Introduction to Music
Introduction to Music

Introduction to Music

Lead Author(s): Henry Alviani

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A concise introduction to classical music literature from medieval secular music and Gregorian chant to the early 20th century. Includes videos.

Medieval Period (500-1450)

Medieval music can be described as  music that was created and performed during the Middle Ages. This would include both music for the Christian church (liturgical music) and non-religious (secular) music composed for entertainment purposes. This may be music only for voices, otherwise known as vocal music, such as the Gregorian chant that was sung by monks, as well as choral music; music to be played only by instruments; and music that could be performed by both instruments and voices. The Medieval Period is typically considered to begin following the end of the  Roman Empire near the end of the fifth century and transitions into the Renaissance Period beginning in the early fifteenth century.


Many types of instruments that were used to perform music in the Medieval Period are still in use today; however, due to many technological developments they may be quite different. For instance, the flute was originally made of wood but today is typically made of silver or some other metal. Also it was often made as an "end-blown" instrument like its predecessor, the recorder. Today's "transverse" (held crossways) flutes have complex key mechanisms rather than just holes that are covered by the fingers. Many plucked string instruments like the lute (an earlier version of today's guitar) were popular during the Medieval Period. The dulcimer was originally plucked; in the 14th century when metal strings began to be used it became possible to strike them with hammers. Earlier forms of the vielle and the sackbut, known today by their modern names of violin and trombone, also existed.

Characteristics of Medieval music

Medieval instrumental music may be characterized by its thin "texture" (relatively few instruments as opposed to the "thick texture" of a full symphony orchestra); very rhythmic character; and repetitive quality, as well as by the distinctive sound of instruments of that era . 

This recording contains a nice mix of medieval instrumental music (1:01:18):

 This is an example of an estampie, a medieval dance (4:15):


Which of the following is NOT a characteristic of secular medieval music?


Complex Rhythm


Thick Texture


Repetitive quality


Early Medieval liturgical or church music (music for religious purposes) was monophony, mostly sung in a monastery; monophony is a melody that does not include harmony. Polyphony (many voices or sounds) began to develop during the later Medieval Period, and became more common by the later 1200s and early 1300s. This development is part of the Ars nova

Traditions of early chant 

Chant (sometimes known as plainsong) is a monophonic religious type of vocal music that was typically sung during the earliest worship services in the Christian church. Gregorian chant takes its name from Pope St. Gregory I who was in office 590-604. He is credited with "codifying" the extremely large existing body of chant, much of which either lacked sufficient quality or was redundant for church purposes. There was a myth at one time that he actually wrote the chant, but this has been dismissed as legend. He was often depicted in paintings with a dove representing the Holy Spirit sitting on his shoulder dictating the chant to him, reinforcing the myth that Gregorian chant was divinely inspired. 

There are three types of Gregorian chant: syllabic, neumatic, and melismatic. Usually they can be easily distinguished from one another by the number of notes that are sung per syllable. In syllabic chant, each syllable has its own note.  In neumatic chant,  each syllable is sung to a small group of notes (usually 2 to 4) called a neum. In melismatic chant, each syllable may be sung to a long succession of notes, perhaps as many as 10 or 20 or more.  

A simple demonstration of the difference between melismatic and syllabic  chant is found in the refrain of the well-known Christmas carol, Angels We Have Heard on High. The words "Gloria in excelsis Deo" are sung melismatically, then syllabically. A total of 16 notes are sung melismatically on the "Glo-" part of "Gloria": Glooo-o-o-o-o-oooo-o-o-o-o-oooo-o-o-o-o-oooo-ri-a. This is then followed by each of the six syllables in the rest of the refrain being sung on its own individual note: in ex-cel-sis De-o. 

Neumatic chant is a little more difficult to identify. A neum is a small group of two, three, or fours notes with wonderful names like clivis, scandicus, salicus, podatus, porrectus. and torculus. There can be no more than one syllable per neum. 

The following recording offers numerous examples of all three types of chant. Many times it is quite easy to distinguish one type of chant from another. However, sometimes the types may be mixed or blended. Other times a particular chant will have a very syllabic section and then have a long melisma. Some of the better examples of the different types of chant are indicated in bold. 

Examples of: neumatic chant with some syllabic and some melismatic (0:00-1:13); syllabic with some neumatic (1:13-3:36); melismatic chant with some neumatic (3:36-6:26); melismatic with some syllabic  (6:26-9:04); syllabic (9:07-10:45); neumatic with some melismas (10:48-16:58); melismatic -- Alleluia  (17:00-20:08); neumatic (20:09-21:23); syllabic (21:24-22:32); neumatic (22:33-23:55); neumatic (23:55-26:30); melismatic with some neumatic (26:32-28:49); melismatic -- Kyrie/Christe eleison (28:49-29:54); syllabic (29:55-31:51); melismatic (31:54-35:27); neumatic with some melismas and some syllabic (35:28-39:31); syllabic (39:33-42:28); neumatic with some melisma (42:30-44:11); melismatic (44:12-45:49); syllabic (45:50-50:08; 50:10-54:09; 54:10-56:52; 56:53-58:00):


Gregorian chant is monophonic because it has no








Gregorian chant in which each syllable has its own note is known as:


Syllabic Chant


Neumatic Chant


Melismatic Chant


Gregorian chant in which each syllable may be sung to a long succession of notes, perhaps as many as 10 or 20 or more, is known as:


Syllabic Chant


Neumatic Chant


Melismatic Chant


Gregorian chant in which each syllable is sung to a small group of notes, called a neum, is known as:


Syllabic Chant


Neumatic Chant


Melismatic Chant


Music theory​

During the Medieval Period there were many advances and developments in music theory practices with regard to pitches and rhythm.

Notation (an abbreviated lesson in the development of music notation)

There was no type of musical notation as we know it today during the earliest part of the Medieval Period. The tunes were mostly passed on from generation to generation orally. The Church in Rome, in its attempt to centralize and unify the way liturgical worship services were being conducted and to establish what is now the Catholic Mass as the accepted form of worship, needed to disseminate these chant melodies throughout the Roman Empire, which was rather challenging. Musicians addressed this problem by developing various signs that they would write above the texts of the chant, indicating whether the pitches moved up or down, called neums. There is consensus that neums were grammatical signs borrowed from ancient Greece and Rome to indicate important places where syllables should be stressed. The acutus, /, would indicate that the voice should be raised, and the gravis, \, would indicate that the voice should be lowered. Eventually these simple signs became the basic neums used in musical notation: the virga (or "rod") served the same purpose as the acutus; and the punctum (or "dot") served the same purpose as the gravis symbol. The acutus and the gravis were used in combination to indicate inflections of the voice. This notation began to be developed sometime in the 700s, and was soon in common use as the preferred means of indicating pitch movement. At first the virga and the punctum were used to represent individual notes, but the development of other neums, basically by combining these two, were used to show several notes joined together. The first music notation that used dots over the lyrics to a chant, indicating which notes should be sung higher or lower, gave the singer the general direction of the melody, which were basically used to remind a singer for whom the melody was already familiar. These neums could only indicate the how many notes and in which direction they moved. They did not indicate any rhythm, the starting note, or even the exact pitch. Neums were created as tools to support the traditional manner that was used to teach music, rather than to replace it. However, there was great benefit to having a more specific means of music notation. 

​13th century; France., also called Manuscript du Roi or Chansonnier du Roi, scanned from a microfilm. The first page of the song "A chantar" by Comtessa de Dia [1]

 The next came what was known as "heighted neums": simply, neums were  placed at different heights to give an idea of how far one pitch was from another as well as whether it went up, down, or stayed on the same pitch. Eventually one or two lines were used to represent a specific pitch was placed on it with the other neums relative to them. These lines most commonly indicated middle C and the F below.  Initially these lines were just scratched on the paper, but it was determined that this method worked so effectively that later the line for F was written in red ink, and the line for C was written in yellow or green. This use of these two colored lines for specific pitches eventually evolved into the musical staff with which we are familiar today. Again this method seemed to work so well that a multi-line staff was eventually created by Guido d’ Arezzo (c. 1000-1050), an important Medieval musical theorist, who is generally acknowledged to be the creator of the four-line staff.  This new notation enabled singers to learn the pitches to new music more quickly.  

Page from a Renaissance manuscript Gradual originating in Prague, containing "Ad te levávi" and an illuminated capital of Gregory I, as well as border and grotesques [2]​


The tempus (time) could be either "perfect," (tempus perfectus) in a  three-beat (ternary or triple) pattern, or "imperfect," (tempus imperfectus) in a two-beat (binary or duple) pattern.

A complete circle was used to indicate tempus perfectus, while a half-circle was used to indicate tempus imperfectus (our contemporary use of "C" to mean the 4/4 time signature is not an abbreviation for "common time", as is commonly thought, but is actually held over from this practice).

There is a theological relevance to the use of the circle indicating tempus perfectus and the half-circle or C indicating tempus imperfectus. The complete circle indicating a ternary or triple meter (in 3) is related to the Holy Trinity, while the incomplete circle indicating a binary or duple meter (in 2) is considered less than divine and imperfect.

Most religious music for the rest of the Medieval Period was composed in perfect time, while imperfect time would typically be used for special sections.  


The development of polyphony was  important to the evolution of western music theory. This compositional technique influenced western music into the kind of music dominated by harmony that we know today. Organum was an early form of polyphony. It expanded the chant melody by using a musical line, sung at a fixed interval, that accompanied the chant melody, known as the cantus firmus (fixed song). At first this was done in parallel motion, an early form of organum simply known as strict or parallel organum. Free organum was not restricted to moving in motion parallel to the melody, but it could also use either contrary or oblique motion. This way permitted composers to avoid the forbidden tritone (known as "diablo in musica" or "the devil in music"). An additional type of organum that developed is melismatic. This marked an important development in polyphony. Instead of being simply one note against another, a florid melismatic line was sung above a sustained line. This final kind of organum was a favorite compositional device of the period's most famous polyphonic composer, Léonin.  Both Léonin, as well as his student Pérotin, were employed at the Cathedral of Notre Dame.

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This is a short example of parallel or strict organum (1:18):

The motet, one of the Four Ms of the late Medieval and Renaissance Periods, was first created during the  late 13th-century at the cathedral of Notre Dame. Motets are usually in three or four parts; often each part would simultaneously sing a text different from the other parts. Initially the tenor part (from the Latin  word tenere, or "to hold") held out a pre-existing melodic line of chant (cantus firmus) ​in the original Latin, while the other higher voices commented on the religious text in Latin or often in French, the vernacular language.

This is an example of a melismatic organum duplum by Leonin with a sustained cantus firmus in the tenor line (1:58):

 Organum by Pérotin  (9:29):

Tonal Systems

Another important element of music of the Medieval Period is the arrangement of pitches. This system of whole and half steps was known as a mode. Like today's major and minor scales, the modal system laid out the rules for composing melodies. There are eight church modes, four "authentic" and four related or "plagal".  The "authentic" modes are: dorian, phrygian, lydian, and mixolydian. The four "plagal" modes are: hypodorian,  hypophrygian, hypolydian, and hypomixolydian.  Although they have Greek names, which were misused or misnamed by the medieval theorists, these church (or ecclesiastical) modes are not the same as the modes that were created by ancient Greek music theorists. Although the Medieval church modes are not the same as the ancient Greek modes, there is much evidence to suggest that Greek terminology possibly originated in the melodies used in religious worship in the Byzantine empire. This system of eight modes is called oktoechos . Today (ever since the late 16th and early 17th centuries), we basically use just two modes, major and minor, although the old church modes are still used by composers today, especially the mixolydian mode. 


Dorian, phrygian, lydian, and mixolydian are types of what?

Liturgical drama

The liturgical drama originated in Europe during the early Middle Ages . Originally it likely survived from the drama of ancient Rome depicting Christian stories and lessons, mostly from the Gospel (teachings of Jesus), the Passion (His arrest, trial, torture, and crucifixion before Easter), and the lives of the saints. These musical or semi-musical dramas, probably performed by traveling actors and musicians in every part of Europe,  involved actors, singers, and instrumentalists. Many of them have been preserved enough to allow them to be reconstructed and performed. An excellent example is the Play of Daniel which was completed between 1227 to 1234, written by students at the school of Beauvais Cathedral in northern France. Rather than being religious, the text is mostly poetry; it tells the Biblical story of Daniel at the court of Belshazzar. After being ignored for centuries, Noah GreenbergIt, director of the New York Pro Musica, resurrected it in the 1950s.

This is a small sample by the Boston Camarata of a production of The Play of Daniel (2:56):


Late medieval music (1300–1400); France: Ars nova

Philippe de Vitry first used the term "Ars nova" (new art, or new technique) around 1322. During the Ars nova the polyphony found only in religious music began to be used in secular music as well. The cultural developments that produced it were also influential in the beginning of the Renaissance in literature and art in Italy. The beginning of the Ars nova corresponds to the publication of a large collection of poetry and music in 1310 and 1314. This collection, the Roman de Fauvel satirizes abuses in the medieval church with medieval musical song forms including rondeaux, lais, and secular motets, as well as other new forms of secular music. Philippe de Vitry composed many of the songs. He is among the first to compose the isorhythmic motet (same rhythm, using one of the six rhythmic modes), a compositional technique which is typical of the 1300s, These rhythmic patterns  provided composers with a uniform way of writing music:

  1. Long-short (trochee) 
  2. Short-long (iamb) 
  3. Long-short-short (dactyl)
  4. Short-short-long (anapaest) 
  5. Long-long (spondee) 
  6. Short-short-short (tribrach) 

Guillaume de Machaut, the era's most accomplished composer, brought the isorhythmic motet to a higher level .

An example of an isorhythmic motet by Machaut (6:26):

Troubadours and trouvères

Troubadours and trouvères (generally noblemen) were professional, usually traveling, musicians who were skilled as poets, singers, and instrumentalists, primarily throughout Provence. They sang secular songs in the vernacular, probably accompanied by instruments, typically about the courtly love of an idealized woman from a distance, chivalry, or battles. More than two thousand trouvère songs have survived; most of them include written music, and reveal an equally great degree of sophistication in both the music and the poetry it accompanies. They were popular throughout the 1100s until the early 1200s.

In Germany a similar tradition of traveling musicians performing secular music was carried out by the Minnesinger. Unfortunately, few sources survive from that time.

This is a recording of a variety of music of troubadours and trouvères. The art work makes this video well worth watching (1:03:33)​:

The chanson (song) was the most important form of secular music during the Ars Nova in France; it was still popular 200 years later. They were compositions that corresponded to the forms in poetry, such as the rondeau, ballade, and virelai. The practice of setting the Ordinary of the Mass  began around the mid-1300s. Around 1360  Guillaume de Machaut (1300-1377) composed what is considered to be the first complete Mass as a single work (Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, Agnus Dei, Benedicamus).


Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, Agnus Dei, and Benedicamus are parts of what religious service?

Machaut's Mass (54:28):

Italian Trecento

The term Ars nova is typically applied to the secular music of the 1300s, particularly in Italy, a period known as Trecento. Italian secular music has always been enjoyed for its lyrical quality (cantalina), with a flowery top voice and one or two voices that move more slowly. This kind of texture has been typical of Italian secular music for several centuries.

Vocal music of the Trecento (4:28):

Vocal and instrumental (7:24):

​Mannerism and Ars subtilior

Ars subtilior was a highly manneristic style that attempted to combine the French and Italian styles. This music is characterized by a rhythmic complexity, with complex melodies, extreme syncopations and metric trickery, and even examples of augenmusik ("eye music" describes visual features in the music that are not visible to the listener such as this chanson. 

Chanson "Belle, bonne, sage" by Cordier (4:34):

The Transition from the Medieval Period to the Renaissance

Musically speaking it is difficult to accurately mark when Medieval Period ends and the Renaissance Period begins. While the medieval sound and style of   music of the 1300s is distinctive, music of the early 1400s belongs to a transitional period. While not everyone agrees, 1400 is a useful point of delineation, which is when the Renaissance came into full bloom in Italy, (although not necessarily in music, which would not happen until about 1450).

The acceptance of the third as consonant (as opposed to dissonant) is perhaps the most distinguishing characteristic as music transitioned from the Medieval Period to the Renaissance. Polyphony was commonly used more and more throughout the 14th century, with voices becoming much more independent .

Image credits

[1] from Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale, fr. 844 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

[2] By User Makemi on en.wikipedia [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons 

Video credits

[c] via Youtube Channel, Via Youtube Channel Byzantium and Beyond

Monophony means music with a single vocal or instrumental line with no accompanying harmony. Gregorian chant is typically monophonic.
a building in which monks who have taken religious vows live, work, pray, and worship together as a community.
Polyphony means music with more than one part, either a melody with an accompanying harmony, or several individual, independent melodic lines sung or played simultaneously.
Monophony means music with a single vocal or instrumental with no accompanying harmony. Gregorian chant is typically monophonic.
Mass, motet, Magnificat (all religious), madrigal (only secular form).
The vernacular is the language or dialect spoken by the ordinary people in a particular country or region.
a style in the fine arts developed principally in Europe beginning in the 14th century, chiefly characterized by somewhat exaggerated, elongated forms or features to achieve greater emotional effect.