibility of being appropriate in both sacred and secular settings, and, as the accepted vehicle for the most avant-garde experiments as well as the most sophisticated technical devices, it was suitably elegant to commemorate even the most special affair. From the mid-fourteenth century, a dedicatory or ceremonial motet was the logical form to be adopted by composers who were called upon to set texts celebrating events such as coronations of kings, weddings of nobles, elevation of cardinals, or other such monumental occasions, both sacred and secular.

Nuper Rosarum Flores

One such special occasion that called for a ceremonial motet was the dedication of one of the finest cathedrals in Italy. Guillaume Dufay’s motet Nuper rosarum flores (Recently Roses Blossomed), written for the consecration of Santa Maria del Fiore, the cathedral in Florence, deservedly has become one of the most celebrated compositions of the late Middle Ages. It is a musical masterpiece and exhibits the kinds of sophisticated techniques that were employed by composers to mark such important ceremonies. New construction for the Cathedral of Florence was begun around the year 1300 as an expansion of the older and much smaller Church of Santa Reparata. Construction continued throughout the fourteenth century but could not be completed until the architect Filippo Brunelleschi was able to work out a design for the enormous dome. When this work was finally done, Pope Eugenius IV presided over the consecration of the cathedral on 25 March 1436, with Dufay, Brunelleschi, and numerous other dignitaries in attendance. Dufay’s motet to honor the occasion is an excellent example of the kind of sophistication that was built into both the text and music in these symbolic works.

Text and Melody

The tenor of Nuper rosarum is appropriately chosen from the antiphon for the consecration of a church, Terribilis est locus iste—”Redoubtable is this place,” referring to the unholiness of the edifice prior to its consecration to God. The text of the upper two voice parts is a Latin poem in four stanzas that was written specifically for the occasion; it refers to the dedication of the cathedral and the city of Florence, mentions Pope Eugenius as the successor of Jesus Christ and Saint Peter, and makes allusions to the Temple of Jerusalem erected by King Solomon. The musical construction is for four voices in four sections that do not coincide with the text stanzas; each section moves at a different pace. The two upper voice parts—the only parts with text—have a continuous flow of melody without repetition. They trace separate rhythmic patterns and do not sing the same words at the same time except for the name of the pope, “Eugenius,” which is also set off from the surrounding material by sustained notes. The lower two parts are in strict isorhythm, having a single melody that is repeated for each of the four sections. These two parts—called “tenor I” and “tenor II”—have the same melody, but are performed at different pitches and do not begin or end at the same time. They are written out only once with the four different tempos indicated by mensural signs (seecanons above).

Symbolic Ratios

The construction of the motet and its text also incorporates some complex symbolism involving references to the Temple of Solomon that are present in the text and represented in the proportions and ratios of the musical construction; Dufay’s tempos for the four sections of the motet are in the ratio 6:4:2:3, which match the dimensions of Solomon’s Temple, given in the Bible (I Kings 6:1-20) as 60 x 40 x 20 x 30. Nuper rosarum flores is a classic assembly of medieval motet techniques, incorporating the complex musical features as well as the sophisticated textual and symbolic ingredients that mark this form throughout the late Middle Ages.

Guillaume De Machaut’s Messe De Nostre Dame

A Unified Mass

Sometime before 1365 the French poet and cleric Guillaume de Machaut composed a new work including the five sections of the Mass Ordinary— Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, Agnus—plus the dismissal, the Ite Missa Est (“Go, the Mass is done”). As a point of unification, the composer selected relevant chants for each section as the borrowed tenor of each movement (that is, a Kyrie chant for his Kyrie, and so on). Each of these came from chants that were assigned for feasts in honor of the Blessed Virgin. In doing this he created the earliest unified set of Mass Ordinary movements. What is unusual about this concept, in addition to the fact that there is no similar model on the level of the chant practices, is that in the celebration of the Mass, with the exception of the Kyrie and Gloria, the items of the Ordinary are separated from one another by a number of different prayers and chants, that is, they are not performed one after the other as in a modern-day concert performance, and therefore to think of these Mass items on the level of an artistic whole is to impose an abstract artistic idea on something that had never been considered from that point of view. The original intention for creating this rather unusual assembly of polyphonic movements was for use at the special mass in honor of the Virgin Mary (the Messe de Nostre Dame or “Mass of Our Lady”), which since 1341 had been celebrated on Saturdays in one of the chapels in Reims Cathedral, where Machaut was a canon (a member of the clergy on the permanent staff). Later, however, in conformity with the wills of both Guillaume and his brother Jean (who also was a canon at the cathedral), the mass was transformed into a memorial service for the two of them following their deaths (Jean in 1372, Guillaume in 1377).

Style, Function, and Form

The individual movements of the Mass of Notre Dame employ two distinctly separate structural models and styles, dictated at least in part by the function and form of the movement itself. For the four movements with relatively small amounts of text—Kyrie, Sanctus, Agnus Dei, and Ite Missa Est—Machaut chose the style he used in his elaborate motets: the upper lines proceed with more or less independent rhythmic motion and long rhapsodic (that is, somewhat irregular and richly decorative) melodic sections over a tenor set in isorhythm (see above, “Complexities”). Unlike his motets, however, there is only a single text in each movement, which is sung by all four voices. The texts of both Gloria and Credo are quite lengthy, and therefore Machaut set these movements in a style reminiscent of the earlier discant style (see above, “Notre Dame Organum”) having short phrases, similar rhythmic motion in all parts, and a low ratio of notes per syllable of text, both ending with long, rhapsodic sections for the final word, “Amen.” An additional feature of the Mass of Notre Dame was that it was for four voices rather than the more common three; Machaut added a voice called contratenor (meaning “against the tenor”) that moved in the same low range as the tenor part, sometimes replacing it as the lowest voice.

Innovation and Influence

Machaut’s innovations, both the assembling of a complete set of Ordinary movements and the expansion to four-voice texture, became an important influence on sacred musical composition for the next several hundred years. One additional detail also was copied by most composers to follow him; in setting the phrase “Et incarnatus est” (“and He was made flesh”) in the Credo, Machaut abruptly stops the motion in all parts so that each syllable is sustained, and then returns to the previous pace, thus drawing attention to a key Christian belief. Although the techniques and styles have changed over the centuries, the concept that originated in the late Middle Ages of a single composer organizing all of the Ordinary movements of a mass into an artistic whole persists to the present day and includes such universally acclaimed contributions as Johann Sebastian Bach’s Mass in B Minor.

The Cyclic Mass Tradition: Missa Caput

Shared Musical Material

The term “cyclic mass” refers to a mass in which all five movements have musical material in common. One of the earliest is the Missa Caput in which all movements are composed over the same section of chant—a long, rhapsodic passage on the word caput (head), the last word in the Holy Thursday chant Venit ad Petrum. The anonymous English composer of this work assigns the chant to the tenor part of each of the five movements, and further unifies the movements by beginning each of them with the same small melodic-rhythmic motif.

The Contratenor Bassus

The Caput Mass also displays another technique that was more and more becoming the norm in all polyphonic composition: writing the fourth voice part below the tenor rather than above it, creating the contratenor bassus (“against the tenor but lower,” later known simply as the bass part). The technical implication of this change is substantial, since it is the lowest voice that governs the harmony. When the tenor voice was the lowest, it was the borrowed material that played a substantial role in determining the harmonic content of the composition. By adding a lower, newly composed voice part, the composer had far more control of the harmonic flow of the composition.

Abstract Relationships

The Missa Caput probably was written in the 1440s, and it was immediately followed by many more cyclic masses, including two additional masses using the same borrowed tenor. It is interesting to note that while the Missa Caput is organized around a tenor melody borrowed from the liturgy, the relationship between the borrowed material and the use to which it is put is far more abstract than when the relationship is direct—that is, when a Kyrie chant is borrowed as the basis for a polyphonic Kyrie, as in the Machaut Mass (see above). The Caput chant, on the other hand, is not from any of the parts of the Ordinary, and therefore it is foreign to each of the sections where it is employed as a controlling and unifying device. Once the model had been set for this kind of abstract relationship, composers felt free to choose their organizing material from any kind of sacred or even secular source: Missa Ave maris stella (“Hail, Star of the Sea”), based on a hymn, took its place next to Missa L’Homme armé (“The Armed Man”), on a popular tune, and Guillaume Dufay’s Missa Se la face ay pale (“If My Face Is Pale”), on a love song also written by Dufay.

Missa Se La Face Ay Pale

Secular Elements in the Sacred Repertory

In 1434-35, while Guillaume Dufay was first in the service of the duke of Savoy, he wrote a chanson, Se la face ay pale, thought to be in honor of Anne de Lusignan, who was the duchess of Savoy (part of the kingdom of Burgundy). Although his whereabouts prior to 1452 are unknown, it is clear that he lived in Savoy between 1452 and 1458, and among the many compositions he wrote for various occasions was a cyclic mass, the Missa Se la face ay pale, based on the tenor of the earlier chanson. One can only guess at what might have been the very special significance the earlier chanson had for the Savoy court.

Punning Rhymes

The text of the chanson is an unusual ballade because instead of the usual lines of eight or ten syllables, Se la face ay pale has only five, in a complicated format known as équivoquée (punning rhyme). Unfortunately, the numerous puns (pale/principale, amer/amer/la mer, voir/voir/avoir) in the text do not translate from French to English, but it is possible nonetheless to get an idea of the difficulty of this format from observing the range of meanings that are created from words with almost identical sounds.

Se la face ay pale
La cause est amer. [“amer”=love]
C’est la principale,
Et tant m’est amer [“amer”=bitter]
Amer, qu’en la mer [“amer”=to love, “la mer”=the sea]
Me voudroye voir.[“voir”=see]
Or scet bien de voir [“de voir”=truly]
La belle a qui suis Que nul bien avoir [“avoir”=have]
Sans elle ne puis.
If my face is pale
the reason is love.
That is the main cause,
and love is so bitter
for me that I wish to
drown myself in the sea.
So she can truly know,
the fair one to whom I belong,
that I cannot have any joy
without her. [two more stanzas]

Dufay’s musical setting of the chanson text is also unusual in that he wrote a continuous single unit of music with short phrases rather than the usual format with two sections and longer melodic phrases.

Fast and Slow

In writing the Missa Se la face ay pale, Dufay borrows only the tenor line, which he places in the tenor voice in all five movements. In the shorter movements (Kyrie, Sanctus, and Agnus Dei), the chanson melody closely resembles the tenor part of earlier motets, moving at a much slower pace than the other three voices, thereby calling attention to itself. In both the Gloria and Credo, Dufay extends this idea by employing yet another motet-like technique: he repeats the chanson melody in the tenor at three speeds, beginning it three times slower than the other parts, then twice as slow, and finally at the same speed as the other voices. Borrowing a technique employed in the Missa Caput, Dufay further unites the movements of his mass by beginning each of the five movements with the same opening melodic-rhythmic motif.

The Mechanics of Music: Scales and Treatises

The Medieval Scales

The medieval musical scales were called modes, which were described by their ranges, the location of the half-steps, the important pitches used at the beginning and end of the composition, and the “reciting tone”—the pitch used for recitation in psalms (see Plainchant, Psalms). During the Middle Ages there were eight modes, grouped into four pairs (this was enlarged to six pairs in the sixteenth century, and reduced to two—the major and minor scales presently in use—in the eighteenth century). Each mode was known by its number and by a Greek name. The names chosen were those of ancient Greek tribes that were believed to have exemplified the emotional character of that mode. Although the system of modes was originally invented to describe and control monophonic music, it was also applied to the polyphonic repertory. In both techniques, modal considerations dictated many decisions concerning choices of notes and harmonies to be put in important structural places in the compositions. The importance of understanding the modes to a medieval composer and performer can be seen in that a detailed discussion of modes constituted a major portion of most theory treatises of the period.

Theoretical Treatises

Much of our understanding of the thinking of medieval musicians, especially composers, comes from the theoretical treatises, books of instruction that provide details about the practice of writing music. The treatises are by and large retrospective in that they usually report or explain current practice, rather than propose anything new. The theorists, many of them university professors and/or monks, observed the changes taking place as practices evolved over the centuries and attempted to explain them (or in some cases, condemn the changes). By looking at what issues absorbed their attention, we can follow the revisions in technique that underlay the various compositional practices.

Practical versus Intellectual Theory

When people in the Middle Ages discussed music in learned writings, they made a clear separation between the intellectual consideration of the art and the practical, with the practical (that is, music itself) left mostly to practitioners, and usually thought to be unworthy of intellectual discussion. Throughout the period, music was included as one of the seven liberal arts, placed in the quadrivium (four ways) alongside the mathematical arts of arithmetic, geometry, and astronomy, rather than in the trivium (three ways) with the verbal arts of grammar, rhetoric, and logic. Its placement indicates the way in which music was addressed: number, ratio, and proportion were actually what was considered under the subject-heading, based on the study of vibrating bodies (for example, by dividing a vibrating string in the middle, it would vibrate at twice the speed, the ratio of 2:1). Later, these ratios influenced the consideration of perfect and imperfect intervals. Another, more philosophical or theological consideration of music was to divide it into three areas: musica mundana, musica humana, and musica instrumentalis. Musica mundana (music of the Spheres) referred to the harmony caused by the motion of heavenly bodies. Musica humana (music of humans) was the harmony within the human body, having to do with the balance of physical elements. Musica instrumentalis (instrumental music) referred to actual sounds, either sung or made by instruments. This division of music was discussed to some extent in most medieval treatises, ending in the late thirteenth century, when mundana and humana were finally dropped from the discussion following their rejection by Johannes Grocheio in his De musica (c. 1300), one of the earliest treatises to concentrate on the practical detail of music and the first to consider secular music, including dance.

Harmony and Intervals

Practical theorists during the Carolingian era (eighth to tenth centuries) were frequently concerned with the modes (see next page), attempting to regularize the practice and to explain certain chants that did not exactly fit the system. By the late ninth century, treatises begin to discuss polyphony—explaining the way in which different notes can be sounded together in harmony, classifying intervals (the distance between the pitch of two notes) as more or less harmonious according to the mathematical ratios of their vibration speeds. Those intervals whose ratios could be expressed in simple numbers were referred to as “perfect” (octave [a distance of eight notes on the diatonic scale, as in C to C], 2:1; fifth [a distance of five notes, as in C to G], 3:2; and fourth [a distance of four notes, as in C to F] 4:3); all other combinations of notes were considered dissonant to varying degrees. The classifications continued to undergo revisions throughout the remainder of the Middle Ages, with the fourth losing its status as a preferred interval, while the imperfect third became more and more accepted. Throughout the period the treatises explored the ways in which harmonies can be used to shape and control compositions.

Theories of Notation

Once polyphony was well established in the twelfth century, the next new issue to appear in the treatises was notation, a topic that continues to occupy theorists down to the present day. The earliest notation recognized only three actual values: short, long, and a long that was the value of both the other two notes combined. The system allowed some freedom in the assignment of values to these notes, causing certain situations to be somewhat ambiguous. One of the earliest theorists to tackle the problem of ambiguity was Franco of Cologne, who in 1260 wrote Ars cantus mensurabilis (“The Art of Measured Song”), which assigns specific duration to each of the note shapes. The next step along this line was to add new flexibility to the system by subdividing the existing notes, which is the major subject of three different treatises written in Paris at the beginning of the fourteenth century: Ars nova (“The New Art”) once credited to Philippe de Vitry, Ars novae musicae (“The New Musical Art”) by Johannes de Muris, and Speculum musicae (“Musical Reflection”) by Jacques de Liège. The systems they describe are highly sophisticated, allowing accurate notation of minute rhythmic variations and complicated combinations. At the same time as these changes were occurring in French music, Marchettus of Padua was explaining an Italian system that was quite different. In his two treatises from approximately 1320—Lucidarium in arte musicae planae (“Explanation of the Art of Unmeasured Music”) andPomerium artis musicae mensuratae (“Orchard-Garden of the Art of Measured Music”)—Marchettus described a system of notation as well as a group of harmonic practices that set Italian notation and harmonies apart from the French. By the mid-fifteenth century, however, the Italian composers had abandoned their own notation and adopted that of the French. Treatises from the end of the fifteenth century, such as those by Johannes Tinctoris, demonstrate that a single system of notation and harmonic practices was in use throughout Europe.

Systems of Notation


Before the invention of a system for notating music in the ninth century, music was passed on from one person to the next only by aural transmission—that is, melodies were carried only in the memory, and learned by repeated hearing. A new monk, for example, would spend hours every day for several years learning by rote memory all of the chant melodies for the entire liturgical cycle, taught by the magister scholarum—the director of music. The first system of notating music was developed sometime during the Carolingian era after 800 for the purpose of transmitting information about vocal performance, the nuances of a singing style. Although this led eventually to the notation system still in use today, it did not have the same purpose as modern notation, that of presenting the basic information about pitch and duration. The earliest notes, called neumes, required the reader to know the melody already—its pitches and its rhythms. The information provided by the neumes indicated performance details such as which sounds to separate and which to join together; when to sing a steady pitch and when to slide the voice. Although its appearance is quite startling to those of us acquainted with modern notes, the notation transmitted its message very clearly by graphically representing what the voice was to do:

a straight line / signified to sing the note with a steady voice.
a curve ∼ indicated which way the voice was to slide.
a jagged line directed the singer to move his voice rapidly back and forth from a lower to a higher note.

The Guidonian Hand

The next step in the development of notation came in answer to a desire on the part of the church leaders to speed up the learning of new material as well as to transmit the melodies more accurately. Over the centuries, the tradition of aural transmission had inevitably resulted in errors and variations in some of the melodies, and church officials wanted to standardize the repertory. The result was the placement of the neumes on a graph in which lines and spaces represented the notes of the singing scale. The first such experiment was by a clever monk named Guido, a magister scholarum in a Benedictine monastery in Arezzo, a small town in northern Italy. Guido’s first invention was to assign the notes of the scale (mode) to the knuckles of his hand, so that by pointing to a particular knuckle he could direct the choir boys to sing a certain pitch. The “Guidonian Hand” caught on very quickly and even after the development of the staff it remained one of the easiest ways to teach chant, staying in use for hundreds of years.

Lines and Spaces

Guido’s next invention was to mark two parallel lines on paper, representing the pitches “c” and “f” which provided two exact places where the singer could orient his voice, with the other notes located either above or below these lines, graphically representing their relationship to the two known pitches. It is this system that evolved over the next several hundred years to the system of five lines and spaces currently in use. The notation of rhythm followed a somewhat different path. Rhythm in the earliest notation was controlled by the syllables of the text: one syllable was one unit of measure. If there was only a single note for a syllable, it received the entire unit of measure; two or more notes for a syllable all shared the single unit of time. Eventually a system was developed in which the shape of the note indicated its value:

was long.
■ was short.
◆ was shortest.

The basis of measure in this notation was its linkage to the heartbeat that was represented by the long note. The pace of the long note—its tempo—was declared to be the speed of the heartbeat of a healthy man at rest (approximately 60-80 beats per minute in modern terms). Although this system made it very easy to establish a basic tempo, in order to notate music that proceeded either slower or faster than the heartbeat required a complex set of neumes that were modified by stems, flags, and colors, and a set of other symbols (mensural signs) that could reassign the heartbeat to a subdivision of the long note. This system was somewhat simplified after the fifteenth century, but remnants of it were still in use well into the time of the German composer J. S. Bach. It was eventually replaced by the modern system that developed after the invention of the metronome in the early nineteenth century.