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The Early Characteristic Developments in Western Music During the Middle Ages

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In the early ages of western music, plain chant (cantus planus) later to be known as Gregorian Chant (codified by the Pope, St Gregory the great) was found in Roman Catholic Churches around Europe. It is from here that western music started to develop, becoming a spectacle for commoners and royalty alike. This essay will look at the musical characteristics of the chants and how they developed into Ars Nova’s period of music. Ars Nova literally means “New Art” defined by the Dark Middle Ages before the Renaisance continuing from the period around 1300.

The early Gregorian chant was sung in Latin by men’s voices in unison unaccompanied by any musical instruments. This meant that the chant was monophonic aided by only the Church’s architectural resonance to which carried the voices.

(Sanctus – Various Artists. GrĂ©gorien 2012)

There is no rhythm to the chant and it is sung in unison at certain sections. Having no rhythm means that a syllable can be sung for an uncounted amount of time and a pattern cannot be determined.

“Cadence is never made by approaching the final from the semitone below: a whole tone must invariably be used in such a case.” (Mocquereau 2004)

The use of diatonic intervals (maximum even sounding spaces between two sounds) is apparent staying far away from anything chromatic (minimal spaces). And once the groupings of these notes were arranged into scales they became modes of which there are eight variances. Universi qui te expectant is another example of monophony this time sung melismatic. Melisma is several varied pitches sung on one syllable. This was used extensively throughout the Middle Ages to show expression, usually of joy. This could be possible indication of influence from Spanish Islamic Mozarabic chant as they share similar melisma in their chants.

“Chant words were sacred and could not be altered. But chant notes were more fluid. Even in the earliest chants, there could be more than one note per syllable, and in some cases this took on heroic proportions. An example of this was called a jubilus” (Lord 2008)

Most pieces of the sacred chants were composed around the scripture of Christian Psalms, and although codified they were not notated until the late ninth and tenth century in the form of Neumes (early notation). To learn these earlier chants monks had to listen and learn aurally by ear, meaning the pitches of the syllables are likely to be inexact to the original compositions.

Sequences are the early signs of the birth of harmony that came from the hardships of learning the plain chant. A monk named Notker Balbulus of St. Gall found the melisma parts too hard to remember, so he had the idea of giving them words of his own. These were recognised by the church and sometimes added into the end of a mass. Tropes were also found at this time under the same church. They differed from sequences as they were used as introductions to the main chants. Both sequences and tropes are similar by the fact they both are melodic texts or sections added to preexisting chants.

Organum was the next development to arise from the book Musica enchiriadis. This book was a manual for the Christian singers and describes that adding a second voice to the chant at an octave, fourth or fifth interval of the original can heighten a plainsong (aka plain chant).

“At this point, the two voices move in parallel until the cadence (or occursus, as it was called, meaning the coming-together), which restores the unison. In the second phrase, the augmented fourth against B is avoided first by sustaining the “organal” G, and then by leaping to E. Once again unison is restored at the end.” (Taruksin 2010)

This however was not quite polyphonic; it was more of a harmonized chant known as parallel organum or the later term counterpoint. There were other types of organum namely oblique organum and contrary organum. Oblique organum has the first voice (vox principalis) staying at the same pitch while the second (vox organalis) moved. Contrary organum has the vox pricipalis and vox organalis moving in opposite directions. True polyphony did not fully develop until a few centuries later in the school of Notre Dame.

Two Monks named Leonin and Perotin are to be said are the first documented composers of polyphonic music. Leonin brought two voiced organa and Perotin later brought the revised, three to four voices to the chants. These advancements are in the book Magnus Liber Organi (The Great Book of Organum).

(Propter Veritatem – Various Artists. GrĂ©gorien 2012)

In Propter veritatem, it starts off with oblique organum finishing in unison before going into parallel organum. Just after the initial introduction the new development shows its fruition, polyphony. Two different rhythmic and diatonic melodies both played simultaneously. This was a huge success as it has been accounted for the entire church year. That was until a generation later when Perotin revisited his predecessor’s (Leonin) work and developed it further, pushing the new boundaries of polyphony.

But this was not the work of just two monks; the developed polyphonic music needed a system of notation therefore notes were to be measured more precisely and aligned correctly with another part/s. This was the work of the entire school of Notre Dame.

“The Notre-Dame school is important to the history of music because it produced the earliest repertory of polyphonic (multipart) music to gain international prestige and circulation. Its four major forms are organum, a setting (for two to four voice parts) of a chant melody in which the chant is sung in sustained notes beneath the florid counterpart of the upper voice(s); clausula, actually a section within an organum composition corresponding to a melismatic (many notes per syllable) section of the chant and characterized by a decisive acceleration of pace in the voice having the chant; conductus, a processional composition in chordal style and not derived from any preexistent chant; and motet, similar to the clausula, from which it evidently evolved, but with the addition of new texts, often secular, in the upper parts.” (Western Music 2011)

Six rhythmic modes were found in this Church that all abided to the grouping of three beats. This was because the number 3 was for the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

“Using “short” for one beat, “long” for two beats, and “very long” for three beats, the modes were as follows:

Mode 1 (Trochaic): long, short = three beats altogether
Mode 2 (Iambic): short, long = three beats altogether
Mode 3 (Dactylic): very long, short, long = six beats altogether
Mode 4 (Anapaestic): short, long, very long = six beats altogether
Mode 5 (Spondaic): very long, very long = six beats altogether” (Lord. 2008)

Organum now with the third voice changed the names of the voices entailed. The original Gregorian chant was still placed at the bottom retaining its name as cantus firmus (vox perincipalis). The vox organalis was renamed the duplum (second voice), which continued its placement on top of the cantus firmus. And finally, the triplum was the new addition that sat on top of the two. No matter how many voices added to the new organum they all had to relate to the cantus firmus, even in the case that the two higher voices clashed against each other.

Now that rhythm had independence as much as melody, orgranum had almost reached it limitations with one last style called organum purum.

The basis of the chants stayed the same in relation to organum, where as the new polyphonic writing conductus was composed differently. Conductus was written usually of rhythms connected to secular (non religious) music, and whilst being played within the confinement of the church walls was not apart of the Mass. It was sung while priests moved from one part of the church to another during service. This was the first outlet for creative freedom in church life.

In conclusion to the research, resources found have been less than certain of the facts they have given, and with so many discrepancies between them and inconclusive dates it has been hard to assume the proper timeline on the progression and development of music in the western sacred music. That being said, this paper gives some indication of the steps taken into becoming the music heard in the Renaissance period.


Taruskin. R. (2011) Chapter 2 New Styles and Forms, Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century, Oxford University Press. Available at: http://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume1/actrade-9780195384819-div1-002004.xml [Retrieved 28 Dec. 2011]

Sherrane. R. (2011) Music History 102: a Guide to Western Composers and their music Designed. Available at: http://www.ipl.org/div/mushist/middle/index.html [Retrieved 28 Dec. 2011]

Western music (2011) Encyclopædia Britannica Online Available at: http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/398976/Western-music [Retrieved 1 Jan. 2012]

Lord. S. (2008) Music in the Middle Ages – A Reference Guide. Westport: Greenword Press.

Mocquereau. A. (2004) The Art Of Gregorian Music. Kila: Kessinger Publishing Co.

Bartje11 (2009) Alleluia: Justus ut palma {Free Organum} (4/25). Available
at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KR9xkGmUjIo [Retrieved 3 Jan. 2012]


Various Artists. (2012) Grégorien: 1000 ans de chant (Century, Vol. 3). France: Harmonia Mundi

Various Artists. (2012) A History of Music – Century (volume) 5 – La Naissance de la Polyphonie (The Birth of Polyphony). France: Harmonia Mundi

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