What Is Medieval Music? A Deep Dive Into the Foundation of Modern Harmonies

Unearth the roots of modern music with a captivating journey through Medieval melodies, and get insights on its influence in today's soundscape.

Medieval music, echoing through the vast cathedrals and bustling market squares of Europe between the 5th and early 15th centuries, stands as a testament to the vibrant tapestry of the Middle Ages. This era, often draped in the mystique of knights, castles, and religious pilgrimage, birthed a rich soundscape that ranged from the profoundly spiritual Gregorian chants to the rhythmic cadences of secular ballads.

What is medieval music? Medieval music refers to the styles and genres of music prevalent in Europe during the Middle Ages, roughly spanning from the 5th to the early 15th century. It includes both sacred music, such as Gregorian chant, and secular music for entertainment and other non-religious activities.

What is the history of medieval music?

Well, let’s take a musical journey back in time, shall we? All the way back to the Middle Ages, a melodious era spanning the 5th to the early 15th century. And boy, what a wild tune-filled ride it was!

Image of a musician playing a harp, an instrument used in medieval music. Source: pixabay
Image of a musician playing a harp, an instrument used in medieval music. Source: pixabay

The origins and early forms

Medieval music, which spans from roughly the 5th to the early 15th century, began with the fall of the Western Roman Empire and the rise of the Christian Church. One of the earliest and most dominant forms of medieval music was the Gregorian chant, named after Pope Gregory I. These chants, monophonic and unaccompanied by instruments, were a series of melodies designed for liturgical texts, evolving and becoming standardized over time.

Secular music and the rise of polyphony

By the 10th and 11th centuries, as European societies became more complex and urbanized, secular (non-religious) music gained popularity. Troubadours in the south of France and minstrels traveling across regions sang of chivalry, love, and everyday life.

Instrumental music also began to emerge, played on lutes, harps, and early forms of violins. Meanwhile, in the religious realm, there was a significant musical advancement: polyphony. This referred to music with more than one independent melody played simultaneously, marking a departure from the singular melodic line of Gregorian chants.

The development and refinement of musical notation during the 11th century played a pivotal role in the history of medieval music.

Musical notation and schools of composition

The development and refinement of musical notation during the 11th century played a pivotal role in the history of medieval music. With the creation of a system to write down melodies, music became more standardized and could be shared and preserved more easily.

By the 12th century, specific schools of composition began to arise. One of the most famous was the Notre Dame School in Paris, where composers like Léonin and Pérotin advanced the art of polyphony and laid the groundwork for future generations.

Late medieval period and the dawn of the Renaissance

The late medieval period, spanning the 14th and early 15th centuries witnessed the flourishing of a more intricate and expressive musical style, especially in secular compositions. In regions like Italy and France, forms like madrigals and ballatas became popular.

The period also saw the rise of notable composers like Guillaume de Machaut, who played a crucial role in the transition to Renaissance music. By the end of the medieval era, the stage was set for the immense burst of musical creativity and innovation that the Renaissance would bring.

My favorite MIDI keyboard (at the moment):

AKAI Professional MPK Mini MK3

What is medieval music? A deep dive into the foundation of modern harmonies | 717qmgla7zl. Ac sl1500 | audio apartment
My favorite MIDI keyboard (at the moment):

AKAI Professional MPK Mini MK3

I’m loving the AKAI MPK Mini MK3 for its compact design and the range of controls. It’s one of my essential tools. The velocity-sensitive keys and MPC-style pads are great for making beats, while the thumbstick and knobs give me precise control.

What are the characteristics of medieval music?

Medieval music, which spanned from roughly the 5th to the early 15th century, has a series of unique characteristics that distinguish it from music in other periods. Here’s a breakdown, delivered with a sprinkle of medieval flair:

  • Monophonic texture: In the beginning, there was the chant. Gregorian chants, specifically. These were simple, monophonic (a single melody line) ditties that floated through the stone walls of churches and monasteries. No harmony, no backing instruments. Just a pure, unadulterated vocal melody.
  • Polyphonic texture: But then, the medieval musicians thought, “Why stick to one melody when we can have two… or three?” Thus, polyphony was born. Starting around the 9th century, this involved multiple independent melodies played at once. The more, the merrier!
  • Mode over melody: Medieval music wasn’t big on the whole ‘do-re-mi’ major and minor scale thing. Instead, they used modes, which are like scales but with an old-world twist. Each mode evoked different moods, from the somber Dorian mode to the lively Lydian mode.
  • Sacred and secular: While the early medieval period was all about those church jams, the later years saw a rise in secular music. Troubadours, minstrels, and jongleurs became the rockstars of the day, singing about love, war, and medieval mischief.
  • No musical notation: Early medieval music wasn’t written down. It was a bit of an oral tradition—like telling stories around a campfire but with more singing. However, by the 11th century, musical notation began to develop, which was like the invention of the printing press but for music.

What instruments were predominant in medieval music?

The Middle Ages were a rich time for musical invention and development, including a variety of instruments that would influence the future of Western music. Let’s delve into this medieval concert and explore some of the most predominant instruments:

Image of a band playing music from the medieval period. Source: pixabay
Image of a band playing music from the medieval period. Source: pixabay
  • Lute: No medieval ensemble would be complete without the lute. It’s sort of the guitar’s great-great-great-granddaddy, with a rounded back and a varying number of strings. This was the go-to instrument for troubadours and minstrels wanting to serenade fair maidens or impress noble lords.
  • Harp: The harp was also a key player in the medieval music scene. From small, portable lap harps to larger, ornate versions, this instrument strummed its way through the era, resonating with ethereal beauty.
  • Psaltery: This stringed instrument, played by plucking, was often trapezoid in shape and featured a hollow, wooden soundboard with strings stretched across. The psaltery was an easy instrument to play and became quite popular, especially in religious settings.
  • Recorder: Yes, the same instrument you probably played in elementary school has a long history. The medieval recorder had a softer, more muted sound than its modern counterpart and was often made from wood. It came in different sizes, each with its own pitch range.
  • Rebec: A precursor to the violin, the rebec was a three-stringed instrument played with a bow. It was popular in both secular and sacred music and had a distinct, somewhat nasal sound.
  • Organistrum (Hurdy-Gurdy): This unique instrument featured strings that were vibrated by a wheel cranked by a handle. Keys or buttons were used to change the pitch. Essentially, the organistrum was the medieval answer to a one-man band!
  • Bagpipes: Long before they became a symbol of Scotland, bagpipes were a staple of medieval music. Made from an inflated animal bladder and pipes, they provided a drone under the melody.
  • Shawm: A predecessor of the oboe, the shawm was a double-reed wind instrument with a conical bore and flared bell. It had a piercing, loud sound, making it a favorite for outdoor performances.

Who were the significant composers of the Medieval Period?

Here’s a table of some famous medieval music composers. Each brought their unique perspective and style to the rich tapestry of medieval music.

ComposerTime PeriodNotable Contributions
Hildegard of Bingen1098-1179A German abbess, she’s known for her visionary texts and melodies. One of the earliest known female composers, her works include sequences and hymns.
Guillaume de Machautc. 1300-1377A leading figure in the Ars Nova movement, Machaut was known for both secular and sacred compositions. His Messe de Nostre Dame is particularly influential.
Pérotin (also “Perotinus”)Late 12th centuryPart of the Notre Dame School in Paris, he was instrumental in the development of early polyphony. His most famous works are in four-part settings.
Léonin (also “Leoninus”)c. 1150s-1201Another figure from the Notre Dame School, Léonin was one of the first known significant composers of polyphonic organum.
Francesco Landinic. 1325-1397The leading Italian composer of the trecento, his ballate are renowned for their beauty and lyricism. He was also famous for his organ playing and innovations in notation.
John Dunstablec. 1390-1453An English composer who played a major role in the transition from medieval to Renaissance music. His harmonies, often using thirds and sixths, were groundbreaking.
Alfonso X El Sabio1221-1284King of Castile, he was responsible for the Cantigas de Santa Maria, a large collection of songs in honor of the Virgin Mary.
Adam de la Hallec. 1237-1288Known for his “jeu” (dramatic works), his playful themes contrasted the often somber tones of his contemporaries.
A table that provides a snapshot of the many influential composers of the medieval era.

If you want even more great tips and information, check out the video below.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

We’ve covered a lot of ground on the topic of Medieval music, but let’s cruise through a few more questions you might have. We’re all on this epic musical journey together, after all!

What’s the difference between Renaissance and medieval music?

In the grand scheme of things, Renaissance music can be seen as an extension and evolution of Medieval music. While Medieval music was often monophonic, the Renaissance introduced much more complex polyphonic music, along with an expansion of instrumentation and a shift towards major and minor scales.

How did medieval music influence modern music?

Great question! Medieval music, especially Gregorian chants, introduced modal scales, which are still used in genres like blues and jazz. Also, the innovation of polyphony introduced the concept of layering multiple melodies, a technique that’s central to many modern productions.

Why were most medieval composers anonymous?

The concept of individual authorship as we understand it today did not fully exist during the medieval period. Music was often viewed as a divine gift, not a personal creation. Additionally, many composers were monks or clerics who may have considered their work part of their religious duty, not something to gain personal fame or recognition from. As a result, many compositions from this period are anonymous.


There you have it, folks! We’ve journeyed into the past, made some pit stops at Medieval and Renaissance eras, and even managed to tie it all to modern music. And just remember, whether you’re producing beats or crafting choral masterpieces, keep it real like a Gregorian brother from another mother!

So, did I cover everything you wanted to know? If you have more questions or a cool point to share, drop it in the comments. I read and reply to every comment. And hey, if you found this nugget of information helpful, pass it on and check out more juicy tips and tricks on my blog. Rock on!

Key Takeaways

This article covered a journey through the captivating world of Medieval and Renaissance music, and its relevance to modern music production. Here are some key takeaways:

  • Medieval music introduced innovative techniques like polyphony that are fundamental to our music today.
  • The Renaissance period was an evolution of the Medieval period, bringing more complexity to music.
  • Both periods influenced the equipment and techniques we use in our home studios.
  • Learning about these periods adds depth to our understanding and creation of music.

Helpful resources

Image Andrew Ash
Written by Andrew Ash, Staff Writer

Hey there! My name is Andrew, and I'm relatively new to music production, but I've been learning a ton, and documenting my journey along the way. That's why I started this blog. If you want to improve your home studio setup and learn more along with me, this is the place for you!

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Edited by Nick Eggert, Staff Editor

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