What Is an Organum? Tracing the Roots of Polyphony in Music

Uncover the rich history of Organum, its transformation from Gregorian chant, and how its legacy still rocks modern music production.

The dimly lit cathedrals of the Middle Ages, weren’t just marvels of architecture. They were also the stage for some of the most evocative sounds in the history of Western music. Long before the grand symphonies of Beethoven or the poetic tunes of the Renaissance, there was a unique style of musical composition that paved the way for much of what we know as choral music today. This sound, echoing through stone walls and wooden pews, was known as the Organum. But what exactly is an organum?

What is an organum? An organum is a form of medieval polyphony that evolved from Gregorian chant, emphasizing harmony created with multiple voices.

What is organum?

Organum is an ancient plainchant melody style originating from the Middle Ages. Initially, “organum” referred to what’s currently known as polyphony, the blending of multiple harmonized melodies. Essentially, organum represented an innovative phase in music, introducing the now-familiar concept of multiple voices harmonizing together.

Image representing an organum
Image representing an organum

Typically, organum features a dual-voice chorus. One is a tenor voice sustaining extended drone notes, while the other, a higher-pitched voice, harmonizes with the drone either in perfect fourths or fifths, fluctuating in rhythm and speed, or as a supplementary chant. These styles, despite variations in tempo or pitch, usually initiate and conclude in harmony.

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My favorite MIDI keyboard (at the moment):

AKAI Professional MPK Mini MK3

What is an organum? Tracing the roots of polyphony in music | 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.

How did organum originate?

Organum’s origins stem from the 9th to the 16th centuries, when it became the go-to form in vocal polyphony. The term “organum” is taken from the Greek word ὄργανον, which means “tool” or “instrument.” From Gregorian chants emerged the early organum around 1000 A.D.

Around 1100, the music world saw some radical changes in organum.

The vox organalis (the added voice) danced around the vox principalis (the chant line), echoing similar harmonic intervals. The vox organalis often wasn’t written down but performed with consonant harmonies through octaves, fourths, and fifths. This gave a big boost to exceptional portions of the liturgy, and it was like adding a whole other level to the melody.

Around 1100, the music world saw some radical changes in organum. There was much more freedom in harmonic intervals, the organal voice started placing itself above the chant, and melismatic elaboration became an option. It was this evolution that led to organum purum, a distinct style from the note-against-note discant. You could see these shifts in the repertoires of Aquitanian polyphony and works preserved in the Codex Calixtinus.

What are the types of organum in music?

Organum, as one of the earliest methods of polyphony from the Middle Ages, evolved through various stages, each with its distinctive characteristics. Here are the main types of organum:

  • Parallel Organum: This is the earliest type, in which the organal voice moves in exact parallel motion to the original chant voice, usually at the interval of a fourth or fifth.
  • Free Organum: In this type, the organal voice doesn’t strictly follow the parallel motion but may move independently, though it often begins and ends in parallel.
  • Melismatic Organum: This was more prevalent during the 11th and 12th centuries, especially at the Notre Dame School. Here, the original chant (the tenor) moves much slower, while the organal voice has more melismas (multiple notes set to a single syllable), resulting in a highly ornamented style.
  • Aquitainian Organum: Originating from the Aquitaine region in modern-day southwest France, this style involves the organal voice being highly melismatic, even more so than the melismatic organum.
  • Notre Dame Organum: This organum became prevalent in the 12th and 13th centuries at the Notre Dame School in Paris, marked by the works of composers like Léonin and Pérotin. The music was rhythmically more structured, with clear rhythmic modes, and often involved two to four-part polyphony.
  • Florid Organum: In this style, the original chant voice (tenor) moves very slowly, while the organal voice flows above it with many more notes, creating a “florid” or decorated line.
  • Copula: A type related to the florid organum but with a more regular and syllabic style.
  • Discant: This is another style related to Notre Dame organum where both voices move in a more rhythmic and measured way.
Image of a music piece with parallel organum. Source: wiki commons
Image of a music piece with parallel organum. Source: wiki commons

Who were the pioneers of organum?

Saint-Martial of Limoges and Notre Dame of Paris are two schools that pushed the boundaries, developed organum writing, and paved the way for greats to follow. The legendary Léonin, or Leoninus, and his successor, Pérotin, or Perotinus took organum to a whole other level by writing chants with three or four distinct parts. Now, that’s what I call ‘kicking it up a notch!’

How did theory evolve alongside organum?

As organum began popping up in the music scene, so did descriptions and treatments of it. These came alongside the first examples of notated chants, serving as a major hint about a practice that had been around for a while. The 9th-century theoretical treatises primarily dealt with teaching principles of Gregorian chant.

They laid down a few rules and precepts to generate an organum that generally lies below the chant. This fusion of theory and practice so early on gave organum a solid foundation to evolve. So, organum wasn’t just a wildly creative expression; it had some serious theory backing it up.

Where can you hear organum now?

Centuries on, organum is still prevalent in churches and abbeys globally. Musical groups, such as Ensemble Organum, continue to champion this style. Contemporary adaptations are also present; for instance, Max Richter incorporated organum elements into his compositions for HBO shows like The Leftovers and My Brilliant Friend.

While Gregorian chants might not top current music charts, the legacy of organum is undeniable. Its pivotal role in introducing vocal harmony has influenced much of today’s music, whether on radio, Spotify, or other platforms.

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

Frequently asked questions (FAQ)

It’s natural to have a bunch of questions popping up at the mention of Organum. Keep ’em coming! Here are a few that I’ve seen floating around the music-verse quite often.

Did organum change over the centuries?

Absolutely! Organum was a constantly evolving genre, just like any good artist. What started as simple note-against-note style around the 9th century, morphed into more complex forms with multiple voices by the 12th century.

What role did Léonin and Pérotin play in organum?

Léonin and Pérotin were among the first composers to be recognised for their contribution to organum. They expanded the genre by writing chants with three or four independent parts. Their work laid the ground rules for future polyphonic pieces.

Is organum still used today?

In a way, yes. While you won’t see pop hits labeled as ‘organum,’ the techniques refined in organum still pervade modern music. Everything from counterpoint in classical music to harmony in mainstream pop owes a debt to our medieval friends!

Conclusion

Well, folks, we’ve come to the end. I hope this “organum-ized” breakdown has given you a sense of appreciation towards our medieval melody-makers. So, next time you’re jamming in your studio, spare a moment for good ol’ organum – it’s note-worthy! Remember, music is an ever-evolving art form, and just like a well-rounded Spotify playlist, it’s all about the mix of old and new.

Did I hit the right notes about organum? I read and reply to every comment. I’d love to know if I’ve missed anything or if there’s something you want to know more about. If you’ve found this article helpful, feel free to share it. Keep jamming, keep learning, and as always, keep it groovy!

Key takeaways

I’m glad you stuck around for the entire deep-dive on organum. We went on quite a journey! This article covered the historic roots and evolution of organum. Here are some key takeaways:

  • Organum, an evolution of Gregorian chant, had a significant impact on music theory.
  • Early organum included the ‘vox organalis’ which added a new dimension to ‘vox principalis.’
  • Organum evolved from simple parallel motion to oblique and contrary motion, paving the way for counterpoint.
  • Two significant schools of thought, Saint-Martial of Limoges and Notre Dame of Paris, had a profound influence on organum.
  • Composers like Léonin and Pérotin expanded organum to three or four parts, shaping the path of future polyphonic works.
  • The techniques developed through organum can still be seen influencing modern music production and home studio recording.

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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