Introduction to Medieval Music by Cynthia Cyrus

Introduction to Medieval Music

Cynthia J. Cyrus

Last modified on June 18, 2003


A 14th century medieval music manuscript from northern Italy, from the Virtual Manuscript Libray of Switzerland.

Orselina, Convento della Madonna del Sasso, Codice I: Graduale Fratrum Minorum
A Franciscan Gradual written and illuminated in northern Italy (Padua or Bologna), dateable to the first decade of the 14th century, used in the Franciscan cloister of St. Francis of Locarno.
From the Virtual Manuscript Library of Switzerland;
photographed Dec. 1, 2010.
Image from
Creative Commons License

The medieval musical experience is impossible to recapture, for most of the music of daily life is lost to us. The sounds of street hawkers, the songs sung in the fields to lighten the tedium of labor, the dances that accompanied so many festivities, much of the music intended for the stage, and even the musical component of many troubadour songs have proven ephemeral. Even the music that ‘survives’ does so in a fashion that leaves unanswered fundamental questions about how it originally sounded. The medieval musician, professional or amateur, expected to improvise, adding and changing musical materials as he or she performed a piece. The kind of instrument or voice to be used, the pitches in the melody, the kind of accompaniment (if any) might vary from one time to the next, as might the tempo, the volume, or even the rhythm. Medieval notation can be frustratingly vague for the modern scholar attempting to reconstruct a plausible and historically-informed medieval sound. Yet the music that does survive forms a sumptuous legacy, ranging from the sacred to the profane and from monophonic texture with a single melody sung alone to the richly polyphonic with several independent voices operating simultaneously. The church, the court, the university, the town, and the tavern have all contributed tangibly to our musical heritage.

Most serious music in the Middle Ages, both sacred and secular, was song, involving words as an important element (not abstract musical design, as in the more recent European musical tradition.) Therefore aspects of text-music relations, such as liturgical function or poetic form, are an essential element in understanding the music.

This entry provides a basic historical overview of medieval music for the non-specialist, addressing the following topics:



Though the church fathers were ambivalent about the place of music in a moral life, music adorned the liturgy of the church as far back as we can trace. One of our early witnesses to plainchant practice with the nun Egeria whose account of her pilgrimage to Jerusalem from ca. 400 A.D. includes descriptions of psalms and singing. Over the next several centuries, the liturgy continued to develop until it took on the format for the mass and office that is familiar to the modern-day student of the medieval church.

This liturgical practice resulted in part from the religious reforms of Charlemagne (ca. 742-814), who drew on the resources of the church in his attempts to unify his empire. He replaced the disparate local and regional varieties of plainchant (such as Gallican, Mozarabic, and the like) with a single practice. According to Charlemagne’s biographers, he wisely decided to send to ‘the source,’ that is to Rome, for the authoritative versions of chant. The resultant liturgical practice–in fact, a combination of Frankish and Roman elements–is commonly known as Gregorian chant, though recent research has shown that the Pope Gregory involved in the creation of the liturgy was likely Pope Gregory II (r. 715-731), rather than Pope Gregory I (r. 590-604) (see McKinnon, pp. 102ff).

The music of the church can be divided into chants for the mass, which combines a celebration of the Word of God and of the Eucharist, and those for the office, a daily cycle of services involving psalms and prayers, though the requiem mass differs from the daily mass in structure, and various processions are technically paraliturgical. Texts which change every day are called proper, while stable texts which repeat over most of the church year (such as the Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, and Agnus Dei) are called ordinary. Chant melodies range from a simple recitational style involving a single pitch (perhaps with some inflections to provide punctuation), through the straightforward chants which any member of the choir could sing, to the extremely elaborate soloistic chants. Melodies are also classified by how many notes there are per syllable: syllabic melodies have one note per syllable; neumatic melodies generally have two to five notes per syllable; and melismatic melodies have elaborate runs of six or more notes decorating several syllables over the course of the piece. Every service has a mixture of these styles, providing dramatic impetus to the liturgical action.

As Carolingian cantors and their successors attempted to grapple with the importation of nearly four thousand chants for the church year, they developed systems for organizing the musical materials involved. The pressures of memorization supported, and perhaps instigated, the development of a notational system, though the familiar square notation of most surviving chant leaves and most modern-day chant books did not develop fully until the late twelfth century. It also encouraged the development of the system of church modes, which classify chants by their range, their final (the central pitch of the melody where the tune usually ends), and their melodic idiom. The spread of liturgical books, with or without notation, likewise helped to regularize liturgical practice across the realm.

The medieval liturgy has been reconstructed in large part due to the efforts of the Benedictine monks of Solesmes Abbey in France, who have issued facsimiles of early chant manuscripts and compiled editions based on those early sources, including the Liber Usualis, which contains chants, prayers and readings for important services throughout the church year. The Latin liturgy itself, however, has been out of favor since Vatican II (1962-65).

Music as a Liberal Art Versus Music as a Practical Craft

Though the modern world considers music a ‘sounding art’ involving melodies, rhythms, and harmonies, the medieval thinker classified music as a mathematical discipline, part of the quadrivium, along with geometry, arithmetic, and astronomy. The intellectual study of music–speculative music theory–was a study of proportions, whereas aspects of actual performed music treated music as a craft. This bias can be traced back to Boethius (ca. 480-ca. 524) and Martianus Capella (fl. ?early 5th century), whose treatises served as textbooks for much of the Middle Ages. Nevertheless, a body of music theory addressing issues such as mode and, later, rhythm developed.

Throughout the Middle Ages, monasteries and abbeys nurtured music, preserving the quadrivial treatises alongside practical musical sources. The ninth-century library at Reichenau, for instance, boasted copies of works by Augustine, Isidorus, Cassiodorus, and Boethius, as well as ten antiphoners containing music for the Divine Office (see Carpenter, p. 17). St. Gall, too, had a vibrant intellectual life as well as an active musical scriptorium which produced a large number of chant manuscripts in a distinctive musical script. The monastery of St. Martial housed a rich collection of manuscripts containing monophonic and polyphonic additions to the liturgy dating from the tenth to the twelfth centuries. Significant sources also survive from Santiago de Compostela (the Codex Calixtinus which contains music brought by pilgrims to the shrine of St. James), from St. Denis (a royal abbey in France) and from Las Huelgas (a women’s convent in Spain with a flourishing choir school where the women evidently performed polyphony). Indeed, most monasteries of any size housed at least a few choirbooks containing the chants for either mass or office.

Additions to the Liturgy, ca. 900-ca. 1100

In the tenth, eleventh and twelfth centuries, composers and performers expanded the liturgy in a number of ways. New feasts were created (with their attendant music for mass and office), and new music created for chants of the ordinary. Moreover, the liturgical practice of the past was copied down and spread through staff notation. Previous notational styles assumed that the reader had an aural familiarity with the piece at hand, but Guido of Arezzo (ca. 991-d. after 1033) helped to create this new notation which specified the pitches of a melody precisely through a combination of the staff (a set of horizontal lines and spaces) with one or more clefs to identify the pitches C, F or (sometimes) G. Guido also developed a system for sightsinging that involved solmization, using pre-assigned syllables for particular pitches. Guido’s system used hexachords, made up of six notes with only a half-step between the third and fourth and a whole-step elsewhere (ut–re–mi-fa–sol–la); to sing a melody with a larger range, one ‘mutated’ or shifted from one hexachord to another. The so-called Guidonian hand assigned each pitch and its hexachordal names to a knuckle of the hand, serving as a mnemonic device. Notes lying outside of the hand, including all accidentals except B-flat, were called musica ficta.

In addition to notational innovations, several new genres were established during this period of liturgical consolidation. The monophonic conductus, also known as the versus, follows a strophic structure, in which the music is repeated for each successive stanza of poetry. These pieces are thought to have served as accompaniment to liturgical action, as the celebrant moved from one location to another within the church or chapel. The trope, on the other hand, adds new textual and musical material to a pre- existent liturgical composition, particularly introits (the introductory chant for the mass) and the shorter chants of the ordinary. The trope members can come before, in the middle of, or after the host chant; they comment on and amplify the meaning of the original. The trope members were sung by soloists, even if the host chant was choral. Some tropes, such as the Easter and Christmas trope Quem quaeritis, include dialogue and short dramatic interludes, and are thought to be the forbearers to liturgical drama, which also evolved in this period.

Another new genre is the sequence, a separate choral composition which follows the Alleluia in the mass. Notker Balbulus (ca. 840-912) claimed to have invented the sequence by putting words to long untexted melismas as a memory aid; while this claim is probably exaggerated, the sequence as a genre is syllabic and has irregular phrase lengths which might reflect musical (rather than textual) inspiration. In the sequence, each musical line usually has one to four clauses, and the entire musical line is commonly repeated before moving to new musical material, giving a structure of A B B C C D D…. Most sequences were banned by the Council of Trent (1545-1563), and only five sequences remain in the modern chant repertory.

Finally, the earliest instructions for performing polyphony date to around 900 A.D. Alongside their discussion of melodic organization of a single voice, the Musica enchiriadis and Scholica enchiriadis give instructions for performing parallel organum, in which a given melody (the vox principalis) is harmonized by a second voice (the vox organalis) at a set interval below. When the first voice goes up and down, so does the second. A slightly more independent sound can be created by starting both parts on the same pitch and having one voice held steady (known as oblique motion) until the appropriate perfect interval (usually a fourth or fifth) is reached, and then commencing the parallel motion. This practice is simple enough to be improvised, though organum was presumably performed by soloists, rather than a full choir.

Perhaps the most famous composer of this period of liturgical additions was the twelfth-century mystic, abbess, author, and composer Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179). She wrote antiphons (loosely poetic texts accompanied by exuberant, rhapsodic melodies) and sequences, though the repetitive structures of Notker’s sequences can be hard to discern amidst the ornamentation of her associative melodic lines, and some sequences lack Notker’s couplet structure altogether. She also wrote an early morality play known as the Ordo virtutum intended for her nuns at Rupertsberg. Hildegard’s musical languages falls outside of the traditional modal practice of her day, which some have attributed to her lack of traditional musical training, but her literary efforts were sanctioned by the Pope, and the care with which her manuscripts were created reflects the respect she had within her community.

Early Polyphony: Organum, Conductus, Motet, ca. 1000-ca. 1300

The use of polyphony to ornament solo chants on special feast days evidently appealed to the medieval ear, for a version of composed polyphonic writing arose during the eleventh century. Curiously, the composed varieties of organum placed the original chant line on the bottom, and composed an organal part above the pre-existent melody. In the new note-against-note (or punctus contra punctum, i.e. contrapuntal) style of organum, each note of the original was still matched by a single note of the organal voice, but now each voice could move independently in pitch and direction. Thus, contrary motion supplemented parallel and oblique motion, though dissonances had to be avoided or resolved with care.

Even more elaborate was the so-called florid organum (also known as ‘Aquitanian organum’ or ‘melismatic organum’) which developed in south-west France during the early twelfth century. In this style, the organal voice now had several notes for each note of the principal voice. The effect was rhapsodic, but required close coordination between the two soloists, since the rhythm was not notated, and the bottom voice had to follow along carefully to know when to switch to the next pitch.

Thus, Notre Dame organum, which employs a rhythmic notation, seems to modern ears much more evolved than its stylistic predecessors. Notre Dame organum employs three distinctive rhythmic styles: organum purum in which both the upper voice and the lower voice move freely without a specified rhythm, copula in which the upper part moves in a strict rhythm while the bottom voice moves freely, and discant in which both parts move in strict rhythm. In all three styles, the lower voice, known as the tenor (from tenere, to hold), tends to move more slowly than the top voice; in organum purum or copula, the top voice can have thirty or more notes for each note of the tenor. The notation for the rhythmic sections is based on a group of patterns known as rhythmic modes; once a pattern is selected (e.g. short-long, short-long, short-long), it continues until a new pattern is adopted. The theorist Anonymous IV (named for its order among the anonymous treatises contained in Coussemaker’s nineteenth-century Scriptorum de musica medii aevi, 1864-1876) discusses six rhythmic modes, and describes the effect that composers were able to achieve with them. According to his description, Leonin (fl. ca. 1163-90) was an excellent composer of organum who wrote a cycle of organa for the major feasts of the church year, a collection known as the Magnus liber organi. His successor Perotin (fl. ca. 1200), however, was better at composing discant, and also wrote for more than two voices. Perotin’s compositions, and those of his anonymous contemporaries, offered alternative passages in a different style in a sort of a ‘mix and match’ rendition of the liturgical chant which served as the basis for the whole work. Thus, their efforts are known as substitute clausula. A piece of organum, then, would frequently include a mixture of different styles. Moreover, since only the solo sections were set polyphonically, the organum would also contrast with passages of the original plainchant sung by the choir in its original monophonic style.

During the thirteenth century, the motet developed out of the substitute clausula by texting the top voice or voices syllabically. The plainchant segment from a passage of organum–preserved in the bottom- most tenor voice–retained the word or syllable with which it was originally associated, but the voice above it, now called the motetus, would have a newly-created text. Various combinations of texts could occur: the Latin double motet had two syllabic voices, each with different texts, over a plainchant model; some motets mixed French and Latin; and by the end of the century, two French texts over a plainchant model were common. In all cases, the texture of the motet was elaborate, and the words hard to understand, since all of the texts were operating simultaneously. The motet contained staggered cadences, for one or more voices would continue on as another voice slowed to reflect punctuation or a line ending. As the century progressed, the texts of the newly composed voices shifted in content from sacred to secular, addressing love in both its platonic and its earthly guises. Other motets have political or allegorical texts. In some cases, the text of one voice might contrast ironically with the text of another.

The thirteenth-century motet is frequently contrasted with the polyphonic conductus, which had a single poetic text for all voices, with aligning rhythms and cadences. It also had a newly-composed tenor line, and so was constructed quite differently from the motet, which had a pre-existing chant or secular tune as a tenor.

To accommodate the syllabic settings and, eventually, the new rhythmic independence of the melodic lines within the motet, Franco of Cologne (fl. ca. 1250-1280) proposed a notational system which provided individual note shapes (the long, breve, and semibreve) to accommodate different rhythmic values. Petrus de Cruce’s (fl. ca. 1290) elaboration on this system allowed even shorter notes. The so-called Franconian and Petronian motets, then, exhibit a stratified texture in which the top part moves faster (in Petronian style, much faster) than the middle and lower parts.

Secular Music for a Single Line, ca. 1150-ca.1300

From the point of view of notation, secular music of the Middle Ages existed on the fringes of churchly life, for most of the music scribes of the era were church musicians. Nevertheless, they have left us a vibrant glimpse of life at court and in the town. Some of the earliest surviving secular music, music by the goliards, wandering scholar/poets, was gathered in an early thirteenth century collection titled Carmina burana. Unfortunately, the unheighted notation does not allow us to reconstruct the actual sound of the melodies for these early secular works (except for a few pieces with concordances in sacred sources). The largest collection of secular music, then, is that of the troubadours from the south of France and the trouvères in the northern regions. More than a dozen chansonniers collect the songs that these poet-musicians created. In addition to musical evidence, vidas (fictionalized biographies of troubadours) and razos (short introductory remarks to individual pieces) purport to explain how the poets’ songs came to be written.

The poems for the troubadour-trouvère repertory adopted the vernacular language of the region of their creation. Thus, troubadour lyrics are written in the langue d’oc, or old Provençal, and trouvère lyrics are in the langue d’oïl, or old French. The poems themselves feature ingenious poetic structures such as clever rhyme-schemes, varied use of refrain-lines or words, and different metric patterns, and the music reflects these structures in various ways. Indeed, novelty rather than predictability of form seems to have been the desired goal – a goal which changed radically in the fourteenth century.

The troubadour-trouvère repertory is largely strophic, with the music of one stanza repeated for successive stanzas. The internal musical structure of each stanza is bound up with the poetic organization, but musical forms which allow for flexibility from setting to setting are the most common. Each stanza of a canso, for instance, consists of a repeated section at the beginning (called a pes, or in plural, pedes: foot or feet) and a free section at the end (called a cauda or tail); many incorporate musical rhyme, with a line repeated from the pes to round out the cauda. Each pes contrasts lines that sound somewhat incomplete (with an ouvert or ‘open’ cadence) with lines that sound conclusive (with a clos or ‘closed’ cadence). At the very end of the poem, after three to ten stanzas, the poet might include an envoy, a few lines of text to be sung to the end of the cauda that provide a verbal ‘send-off,’ perhaps instructing the singer to deliver the song to the poet’s lady or directing the listener to think of the poet after hearing the piece. The most frequent topic is courtly love, in which the poet’s love is unobtainable; the sentiment itself is more important than the characters involved. Spinning songs, dawn songs (in which the lovers are cautioned that dawn is at hand), crusader songs, pastorelles, and even quasi-religious poetry also form a part of the troubadour-trouvère corpus.

The troubadour-trouvère repertory flourished in a courtly milieu. In the south, particularly, courtly women contributed to the repertory alongside their male colleagues. The patronage system for troubadours, however, broke up following the Albigensian crusade. As the troubadours fled, they brought the styles and topics of the secular genres with them to regions such as Spain, where the cantigas flourished, Germany, where Minnesang also focused on courtly love, and Italy, where most of the surviving repertory consists of lauda, sacred songs. In the north of France, however, there was more continuity, and patrons such as Eleanor of Aquitaine continued to encourage poetic and musical production.

If troubadours and trouvères participated in courtly culture and so achieved at least some measure of social distinction, minstrels, also known as jongleurs, were typically considered mere entertainers. They might perform courtly songs, but they might also juggle, play instruments, dance, recite poems, and the like. They frequently had to tour in order to produce a steady income, though in some instances a court patron would invite them to reside for a period ranging from weeks to years. During the period of the late Middle Ages and Renaissance, minstrels formed guilds to protect their status as artisans. From guild records, we known that in at least some instances, women were allowed to join the minstrel’s guild as members, and not merely as spouses.

In addition to secular vocal music, we have some evidence for a lively instrumental repertory. Numerous iconographic depictions of medieval instruments survive–as miniatures in manuscripts, in frescos, and in paintings–and a few instrumental dances survive, along with a handful of instrumental intabulations of vocal songs. Because instruments were evidently taught through oral tradition (and in a master-apprentice system), however, little documentation survives on important aspects such as selecting appropriate repertory, forming an accompaniment, ornamenting melody lines, and the like. Modern players of medieval instruments have to use informed imagination to recreate plausible performances.

The Fourteenth Century

The fourteenth century marks a period of musical changes in both sacred and secular music. Philippe de Vitry (1291-1361), an esteemed intellectual who served as a court official and later served as Bishop of Meaux, used the phrase ‘Ars nova’ to describe the new art of the period, contrasting it with the ars antiqua with its uniform triple meter and old-fashioned musical styles. The innovations of the ars nova included changes in notation, including the use of a new rhythmic shape (called the minim) for short notes, as well the use of color (a switch from black to red ink, for instance) to help demonstrate the switch from duple to triple or vice versa. In addition, Vitry discussed the use of isorhythm, a structural device in which the tenor of a motet or mass movement would be organized into a pattern of exactly-repeated pitches, the so-called color (kuh-LOR), and exactly-repeated rhythmic material, the talea. The color and talea were usually of different lengths. For example, there might be two statements of the color and six statements of the talea. The upper voices could be independent of this structure, but sometimes had recurring rhythmic motives to help mark the ends of the talea, in which case the piece could be called ‘pan-isorhythmic.’

The earliest manuscript to contain isorhythmic motets is an elaborate rendition of the Roman de Fauvel, Paris, B.N. fr. 146, copied around 1316-1318. This copy expands the original text with new poetry (nearly doubling the length of the poem), and adds miniatures and over 100 musical pieces. From a musical perspective, the volume serves as a retrospective anthology: in addition to the isorhythmic pieces, it contains examples of plainchant, organum, ars antiqua motets, courtly love songs, bawdy songs, and a final motet extolling the virtues of drinking. Since this is the only polyphonic musical manuscript to survive intact from the early fourteenth century, it is a particularly significant musical source. Other manuscripts of the period survive as scraps and fragments, giving a scant but tantalizing view of the repertory. (See Hasselman.)

The poet-musician Guillaume de Machaut (ca. 1300-1377) is probably the best-known composer of his era, due at least in part to the fact that he arranged to have his poetic and musical works copied into manuscripts. Hence, where other composers’ works are anonymous in many of the surviving sources, we can reconstruct virtually all of Machaut’s work. Machaut wrote in all of the significant musical genres of his day, creating isorhythmic motets, one of the earliest settings of the ordinary of the Mass (the Messe de Nostre Dame), a hocket (in which the continuous line is created as one part fills in the rests in another part; any one part sounds like a series of ‘hiccups,’ giving the technique its name), and secular works. The lais are elaborate compositions in which the structure of the poetry and music (including line length, rhyme scheme, and even number of lines) changes from stanza to stanza in a manner reminiscent of the paired sections of the old Latin sequence.

Machaut’s other secular works fall into the category of the formes fixes, established poetic/musical structures in which part of the delight of the work is in the subtle manipulation of predictable language and form. His forme-fixe songs, mostly on courtly love themes, included all of the major genres of his day: virelai (AbbaA), rondeaux (ABaAabAB), and ballades (a a b X), where a capital letter designates a refrain text and lower case designates new text. The predictability of the formes fixes, along with a growing sense of melodic and harmonic cogency, encouraged the development of tonal expectations and thus facilitated the beginnings of a two-part tonal structure.

Machaut’s sense of rhythmic play, his rich counterpoint, and his well-crafted melodies have guided our understanding of French musical style throughout the century. The generation after Machaut has been labeled that way (see Wilkins). The more involved style at the end of the century, sometimes called the Ars subtilior, has suffered by comparison with the ‘clarity’ of Machaut’s oeuvre. The ars subtilior, however, reflects an intellectual and stylistic maturity in which self-referential poetic and musical gestures were intended to be understood by the cognoscenti for whom the pieces were written. The intricacies of music by Solage, Jacob de Senlesches, and Philippus de Caserta involve sophisticated rhythms and harmonies, but the context for the repertory remains courtly love and a primarily melodic inspiration characteristic of the period as a whole.

In Italy, predictable poetic-musical forms also guided secular composers. The trecento composers (composers of the ‘300s, that is, the 1300s) adopted the form of the madrigal (AAB), the ballata (AbbaA), and the caccia (a canonic piece). The most famous and prolific composer in Italy was the blind composer and organist Francesco Landini (ca. 1325-1397), whose characteristic melodic ornament at phrase endings (with two half-steps down and a leap up to the final) became known as the Landini cadence. To the modern eye, Italian trecento repertory often seems simpler than its French ars nova counterpart, but at the end of the century, a musical cross-fertilization enriched both traditions as prelates and their attendant musicians traveled to the great church councils to re-unify the papacy. Johannes Ciconia (ca. 1370-1411), for instance, was born in Liège and spent time both at Avignon and in northern Italy, particularly Padua. He adopted Italian language and forms for most of his secular works but imported the rich texture of the northern isorhythmic motet and some of the complexities of the Ars Subtilior. In that synthesis, Ciconia helped to lay the foundation for the pan-European style of the early Renaissance.


The medieval musician was far different than the composer-hero of the nineteenth century. Medieval composers who worked for the church took their status principally from their post as choirmember, priest, prelate, or nun; composing was usually incidental to their other duties. Even the cappella, the vocal ensemble of the church or chapel, served an administrative as well as a musical function. Some members were prized for their soloistic abilities, but for them too music was merely one aspect of their service to God. Training within the church reflected this multifaceted job description, for choirboys learned Latin, mathematics, and classical grammar and rhetoric as well as singing and perhaps organ. In the secular sphere, too, musicians often held positions in areas other than music–as court member, clerk, or teacher. Those performers who depended solely on music for their livelihood often had low social status. Even tracing the works written by particular individuals proves a challenge, for throughout the Middle Ages, many musical works remained anonymous in the sources. Yet music itself was esteemed and treasured, for patrons supported it and valuable parchment was devoted to its preservation. Our modern-day tendency to focus primarily on composers (and to lament the lack of attributions) misguides us, for music was a part of everyday life, and individuals served various roles in its propagation: amateur, professional or churchly performer; member of an audience or congregation; passive patron contributing to the church or active patron commissioning a musical work or performance; poet; scribe; theoretician.


Works cited:

Carpenter, Nan Cooke. Music in the Medieval and Renaissance Universities. Norman: Univ. of Oklahoma Press, 1958.

Hasselman, Margaret Paine. “The French Chanson in the Fourteenth Century.” Ph.D. diss., University of California at Berkeley, 1970. 2 vols. Ann Arbor: University Microfilms. Order no. 719830.

McKinnon, James. “The Emergence of Gregorian Chant in the Carolingian Era.” In Antiquity and the Middle Ages: From Ancient Greece to the 15th Century. Ed. James McKinnon. Music and Society. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1990.

Wilkins, Nigel. “The Post-Machaut Generation of Poet-Musicians.” Nottingham French Studies, xii (1968): 40-84.

Good general texts on medieval music:

Seay, Albert. Music in the Medieval World, 2nd edition. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1975. [A concise and eloquent textbook, though somewhat dated.]

Reese, Gustave. Music in the Middle Ages, With an Introduction on the Music of Ancient Times. New York: W.W. Norton, 1940. [Magisterial account filled with historical and musical details; the index provides easy access to a wide range of topics.]

Hoppin, Richard H. Medieval Music. New York: W.W. Norton, 1978. [Solid and fairly readable account of medieval music; one of the better textbooks for those without an extensive musical background.]

McKinnon, James, ed. Antiquity and the Middle Ages: From Ancient Greece to the 15th century. Ed. James McKinnon. Music and Society. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1990. [Contains well-written articles addressing music primarily as a cultural phenomenon.]

Crocker, Richard L. A History of Musical Style. New York: McGraw-Hill , 1966. [One of the best discussions of musical style, with perceptive remarks on medieval music as well as more recent styles.]

Edwards, J. Michele. “Women in Music to ca. 1450.” In Women and Music: A History. Ed. Karin Pendle. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana Univ. Press, 1991, pp. 8-28. [General overview of women’s roles.]

Yardley, Anne Bagnall, “‘Ful weel she soong the service dyvyne’: The Cloistered Musician in the Middle Ages.” In Women Making Music: The Western Art Tradition, 1150-1950. Jane Bowers and Judith Tick, eds. Urbana and Chicago: Univ. of Illinois Press, 1986, pp. 15-38. [Good survey of music, especially polyphony, in women’s monastic communities.]

Strunk, W. Oliver. Source Readings in Music History: Antiquity and the Middle Ages. New York: W.W. Norton, 1965. [Lengthy primary source readings with an emphasis on music theory; also includes some excerpts from the church fathers.]

Weiss, Piero and Richard Taruskin. Music in the Western World: A History in Documents. New York: Schirmer Books, 1984. [Primary source readings, from a few sentences to several pages in length, embedded in or introduced by helpful historical context.]

Further reading on troubadours/ trouvères:

van der Werf, Hendrik. The Chansons of the Troubadours and Trouvères: A Study of the Melodies and Their Relation to the Poems. Utrecht: A. Oosthoek’s Uitgeversmaatschappij, 1972. [A solid introduction to the style and form of the repertory.]

Bogin, Meg. The Women Troubadours. New York: Paddington Press, 1975. [Readable account of the social context for the courtly lyric.]

Coldwell, Maria V. “Jougleresses and Trobairitz: Secular Musicians in Medieval France.” In Women Making Music: The Western Art Tradition, 1150-1950. Jane Bowers and Judith Tick, eds. Urbana and Chicago: Univ. of Illinois Press, 1986, pp. 39-61. [Somewhat broader than its title suggests; includes information on women’s musical roles from the twelfth and thirteenth centuries.]

Egan, Margarita. The Vidas of the Troubadours. Garland Library of Medieval Literature, 6. New York: Garland Pub., 1984. [Provides annotated translations of extant vidas.]

Huot, Sylvia. From Song to Book: The Poetics of Writing in Old French Lyric and Lyrical Narrative Poetry. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1987. [Excellent discussion of the changes in the writing process and the organization of manuscripts and their implications for the ways in which poetry circulated during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries.]

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Copyright (C) 1997-2003, Cynthia J. Cyrus. This file may be copied on the condition that the entire contents, including the header and this copyright notice, remain intact.


Many thanks to Dr. Cyrus for her willingness to share this piece (originally posted in the Online Reference Book for Medieval Studies) with the educational community. The medieval music photograph at the top of this page was added by the EIL staff.

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