Chapter 5: The Middle Ages

The Middle Ages lasted from approximately 450 AD until 1450 AD

Three social classes: nobles, clergy, and peasantry; by far peasantry the largest

After the collapse of the Roman Empire, leadership in western Europe fell upon what we know today as the Roman Catholic Church (a branch of Christianity); it was headquartered in Rome, the old capital of the Roman Empire, and was lead by the Pope in Rome

Christianity originated during the time of the Roman Empire; at first Christians were persecuted, but in the fourth century AD it became the official state religion of the Roman Empire and began to flourish

Most people lived a short, brutal, miserable existence; concern was with the afterlife and salvation rather than life on earth

The leadership of the Roman Catholic Church included scholarship and the arts, including music

The Roman Catholic clergy, such as bishops, priests, and monks living in monasteries were the only literate people, even nobles were illiterate

Today, the Roman Catholic Church is one of three main branches of Christianity; the other two are the Eastern Orthodox Church which originated in the eastern part of the old Roman Empire, and Protestantism, which originated during the 1500s in northern Europe

Music of the Middle Ages

The Middle Ages is the first period in history of which we know much about the music.

Most music was sacred, that is music used for worship at church, since religion dominated people’s lives

Sacred music in western Europe was sung in Latin; the Roman Catholic Church originated during the time of the Roman Empire when people in western Europe spoke Latin; Latin remained the official language of the Catholic Church, even after other vernacular languages developed in western Europe

Gregorian chant (Plainchant)

During the Middle Ages the official music of the Roman Catholic Church was Gregorian chant; this is the first type of music of the Western world which we know  a great deal about because it was written down.

It was actually sung in Catholic churches until 1962, when it was decided that Catholic church services should be sung in the vernacular.

It was named in honor of Pope Gregory I (The Great) who reigned from 590 AD to 604 AD and helped organize the Catholic liturgy (texts used for worship).

Characteristics of Gregorian chant

Sung in Latin by a cappella (unaccompanied by instruments) choirs of men (priests or monks) and/or boys who were specifically trained to sing this music

Was monophonic (no harmony-everyone sang the same notes in unison-harmony hadn't been developed yet)

Did not have a strong sense of beat or meter

Moved mainly by steps (conjunct) within a narrow range of pitches

Used the medieval church modes (old types of scales)

Ex. 1  Two examples of medieval church modes.  There were eight of these scales during the Middle Ages.  Music of the Middle Ages and Renaissance uses scales like these.  The first scale is called "Lydian" and the second is called "Mixolydian."  They sound strange to our modern ears because the half steps are not in the same place as modern major or minor scales.  In the major scale, the half steps are between 3-4 and 7-8.  What flat or sharp would be necessary to make these scales modern major scales?

Why does Gregorian chant sound the way it does?

Filled the mission of providing a discreet accompaniment to the church service

The church leaders wanted the music just as a background, not as the most important part of the service

The church leaders wanted music that was “laid-back,” calm, and sounded “reverent”

What will we study as musical examples?

Preface for Mass on Whit Sunday, "Vere dignum"

The Mass is the main Catholic worship service-more detail on this in the next chapter

Gregorian antiphon, "In paradisum"

Secular music in the Middle Ages

Some secular (non-religious) music also survives from the Middle Ages

First large body of secular songs was written in the 12th and 13th centuries by French nobles called Troubadours and Trouveres.

Mainly love songs

Bernart de Ventadorn, "La dousa votz"


Eventually, monks in monasteries began adding a second melodic line to Gregorian chant

This created polyphony, since more than one melody was being sung at the same time and also created the first music with harmony, since more than one note was being sung at the same time

Medieval music which consists of a Gregorian chant plus additional melodic lines is called organum (which roughly translates as “organized music”)

Over the centuries that followed, organum became more complex

By the 12th century a stronger sense of beat and meter was added to organum, and the voices were entirely independent melodically and rhythmically

Perotin, "Alleluia, nativitas" An example of Notre Dame organum, ca. 1200 AD

Late Middle Ages

The late Middle Ages was a rough time in for Western civilization and saw a hundreds year war between France and England (1337-1453), a horrible plague that wiped out a third of the population of Europe (1348-50), and two and even three rival Popes claiming authority (1378-1417).

People began questioning their faith in God and the power of the Catholic Church began to weaken somewhat.

Music became increasingly secular (non-religious) at this time. 

Landini-"Ecco la Primavera," ballata, 1300's