What is medieval music?

This is the sacred and secular music composed during the Middle Ages, which covers a huge stretch of time, from A.D. 476, following the fall of the Roman Empire, to the start of the Renaissance in the 14th and 15th century. So that's around 1000 years, making it the longest major era of Western classical music.

How much is it possible to know about medieval music?

A lot of early medieval music is a mystery. Many people of the period were illiterate, so music was passed on orally, rather than being written down, which means that we've lost it. Plus, it wasn't until 1030 that an Italian Benedictine monk named Guido d'Arezzo invented a four-line stave, using his hand to remember the lines.

And later?

The music that was written down was usually church music, as it tended to be members of the clergy who could write - and even that is hard to decipher for a modern musician. That's because there were different systems of musical notation from today, the best-known being square notation. It wasn't always written very clearly, and for a long time there was no way of indicating precise rhythm. As for secular music: the first surviving fragments we have date from the first half of the 13th century.

How medieval music develop and what are some example of medieval music?

We know that medieval music progressed through several stages.

Monophonic chant

The singing of religious texts in Latin to a single unison melodic line - otherwise known as plainchant - was popular from the beginning of the Medieval period. The best known of these monophonic chants was Gregorian Chant, which spread through western Europe in the ninth and tenth centuries.

Heterophony and polyphony

Over the centuries plainchant gradually evolved into something a little more elaborate with the addition of extra vocal lines. One result was heterophony, in which multiple variants of a single melodic line are heard simultaneously. Another was polyphony, characterised by multiple voices with separate melodic lines and rhythms, the first true example of this being motets, whereby a number of vocal parts were set against a main melody, or cantus firmus.

Secular music

With the arrival of the motet, secular lyrics, often about courtly love, became more common. During the 12th and 13th centuries, Troubadours and Trouvères - French poet-musicians - travelled the coutryside singing secular plainsong in Occitan, a Romance language that evolved from vernacular Latin. Another form of secular music was the Italian madrigal, which were usually duets about a pastoral subject.

Ars Nova

The late medieval period (14th century onwards) saw the flourishing of Ars Nova ('New Art'), a sophisticated form of polyphony that shunned the limitations of 13th century rhythmic modes, thanks to developments in notation. The result of this was music of greater expressiveness and variety than had previously been possible.


Hannah Nepilova is a regular contributor to BBC Music Magazine. She has also written for The Financial Times, The Times, The Strad, Gramophone, Opera Now, Opera, the BBC Proms and the Philharmonia, and runs The Cusp, an online magazine exploring the boundaries between art forms. Born to Czech parents, she has a strong interest in Czech music and culture.