Characteristics of the Middle Ages
Music in the Middle ages is less defined as those in the Baroque period. They were not regulated and have very little similarity among them, so, there is no distinct way to state their characteristics.
In order to let the surfers out there have a concise and clear view of the general characteristics of Medieval music, we have separated the section into Sacred and the Secular music.
1) Church Modes
Church modes were the basic scales of western music. Despite the name, the modes were used in both sacred and secular music. They have seven different tones and the eighth tone duplicate the first just like our modern day major and minor scales. The different modes are Dorian, Phrygian, Aeolian, Ionian, Mixolydian, Lydian. Many folk music are based on these modes. For example, the song What Shall We Do With The Drunken Sailor uses the Dorian mode.
For over 1000 years the Roman Catholic church uses the Gregorian Chant as their official music. It consists of the melody set to sacred Latin texts and sung without accompaniment. It is monophonic in texture. (Remember, the priests were reluctant to use instruments as they were associated with pagan rites). Gregorian chant was meant to create the mood and atmosphere for specific prayers in church services. It has the calm, other-worldly sort of quality and it represents the voice of the church rather than any individual. Its rhythm is flexible without meter and has very little sense of beat. These gives the chant a floating feel.
The Gregorian Chant was named after Pope Gregory I ( The Great). However, there was some sort of dispute as people thought Pope Gregory II, who was supposedly smarter, was the one who did it. There was a legend that a dove flew from the ceiling of the cathedral and perched on the Popes (either of them) shoulder and whisper into his ears, the sacred chants. This legend though mystical, was quite impossible. It was more likely that the Gregorian Chant evolved throughout the years.
The Chants were passed down orally throughout the first decades but eventually someone had the wit to notate it down so that the priests would not forget them!
Though the notation might have help, it was still very difficult to remember hundreds of chants so one Guido of Arezzo came up with this idea of remembering the chants through a method which he named the Guidos Hand. He claimed that through this method, boys would take only two years to master the chants compared to the previous twelve years. He gave different notes, different names. Such as ut re mi fa sol la . We added a ti after these and changed ut into dol. Though no one knew how the Guidos Hands worked, it must have been quite useful during Guidos days.
An example of a Gregorian Chant is Alleluia :Vidimus Stellam ( We have seen his star) The word alleluia is a Latinised form of the Hebrew Hallelujah ( praise ye the Lord ).
For hundreds of years, western music are often monophonic but eventually, someone thought of a brilliant idea to double the melodic line with one or more additional melodic lines and this is called an organum.
At first, the second line simply duplicated the chant at a fifth interval up and the lines are parallel. Between 900-1200, the organum became truly polyphonic with the additional lines becoming more independent. By 1100, the melodic lines could have different rhythm with the chant moving in long notes while the accompaniment move in short fast notes.
Paris became the centre of polyphonic music with the Cathedral of the Notre Dame having to important successors----Leonin and Perotin. These two introduced a clear meter and beat to Gregorian chants bringing western music to new heights.
Medieval polyphony has very few triads and these triads were believed to be the basic consonant chords of our modern day music.
The Mass ordinary consists of text that remained the same from day to day throughout the church year. However, they can be set to different music. The five sung prayers are the Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus and the Agnus Dei.
An example is Guillame de Machauts Notre Dame Mass.
As we have mentioned earlier, secular music during the Middle ages were as popular as our pop music today. They were performed by jongleurs and were notated though rhythm was not indicated. Even though there are no indication of rhythm, the pieces are likely to have a regular meter and clearly defines beat.
A good example of a popular medieval music during that time would be the estampie. It is a Medieval dance in triple meter and a strong and fast beat. A single line of the music is notated and no instrument are specified. Medieval minstrels are likely to add modest accompaniments to the dance tunes in the manner of adding a drone of a psaltery ( a pluck of struck string instrument)
Ars nova :
The fourteenth century brought many changes to Europe. The feudal system and the mandatory influence of the church is weakened greatly. At this time, secular music was much more popular than sacred ones
Composers wrote polyphonic music not on sacred Gregorian chants but on drinking songs instead. A new form of music notation is evolved and one could easily express rhythm and beats. Syncopation which was a rarity earlier became common.
These changes in the music style are called new art or ars nova.