In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Music of the Troubadours and Trouvères

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Genre
  • Troubadours and Trouvères and Other Repertoires
  • Refrain
  • Melodic Analysis
  • Music and Text: Expression and Versification
  • Textual Criticism and Philology
  • Contrafaction
  • Manuscript Studies
  • Transmission
  • Rhythm
  • Performance
  • Reception History

Medieval Studies Music of the Troubadours and Trouvères
Nicholas Bleisch
  • LAST REVIEWED: 24 April 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 April 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396584-0317


The troubadours and trouvères were singers as well as poets. Both the volume of their musical output and descriptions of their art attest to this. The word ‘troubadour’ may be familiar in its broader modern usage as referring to singers and songwriters. In its narrow sense, it refers to the many individuals in the 12th and 13th centuries who invented songs in various dialects of Occitan, the language then spoken across the southern part of the French hexagon. The word ‘trouvère’ distinguishes their northern, Old-French-singing counterparts. The early contribution of the troubadours to textual and melodic idioms of vernacular song in the 12th century is widely acknowledged. However, while only a few hundred troubadour songs are preserved with musical notation in just four manuscripts, more than twenty French trouvère ‘chansonniers’ (vernacular song-books) contain notation for a total of more than two thousand songs. A sizeable gap in time exists between the earliest troubadours and trouvères and the copying of the earliest extant chansonniers leaving open the question of how the songs were passed down before writing, and how much they might have changed between their invention and their notation. To know what the singing of troubadours and trouvères was like, we must rely on literary description and scholarly inference as much as on notation. Recently, researchers have accepted that manuscripts containing only texts are still music manuscripts, so long as those texts were intended to be sung However, the availability of melodic evidence has resulted in relatively more musicological weight being given to the trouvères. Melodies for Old French and Old Occitan texts maintain a distinct character from liturgical and Latinate forms of music and from polyphonic music, despite the extensive borrowing and quotation between these forms and vernacular song for single voices. Comparisons have been drawn to tropes and polyphony practiced at St Martial in the south of France, to the late medieval sequence and the new song style, to motet voices, and, by way of contrast, to the ‘propers’ and antiphons of Gregorian chant. Troubadour and trouvère music has resisted numerous attempts to classify it according to the church modes or the 13th-century rhythmic modes of Ars antiqua polyphony. Texturally, the melodies remain generally syllabic with melismas rarely longer than four notes. Both entirely syllabic and relatively melismatic songs exist, yet the longest troubadour and trouvère melismas remain much more restrained than the long melismas found in some Latin chant genres. All of the troubadour and trouvère manuscripts but one employ square notation on staves. The sole exception is one of the earliest chansonniers, which uses neumes on staves in place of discrete notes for each pitch. The notation, with very few exceptions, gives no indication of rhythm. The underlay of words can also be ambiguous, despite the fact that square-note ligatures work to clarify syllable-breaks as a rule. Just as medieval vernacular texts are notoriously difficult to pin down due to the interplay of performance, copying, and reinvention inherent in a partially oral tradition, troubadour and trouvère melodies exhibit enormous variance between sources. Both editions and analysis thus require considerable interpretative intervention. Literary descriptions of performance, iconography, manuscript comparison, and scholarly inference have all served as evidentiary support for this purpose.

General Overviews

While numerous general works and collections of essays on the troubadours and trouvères exist, these have been limited where music is concerned. The most up-to-date concise surveys are Butterfield 2011 and Aubrey 2018. Grocheio 2011 offers a translation of the De Musica of Johannes Grocheio, the only medieval theorist from around the time of the trouvères to discuss secular song at length. The interpretation of the treatise unfortunately remains problematic (see Page 1986 and Aubrey 2008, both cited under Genre). Aubry 1981 discusses genre, musical structure, and the development of style but had its greatest impact for its espousal of a modal approach to rhythm (see also Beck 1908 under Rhythm). For the troubadours, Aubrey 1996 provides an excellent overview. Aubrey 2018 expands this to include trouvères as well as German, Italian, and Iberian vernacular song, although it still lacks references to the most recent research. For the trouvères and to a lesser degree the troubadours, van der Werf 1972 has long remained standard as an introduction to the transmission, versification, and melodic style and structure (but see also van der Werf 1984 under Editions: Anthologies for the same ideas applied to the troubadours). O’Neill 2006 is the broadest study specifically on trouvère music, but still focuses primarily on transmission and melodic structure. Important works of literary history, such as Dragonetti 1960, complement these volumes on trouvère music and offer insights on musicological debates from outside the field. Butterfield 2002 considers trouvère lyric from both disciplinary standpoints. For truly general surveys of trouvère and troubadour music, many of the Editions listed offer reliable introductions.

  • Aubrey, Elizabeth. The Music of the Troubadours. Bloomington and Indianapolis, IN: Indiana University Press, 1996.

    The definitive guide to the troubadours’ music. Chapter 1 includes concise biographies of the forty-two troubadours whose melodies survive. Chapter 5 addresses melodic form and presents Aubrey’s original research on motivic relationships. An excellent introduction to contemporary and historical problems in genre studies and performance practice, including rhythm.

  • Aubrey, Elizabeth. “Vernacular Song 1: Lyric.” In The Cambridge History of Medieval Music. Vol. 1. Edited by Mark Everist and Thomas Forrest Kelly, 382–427. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2018.

    An excellent introduction to the music of the troubadours and of the trouvères. Reiterates Aubrey’s findings regarding motivic manipulation from Aubrey 1996 and surveys the major 20th-century debates on the topic. Includes numerous transcriptions and original analyses of troubadour and trouvère melodies.

  • Aubry, Pierre. Trouvères et Troubadours. 2d rev. ed. Les maîtres de la musique. Hildesheim, Germany: Georg Olms Verlag, 1981.

    The 1909 edition (Paris: Alcan) was one of the first surveys on the topic. Notable primarily for its place in the rhythmic debate (see Rhythm).

  • Butterfield, Ardis. Poetry and Music in Medieval France: From Jean Renart to Guillaume de Machaut. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

    A radical departure from the traditional view of the sources Old French song in that it begins and ends with lyric inserts in narrative genres. Include discussions of the narrative function of trouvère song and implications for reading and singing practice and comparisons of melodic readings of refrains and contrafacta.

  • Butterfield, Ardis. “Vernacular Poetry and Music.” In The Cambridge Companion to Medieval Music. Edited by Mark Everist, 205–224. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2011.

    The most reliable introduction to the songs of the troubadours and trouvères and the major scholarly concerns surrounding them. Sections on the priority of music versus text, the relationship of the trouvères to the troubadours, genre, musical form, poetic register, and legacy. Touches briefly on contrafaction, refrains, and transmission.

  • Dragonetti, Roger. La technique poétique des trouvères dans la chanson courtoise. Bruges, Belgium: De Tempel, 1960.

    A monumental literary-historical work with considerable influence on the musicological study of transmission, the relationship between text and music, and performance practice. Enters the debates on the topic of musical rhythm on the side of Sesini 1942 in Rhythm.

  • Grocheio, Johannes de. Ars Musice. Edited and translated by Constant J. Mews, John N. Crossley, Catherine Jeffreys, Leigh McKinnon, and Carol J. Williams. Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, 2011.

    DOI: 10.2307/j.ctv2k88tp6

    An edition with facing translation of the most extensive discussion of secular music by a medieval theorist. Often invoked in discussions of generic classification and definition and performance practices. Less accessible to students unfamiliar with Latin due to certain terms left untranslated and the complex nature of Grocheio’s prose.

  • O’Neill, Mary. Courtly Love Songs of Medieval France: Transmission and Style in the Trouvère Repertoire. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006.

    The most recent monograph on trouvère song in particular. Discusses problems of notation and and proposes a chronology of sources. Also establishes a stylistic and notational chronology, giving particular attention to melodic techniques in Gautier de Dargies’s songs.

  • Stevens, John, Ardis Butterfield, and Theodore Karp. “Troubadours, trouvères.” In Grove Music Online. New York: Oxford Music Online, 2001.

    An overview of the major currents in troubadour and trouvère scholarship of the last century by three well-respected scholars with useful bibliographical references to other relevant sources. Also published in print as The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, edited by Stanley Saide (London: Grove Dictionaries, 2001).

  • van der Werf, Hendrik. The Chansons of the Troubadours and Trouvères: A Study of the Melodies and their Relation to the Poems. Utrecht, The Netherlands: A. Oosthoek, 1972.

    A landmark study of troubadour and primarily trouvère song. Contains van der Werf’s discipline-defining work on written and oral transmission (chapter 2), “declamatory” rhythm (chapter 3), melodic structure based on third-chains (chapter 4), and the interaction of melodic form and versification (chapter 5). Includes transcriptions of fifteen cansos and chansons.

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