I’m actually both excited and nervous about teaching this period of music history/composers to my kids and our Charlotte Mason Co-op! Mainly because I never really taught it during my tenure as a music teacher. We focused on all the periods of music and composers from 1600-present and any “early” music was just glossed over when talking about the development of musical instruments, or history of solfege! We are following the Ambleside Composer Schedule for our curriculum and there are some wonderful side notes written by the advisory board that I encourage everyone to read! And I’m so glad they did the research into which CDs are best to listen to during this period! My experience comes from my collegiate music courses and I’m using my old college notes to help give a timeline with examples that might help you wrap your head around the large range of AD350-1450! Stop here if you don’t want to try to wrap your head around it and just listen for enjoyment! LOL! That’s totally acceptable as well! You can link to the youtube playlists, CDs, and videos in the Ambleside link above!
Time Periods for Medieval Music
An easy breakdown of the timeline can look like this:
350-600: Period of the Church Fathers
600-850: Early Middle Ages – Gregorian Chant
850-1150: Romenesque period – development of the staff in musical notation
1150-1450: Late Middle Ages (Gothic period)
(Renaissance period from 1450-1600 is covered in another term on AO.)
350-600: Church Fathers
The fall of Rome in 476 AD ushered the modern world into changes in culture that brought a rise to Christianity. The culture in music is heavily influenced by the monasteries and monks who preserved the history of the early church and also developed liturgical music. Pope Gregory the Great is attributed to the influence over church music during this time, as they assembled the music into an organized liturgy. The tradition in this time period is mostly an oral tradition. Over the several generations during this time the chants and liturgical music were handed down orally and later developed into the first written chants.
600-850: Early Middle Ages – Gregorian Chant
Now that the number of chants were increasing, there was a need to be reminded of the melodies so a musical notation was born in the Gregorian chants. The video below is a wonderful introduction to the history (WARNING – there is a snippet of modern rap. I suggest this video be for parental education only and not to show your children. Or, start at minute 2:35)
Neumes were the first signs to show melodic direction. These are the three main classes of “plainchant” or “monophonic chant:” Syllabic, which is when one note is sung to each syllable of text. Neumatic is when groups of two to four notes are sung to a syllable. And Melismatic is when a single syllable of text extends over longer groups of notes.
Here’s an example of each plainchant style with neumes as the notation:
You can follow along with the chant Haec dies below and see how the singers rise and fall in the melodic direction.
850-1150: Romenesque period
The chants in the earlier period were monophonic – only one voice or unison in the melodies. The next development was the emergence of polyphony, or two or more melodies at the same time. In order to transcribe this music, there had to be an increase in “rules” of writing music. The earliest of this polyphonic chant was with the organum. It was a second voice that ran parallel to the plainchant. Leonin was an influential composer of this time and lived in Paris during the twelfth century. The compositions were based in the Gregorian chants that were already written. When you listen, you can hear the lower voice holding out while the upper voice sings the plainchant.
After Leonin, Perotin developed the polyphonic texture into a genre called a motet. Some of the text might not always be Latin, but might have some French. It was used in both secular and sacred music.
A sacred motet example is O mitissima/Virgo/Haec dies. There are three voices, each with a different text.
1150-1450: Late Middle Ages
The other two composers that I would highlight in this section of history are Hildegard of Bingen and Guido d’ Arezzo. Megan Hoyt wrote a wonderful picture book to teach about Hildegard and you can get it here! Hildegard has over 70 musical works attributed to her and it’s also important to point out the fact that women played an important role in the preservation of knowledge and cultivation of music for the church. Hildegard is known for her writings on natural history, medicine, poetry and music!
Guido d’Arezzo is credited with the development of the western modes in music by attributing a scale degree to each section of the mass, eventually leading to “do-re-mi!” This video has a great 3 minute explanation!
To hear about secular Medieval music, read my next post here!