Early Medieval Music

Early medieval music was almost entirely ecclesiastical in nature. Its origins can be traced back to church services where variations in singing ultimately became the precursors to the use of musical instruments.

Different forms of chants as they evolved in churches and monasteries across Europe served as the earliest instance of original music dated to the early medieval period.

Medieval Bard Poet and Musician
Medieval Musician *Bard

Over time, such developments in church services eventually laid the basis for further development of music theory and performance, also resulting in the invention of many new instruments.

Religious Chants

Religious chants were among the most common form of music that existed in the early medieval period. Chants were a monophonic way of speaking out hymns or other religious texts.

Byzantine Music Manuscript

The styles of chants developed differently in different parts of Europe so, during the early medieval period, distinct styles of chants were categorised as Gallic chant, Roman chant, Spanish chant, and Celtic chant among others.

Celtic Cross

The distinct style of chant in different regions of Europe reflected local cultural influences.

In Spain, for instance, North African influences were reflected in the Mozarabic chant while the Celtic chant was prevalent in the British Isles where Celtic cultural influences remained significant.

Early Medieval Music Fast Facts

  • Early medieval music was mostly religious in nature, sung in church services and monasteries.
  • The Organum was the earliest basic form of music used in religious chants. It involved the use of a secondary voice to add effects to the voice singing the chant.
  • Notable types of Christian chants as they developed in early medieval Europe include the Gallic chant, Celtic chant, Italian chant, Roman chant, and Milanese chant.
  • In 1011, Roman Catholic Church developed and propagated a standardised chant which later came to be called the Gregorian chant.

The Use of Organum

In the absence of musical instruments during the early medieval period, churches and monasteries across Europe began to use additional vocal components to the chants.

Tatev Medieval Monastery

These vocal components complemented the original sound of the chant by essentially serving as a piece of music themselves. Called organum, the additional voices used in chants would typically sing in contrary or parallel motion to the original chant.

The original organum ultimately helped create the “florid organum” which was a distinct type of organum where more than one note was sung in the organum in response to every single note of the original chant.

The widespread use of organum during the early medieval period laid the basis for the development of many distinct types of instruments in Europe during the subsequent centuries.

Music in Liturgical Drama

Apart from its use in the chant as vocal effects, music was also part of the liturgical dramas performed during the early medieval period. These dramas built on the theatrical legacy of the Romans and typically made use of Biblical tales and figures when performed in early medieval Europe.

According to extant sources, liturgical dramas involved acting, singing as well as music that may have been played on makeshift musical instruments.

Music Theory and Chant Notation

Notations for written pieces of music existed in ancient Greece and possibly in Rome as well. However, with the fall of the Western Roman Empire, knowledge of music notation was lost.

Towards the 9th century, the monks in monasteries and churches began to pen down notations for the ecclesiastical chants sung in service. These notations were possibly inspired by the few extant pieces of ancient music and made it possible for music to be penned down and transmitted in early medieval Europe.

It was largely thanks to this development that proper music theory developed in Europe during the High Middle Ages.

Medieval Music (The Norton introduction to music history) Paperback – 1 Apr 1978 by Rh Hoppin (Author)