In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Organum

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Bibliographies and Catalogues
  • Late 11th to 12th Centuries
  • French Organum Beyond Notre Dame (12th and 13th Centuries)

Music Organum
Thomas Payne
  • LAST MODIFIED: 22 April 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199757824-0125


As the Latin form of the Greek ὄργανον (organon: “tool,” “instrument,” “systematic principle”), the word organum refers most typically to a specimen of vocal polyphony, especially one that has a preexisting liturgical chant as one of its voices. Examples of works fitting this generic label appear primarily from the 9th century to the 16th century, after which other practices, genres, and styles begin edging it out as a descriptive marker. The initial derivation of the term from the musical instrument (the organ) is unlikely. Rather, the most likely stimulus for its adoption lies in its association with the systematic measurement of musical consonances, particularly the perfect intervals of the fourth, fifth, and octave. Additionally, the term could encompass the specific voice (or voices) added to the chant (itself usually called vox principalis [principal voice], and, later, tenor) as well as the entire musical product. Descriptions of organum arise around the same time as the first examples of notated chants, and these imply an already long-standing practice. The earliest treatments appear embedded in 9th-century theoretical treatises otherwise concerned with teaching principles of Gregorian chant. Here, a few specific rules and precepts could be followed to generate an organum ex tempore that generally lies below the chant. Around 1100, significant changes arise in the appearance of a much greater freedom in the use of harmonic intervals, the placement of the organal voice above the chant, and—later in the century—the option of melismatic elaboration in the added part, creating a new style eventually called organum purum, as distinct from note-against-note discant. Results are visible in the repertories of Aquitanian polyphony and in works preserved in the Codex Calixtinus. By the end of the 12th through the mid-13th centuries, a high point of cultivation is reached in the repertory associated with the Paris cathedral of Notre Dame, with (a) the clarification of rhythm in certain segments of compositions; (b) further stylistic categorization, including a new type, copula, in addition to discant and organum purum; (c) the introduction of the genre of the discant clausula; (d) the preparation of collections of organa encompassing the entire liturgical year; (e) an increase to as many as four parts; and (f) the recognition of the composers Léonin and Pérotin. Later developments in Parisian circles tended to leave organum behind in favor of the motet, while other areas of Europe may demonstrate an engagement with Parisian traditions and/or a reliance on retrospective polyphonic traditions.

General Overviews

With the lack of a book-length overview of organum in all of its manifestations, the articles on “Organum” in the primary music encyclopedias, Reckow, et al. 2011 and Haas 1997, are the best places to start. The bibliographies in these articles are thorough and indispensable as they furnish important items that are not included here. Eggebrecht and Riethmüller 1972–2005 is beneficial for its expansive treatments of terminological issues related to organum. Additional, valuable information is also at hand in related articles in all these publications, such as those on “Discant,” “Clausula,” “Copula,” “Léonin(us),” and “Pérotin(us),” as well as entries dealing with specific musical sources and theoretical writings. The journal articles included here deal specifically with terminological questions. Reckow 1975 goes beyond the author’s own treatment presented in the Handwörterbuch to produce an exhaustive examination of the various connotations of the word organum stretching over more than a millennium; it rejects the initial association of the term with musical instruments. Williams 2001 also tackles the terminological complexities of “organum” and offers a counter to Reckow 1975 in connecting the term with the instrument in specific contexts. The remaining entries connect the user to general collections of primary sources available online. The Digital Image Archive of Medieval Music allows access to high-quality images of a number of medieval manuscripts that contain organum, while the Thesaurus Musicarum Latinarum allows users to view and search the texts of a large collection of Latin music theory treatises based on reliable editions.

  • Digital Image Archive of Medieval Music.

    An online collection of digital images of select manuscripts with polyphonic music from the Middle Ages, favoring sources preserved in libraries in the British Isles. The bibliographical apparatus for each of the items links when possible to Reaney, et al. 1966–1993 (cited under Bibliographies and Catalogues).

  • Eggebrecht, Hans Heinrich, and Albrecht Riethmüller, eds. Handwörterbuch der musikalischen Terminologie. Wiesbaden, Germany: Franz Steiner, 1972–2005.

    A collection of articles by various scholars. Each entry focuses especially on the questions and problems of etymology, definition, connotation, and usage of a particular musical term, with thorough documentation and references. The articles on “Organum,” “Copula,” and “Clausula” are especially apropos to the subject of this bibliography.

  • Haas, Max. “Organum.” In Die Musik in Geschichte und Gegenwart. 2d ed. Vol. 7. Edited by Ludwig Finscher, 853–881. Kassel, Germany: Bärenreiter, 1997.

    A thorough treatment of the subject, more detailed than the ones found in most English-language encyclopedias, ranging from terminological antecedents in classical and biblical literature up to the organum repertory associated with the cathedral of Notre Dame. Includes an extensive bibliography.

  • Reckow, Fritz. “Organum-Begriff und frühe Mehrstimmigkeit: Zugleich ein Beitrag zur Bedeutung des ‘Instrumentalen’ in der spätantiken und mittelalterlichen Musiktheorie.” In Basler Studien zur Musikgeschichte. Vol. 1. Edited by Hans Oesch and Wulf Arlt, 31–167. Forum Musicologicum I. Bern, Switzerland: Franke, 1975.

    An exhaustive investigation of the meanings and use of the word organum, spanning sources covering more than a thousand years. The references are extensive and thorough. The author seeks especially to discount the origin of the term by way of any initial connection to musical instruments.

  • Reckow, Fritz, Edward H. Roesner, Rudolf Flotzinger, and Norman E. Smith. “Organum.” In the new Grove Music Online. 2011.

    A comprehensive and accessible treatment of the subject by Fritz Reckow, Edward H. Roesner, Rudolf Flotzinger, and Norman E. Smith, organized chronologically from the 9th century up to manifestations in the later Middle Ages. The affiliated bibliography (with entries up to the late 1990s) is one of the most inclusive to be had. Available online by subscription.

  • Introduction to the Thesaurus Musicarum Latinarum and Its Use.

    An online resource that provides access to critical editions of Latin music theory texts from the Middle Ages up to the Renaissance (including many of the items in this article). It allows for text-based searches across its entire content.

  • Williams, Peter. “The Meaning of Organum: Some Case Studies.” Plainsong and Medieval Music 10 (2001): 103–120.

    An investigation into the various uses and connotations for the term organum among a disparate series of documents, with special attention to the possibility of references to the organ as a musical instrument. The footnotes provide a good overview of the earlier terminological literature devoted to organum.

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