Music in the Medieval Ages and Renaissance

Diane Libert

Though most of us do not have any Gregorian chant music on our iPods, the developments made in music during the medieval and Renaissance time periods formed the building blocks of modern music. These time periods saw the codifying of music into notes, as well as advances in rhythm and harmony. In the medieval ages and renaissance, as in present times, there existed "proper" music written by educated people and folk music mostly passed down form mouth to ear.

When most people hear the words "Gregorian chant," they probably think of the ethereal sound of dozens of monks chanting in monotone in high, stone cathedrals in the early days of Christianity. This is accurate, Pope Gregory I codified these chants in the 6th century to standardize masses all over Western Europe. This type of music is called monophonic, there are no musical parts, and about six notes are repeated. The tradition of religious chants arose out of a desire to glorify God and belief that mere spoken word was not enough. Though these monophonic chants are entrancing and still used in some masses today, around the end of the ninth century some religious orders began adding another part to the chant at a different pitch, creating an early form of polyphony, or music for two or more voices sounding at the same time.

The earliest experimentation with polyphony began in St. Gall in Switzerland, with well-known instances also occurring at the school of St. Martial and Notre Dame in France. The earliest form of polyphony is called organum. This beautiful music is still practiced, check out the video. In general, organum involves adding a second voice four or five intervals above the original tune. An interval is the distance between pitches, and the fifth interval is often though of as the most natural sounding harmony. At Notre Dame, the clausulae, or the idea of moving notes within words was developed. Sounds simple, but this is the first formal evidence of this idea in Western Europe! The motet, an important idea in Renaissance music, grew out of the clausulae.

Though we possess some information about the religious music traditions during the Middle Ages, the music of the commoners has been lost. Some believe that the children's rhyme "Ring Around the Rosie," is about the Black Plague, though most modern historians disagree since this explanation surfaced after World War II. Traveling trouveres and troubadours during the 12th and 13th centuries performed many hundreds of popular songs. These songs mostly dealt with love, but music was also thought to help digestion and this belief probably earned many a traveling musician a job in a Great Hall during a feast.

The Middle Ages lasted from the fall of the Roman Empire to about the mid-1300s, while the Renaissance lasted from about the 1400s to the 1600s, a much shorter period of time. However, the growth of the middle class and birth of humanistic thought meant that music diversified and became much more free form during the Renaissance. Instead of basing musical pieces off of churchly Gregorian chants, composers began utilizing functional tonality, or the system of majors and minors we use today, to compose music. Relative political stability in Europe and the willingness of aristocrats and churches to hire composers led to the training of hundreds of musicians. Dance music and properly composed secular music became popular. One of the famous composers from the era was Englishman Thomas Tallis, whose music you may recognize in classical music recordings even today.

Schools in many different locations across Europe contributed to music during the Renaissance. Just as modern music often reflects or copies music from the 1970s, sometimes composers such as Josquin des Prez of the Franco-Flemish school resurrected monophony in their pieces for emphasis of certain passages. Artists such Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, of Palestrina, Italy were influenced by political happenings such as the Council of Trent, and worked to compose music for the Catholic Church that was more traditional and freed from the influences of the Protestant Reformation. For a brief period during the end of the 16th/early 17th centuries, English artists, even including Queen Elizabeth I, worked in a form of poetic music called the English madrigal. At 1600, Europe began transitioning out of the Renaissance era of music into the Baroque.

The new musical developments that occurred during the Medieval Ages and Renaissance changed musical history, but none of it would have been possible without a standard method of writing music. During the medieval ages, for the purpose of standardizing religious chants, slashes began to be written over words to signify a raising or lowering of the voice. These symbols were called neumes, and at first colors were used to distinguish different notes, though eventually these turned into heightened neumes, which resemble the musical notes we see today. Of course, a reader could not tell anything about the intended rhythm of the song. The practice of indicating rhythm through written music developed slowly during the Renaissance, when composers used the semibreve, or whole note, as one beat. The printing press was the most crucial invention for the dissemination of music, and perhaps contributed the most to the widespread development of music during the Renaissance.

Singing was the most common form of music during these time periods, but instruments were also used. During the Medieval Ages, flutes and variations of string instruments were played, some still familiar to us still such as the lute and dulcimer, others more obscure, such as the psaltery. The first bowed-string instrument, the bowed lyra, surfaced in the Byzantine Empire in the early 10th century. The Renaissance saw the development of many instruments we still use, such as the trumpet, tambourine, and recorder. The invention of metal strings also revolutionized instrument design.

The aforementioned tradition of passing traditional folk songs by mouth has left us without many medieval or Renaissance folk songs, except perhaps in an extremely modified form. For example, the common tune "Scarborough Fair," may be a version of "The Elfin Knight," which has oldest versions dating back to 1650. However, in many European nations, a tradition of neo-Medieval music has sprung up, with band members dressing up as traveling musicians and playing medieval instruments, as you can see in this video. Whether you enjoy listening to classical music written in the Renaissance tradition or the pop tunes of today, the musical developments during the Medieval Ages and Renaissance made your favorite playlist possible.


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