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What Is Medieval Music?

D. Grey
D. Grey

Medieval music was written and performed during the Middle Ages, a period in European history usually considered to begin with the fall of the Roman Empire in the late 5th century. This style of music uses instruments that were available during that period of time. Medieval music often makes use of a number of unique instruments, such as the gittern, that have, for the most part, fallen out of contemporary use. Drawing inspiration from many sources, such as Greek mythology, lyrics were introduced into the music, which became a method of storytelling and honoring heroes. Additionally, medieval music was heavily tied to religious practices and institutions.

Future generations built their musical and artistic accomplishments upon the foundation of the Middle Ages. Medieval music was influenced by the historical events and beliefs of the age, such as martial conquests, religion, and societal practices. The first instruments used in medieval music are considered to be important markers of progress in music and culture, and many of them are still used in the present day, in one form or another.

Man playing a guitar
Man playing a guitar

The flute was one of the first musical instruments to define medieval music. The pan flute is considered to be its predecessor. Unlike a medieval flute, the pan flute has a set of wooden pipes of different lengths, making the instrument capable of producing a wide range of tones. In modern times, a standard flute is usually made of metal, but during the medieval period, wood was used almost exclusively. Many stringed instruments are of medieval origin, as during the 14th century the technology necessary to manufacture metal strings was invented. The mandore and gittern are two of the instruments that became popular in Europe, and the bowed lyre became representative of the music and culture of the early Byzantine Empire.

In the 11th, 12th, and 13th centuries, chivalry and heroism were praised in medieval music. Music and poetry were no longer separate arts, as lyrics became tied to instrumental music. Many lyrics were inspired by ancient Greek mythology.

During the Middle Ages, the church was one place where culture, music, and religion were brought together by medieval society. Polyphony, known in music as the technique of combining two or more separate voices, was specific to this particular age. Popular in the church, it provided the basis for much of the evolution of various musical techniques.

Discussion Comments


I always associate hymns in a minor key with the medieval sound. Maybe it's because so many of the chants and so forth were in a minor key.

Once in a while, I'll hear something that makes me wonder about whether it's very deeply rooted in the medieval period. The violin theme from Ken Burns' "The Civil War" is an example. It's called "Ashokan Farewell," and it evokes such sadness and melancholy. It's a modern piece, but is so beautiful and mournful, I wonder if the composer used a medieval form for it. It always gives me goosebumps and brings a tear to my eye.


It's probably in church music where you most often hear echoes of medieval music. Sometimes, really good choirs will do pieces from the Middle Ages, like Gregorian chants, which I love.

There are a couple of Christmas carols that have their roots in medieval music. "O Come, O Come Emmanuel" comes to mind for this. The chant form peeks through the cracks in this hymn. "Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence" is another hymn that owes its earliest origins to medieval music.

I love to hear good choirs sing old music. It gives me a connection to the past that I previously never had. I love to listen to the rising and falling notes, and to hear the origins of modern music in it.

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