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What Is Gothic Music?

By Gregory Hanson
Updated May 23, 2024
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Gothic music developed during the Middle Ages and featured greater complexity than the musical forms that preceded it but less use of instrumentation than those that followed it. This style of music is largely choral and was practiced most famously in Paris and in areas in close contact with that city. Musical structure and notation both became more formal and regular during this period. In more recent years, the term “gothic music” has been used to label a particular subculture of modern music inspired to some extent by the Gothic romances of the 19th century.

Early medieval music was very simple and often included only a single vocal part. This part was generally sung in unison by all the voices in a chorus. Popular music of the period was likely somewhat more varied, but records of popular music from the period are essentially non-existent.

A general increase in the level of peace and prosperity in Europe allowed more free time and resources to be devoted to activities that were not essential for simple survival. This led to a flourishing of all the arts during the years before the arrival of the black plague. In religious life, greater prosperity meant the creation of more lavish cathedrals and the ability to support larger groups of religious men and women to produce religious art and music.

One center of this new prosperity was the city of Paris. Notre Dame cathedral in Paris was begun during this period, with work starting in the 1160s. The Romanesque art of the previous era was replaced by the Gothic splendor of the new cathedral. The same influences led to the emergence of Gothic music.

The new Gothic music employed harmony in most pieces. Different groups of singers, often divided by vocal range, each sang different parts. These parts blended together to form a new and more intricate style of music.

A new system of musical notation emerged during this period. Certain musical modes were adopted as the standard forms in western music. These were based loosely on rhythmic structures taken from poetry. Six standard modes were used in the archetypical French form of Gothic music.

Later artists looked back on the Gothic period and tended to see it as a darkly mysterious era, rather than a period of growth and dynamism. Gothic romances were common in the 19th century, and the dark and gloomy tone of these works in turn inspired some of the musicians responsible for modern Gothic music.

This musical subculture has essentially nothing in common with the original Gothic music. It tends to feature dark and melancholy lyrics accompanied by music that ranges from the minimal and atmospheric all the way to strong driving electronic dance beats. The only common thread between these two versions of Gothic music is formed by the artists of the Romantic period.

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