Its origins are obscure, and debated, with one school of thought seeing it as a secular mutation of the conductus of the ars antiqua, and another seeing it as deriving from 13th century secular monophonic song with an improvised accompaniment. Little Italian music from the 13th century has survived, so links between medieval forms such as the conductus and troubadour song and the music of the trecento are largely inferential.
The earliest stage in the development of the madrigal is seen in the Rossi Codex, a collection of music from ca. 1350 or earlier, compiled around 1370. It has been suggested that the ornamentation of the upper voices may be improvised above a skeletal structure.
In the madrigal's later stages of development its uppermost voice was often highly elaborate, with the lower voice, the tenor, much less so. The form at this time was probably a development of connoisseurs, and sung by small groups of cognoscenti; there is no evidence of its widespread popularity, unlike the madrigal of the 16th century. By the end of the 14th century it had fallen out of favor, with other forms (in particular, the ballata and imported French music) taking precedence, some of which were even more highly refined and ornamented.
By the beginning of 15th century the term was no longer used musically. The later 16th century madrigal is unrelated, although it often used texts written in the 14th century (for instance by Petrarch).
Important composers of the madrigal in the Trecento include: