The story of Music (Part 2)

Before the developments of musical notation, Middle-Ages songs (e.g. chants, secular monophony) were passed down from memory to the next generation. At the time, some composers and musicians were active outside the Church. Moreover, eight modes were recognized by medieval theorists which became a great source for later composers. Poet-composers such as Troubadours and Trouverès who lived in 12th and 13th century, wrote the most artful and outstanding songs. Music started to be written. Later on, Western Europe was culturally revived and the great concept of polyphony introduced and enriched.

Yet, the greatest source for the developments of western music was the chants produced in churches for religious services. Furthermore, Chant is considered as one of the greatest musical achievements of human history. It spread throughout the Europe and inspired many composers. The melodies of the chants were learned by oral transmission (viva voce), then, it could go through variations and changes. Since 9th century, notation of chants standardized their melody and boosted its development. Additionally, chants are still being used by many contemporary bands such as Enigma, Iced Earth and so forth. North of the Alps was the place that all important developments took place in until the close of the Middle-Ages.

Before 13th century, early chants didn’t contain any widespread harmony. According to the way chants were sung, they were classified into three groups: 1-Antiphonal (Chants that are sung by alternating choirs). 2- Responsorial chants (chants that alternate between a soloist and a full choir). 3- Direct chants (chant that are sung without alternation). Moreover, based on their melodies, chants were classified to syllabic, melismatic and neumatic.

A group of monks or nuns were responsible to produce manuscripts, they were known as scriptorium. Scriptoria copied text and music, decorated and illustrated pages, and bound books. The entire process was laborious and very expensive. Since during the early mediaeval period there was no method to notate rhythm, the rhythmical practice of this early music is subject to heated debate among scholars. The first kind of written rhythmic system developed during the 13th century and was based on a series of modes.This rhythmic plan was codified by the music theorist Johannes de Garlandia, author of the De Mensurabili Musica  (c.1250), the treatise which defined and most completely elucidated these rhythmic modes.

Treatises in the later Middle-Ages addressed practical problems that Boethius did not, such as how to sing intervals, memorize chants, and read notes at sight.

Furthermore, eight modes were recognized by medieval theorists, each defined by the arrangement of whole tones and semitones in relation to a final and a range, these modes are known as church modes. Authentic modes have a range that runs up an octave from the final. The authentic modes were the odd-numbered modes, 1, 3, 5, 7, and this distinction was extended to the Aeolian and Ionian modes when they were added to the original eight Gregorian modes in 1547 by Glareanus . An authentic mode has its final as the lowest note of the scale, though in modes 1, 3, and 7 it may occasionally descend one note further, in which case this added scale degree is called the “subfinal” which, since it lies a whole tone below the final is also the “subtonium” of the mode.

Plagal modes run from a fourth below the final to a fifth above it. Each mode also has a tenor, or reciting tone.

Early forms of secular music (from the 11th and 12th centuries) in medieval era include goliard songs, songs with Latin texts celebrating the vagabond lives of students and wandering clerics called goliards. Although many of the poems have survived, very little of the music has. They were possibly influential, even decisively so on the troubadour-trouvère tradition which was to follow. In contrary, while some of the songs celebrate religious ideals, others are frankly profane, dealing with drunkenness, debauchery and lechery. Afterward, Jongleurs or minstrels, Troubadours and trouvères were the active musicians and poet-composers. Jongleurs were musicians and performers who were making a living by traveling to different countries or/and cities. Poet-composers known as Troubadours were active in south France in 12th century but Trouvères were active in north France and their activities continued in 13th century as well. Troubadours and Trouvères were coming from variety of social classes but they were flourished in castles and courts. The songs they wrote had different structures and topics. Refrain (a segment of text that returns in each stanza with the same melody) was a favorite device in Trouvères’ songs. The hottest lyrics of the time were about fine amour, a love in which a prudent, unattainable woman was loved from a distance. But war and chivalry were among the typical subjects as well.

The typical songs of the time had strophic poems and syllabic melodies with a range of an octave or less. Canso (love song) was another form of the songs at the time. Each line of a Canso receives its own melodic phrase, and some phrases use repetition to create formal patterns. It consisted of three parts. Exordium (intro) was a stanza, the purpose of the composer was revealed here. The main body of the song occurred in the following stanzas, and usually draw out a variety of relationships with the exordium. The Canso could end with either a tornada or envoi. Usually, this part was bringing the piece to some form of resolution.

Another form of songs during this era was the Cantigas (Spanish monophonic songs with refrains). It is one of the largest collections of monophonic (solo) songs and is characterized by the mention of the Virgin Mary in every song, while every tenth song is a hymn.

Furthermore, Western Europe was culturally revived during 11th and 12th centuries. This recovery took place on a series of societal fronts, include agriculture, economy, and town building. These were accompanied by the rise of middle class, and the creation of the modern state. the changes on all of these fronts in turn made the interregional exchange of scientific advances, commercial goods and religious ideas easier. In music, a great result of it was the growth of the revolutionary concept of polyphony (simultaneous sounding of two or more melodic line) in church music, although monotony remained the principal medium of performance and composition. Not much is known about origin of this practice, so it has brought forth several plausible theories. Anyhow, this dramatic departure from monotony to polyphony was first described in Musica enchiriadis (c. 900), a manual for singers and one of the major musical documents of the Middles-Ages. The next major source of information was the Micrologus, written in early 11th century by the Italian monk and musical theorist Guido of Arezzo. This work documented principles that were crucial to the further development of polyphony. Thus, western music distinguished by the introduction of  the concepts such as counterpoint, harmony, the centrality of notation and composition. Correspondingly, organum and the motet became the two main types of polyphony.

Different techniques were used to write the early organums. Parallel, similar, oblique motion and contrary motion were among these techniques. In parallel organum for instance, an added voice (organal voice) appears below a chant melody (principal voice), moving in parallel fifths or fourths and making adjustments to avoid the tritone. Either or both voices may be doubled at the octave. The techniques are still helpful in counterpoint and practical for many composers, though they have been adapted.

For notating organums, manuscripts were notating one part above the other, so notes would sound together aligned vertically. Composing polyphony developed during 12th and 13th centuries at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris mostly.

Leoninus compiled the Magnus liber organi (“great book of polyphony”), containing two-voice settings of the solo portions of the responsorial chants for major feasts of the church year. Additionally, Leoninus’s organum (for soloists) is in two voices and alternates sections in organum style with sections in discant style. The sections for choir are plainchant and are sung in unison. The sections in discant style use the rhythmic modes in both voices and tend to appear where there are melismas in the original chant.

Importantly, a notation to indicate patterns of long and short notes was developed during the 12th and early 13th centuries. These patterns were codified as the six rhythmic modes and were adapted from the principles of classical poetic meter. Also, Perotinus, who was also associated with the Notre Dame Cathedral and his contemporaries, continued editing and updating Leoninus’s Magnus liber.

Perotinus and his colleagues also wrote works for three and four voices. Duplum, triplum, and quadruplum are the names of voices in ascending order above the tenor. Therefore, a three-voice organum was called an organum triplum, and a four-voice organum was called an organum quadruplum. Music from Notre Dame in the late 12th through early 13th centuries was most likely improvised or orally composed and written down later.

In early 13th century, the term motet was introduced. The root of the terms comes either from the Latin movere (to move) or a Latinized version of old French mot (word) or verbal utterance. A motet was a clausula (cadence) that could be taken from its original place in a larger polyphonic work and performed as an independent composition. The upper voices (motetus) was represented a strophic sequence in Latin or French. Mostly, motets had compound titles consisting of the first word/words (incipits). The upper voices of motets were moving faster than the lower voices in 13th century, meanwhile, motets were rhythmically independent yet coordinated.

After the introduction of the motet, the tenor chant lost its unique liturgical function. Yet, composers were still using them as raw materials for their compositions. For instance, they were changing the text of the duplum, adding a third voice or giving new voices their own text, which resulted in the classic Paris motet. Thus, the motets went through many changes in the 13th century.c

Philippe de Vitry was one of the earliest composers to use repeated rhythmic patterns in all voices not only the cantus firmus. His work evidently had an influence on that of Guillaume de Machaut, one of the most famous named composers of the late medieval motets.

At the same time, another polyphonic form known as the conductus was flourishing. It differed from a motet in that its basic part was not plainsong and that all parts sang the same Latin text in note-against-note style. The conductus gradually disappeared with the rise of the motet, which apparently served both liturgical and secular functions.

To be continued…

To listen to the music of this era and some analysis, click here.

By Arash A.


Relative post:

The Story of Music (Part 1)



  1. Saved as a favorite, I really like your blog!

  2. Great blog you have got here.. It’s difficult to find quality writing like yours these days. I truly appreciate people like you! Take care!!

    1. It’s very kind of you! Thanks for visiting and taking the time to write a comment!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: