The simplicity of chant, with unison voice and natural declamation, is most common. The notation of polyphony develops, and the assumption is that formalized polyphonic practices first arose in this period. Harmony, in consonant intervals of perfect fifths, unisons, octaves, (and later, perfect fourths) begins to be notated. Rhythmic notation allows for complex interactions between multiple vocal lines in a repeatable fashion. The use of multiple texts and the notation of instrumental accompaniment developed by the end of the era.
Instruments used to perform medieval music still exist, though in different forms. The flute was once made of wood rather than silver or other metal, and could be made as a side-blown or end-blown instrument. The recorder, on the other hand, has more or less retained its past form. The gemshorn is similar to the recorder in having finger holes on its front, though it is really a member of the ocarina family. One of the flute's predecessors, the pan flute, was popular in medieval times, and is possibly of Hellenic origin. This instrument's pipes were made of wood, and were graduated in length to produce different pitches.
Medieval music uses many plucked string instruments, such as lute, mandora, gittern and psaltery. The dulcimers, similar in structure to the psaltery and zither, were originally plucked, but became struck in the 14th century, after the arrival of the new technology that made metal strings possible. The hurdy-gurdy was (and still is) a mechanical violin using a rosined wooden wheel attached to a crank to "bow" its strings. Instruments without sound boxes such as the Jew's harp were also popular in the time. Early versions of the organ, fiddle (or vielle), and trombone (called the sackbut) existed as well.
Philippe de Vitry is most famous in music history for writing the Ars Nova (1322), a treatise on music which gave its name to the music of the entire era. His contributions to notation, in particular notation of rhythm, were particularly important, and made possible the free and quite complex music of the next hundred years. In some ways the modern system of rhythmic notation began with Vitry, who broke free from the older idea of the rhythmic modes, short rhythmic patterns that were repeated without being individually differentiated. The notational predecessors of modern time meters also originate in the Ars Nova; for Franco, a breve (for a brief explanation of the mensural notation in general, see the article Renaissance music) had equalled three semibreves (that is, half breves) (on occasion, two, locally and with certain context; almost always, however, these two semibreves were one of normal length and one of double length, thereby taking the same space of time), and the same ternary division held for all larger and smaller note values. By the time of Ars Nova, the breve could be pre-divided, for an entire composition or section of one, into groups of two or three smaller semibreves by use of a "mensuration sign," equivalent to our modern "time signature." This way, the "tempus" (denoting the division of the breve, which ultimately achieved the same primacy over rhythmic structure as our modern "measure") could be either "perfect," with ternary subdivision, or "imperfect," with binary subdivision. Tempus perfectus was indicated by a circle, while tempus imperfectus was denoted by a half-circle (our current "C" as a stand-in for the 4/4 time signature is actually a holdover from this practice, not an abbreviation for "common time", as popularly believed). In a similar fashion, the semibreve could in turn be divided into three "minima" or "minims" (prolatio perfectus or major prolation) or two (prolatio imperfectus or minor prolation) and, at the higher level, the longs into three or two breves (modus perfectus or perfect mode, or modus imperfectus or imperfect mode respectively).
For the duration of the medieval period, most music would be composed primarily in perfect tempus, with special effects created by sections of imperfect tempus; there is a great current controversy among musicologists as to whether such sections were performed with a breve of equal length or whether it changed, and if so, at what proportion. In the highly syncopated works of the Ars subtilior, different voices of the same composition would sometimes be written in different tempus signatures simultaneously.
Many scholars, citing a lack of positive attributory evidence, now consider "Vitry's" treatise to be anonymous, but this does not diminish its importance for the history of rhythmic notation. The first definitely identifiable scholar to accept and explain the mensural system was Johannes de Muris (Jehan des Mars), who can be said to have done for it what Garlandia did for the rhythmic modes.
For specific medieval music theorists, see also: Isidore of Seville, Aurelian of Réôme, Odo of Cluny, Guido of Arezzo, Hermannus Contractus, Johannes Cotto (Johannes Afflighemensis), Johannes de Muris, Franco of Cologne, Johannes de Garlandia (Johannes Gallicus), Anonymous IV, Marchetto da Padova (Marchettus of Padua), Jacques of Liège, Johannes de Grocheo, Petrus de Cruce (Pierre de la Croix), and Philippe de Vitry.
Chant developed separately in several European centres. The most important were Rome, Spain, Gaul, Milan, and Ireland. These chants were all developed to support the regional liturgies used when celebrating the Mass there. Each area developed its own chants and rules for celebration. In Spain, Mozarabic chant was used and shows the influence of North African music. The Mozarabic liturgy even survived through Muslim rule, though this was an isolated strand and this music was later suppressed in an attempt to enforce conformity on the entire liturgy. In Milan, Ambrosian chant, named after St. Ambrose, was the standard, while Beneventan chant developed around Benevento, another Italian liturgical center. Gallican chant was used in Gaul, and Celtic chant in Ireland and Great Britain.
Around 1011 AD, the Roman Catholic Church wanted to standardize the Mass and chant. At this time, Rome was the religious centre of western Europe, and Paris was the political centre. The standardization effort consisted mainly of combining these two (Roman and Gallican) regional liturgies. This body of chant became known as Gregorian Chant. By the 12th and 13th centuries, Gregorian chant had superseded all the other Western chant traditions, with the exception of the Ambrosian chant in Milan, and the Mozarabic chant in a few specially designated Spanish chapels.
The most significant was the creation of "florid organum" around 1100, sometimes known as the school of St. Martial (named after a monastery in south-central France, which contains the best-preserved manuscript of this repertory). In "florid organum" the original tune would be sung in long notes while an accompanying voice would sing many notes to each one of the original, often in a highly elaborate fashion, all the while emphasizing the perfect consonances (fourths, fifths and octaves) as in the earlier organa. Later developments of organum occurred in England, where the interval of the third was particularly favoured, and where organa were likely improvised against an existing chant melody, and at Notre Dame in Paris, which was to be the centre of musical creative activity throughout the thirteenth century.
Much of the music from the early medieval period is anonymous. Some of the names may have been poets and lyric writers, and the tunes for which they wrote words may have been composed by others. Attribution of monophonic music of the medieval period is not always reliable. Surviving manuscripts from this period include the Musica Enchiriadis, Codex Calixtinus of Santiago de Compostela, and the Winchester Troper.
For information about specific composers or poets writing during the early medieval period, see Pope Gregory I, St. Godric, Hildegard of Bingen, Hucbald, Notker Balbulus, Odo of Arezzo, Odo of Cluny, and Tutilo.
This was also the period in which concepts of formal structure developed which were attentive to proportion, texture, and architectural effect. Composers of the period alternated florid and discant organum (more note-against-note, as opposed to the succession of many-note melismas against long-held notes found in the florid type), and created several new musical forms: clausulae, which were melismatic sections of organa extracted and fitted with new words and further musical elaboration; conductus, which was a song for one or more voices to be sung rhythmically, most likely in a procession of some sort; and tropes, which were rearrangements of older chants with new words and sometimes new music. All of these genres save one were based upon chant; that is, one of the voices, (usually three, though sometimes four) nearly always the lowest (the tenor at this point) sung a chant melody, though with freely composed note-lengths, over which the other voices sang organum. The exception to this method was the conductus, a two-voice composition that was freely composed in its entirety.
The motet, one of the most important musical forms of the high Middle Ages and Renaissance, developed initially during the Notre Dame period out of the clausula, especially the form using multiple voices as elaborated by Pérotin, who paved the way for this particularly by replacing many of his predecessor (as canon of the cathedral) Léonin's lengthy florid clausulae with substitutes in a discant style. Gradually, there came to be entire books of these substitutes, available to be fitted in and out of the various chants. Since, in fact, there were more than can possibly have been used in context, it is probable that the clausulae came to be performed independently, either in other parts of the mass, or in private devotions. The clausulae, thus practised, became the motet when troped with non-liturgical words, and was further developed into a form of great elaboration, sophistication and subtlety in the fourteenth century, the period of Ars nova.
Composers of this time include Léonin, Pérotin, W. de Wycombe, Adam de St. Victor, and Petrus de Cruce (Pierre de la Croix). Petrus is credited with the innovation of writing more than three semibreves to fit the length of a breve. Coming before the innovation of imperfect tempus, this practice innagurated the era of what are now called "Petronian" motets. These late 13th-century works are in three, sometimes four, parts and have multiple texts sung simultaneously. These texts can be either sacred or secular in subject, and with Latin and French mixed. The Petronian motet is a highly complex genre, given its mixture of several semibreve breves with rhythmic modes and sometimes (with increasing frequency) substitution of secular songs for chant in the tenor. Indeed, ever-increasing rhythmic complexity would be a fundamental characteristic of the 14th century, though music in France, Italy, and England would take quite different paths during that time.
The music of the trouvères was similar to that of the troubadours, but was able to survive into the thirteenth century unaffected by the Albigensian Crusade. Most of the more than two thousand surviving trouvère songs include music, and show a sophistication as great as that of the poetry it accompanies.
The Minnesinger tradition was the Germanic counterpart to the activity of the troubadours and trouvères to the west. Unfortunately, few sources survive from the time; the sources of Minnesang are mostly from two or three centuries after the peak of the movement, leading to some controversy over their accuracy. Among the Minnesingers with surviving music are Wolfram von Eschenbach, Walther von der Vogelweide, and Niedhart von Reuenthal. Troubadours with surviving melodies
During the Ars nova era, secular music acquired a polyphonic sophistication formerly found only in sacred music, a development not surprising considering the secular character of the early Renaissance (and it should be noted that while this music is typically considered to be "medieval", the social forces that produced it were responsible for the beginning of the literary and artistic Renaissance in Italy—the distinction between Middle Ages and Renaissance is a blurry one, especially considering arts as different as music and painting). The term "Ars nova" (new art, or new technique) was coined by Philippe de Vitry in his treatise of that name (probably written in 1322), in order to distinguish the practice from the music of the immediately preceding age.
The dominant secular genre of the Ars Nova was the chanson, as it would continue to be in France for another two centuries. These chansons were composed in musical forms corresponding to the poetry they set, which were in the so-called formes fixes of rondeau, ballade, and virelai. These forms significantly affected the development of musical structure in ways that are felt even today; for example, the ouvert-clos rhyme-scheme shared by all three demanded a musical realization which contributed directly to the modern notion of antecedent and consequent phrases. It was in this period, too, in which began the long tradition of setting the mass ordinary. This tradition started around mid-century with isolated or paired settings of Kyries, Glorias, etc., but Machaut composed what is thought to be the first complete mass conceived as one composition. The sound world of Ars Nova music is very much one of linear primacy and rhythmic complexity. "Resting" intervals are the fifth and octave, with thirds and sixths considered dissonances. Leaps of more than a sixth in individual voices are not uncommon, leading to speculation of instrumental participation at least in secular performance.
Italian music has always, it seems, been known for its lyrical or melodic character, and this goes back to the 14th century in many respects. Italian secular music of this time (what little surviving liturgical music there is, is similar to the French except for somewhat different notation) featured what has been called the cantalina style, with a florid top voice supported by two (or even one; a fair amount of Italian Trecento music is for only two voices) that are more regular and slower moving. This type of texture remained a feature of Italian music in the popular 15th and 16th century secular genres as well, and was an important influence on the eventual development of the trio texture that revolutionized music in the 17th.
There were three main forms for secular works in the Trecento. One was the madrigal, not the same as that of 150-250 years later, but with a verse/refrain-like form. Three-line stanzas, each with different words, alternated with a two-line ritornello, with the same text at each appearance. Perhaps we can see the seeds of the subsequent late-Renaissance and Baroque ritornello in this device; it too returns again and again, recognizable each time, in contrast with its surrounding disparate sections. Another form, the caccia ("chase,") was written for two voices in a canon at the unison. Sometimes, this form also featured a ritornello, which was occasionally also in a canonic style. Usually, the name of this genre provided a double meaning, since the texts of caccia were primarily about hunts and related outdoor activities, or at least action-filled scenes. The third main form was the ballata, which was roughly equivalent to the French virelai.
For information about specific Italian composers writing in the late medieval era, see Francesco Landini, Gherardello da Firenze, Andrea da Firenze, Lorenzo da Firenze, Paolo da Firenze (Paolo Tenorista), Giovanni da Firenze (aka Giovanni da Cascia), Bartolino da Padova, Jacopo da Bologna, Donato da Cascia, Lorenzo Masini, Niccolò da Perugia, and Maestro Piero.
There was also French-influenced polyphony written in German areas at this time, but it was somewhat less sophisticated than its models. In fairness to the mostly anonymous composers of this repertoire, however, most of the surviving manuscripts seem to have been copied with extreme incompetence, and are filled with errors that make a truly thorough evaluation of the music's quality impossible.
As often seen at the end of any musical era, the end of the medieval era is marked by a highly manneristic style known as Ars subtilior. In some ways, this was an attempt to meld the French and Italian styles. This music was highly stylized, with a rhythmic complexity that was not matched until the 20th century. In fact, not only was the rhythmic complexity of this repertoire largely unmatched for five and a half centuries, with extreme syncopations, mensural trickery, and even examples of augenmusik (such as a chanson by Baude Cordier written out in manuscript in the shape of a heart), but also its melodic material was quite complex as well, particularly in its interaction with the rhythmic structures. Already discussed under Ars Nova has been the practice of isorhythm, which continued to develop through late-century and in fact did not achieve its highest degree of sophistication until early in the 15th century. Instead of using isorhythmic techniques in one or two voices, or trading them among voices, some works came to feature a pervading isorhythmic texture which rivals the integral serialism of the 20th century in its systematic ordering of rhythmic and tonal elements. The term "mannerism" was applied by later scholars, as it often is, in response to an impression of sophistication being practised for its own sake, a malady which some authors have felt infected the Ars subtilior.
One of the most important extant sources of Ars Subtilior chansons is the Chantilly Codex.
For information about specific composers writing music in Ars subtilior style, see Anthonello de Caserta, Philippus de Caserta (aka Philipoctus de Caserta), Johannes Ciconia, Matteo da Perugia, Lorenzo da Firenze, Grimace, Jacob Senleches, and Baude Cordier.
Music historians do not agree on when the Renaissance era began, but most historians agree that England was still a medieval society in the early fifteenth century (see a discussion of periodization issues of the Middle Ages). While there is no consensus, 1400 is a useful marker, because it was around that time that the Renaissance came into full swing in Italy.
The increasing reliance on the interval of the third as a consonance is one of the most pronounced features of transition into the Renaissance. Polyphony, in use since the 12th century, became increasingly elaborate with highly independent voices throughout the 14th century. With John Dunstable and other English composers, partly through the local technique of faburden (an improvisatory process in which a chant melody and a written part predominantly in parallel sixths above it are ornamented by one sung in perfect fourths below the latter, and which later took hold on the continent as "fauxbordon"), the interval of the third emerges as an important musical development; because of this Contenance Angloise ("English countenance"), English composers' music is often regarded as the first to sound less truly bizarre to modern, unschooled audiences. English stylistic tendencies in this regard had come to fruition and began to influence continental composers as early as the 1420s, as can be seen in works of the young Dufay, among others. While the Hundred Years' War continued, English nobles, armies, their chapels and retinues, and therefore some of their composers, travelled in France and performed their music there; it must also of course be remembered that the English controlled portions of northern France at this time.
For information about specific composers who are considered transitional between the medieval and the Renaissance, see Roy Henry, Arnold de Lantins, Leonel Power, John Dunstaple, Guillaume Dufay, and Gilles Binchois.