In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Medieval Music Theory

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Bibliographies
  • Fundamentals of Music
  • Chant and Mode
  • Counterpoint
  • Musica Ficta
  • Mensuration
  • Music Theory in Philosophical and Scientific Contexts
  • Miscellaneous Topics

Medieval Studies Medieval Music Theory
Jan Herlinger
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 March 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 March 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396584-0128


Medieval music theory encompasses technical writing on music from roughly 500 to 1450 CE—from the transmission to the West of ancient Greek music theory via the writings of Boethius and his contemporaries to the development of printing. It was disseminated principally in Latin (the primary language of intellectual discourse in the West) through handwritten documents, which remain its principal witnesses. The subjects of medieval music theory include fundamentals of music, notation of both pitch and rhythm, counterpoint, musica ficta, and modes. Medieval music theory has strong relations to other disciplines of the quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, astronomy); to the institutions within which it flourished (church, monastic and cathedral schools, and—during the later Middle Ages—universities). It has strong ties to philosophy and theology and, of course, to music in practice. During the later Middle Ages, English, German, French, Italian, and other vernaculars became increasingly common in discourse on music, but they never overtook Latin.

General Overviews

Chapter 11 of Everist and Kelly 2018 provides a brief, comprehensive survey of medieval music theory, touching on its nature, its classical legacy, and its sources. Pesce 2011 provides a concise survey of the development of music theory from about 500 to 1450; Herlinger 2001 focuses on the period 1300–1450, covering the topics of music theory in greater detail. Riemann 1962 is an updated translation of the 1920 work that laid the foundation for subsequent study of medieval music theory; though marred by biases prevalent in the author’s time (and only partially ameliorated by the translator’s interventions), the work is still useful for orientation and remains a document of crucial importance in the reception of medieval music theory. Zaminer, et al. 1984–2006 provides the most extensive overview of the subject. Christensen 2002, the only single-volume treatment of Western music theory from Antiquity to the present in English, includes eight chapters dealing with medieval music theory. Gushee 1973, groundbreaking in its account of the typology of medieval music treatises, set the stage for many later studies; Meyer 2001 extends Gushee’s work, providing a broader typology to a greater range of medieval music treatises.

  • Christensen, Thomas, ed. The Cambridge History of Western Music Theory. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

    DOI: 10.1017/CHOL9780521623711

    Rather than a synoptic history of music theory, this is a series of studies of various topics, each by an authority on the topic, each with its own bibliography of primary and secondary sources. Chapters 4–6, 10, 11, 15, 17, and 20 pertain to medieval music theory.

  • Everist, Mark, and Thomas Forrest Kelly, eds. The Cambridge History of Medieval Music. 2 vols. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2018.

    A comprehensive history of medieval music, with chapters written by authorities on their subjects. Chapter 11 is devoted specifically to medieval music theory, but references to the subject appear also in chapters 15, 22, 26, and 27.

  • Gushee, Lawrence A. “Questions of Genre in Medieval Treatises on Music.” In Gattungen der Musik in Einzeldarstellungen: Gedenkschrift Leo Schrade. Edited by Wulf Arlt, Ernst Lichtenhahn, and Hans Oesch, 365–433. Munich: Francke, 1973.

    An incisive taxonomy of medieval music treatises, c. 500 to c. 1300, based on their authors’ intellectual styles, the institutions in which they worked, and the types of music they treated. The sophistication of its typology remains a model for scholarship.

  • Herlinger, Jan. “Music Theory of the Fourteenth and Early Fifteenth Centuries.” In Music as Concept and Practice in the Late Middle Ages. Edited by Reinhard Strohm and Bonnie J. Blackburn, 244–300. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.

    An introductory survey of music theory during the late Middle Ages—organized by topics (fundamentals, mode, counterpoint, mensuration, speculative music theory)—touching as well on earlier theory. Bibliography of primary sources, editions, reference works, and studies.

  • Meyer, Christian. Les traités de musique. Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols, 2001.

    Classification of medieval musical treatises by type. Table of contents provides a ready outline of the subject, which is worked out through exegesis. Annotated lists of editions of theory treatises organized by subject matter, by authors, and by series in which the editions appear. In French.

  • Pesce, Dolores. “Theory and Notation.” In The Cambridge Companion to Medieval Music. Edited by Mark Everist, 276–290. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2011.

    DOI: 10.1017/CCOL9780521846196

    An introductory survey of music theory (covering the scale system, modes, musica ficta, and mensuration) and musical notation from c. 500 to c. 1450, clearly and concisely written and with bibliographic citations in the notes.

  • Riemann, Hugo. History of Music Theory, Books I and II: Polyphonic Theory to the Sixteenth Century. Translated by Raymond H. Haggh. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1962.

    Translation of parts of Geschichte der Musiktheorie im IXXIX. Jahrhundert, 2nd ed. (Berlin: Hesse, 1920; first ed., 1898). Though dated, this is useful as an introductory overview. The author’s misconceptions are somewhat ameliorated by the translator’s comments and appendixes. Updated, annotated bibliography.

  • Zaminer, Frieder, Thomas Ertelt, and Heinz von Loesch, eds. Geschichte der Musiktheorie. 11 vols. Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1984–2006.

    Volumes 3–5 of this comprehensive history of Western music theory deal, respectively, with the reception of ancient music theory, the doctrine of monophonic liturgical chant, and the doctrine of polyphony (comprising mensural notation and counterpoint); each chapter is by an authority on the subject. In German.

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