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The Gift of Medieval Music

The Medieval era is one of the longest in history, beginning with the fall of the Roman Empire in 476 C.E. and continuing through into the fifteenth century, where the end of Medieval times gave way to the birth of the Rennaissance era. 

Among some of the most significant changes in the Western music tradition during this time was the switch from an aural to written musical forms. In the near 1,000 years of Medieval musicianship, historical records show the exciting evolution of notation, which became increasingly necessary with the introduction and expansion of polyphony (two or more independent melodic voices). 

Sheet Music was Born in Medieval Times

While records of music notation go back as far as ancient Babylonian and Greek times, those notations are nothing like the systematic rigor of the staff, notes, and rhythmic values that emerged during the Medieval era. 

It was Pythagoras, for example, who dissected music into a science and developed what we now identify as the octave scale in 600 BCE. Other Greek philosophers, such as Aristotle, continued expanding musical theory, creating a crude notation system. The famous Roman senator and music theorist, Boethius, wrote the influential De Institutione Musica (The Principles of Music), which made its way to western Europe.

However, for Westerners, musical notation and rhythm as we know it today were born during the Medieval era, and it was a complex evolution.

First Came Polyphony

Before the Medieval era, music was primarily devoted to sacred texts and delivered in a monophonic (one melodic line) chant form. By 600 C.E., Pope Gregory developed a polyphonic chant style called “plainsong” or “plainchant.” Monks and choirs performed these plainsongs in church and as part of daily and ceremonial religious devotions. There were hundreds and thousands of chants used to share scripture with the illiterate masses. Take a moment to listen to beautiful Gregorian Chants in Latin Sung by Monks of the Abbey of St Ottilien:








Pope Gregory’s works led to a school of Gregorian chant and a rising interest in the study of music. But the complex nature of polyphonic music required something more. As with the monophonic chants, the works were learned by ear and memorized, but this wasn’t enough. And musicians hungered for a structure or framework to teach and learn the varying rhythms and notes. 

In 650 C.E., scholar St. Isidore of Seville tired of memorizing songs, “Unless sounds are held by the memory of man, they perish, because they cannot be written down.” Seville got to work creating an improved music notation system. These original notations were called neumes and rooted in the Greek music theory development we mentioned above. The neumes’ simplest forms indicated high tones or low tones in the speaking voice to support public readings of Greek literature. Seville used this idea and created neumes to indicate musical tones.

During 900 C.E., Gregorian chant composers used the same symbols to suggest tonal changes in chanting or singing. 

  • / (acutus) indicated high tones
  • \ (gravis) indicated low tones

Over time, the acutus changed to the virga, and the gravis changed to the punctum. Note that the composers used four lines instead of five at this point, and the marks were an indicator of where a pitch should go, not an actual pitch.

Continued development of formal music notation, including other marks that dictated rhythm and breath, became quite complex. Still, it didn’t lead to the precise pitch and rhythmic notation we use today. If you’re a music theory buff, here is a more in-depth analysis of Gregorian Chant notation.

Then Came the Troubadours

Around the same period, as Gregorian chants flourished (1,000 C.E.), the popularity of the troubadour (traveling musicians) grew as well. 

Troubadours traveled throughout Europe, using their songs to entertain and share the latest news. Rather than being sacred works, most of the music performed by troubadours centered around chivalry and courtly love. This theme continued into the Romeo and Juliet-esque passion of the Renaissance Music era.

Traveling musicians from regions near and far delighted in performing for one another, as well as joining together to play and create new music. The rising awareness of music notation made this type of musical camaraderie possible.

Around this same time, an Italian Benedictine monk and music theorist named Guido de Arezzo became frustrated with the inconsistencies inherent in a written form more indicative of pitch generalities than specifics. His work made decisive headway towards modern-day music notation. Guido de Arezzo is responsible for:

  • The four-line staff (as opposed to the five-line staff that eventually made its appearance in 1200). De Arezzo used different color lines to represent specific notes in the original versions and then marked neumes on, above, or below lines to indicate pitch.
  • Hexachords. De Arezzo organized notes into groups that were called hexachords.
  • Time signatures. Time signatures became more critical but were still laid-back. They didn’t become solidified into the rhythmic notation we learn until the end of the Medieval era (1300 to 1400).
  • Solfege. Since specific pitches weren’t notated specifically yet, Guido de Arezzo invented solfege (do, re, mi, fa, so...etc.) as a way to keep musical pitches more accurate.

Finally, Note Durations Entered the Scene

From that point forward, music theologians continued tweaking their predecessors’ innovations. For example, in 1250, Franco of Cologne invented a system of notes with square or diamond shapes. While still stem-free, he assigned note durations to specific shapes. This idea became a hit, and we could officially say, “Yes! We got rhythm.”

Philippe de Vitry created more measurable time signatures, and rhythmic notations were further perfected throughout the early 1300s. The evolution of music notation continued through the beginning of the Renaissance (1400) and well into the Baroque era in response to shifts from vocal to instrumental music. Not to mention new instruments’ accommodation as they entered the orchestral mix.

So, the next time you get together to jam with a group of friends, and you’re sight-reading a new piece of music, give thanks to your medieval musician predecessors. They worked diligently to create the written musical order that allowed music to flourish as it has all these centuries later.

Are you drawn to the unique sounds of Medieval music? Then, stay tuned for our post, Popular Medieval Composers and The Songs that Made Them Famous.