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Medieval music facts for kids

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Codex Manesse Heinrich von Meißen (Frauenlob)
A German book of medieval songs, illustrated by Heinrich von Meißen

Medieval music is music from the Middle Ages. The time we call the Middle Ages is a long period from about 400 AD to 1400 AD. We do not know a great deal about music of this time because it was such a long time ago and music was not often written down. Music was used for entertainment.


Medieval music was created for a number of different uses and contexts, resulting in different music genres. Liturgical as well as more general sacred contexts were important, but secular types emerged as well, including love songs and dances. During the earlier medieval period, liturgical music was monophonic chant; Gregorian chant became the dominant style. Polyphonic genres, in which multiple independent melodic lines are performed simultaneously, began to develop during the high medieval era, becoming prevalent by the later 13th and early 14th century. The development of polyphonic forms is often associated with the Ars antiqua style associated with Notre-Dame de Paris, but improvised polyphony around chant lines predated this.

Organum, for example, elaborated on a chant melody by creating one or more accompanying lines. The accompanying line could be as simple as a second line sung in parallel intervals to the original chant (often a perfect fifth or perfect fourth away from the main melody). The principles of this kind of organum date back at least to an anonymous 9th century tract, the Musica enchiriadis, which describes the tradition of duplicating a preexisting plainchant in parallel motion at the interval of an octave, a fifth or a fourth. Some of the earliest written examples come are in a style known as Aquitanian polyphony, but the largest body of surviving organum comes from the Notre-Dame school. This loose collection of repertory is often called the Magnus Liber Organi (Great Book of Organum).

Related polyphonic genres included the motet and clausula genres, both also often built on an original segment of plainchant. While early motets were liturgical or sacred (designed for use in a church service), by the end of the thirteenth century the genre had expanded to include secular topics, such as courtly love.

In Italy, the secular genre of the Madrigal became popular. Similar to the polyphonic character of the motet, madrigals featured greater fluidity and motion in the leading melody line. The madrigal form also gave rise to polyphonic canons (songs in which multiple singers sing the same melody, but starting at different times), especially in Italy where they were called caccie. These were three-part secular pieces, which featured the two higher voices in canon, with an underlying instrumental long-note accompaniment.

In the late middle ages, some purely instrumental music also began to be notated, though this remained rare. Dance music makes up most of the surviving instrumental music, and includes types such as the estampie, ductia, and nota.


Gregorian Chant Kyrie
A sample of Kýrie Eléison XI (Orbis Factor) from the Liber Usualis. The modern "neumes" on the staff above the text indicate the pitches of the melody.

The earliest medieval music did not have any kind of notational system. The tunes were primarily monophonic (a single melody without accompaniment) and transmitted by oral tradition.

The first music notation was the use of dots over the lyrics to a chant, with some dots being higher or lower, giving the reader a general sense of the direction of the melody. However, this form of notation only served as a memory aid for a singer who already knew the melody, so the need of having more specific notation soon became evident.

The next development in musical notation was "heighted neumes". Neumes were signs written above the chant texts to indicate direction of pitch movement. The lines were drawn in two different colored inks: usually red for F, and yellow or green for C. This was the beginning of the musical staff. The completion of the four-line staff is usually credited to Guido d'Arezzo (c. 1000–1050). While older sources attribute the development of the staff to Guido, some modern scholars suggest that he acted more as a codifier of a system that was already being developed. Either way, this new notation allowed a singer to learn pieces completely unknown to him in a much shorter amount of time.

Troubadours and Trouvères

In Europe there were people who went around the countryside making a living by singing and playing musical instruments. They often went to big houses where rich people lived and entertained them with their faces. These travelling musicians were called minstrels in England, and troubadours or trouvères in many other countries, or Minnesinger in Germany.

The minstrels often sang long songs which told stories (a ballad). This was a way to tell people about what was happening in the world. Some of the stories were made up: they were about love or about mythology.

Richard the Lionheart was a keen musician. He wrote many songs in the style of the trouvères. On the way back from a Crusade he was captured by Leopold of Austria. The story goes that his attendant, Blondel, was looking for him everywhere. Then he heard Richard’s voice singing a tune which he knew and so he found him. The song that he was singing was called Ja Nuns Hons Pris (I am no longer captive).

Minstrels very often went with their masters when they went on journeys to battles. They also sang at important ceremonies, for example when people were being knighted. Many of them played instruments such as the lute or fiddle.

Minstrels were poets and musicians, because they made up their own words and the tunes. Sometimes we know the words of these songs because they wrote them down, but they did not write the tunes down. Walther von der Vogelweide was a famous minnesinger in Germany.

One famous tune that was written down is the round Sumer is icumen in. It was written down by a monk. Monks could often read and write.

Troubadours would go from town to town playing love songs.


There were two main types of dances in medieval times: line dances and circle dances. The farandole is a line dance. It was a bit like a modern conga with people following a leader in a line. The bransle was a round dance or circle dance. The word “bransle” comes from the French word “branler” (“to sway”). It is pronounced 'Brawl'.

Other dances were the basse dance and estampie.


Instruments could be divided into quiet ones which were used indoors, and loud ones which were used outside. The recorder was a very popular indoor instrument. There was also the psaltery and the harp (which looked like a small Welsh harp of today).

The bagpipes were loud instruments for outside. They were used for dancing. They were not as loud as modern Scottish bagpipes. They were more like Northumbrian pipes or the French musettes. There was also the hurdy-gurdy which was played by turning a handle. Pipe and tabor were used for Morris dancing.

Many medieval plucked string instruments were similar to the modern guitar, such as the lute and mandolin. The dulcimer and zither were had strings which were hit with sticks. These are still popular in East Europe today. There were also “fiddles” (vielle) and trombones (called sackbut).

It was believed that if you were entertained with music while you are eating it would help you digest your food and help keep your heart healthy. And people believed that you will not get fat even if you scoffed down a load of food. Also eating food while having people dancing for you was believed to have made you fit.

Church music

Church music was very important. The mass was the main form of church music. It used the five parts of the mass Ordinary (the Eucharist service): Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus and Agnus Dei. The priests in the churches wanted church music to be serious. They did not want it to become popular. They thought that if people enjoyed it too much they would forget about worshipping God. Religious plays had become very popular. They told stories from the Bible. However, the church leaders banned them, so they were performed in the streets and squares of the towns.

Instruments were also banned in church. The church leaders thought that they belonged to the devil. Only singing was allowed. Gradually, however, the organ started to be allowed in church. It helped people to sing. Some organs were very tiny. They were called portative organs. The large organs that were fixed in place were called “positives”. Bells were also used in church. They looked like our sleigh bells.

Medieval music was based on plainsong. This was a melody which sounded quite free in rhythm. Composers started adding a second part to the melody as an accompaniment. This was called organum. Sometimes it just simply followed the main tune a fourth or fifth below. This was called “parallel organum”. In the 12th and 13th centuries the original plainsong started to be put at the bottom. It became known as the cantus firmus (the “firm tune”). Sometimes antiphony was used. The simplest form of antiphony is when a leader sings something and a group (the choir) sing something back.

The type of plainchant that evolved was called Gregorian chant. By the 13th century all other types of chant had been forgotten in Western Europe.

Carols became popular at this time. At first a carol was a dancing song, but often these popular songs became used for songs for particular seasons or festivals. In later periods these developed into Christmas carols as we know them.

People often went around in groups, particularly at Christmas, singing at the houses of rich people. This was called Wassailing. The word means “being of good cheer” (i.e. “happy”). The Boar’s Head is a well-known medieval carol.

Mummers were groups of people who performed religious plays. They were travelling entertainers. They normally wore masks so that people did not know who they were.

High medieval music (1150-1300)

Most of the medieval music we know today belongs to the last part of the Middle Ages. There was a tradition known as the “Notre Dame school”. This music dates from around 1150 to 1250. It was the time that great cathedrals were being built in Gothic architecture. The cathedral of Notre Dame was a very famous example. The music of this time was called “Ars antique”. It used a system of rhythms called “rhythmic modes”. Gradually a new way of writing was used. This was called “Ars nova” (“New art”). The most famous composer of this time was Guillaume de Machaut. He developed a kind of composition called the isorhythmic motet. He wrote a lot of songs called chansons (the French word for “song”). Other types of song were called rondeau, ballade, and virelai.

Composers who were born at the end of the Middle Ages such as John Dunstable, Guillaume Dufay, and Gilles Binchois are often thought to belong to the next period in music history: the Renaissance period.

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See also

Kids robot.svg In Spanish: Música de la Edad Media para niños

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