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

  • Introduction
  • Reference Works
  • Music Journals
  • Music Editions (Series)
  • Anthologies
  • Music Theory
  • Latin Poetry
  • Monophony apart from Chant
  • Instrumental Music
  • Musicians
  • Compositional Process
  • Performance Practice
  • Music and the Visual Arts
  • Music in Cultural Contexts
  • Postmedieval Reception

Music Medieval Music
Mary Wolinski, James Borders
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 February 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199757824-0269


Medieval music generally refers to western European music between the late 8th and early 15th centuries, although topics concerning Christian liturgy and plainchant reach further back into history. The Latin-Christian realms considered here include Britain ranging from England to St. Andrews, Scotland, the Frankish Empire from France to central Europe, the Spanish territories of Galicia, León, Castile, and Catalonia, the Mediterranean region, Sicily, and the Italian peninsula. Questions of how the music of these peoples was composed, conceived, performed, and preserved during this lengthy period are as many and diverse as the backgrounds and interests of those seeking answers. During the early Middle Ages, music was transmitted orally and the churches of different regions had distinctive liturgies and chants. With the unification of the Christian Church under the Carolingians around the turn of the 9th century, chant came to be written down, early musical notation serving as a memory aid. The relationship of Frankish and other regional chant repertories to that of the papal city of Rome, various attempts to regularize Western plainchant, and the music theory that developed to comprehend it are among the most extensively studied topics of chant scholarship. Religious songs other than chant were also sung, often outside of Church services, in Latin or such vernacular languages as Galician, German, Czech, English, Italian, and Hebrew. Numerous love songs were written in Old Occitan, French, and German. Starting in the 9th century, polyphonic arrangements of chants called organum emerged. In the 12th century, one encounters polyphonic settings of strophic Latin poems called versus and conductus. Sacred polyphony was by then performed at a number of centers, although the organum and conductus composed for Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris in the late 12th and early 13th centuries were the most widely disseminated and stylistically influential genres of their time. Toward the end of the Middle Ages, new genres of polyphonic composition emerged, notably the motet, various French and Italian secular songs, and Mass Ordinary movements. Instrumental music had existed since earliest times but it came to be notated only in the late 13th century in the form of monophonic dance tunes. Most composers of medieval sacred monophony are unknown except for certain authors of hymns, sequences, and chants. The courtly troubadours, trouvères, and Minnesänger are however often identified in manuscript song collections. By the 12th century, composers of polyphony like Leonin and Perotin were known and praised.

General Overviews: Textbooks and Edited Collections

The books listed serve a variety of purposes for diverse readerships. Because the Middle Ages encompass a vast period of time—from the 5th through the 14th century—and different languages and cultures, all surveys are necessarily selective. Most focus on western Europe beginning with the Carolingians in the late 8th through the 10th century, from which period plainchant manuscripts and music treatises survive. Greek and Latin music theory is also covered in general overviews, at least to the extent that it impacted medieval thought. Passing attention may be given to early Christian and perhaps Jewish traditions of worship.

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