• Henry Hopwood-Phillips

The Development of Music in the Medieval West


The Romans adopted Greek theory and practice as far as both vocal and instrumental music were concerned. Later Roman writers on music (Martianus Capella, Boethius and Cassiodorus) drew on on and preserved the Greek tradition.[1] Barbarian kingdoms inherited what the Romans had preserved and thus the concept of the scale, a theory of acoustics and instrumental construction were known.


Music was taught as a highly theoretical discipline (comprising harmony, rhythm, metrics and philosophical speculation) that formed part of the quadrivium. The main texts were Boethius’ De Musica, Augustine’s De Musica and the relevant portions of Cassiodorus’ Instituiones. These remained the main materials to study until the early ninth century.


From the fourth century, what drove western music forwards was the cantillation of prayers, lessons and responses and the singing of the psalms. Phrases were sung on a single note with the melodic formulae in which the last words of a phrase are sung acting as punctuation. This singing was descended from the music of the synagogue. There were also chants for Mass and the Office, often more melodic than the cantillated items, and these were in existence by the sixth century.


Musical notation took the form of neumes, signs representing a note or notes thought to derive from the acute and grave accents used to regulate the voice when speaking, which indicated the progression of the melody. They gave no idea at all, however, or intervals or pitch, nor was the duration of notes usually specified. Neumes could therefore only really be used by those who knew the melody already and needed a series of prompts to reveal the melodic contours. Only gradually (in the late ninth century) did neumes begin to be heighted in order to indicate the rise or fall of pitch.


Hucbald of St Amand (d. 930) progressed when he tried, with his layout of staff notation (a precursor of the daseian notation in later music treatises),[2] to establish a system whereby the pupil would be able to see what the pitch was for each syllable to be sung and pointed out he inadequacies of directional neumes. Slowly, diastematic notation (notes with verticality) evolved during the tenth century, meaning the musical value of a sign depended on its position in relation to a real or imaginary line. The four-line stave system was perfected in the eleventh century by Guy of Arezzo, who fixed the clefs and number of lines.



Most ecclesiastical music for which we have notation was designed for the voice. It is not known to what extent such instruments such as the organ or the cithara were used in church music, or whether brass or wind instruments were used. Given the English bishop Dunstan (d. 988) installed an organ at Winchester (with 26 bellows and 400 pipes), it’s probable that the organ was used from the ninth century onwards.[3]


On chanting we are on firmer ground. The ecclesiastical chant, based on Ambrose’s four modes, developed rapidly after the fourth century. By the reign of Gregory the Great another four modes were added. Indeed, plainchant/plainsong became so associated with Gregory I that it was (and is) often referred to as Gregorian chant. This Roman style was promoted by Pippin III and Chrodegang of Metz (d. 766) and quickly eclipsed indigenous forms within the Frankish kingdom.

The Carolingians made their own contributions in tropes. These were regular additions in the form of melodies; a special form was the sequence – a long melody added to the jubilus or Alleluia, itself originally an addition to the responds. The melody was broken up into strophes to enable the singer to breathe (always important). When singing these strophes, it was natural for words or melodic improvisations to be added.


Our earliest known sequences were written by the fabulously named Notker Balbulus (“the Stammerer”) of St Gall (d. 912), who copied the idea from a visiting monk from Jumieges who’d taken refuge with him during Viking raids. Notker relates how he found sequences in the antiphonary the monk had brought with him and in his turn supplied suitable texts for the melismas then in use at St Gall.


Liturgical drama appears to have been a direct development from the tropes added to the Introits for Christmas and Easter. Examples include Hodie cantandus, a trope composed c. 900 that prefaces the introit of the Mass for Christmas and is arranged in dialogue form. As well as the Quem quaeritis, a trope prefixed to the Mass for Easter based on the story of the two Mars coming to the tomb on Easter morning to find it empty. The performance of this short tableau with words and music is described at length in the Regularis Concordia of 970, after it had been performed in Winchester Cathedral.



We are less informed about secular forms. The music of Latin secular song in the early medieval period survives only in unheighted neumes (though some of it was later rewritten with staff notation). And of vernacular songs we have no evidence until the end of the eleventh century – though a genre of literature set to song was the planctus or lament (which survive on various subjects including the death of Charlemagne and the Battle of Fontenoy). Another genre was poetry: the odes of Horace, passages from Statius’ Thebaid and lines from the Aeneid were often set to music.

Meanwhile, polyphony remained in a primitive form (known as organum) until the tenth century.


This consisted of the parallel movement of the melody in fourths, fifths and octaves and was, in all likelihood, not an act of genius but rather the practical adjustment of music to different voices. Gradually, the organum wriggled into less conventional cadences. Imperfect intervals such as thirds or sixths were introduced and polyphony began to flourish. Its earliest source (as practised) is the eleventh century Winchester Troper (Corpus Christi MS 473).[4]


For Further Reading: Ed. T. Christensen, The Cambridge History of Western Music Theory (2002)


[1] Although Boethius used Roman letters to illustrate different acoustic points, he did not propose a new notational system.

[2] Daseian referred to the Greek “Daseia” (rough breathing) and its notation formed a medieval imitation of Greek notation.

[3] In AD 757 Pippin III received an organ as a present from Constantine V and a hydraulis or water organ was built for Louis the Pious c. 826.

[4] Other important texts include first, the Musica Enchiriadis (ascribed to Otger), which was the first treatise on music to discuss polyphony. While, second, the Dialogus (attributed to an Italian monk living c.1000) was the first comprehensive attempt to use letters to indicate pitch in the way that became standard for the rest of the Middle Ages.

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