(This is edited down and revised from one of my old Angelfire posts. I’m really proud of how many superfluous words I’m able to expunge from these recovered old posts. I had a really bad habit of going off into the weeds with off-topic rambles and inappropriate editorializing, and was just way too wordy overall.)

I discovered Medieval music in the Musical Appreciation class I took my junior year at university. This was the first music class I actually enjoyed, since it was about history and real musical compositions instead of notes, keys, and other stuff I never understood. Our textbook was written by a fellow who went to my original shul; he also selected the music on the 3-CD companion.

I fell in love with the Kyries and other monastic chants. They have an otherworldly feel, like you’re actually in a Medieval monastery. There were also some early Medieval compositions and a gorgeous Occitan troubadour song by Beatriz de Dia, “A Chantar.” (Occitan was a dialect from Southern France.) The instrument featured most prominently is a vielle, an ancestor of the violin.


Other Medieval instruments I fell in love with:


Copyright Sguastevi

The dulcian, an ancestor of the bassoon, originated in the first half of the 16th century, though it sounds more Medieval than Renaissance to me. It’s like a more melancholy bassoon. My character Eulalia Qiana Laurel (one of Cinnimin’s many grandchildren) plays both a dulcian and vielle, which perfectly fits her sad, dark personality. She also loves spiders, bats, dressing in black, and melancholy poetry. Her mood springs from her parents’ attitude towards her as the seventh girl in a row.


Copyright blackbiird; Source Flickrlaute

The lute remains one of the most popular instruments from this era. It’s very lightweight, though it gets out of tune easily. It sounds like a cross between a guitar and harp.


The dulcimer also remains very popular. It’s played with miniature hammers, and is similar to a zither.


© Pruneau / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA-3.0

A viol da gamba is another ancestor of the violin. They were very high-class and courtly, and remained quite popular in England even after the violin had come into vogue. A viol bow is convex, not concave like a violin bow. They had to be played while seated, and the most popular models had six strings.


Bagpipes are mentioned in the Bible, and are believed to have originated in Sumeria. Throughout most of the Middle Ages, they tended to only have one drone. Around 1400, a second drone was added, and after 1550, a third drone was introduced and give it its modern sound.


The lizard (a tenor cornett), the even-curvier serpent (a bass cornett), and the zink/cornett itself were created in the Late Middle Ages, and similar to a modern-day recorder. They very closely replicated the sounds of the human voice.


The harp dates back at least as far as the Bible. Troubadours and court musicians had to play by ear or memory. In Medieval folklore, it was said to be imbued “with supernatural powers which could destroy the feynde’s might.” A 12th century Welsh law book stated: “The three items indispensable to a gentleman were his harp, his cloak, and his chessboard, while the three proper things for any man to have in his house were a virtuous wife, his cushion on his chair, and his harp in tune.”


The rebec, which originated in the Arab world, was seen as low-class. It varied in sizes and pitches, though the three-stringed model was most popular.


Copyright http://www.organistrum.com

The hurdy-gurdy was very highly regarded. Before 1300, most were so large they required two players.

Important Medieval musicians in a nutshell:

Josquin Desprez (ca. 1450/55–27 August 1521) created the system of musical notation, and was one of the most important composers of all time. Prior to Desprez, a song or composition was often never played the same way twice.

Guillaume de Machaut (ca. 1300–April 1377) is the most famous of all Medieval composers. He wrote songs and poetry in his native French, created illuminated manuscripts, and broke boundaries in a quest to make music more personal and dramatic. Many people today consider him avant-garde. His best-known work is Mass of Notre Dame.

Leonius (born ca. 1135) and Perontius (born ca. 1200) made music polyphonous (many voices) instead of monophonous (one voice).

Early Music Resources

Josquin Desprez

Guillaume de Mauchaut

International de Machaut Society

Early Polyphony

5 thoughts on “Medieval music

  1. A great resource on medieval instruments is <A Href=https://www.amazon.com/Instruments-Moyen-Age-Renaissance-MUNROW-CONSORT/dp/B000NQDC1A/David Munrow's Instruments of the Renaissance and Middle Ages. It gives a variety of old instruments their own solo tunes. I have the 2-record set in vinyl.


  2. It’s fascinating to study the evolution of music. I enjoy hearing the medieval stuff in occasional doses, but I wouldn’t want to listen to it all the time.

    Arlee Bird
    Tossing It Out


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