middle age music facts

Harmonies of the Past: Fascinating Facts About Middle Age Music

Music has always been an important part of human history, and the middle ages were no exception. Middle age music was diverse, rich in emotion, and reflected the cultural, religious, and social values of the time. From liturgical music to secular songs, medieval music provides a window into a world that is both familiar and foreign.

In this article, we will explore the fascinating facts about middle age music, from its unique musical notation system to the emergence of polyphony and the birth of harmony. We will also delve into the instruments commonly used in medieval music and highlight some of the notable composers of the time. Finally, we will discuss the lasting influence of middle age music and the importance of preserving musical manuscripts.

Key Takeaways:

  • Middle age music was diverse, reflecting the cultural, religious, and social values of the time.
  • The unique musical notation system of neumes was used during the middle ages and was instrumental in the development of Gregorian chants.
  • Medieval music included both liturgical and secular compositions.
  • The rise of polyphony and organum paved the way for modern harmony.
  • Notable composers of the middle ages include Hildegard von Bingen and Guillaume de Machaut.
  • The lasting influence of middle age music can be seen in the transition to renaissance music and modern interpretations of medieval compositions.
  • Preserving musical manuscripts is crucial to understanding and appreciating middle age music.

What is Middle Age Music?

Medieval music, also known as music in the Middle Ages, refers to the music composed and performed during the period between the 5th and 15th centuries in Europe. This era saw significant developments in music notation and instrumentation, as well as the emergence of various musical genres.

During the early Middle Ages, music was primarily vocal and centered around the church, with plainchant or Gregorian chant being the dominant form of liturgical music. This music was monophonic, meaning it consisted of a single melodic line without harmonies or accompaniment.

As the Middle Ages progressed, the use of musical notation evolved, with neumes being developed to indicate the pitch and rhythm of Gregorian chants. This innovation enabled composers to write down more complex melodies, leading to the rise of polyphonic music.

The use of instruments also became more common during the Middle Ages. Medieval musical instruments included the hurdy-gurdyvielle, and pipe and tabor, among others. These instruments were often used in secular music, which developed alongside the religious music of the era.

Overall, Middle Age music was characterized by its simplicity and harmony. While the music of this period may seem archaic to modern ears, it played a crucial role in the development of Western music and continues to inspire musicians and composers today.

Musical Notation in the Middle Ages

Medieval music notation was a unique system used during the middle ages to record and preserve music. It relied on symbols called neumes, which indicated the relative pitch and melody of a song without specifying exact pitches or rhythms. This system was closely tied to the development of Gregorian chants, a style of plainchant used in the medieval church.

The earliest forms of neumes were simple lines or dots placed above the text of a song to indicate the rise and fall of the melody. Over time, neumes became more complex, with different shapes and patterns indicating subtle variations in pitch and rhythm. Gregorian chants were written using neumes, allowing them to be passed down through the centuries and preserving the musical heritage of the middle ages.

Despite its limitations, the neumatic system was an important step forward in western musical notation. It provided a way to write down complex vocal music, paving the way for the development of polyphony and the birth of harmony.

Instruments of the Middle Ages

Music during the Middle Ages was primarily vocal, with instruments playing a supporting role in performances. However, musical instruments of the medieval period are unique and fascinating, with each instrument having its own story to tell. Here are some of the most prominent musical instruments of the Middle Ages.

Instrument Description
Hurdy-Gurdy The hurdy-gurdy was a popular instrument in medieval Europe, particularly in France. It is a stringed instrument that produces sound by a wheel rubbing against the strings, similar to a violin bow. The player turns a crank which rotates the wheel, causing the strings to vibrate and produce sound. The hurdy-gurdy was often used to accompany dancing and was a favorite instrument of minstrels.
Vielle The vielle, also known as a medieval fiddle, was a popular instrument throughout the Middle Ages. It is played with a bow and has a range of three or four octaves. The instrument has a flat back and is held vertically, similar to a modern-day violin. The vielle was often used to accompany singing or dancing and was particularly popular in Italy and France.
Pipe and Tabor The pipe and tabor were often played together, with the pipe providing the melody and the tabor keeping the beat. The pipe is a simple instrument made from a hollowed-out piece of wood with finger holes, while the tabor is a small drum played with one hand. This instrument duo was popular throughout Europe and was often played by wandering musicians.

These medieval musical instruments, along with many others, played an important role in the music of the Middle Ages. They not only provided melody and accompaniment to vocal performances but also entertained audiences with their unique sounds and designs.

Liturgical Music and Gregorian Chants

Liturgical music played a significant role in religious settings during the middle ages. Known for its plainchant style, the melodies were monophonic, consisting of a single line of music sung in unison or in octaves. Plainchant is also known as Gregorian chant, named after Pope Gregory I, who is credited with organizing and codifying the chants used in the medieval church.

The melodies of Gregorian chants were often based on sacred texts and sung in Latin. These chants were used in various parts of the liturgy, including the Mass and the Divine Office.

One of the most significant contributions of the medieval church to music was the development of musical notation. The use of neumes, a system of symbols used to represent pitch, helped to standardize the performance of Gregorian chants and preserve them for future generations.

Throughout the middle ages, the church continued to refine its musical practices and notation system, resulting in a rich legacy of liturgical music that continues to be studied and performed today.

Secular Music in the Middle Ages

Not all music during the middle ages was religious in nature. In fact, music was a prominent feature of daily life, including celebrations, dances, and courtly performances. Troubadours, for example, were poets and musicians who entertained audiences with their compositions about courtly love. They often performed in the courts of wealthy patrons, gaining fame and fortune. Minstrels, on the other hand, were traveling musicians who performed in public places, such as markets and festivals. They played a variety of instruments, such as the harp, lute, and mandolin, and often sang popular songs and ballads.

Secular music during the middle ages was diverse in style and form, reflecting the cultural and social differences of the time. Some songs were simple and catchy, while others were complex and attuned to musical theory. For example, the estampie was a popular dance song that featured a repeating melody and a rhythmic accompaniment. It was often played on instruments such as the hurdy-gurdy and vielle.

Despite its seemingly low-brow appeal, secular music of the middle ages was highly valued and often incorporated into religious music. The influence of troubadour songs, for example, can be seen in the development of polyphony and the rise of secular motets. Similarly, minstrels were known for adapting religious melodies to create new secular compositions.

Polyphony and the Birth of Harmony

One of the most significant developments in middle age music was the emergence of polyphony, a style of music that features multiple voices or parts sounding together. Prior to this, most music was monophonic, meaning it consisted of a single melody line. The development of polyphony paved the way for the creation of harmony in music, an essential element of many musical styles today.

One of the earliest forms of polyphony was organum, which involved the addition of a second voice to an existing chant melody. This allowed for the creation of two-part music and was a crucial step in the evolution of polyphony.

As music continued to evolve, the ars antiqua style emerged, characterized by more complex rhythms and greater use of polyphony. During this time, composers began to experiment with different voice combinations and explore the possibilities of harmony in music.

The development of polyphony was a significant achievement in middle age music and paved the way for the creation of many musical styles that followed, including the renaissance and baroque periods. Today, we continue to appreciate the rich harmonies and intricate melodies of medieval polyphony.

Notable Composers of the Middle Ages

The middle ages produced some of the most talented musicians and composers in history. From the soaring melodies of Hildegard von Bingen to the intricate harmonies of Guillaume de Machaut, these musicians left an indelible mark on the musical landscape of their time and beyond.

Composer Notable Works
Hildegard von Bingen Ordo Virtutum, O rubor sanguinis
Guillaume de Machaut Messe de Nostre Dame, Le Voir Dit

Hildegard von Bingen is perhaps the most famous female composer of the middle ages. As an abbess and mystic, she composed a vast collection of liturgical music that was performed in her own abbey and beyond. Her works were notable for their intricate melodies and use of unconventional harmonies, which reflected her own mystical visions.

Guillaume de Machaut, on the other hand, was a prominent figure in the French court and a master of polyphony. He is credited with popularizing the use of isorhythm in his compositions, a technique that employed repeating rhythmic patterns to create complex and layered textures.

These composers and many others like them contributed greatly to the development of music during the middle ages, laying the foundation for the rich musical traditions that followed in subsequent centuries.

Influence and Legacy of Middle Age Music

The influence of middle age music can be felt in musical traditions throughout history. As the middle ages gave way to the renaissance, musicians built upon the foundations of the past to create new and exciting compositions. Renaissance music, characterized by its rich harmonies and polyphonic textures, owes a great deal to the innovations of the middle ages.

Modern interpretations of middle age music have helped to preserve and showcase this unique genre to contemporary audiences. Through the use of digital technology and historical research, musicians and musicologists have been able to study and recreate middle age compositions with great accuracy.

Today, we can still hear the echoes of middle age music in modern film scores and popular music. Composers such as Ennio Morricone and Hans Zimmer have drawn inspiration from this rich musical tradition, incorporating elements of medieval music into their own works.

Musical Manuscripts and Preservation

Music from the middle ages was preserved mainly through musical manuscripts. These texts contained valuable information about the musical practices of the time and the notations used to write down music.

Musicologists study these manuscripts to gain insights into how music was created and performed during the middle ages. The manuscripts often also provide information about the composers and musicians of the time and their social status.

Preserving these manuscripts is crucial to ensure future generations can learn about and appreciate middle age music. The challenge lies in keeping them in good condition, as many are hundreds of years old and fragile.

Specialist institutions, such as libraries and archives, have taken on the task of preserving these manuscripts for posterity. They use techniques such as digitization and careful handling to ensure that the manuscripts are protected from damage.

Modern technology has also been used to preserve middle age music. For example, computer programs enable the creation of digital transcripts and reconstructions of pieces that may have been lost or damaged over time.

Overall, the preservation of medieval music manuscripts is essential for the study and appreciation of this rich musical period. Thanks to the work of musicologists and preservationists, this music continues to be accessible to audiences today.


Middle age music may often be overlooked in modern times, but its rich and fascinating history is worth exploring. From the unique system of neumes to the emergence of polyphony, the music of the Middle Ages was truly diverse and innovative.

We have explored the instruments commonly used during the time, the important role of music in religious settings, some of the notable composers, and its lasting influence on subsequent musical periods. In addition, we have discussed the importance of preserving and studying musical manuscripts to ensure the legacy of this incredible music lives on.

While it may not be as commonly heard today, middle age music played a significant role in shaping the musical landscape that we know today. Its harmonies may be different from what we are used to, but the beauty and complexity of the music is undeniable.

So, why not take a dive into the fascinating world of middle age music and discover the rich culture and history behind it?


Q: What is middle age music?

A: Middle age music refers to the music that was composed and performed during the Middle Ages, a period in European history spanning from the 5th to the 15th century. It is characterized by its unique musical notation, religious focus, and the use of instruments such as the hurdy-gurdy, vielle, and pipe and tabor.

Q: What is the significance of music notation in the Middle Ages?

A: Music notation in the Middle Ages was essential for preserving and performing music. It used a system of neumes, which indicated the shape and direction of melodies. This notation system played a key role in the development of Gregorian chants and other forms of liturgical music.

Q: What were some common instruments used in middle age music?

A: Middle age music featured a variety of instruments, including the hurdy-gurdy, vielle, and pipe and tabor. These instruments were often handmade and had distinctive sounds that added depth and character to the music of the time.

Q: What role did liturgical music and Gregorian chants play in the Middle Ages?

A: Liturgical music and Gregorian chants were integral to religious ceremonies and worship during the Middle Ages. They were composed specifically for use in the church and were often performed by choirs or monks. These musical forms were designed to enhance spiritual experiences and create a sense of reverence.

Q: What types of secular music were popular in the Middle Ages?

A: Outside of religious settings, the Middle Ages saw the rise of secular music enjoyed by the general population. Troubadour songs, which were poetic and often accompanied by instruments, became popular entertainment. Minstrels also played a significant role in bringing music to various social gatherings and events.

Q: How did polyphony and harmony develop in middle age music?

A: Polyphony, the combination of multiple voices or melodic lines, emerged during the Middle Ages. This development led to the creation of harmonies and complex musical structures. Organum, a style of polyphony, paved the way for the rise of ars antiqua and the exploration of new musical possibilities.

Q: Who were some notable composers of the Middle Ages?

A: The Middle Ages produced several notable composers who made significant contributions to the musical landscape. Examples include Hildegard von Bingen, known for her sacred music, and Guillaume de Machaut, a renowned composer and poet.

Q: How did middle age music influence subsequent musical periods?

A: Middle age music had a profound influence on later musical periods, particularly the transition to the Renaissance. It laid the foundation for new musical styles and techniques and continues to inspire modern interpretations of medieval compositions.

Q: What is the importance of musical manuscripts in preserving middle age music?

A: Musical manuscripts play a crucial role in preserving and studying middle age music. These handwritten documents provide valuable insights into the compositions, notations, and performance practices of the time. Musicologists extensively study and interpret these manuscripts to deepen our understanding of middle age music.

Q: What will the conclusion summarize in this article about middle age music?

A: The conclusion will summarize the key points discussed in the article, highlighting the fascinating facts and remarkable harmonies of middle age music. Readers will be left with a greater appreciation for this rich musical period and its lasting influence on the world of music.