5 Music of the Middle Ages

Learning Objectives

  • Identify historical and cultural contexts of the Middle Ages.
  • Identify musical styles of the Middle Ages.
  • Identify important genres and uses of music of the Middle Ages.
  • Identify selected compositions of the Middle Ages and critically evaluate their style.
  • Compare and contrast music of the Middle Ages with today’s contemporary music.

“Music of the Middle Ages” by Elizabeth Kramer
From Understanding Music: Past and Present
By Alan Clark, Thomas Heflin, Jeffery Kluball, and Elizabeth Kramer,
Edited and revised by Jonathan Kulp and Bonnie Le

Introduction and Historical Context

Timeline: Music of the Middle Ages 

Timeline: Leading up to and through the Middle Ages

  • 300-400 CE, 4th century:
    • Founding of the monastic movement in Christianity
    • Further refinement of musical notation, including notation for rhythm
  • 300-900 CE, 4th–9th centuries: Development/codification of Christian chant
  • ca. 400 CE: St. Augustine writes about church music
  • ca. 450 CE: Fall of Rome
    • Marks the end of Classical Antiquity and the beginning of the Middle Ages
  • ca. 800 CE: First experiments in Western music
  • 1000-1100 CE, 11th century:
    • Rise of feudalism & the Three Estates
    • Growth of Marian culture
    • Guido de Arezzo refines music notation and development of solfège
  • 1088 CE: Founding of the University of Bologna
  • ca. 1095–1291 CE: The Crusades
  • 1140s CE: Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179) writes Gregorian chants
  • ca. 1163–1240s CE: Building of Notre Dame in Paris and the rise of Gothic architecture
  • 1200-1300 CE, 13th century: Development of polyphony
  • ca. 1275 CE: King Alfonso the Wise collects early songs in an exquisitely illuminated manuscript
  • 1346–1353: Height of the bubonic plague (Black Death)
  • 1300–1377 CE: Guillaume de Machaut composes songs and church music


What do you think of when you hear the term the Middle Ages (450–1450)? For some, the semi-historical figures of Robin Hood and Maid Marian come to mind. Others recall Western Christianity’s Crusades to the Holy Land. Still others may have read about the arrival in European lands of the bubonic plague or Black Death, as it was called. For most twenty-first-century individuals, the Middle Ages seem far removed. Although life and music were quite different back then, we hope that you will find that there are cultural threads that extend from that distant time to now.

We normally start studies of Western music with the Middle Ages, but of course, music existed long before then. In fact, the term Middle Ages or medieval period got its name to describe the time in between (or “in the middle of”) the ancient age of classical Greece and Rome and the Renaissance of Western Europe, which roughly began in the fifteenth century. Knowledge of music before the Middle Ages is limited but what we do know largely revolves around the Greek mathematician Pythagoras, who died around 500 BCE.

Pythagoras might be thought of as a father of the modern study of acoustics due to his experimentation with bars of iron and strings of different lengths. Images of people singing and playing instruments, such as those found on the Greek vases, provide evidence that music was used for ancient theater, dance, and worship. The Greek word musicka not only referred to music but also referred to poetry and the telling of history. Writings of Plato and Aristotle referred to music as a form of ethos (an appeal to ethics). As the Roman Empire expanded across Western Europe, so too did Christianity. Considering that biblical texts from ancient Hebrews to those of early Christians provided numerous records of music used as a form of worship, the empire used music to help unify its people: the theory was that if people worshiped together in a similar way, then they might also stick together during political struggles.

Later, starting around 800, Western music is recorded in a notation that we can still decipher today. This brief overview of these five hundred years of the Roman Empire will help us better understand the music of the Middle Ages.

Historical Context for Music of the Middle Ages (800–1400)

During the Middle Ages, as during other periods of Western history, sacred and secular worlds were both separate and integrated. However, during this time, the Catholic Church was the most widespread and influential institution and leader in all things sacred. The Catholic Church’s head, the Pope, maintained political and spiritual power and influence among the noble classes and their geographic territories; the life of a high church official was not completely different from that of a noble counterpart, and many younger sons and daughters of the aristocracy found vocations in the church. Towns large and small had churches, spaces open to all: commoners, clergy, and nobles. The Catholic Church also developed a system of monasteries, where monks studied and prayed, often in solitude, even while making cultural and scientific discoveries that would eventually shape human life more broadly. In civic and secular life, kings, dukes, and lords wielded power over their lands and the commoners living therein. Kings and dukes had courts, gatherings of fellow nobles, where they forged political alliances, threw lavish parties, and celebrated both love and war in song and dance.

Many of the important historical developments of the Middle Ages arose either in the church or in the court. One such important development stemming from the Catholic Church would be the development of architecture. During this period, architects built increasingly tall and imposing cathedrals for worship through the technological innovations of pointed arches, flying buttresses, and large cut- glass windows. This new architectural style was referred to as “gothic,” which vastly contrasts with the Romanesque style, with its rounded arches and smaller windows. Another important development stemming from the courts occurred in the arts. Poets and musicians, attached to the courts, wrote poetry, literature, and music less and less in Latin—still the common language of the church—and increasingly in their own vernacular languages (the predecessors of today’s French, Italian, Spanish, German, and English). However, one major development of the Middle Ages spanned sacred and secular worlds: universities shot up in locales from Bologna, Italy, and Paris, France, to Oxford, England (the University of Bologna being the first). At university, a young man could pursue a degree in theology, law, or medicine. Music of a sort was studied as one of the seven liberal arts and sciences, specifically as the science of proportions.

Music in the Middle Ages: An Overview

Not surprisingly, given their importance during the Middle Ages, both the Catholic Church and the network of aristocratic courts left a significant mark on music of the time. Much of the music from that era that was written down in notation and still exists comes from Christian worship or court entertainment. Churches and courts employed scribes and artists to write down their music in beautifully illuminated manuscripts such as this one that features Guillaume Machaut’s “Dame, a vous sans retoller,” discussed later. Churchmen such as the monk Guido de Arezzo devised musical systems such as “solfège” still used today.

Page from a manuscript of Guillaume de Machaut’s verse novel Le remède de fortune showing an outdoors dancing scene above music notations
Figure 5.1: Page from a manuscript of Guillaume de Machaut’s verse novel Le remède de fortune showing an outdoors dancing scene above music notations. Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale, Ms. fr. 1586, fol. 51r | Attribution: Guillaume de Machaut | Source: Wikimedia Commons | License: Public Domain

As we study a few compositions from the Middle Ages, we will see the following musical developments at play: (1) the development of musical texture from monophony to polyphony and (2) the shift from music whose rhythm is hinted at by its words to music that has measured rhythms indicated by new developments in musical notation. Although we know that instrumental music existed in the Middle Ages, most of the music that has survived is vocal.

Music for Medieval Christian Worship

The earliest music of Catholic Christianity was the chant—that is, monophonic a cappella music, most often sung in worship in Latin. As you learned in the first chapter of this book, monophony refers to music with one melodic line that may be performed by one or many individuals at the same time. Largely due to the belief of some Catholics that instruments were too closely associated with secular music, instruments were rarely used in medieval worship; therefore, most chant was sung a cappella, or without instruments. As musical notation for rhythm had not yet developed, the exact development of rhythm in chant is uncertain. However, based on church traditions (some of which still exist), we believe that the rhythms of medieval chants were guided by the natural rhythms provided by the words.

Medieval Catholic worship included services throughout the day. The most important of these services was the Mass, at which the Eucharist, also known as communion, was celebrated (this celebration includes the consumption of bread and wine representing the flesh and blood of Jesus Christ). Five chants of the mass (the Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, and Agnus Dei) were typically included in every mass, no matter what date in the church calendar. These five chants make up the Mass Ordinary, and Catholics, as well as some Protestants, still use this liturgy in worship today.

In the evening, one might attend a Vespers service, at which chants called hymns were sung. Hymns, like most of the rest of the Catholic liturgy, were sung in Latin. Hymns most often featured four-line strophes in which the lines were generally the same length and often rhymed. Each strophe or verse of a given hymn was sung to the same music, and for that reason, we say that hymns are in strophic form. Hymns like most chants generally had a range of about an octave, which made them easy to sing.

Throughout the Middle Ages, Mary the mother of Jesus, referred to as the Virgin Mary, was a central figure in Catholic devotion and worship. Under Catholic belief, she is upheld as the perfect woman, having been chosen by God to miraculously give birth to the Christ while still a virgin. She was given the role of intercessor, a mediator for the Christian believer with a petition for God, and as such appeared in many medieval chants.

Focus Composition: Ave Generosa by Hildegard of Bingen (12th Century)

Many composers of the Middle Ages will forever remain anonymous. Hildegard of Bingen (1098–1179) from the German Rhineland is a notable exception. At the age of fourteen, Hildegard’s family gave her to the Catholic Church, where she studied Latin and theology at the local monastery. Known for her religious visions, Hildegard eventually became an influential religious leader, artist, poet, scientist, and musician. She would go on to found three convents and become an abbess, the chief administrator of an abbey.

Depiction of Hildegard of Bingen in the Rupertsberger Codex of her Liber Scivias
Figure 5.2: Depiction of Hildegard of Bingen in the Rupertsberger Codex of her Liber Scivias | Attribution: Author unknown | Source: Wikimedia Commons | License: Public Domain

Writing poetry and music for her fellow nuns to use in worship was one of many of Hildegard’s activities, and the hymn “Ave Generosa” is just one of her many compositions. This hymn has multiple strophes in Latin that praise Mary and her role as the bearer of the Son of God. The manuscript contains one melodic line that is sung for each of the strophes, making it a strophic monophonic chant. Although some leaps occur, the melody is conjunct. The range of the melody line, although still approachable for the amateur singer, is a bit wider than other church chants of the Middle Ages. The melody contains two types of text singing: syllabic, which is one syllable per note, and melismas. A melisma is the singing of multiple pitches on one syllable of text. Overall, the rhythm of the chant follows the rhythm of the syllables of the text.

Examples of each:

Audio Ex. 5.1: Syllabic chant

Audio Ex. 5.2: Melismatic chant

Chant is by definition monophonic, but scholars suspect that medieval performers sometimes added musical lines to the texture, probably starting with drones (a pitch or group of pitches that were sustained while most of the ensemble sang together the melodic line). Performances of chant music today often add embellishments, such as occasionally having a fiddle or small organ play the drone instead of being vocally incorporated. Performers of the Middle Ages possibly did likewise, even if prevailing practices called for entirely a cappella worship.

Listening Guide

Listen on YouTube to the UCLA Early Music Ensemble performing Ave Generosa; soloist Arreanna Rostosky; audio and video by Umberto Belfiore. Composer: Hildegard of Bingen, composition: Ave Generosa, 12th century.

Video 5.1

  • Genre: Hymn (a type of chant)
  • Form: Strophic; listen through 3:17 for the first four strophes.
  • Nature of text: Multiple, four-line strophes in Latin, praising the Virgin Mary (text and translation found at Norma Gentile)
  • Performing forces: Small ensemble of vocalists
  • What we want you to remember about this composition:
    • It is a chant.
    • It is a cappella.
    • Its rhythms follow the rhythms of the text.
    • It is monophonic (although this performance adds a drone).
  • Other things to listen for:
    • Its melodic line is mostly conjunct.
    • Its melody contains many melismas.
    • It has a Latin text sung in a strophic form.

Audio Ex. 5.3: Ave Generosa by Hildegard of Bingen

The Emergence of Polyphonic Music for the Medieval Church

Initial embellishments such as the addition of a musical drone to a monophonic chant were probably improvised during the Middle Ages. With the advent of musical notation that could indicate polyphony, composers began writing polyphonic compositions for worship, initially intended for select parts of the liturgy to be sung by the most trained and accomplished of the priests or monks leading the Mass. Originally, these polyphonic compositions featured two musical lines at the same time; eventually, third and fourth lines were added. Polyphonic liturgical music, originally called organum, emerged in Paris around the late twelfth and thirteenth centuries. In this case, growing musical complexity seems to parallel growing architectural complexity.

Composers wrote polyphony so that the cadences, or ends of musical phrases and sections, resolved to simultaneously sounding perfect intervals. Perfect intervals are the intervals of fourths, fifths, and octaves. Such intervals are called perfect because they are the first intervals derived from the overtone series. As hollow and even disturbing as perfect intervals can sound to our modern ears, the Middle Ages used them in church partly because they believed that what was perfect was more appropriate for the worship of God than the imperfect.

In Paris, composers also developed an early type of rhythmic notation, which was important considering that individual singers would now be singing different musical lines that needed to stay in sync. By the end of the fourteenth century, this rhythmic notation began looking a little bit like the rhythmic notation recognizable today. Beginning a music composition, a symbol fell indicating something like our modern meter symbols. This symbol told the performer whether the composition was in two or in three and laid out the note value that provided the basic beat. Initially almost all metered church music used triple time, because the number three was associated with perfection and theological concepts such as the trinity.

Depiction of Guillaume de Machaut, 14th century
Figure 5.3: Depiction of Guillaume de Machaut, 14th century | Attribution: Unknown | Source: Wikimedia Commons | License: Public Domain

Elsewhere in what is now France, Guillaume de Machaut (ca. 1300–1377) emerged as the most important poet and composer of his century and is credited with composing the earliest polyphonic setting of the Mass. He is the first composer about which we have much biographical information, due in part to the fact that Machaut himself, near the end of his life, collected his poetry into volumes of manuscripts, which include a miniature image of the composer. We know that he traveled widely as a cleric and secretary for John, the King of Bohemia. Around 1340, he moved to Reims (now in France), where he served as a church official at the cathedral. There he had more time to write poetry and music, which he seems to have continued doing for some time.

Focus Composition: Agnus Dei from the Nostre Dame Mass (ca. 1364 CE)

We think that Machaut wrote his Messe de Nostre Dame (Mass of Our Lady) around 1364. This composition is famous because it was one of the first compositions to set all five movements of the Mass ordinary as a complete whole: these movements are the pieces of the Catholic liturgy comprising every Mass, no matter what time of the year. Movement in music refers to a musical section that sounds complete but that is part of a larger musical composition. Musical connections between each movement of this Mass cycle—the Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, and Agnus Dei—suggest that Machaut intended them to be performed together rather than being traded in and out of a Mass based on the preferences of the priest leading the service. Agnus Dei was composed after Machaut’s brother’s death in 1372; this Mass was likely performed every week in a side chapel of the Reims Cathedral. Medieval Catholics commonly paid for Masses to be performed in honor of their deceased loved ones.

As you listen to the “Agnus Dei” movement from the Messe de Nostre Dame, try imagining that you are sitting in that side chapel of the cathedral at Reims, a cathedral that looks not unlike the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris. Its slow tempo might remind us that this was music that memorialized Machaut’s dead brother, and its triple meter allegorized perfection. Remember that although its perfect intervals may sound disturbing to our ears, for those in the Middle Ages, they symbolized that which was most appropriate and musically innovative.

Listening Guide

Listen on YouTube to Oxford Camerata performing “Agnus Dei” from La Messe de Nostre Dame, directed by Jeremy Summerly; composer, Guillaume de Machaut, date: ca. 1364 CE.

Video 5.2

  • Genre: Movement from the Ordinary of the Mass
  • Form: A–B–A
  • Nature of text: Latin words from the Mass Ordinary: Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, Miserere nobis (Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, have mercy on us)
  • Performing forces: Small ensemble of vocalists
  • What we want you to remember about this composition:
    • It is part of the Latin mass.
    • It uses four-part polyphony.
    • It has a slow tempo.
  • Other things to listen for:
    • Its melody lines have a lot of melismas.
    • It is in triple meter, symbolizing perfection.
    • It uses simultaneous intervals of fourths, fifths, and octaves, also symbolizing perfection.
    • Its overall form is A–B–A.

Audio Ex. 5.4: Agnus Dei from Messe De Notre Dame by Guillaume de Machaut

Medieval Secular Music

Bonnie Le

The popular music of the time was sung not in Latin but in the vernacular (everyday language) of that country. The most common secular vocal music performed then was sung by poet-musicians called minnesingers, trouveres, and troubadours. They were mainly singers from the upper classes who performed for private functions. The traveling street musicians who sang this type of music were called minstrels.

The music was usually about courtly love and included a refrain (distinctive melody with recurring words), with many of the songs being strophic (each verse of text sung to the same melody). A famous woman troubadour of the 12th century was Beatriz of Dia. She was a well-educated countess who had an arranged marriage. She took a lover, wrote poetry about her love, and then it was put to music as a troubadour song. Although she wrote many songs, this is the one song to have survived. It’s called “A Chantar” (“It Is Mine to Sing”).

Something to Think About 

Listen to Beatriz of Dia’s “A Chantar” and read the English translation in this YouTube video. Was this a happy song? What do you think she was feeling when she sang this song about her lover?

Video 5.3: Performed by Clemencic Consort; Singer, Pilar Figueras

Music in Medieval Courts

From Understanding Music: Past and Present,
By N. Alan Clark, Thomas Heflin, and Elizabeth Kramer

Like the Catholic Church, medieval kings, dukes, lords, and other members of the nobility had resources to sponsor musicians to provide them with music for worship and entertainment. Individuals roughly comparable to today’s singer-songwriters served courts throughout Europe. Like most singer-songwriters, love was a favored topic. These poet-composers also sang of devotion to the Virgin Mary and of the current events of the day.

Pipe and tabor players depicted in Cantigas de Santa Maria
Figure 5.4: Pipe and tabor players depicted in Cantigas de Santa Maria | Attribution: Unknown | Source: Wikimedia Commons | License: Public Domain

Many songs that merge these two focus points appear in a late thirteenth-century manuscript called the Cantigas de Santa Maria (Songs for the Virgin Mary), a collection sponsored by King Alfonso the Wise, who ruled the northwestern corner of the Iberian Peninsula. Cantigas de Santa Maria also includes many illustrations of individuals playing instruments. The musician on the left in Figure 5.4 is playing a rebec, and the one to the right a lute. Elsewhere in the manuscript, these drummers and fifers appear (see Figure 5.5). These depictions suggest to us that, outside of worship services, much vocal music was accompanied by instruments. We believe such songs as these were also sung by groups and used as dance music, especially as early forms of rhythmic notation indicate simple and catchy patterns that were danceable. Other manuscripts also show individuals dancing to the songs of composers such as Machaut.

Rebec and Lute Players depicted in Cantigas de Santa Maria
Figure 5.5: Rebec and Lute Players depicted in Cantigas de Santa Maria | Attribution: Unknown | Source: Wikipedia Commons | License: Public Domain

Focus Composition: Song of Mary, No. 181:

“The Virgin will aid those who most love her” is one of over four hundred songs praising the Virgin Mary in the Cantigas de Santa Maria described above. The song praises Mary for her help during the Crusades in defeating a Moroccan king in the city of Marrakesh. It uses a verse and refrain structure similar to those discussed in chapter 1. Its two-lined chorus (here called a refrain) is sung at the beginning of each of the eight four-lined strophes that serve as verses. The two-line melody for the refrain is repeated for the first two lines of the verse; a new melody then is used for the last two lines of the verse. In the recent recording done by Jordi Savall and his ensemble, a relatively large group of men and women sing the refrains, and soloists and smaller groups of singers perform the verses. The ensemble also includes a hand drum that articulates the repeating rhythmic motives, a medieval fiddle, and a lute, as well as medieval flutes and shawms near the end of the excerpt below. These parts are not notated in the manuscript, but it is likely that similar instruments would have been used to accompany this monophonic song in the middle ages.

Listening Guide

Watch Cantigas De Santa Maria, no. 181, “The Virgin will aid those who most love her” (Pero que seja a gente d’outra lei [e]descreuda) on YouTube, performed by Jordi Savall and Ensemble; anonymous composer; date: ca. 1275 Listen from 0:13 through 3:29.

Video 5.4: Cantigas de Santa Maria

  • Genre: Song
  • Form: Refrain [A] & verses [ab] = A-ab
  • Nature of text: Refrain and strophes in an earlier form of Portuguese, praising the Virgin Mary
  • Performing forces: Small ensemble of vocalists, men and women singing together and separately
  • What we want you to remember about this composition:
    • It is music for entertainment, even though it has a sacred subject.
    • It is monophonic.
    • Its narrow-ranged melody and repetitive rhythms make it easy for non-professionals to sing.
    • In this recording, the monophonic melody is sung by men and women and is played by a medieval fiddle and lute; a drum plays the beat; near the end of the excerpt, you can also hear flutes and shawms.
    • Its musical form is A-ab, meaning that the refrain is always sung to the same music.

Medieval poet composers also wrote a lot of music about more secular love, a topic that continues to be popular for songs to the present day. Medieval musicians and composers, as well as much of European nobility in the Middle Ages, were particularly invested in what we call courtly love. Courtly love is love for a beloved without any concern for whether or not the love will be returned. The speakers within these poems recounted the virtues of their beloved, acknowledging the impossibility of ever consummating their love and pledging to continue loving their beloved to the end of their days.

Chapter Summary

In this chapter, we have studied music that dates back almost 1,500 years from today. In some ways, it differs greatly from our music today, though some continuous threads exist. Individuals in the Middle Ages used music for worship and entertainment, just as occurs today. They wrote sacred music for worship and also used sacred ideas in entertainment music. Music for entertainment included songs about love, religion, and current events, as well as music that might be danced to. Though the style and form of their music are quite different from ours in many ways, some aspects of musical style have not changed. Conjunct music with a relatively narrow range is still a typical choice in folk and pop music, owing to the fact that it is easy for even the amateur to sing. Songs in strophic form and songs with a refrain and contrasting verses also still appear in today’s pop music. As we continue on to study music of the Renaissance, keep in mind these categories of music that remain to the present day.

Test Your Understanding




Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License

Music Appreciation Copyright © 2022 by LOUIS: The Louisiana Library Network is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Share This Book