Medieval Music

Notation

Before notation, teachers taught students how to play or sing songs and these songs were passed down orally in this way. In the early stages of notation, writing music down became a device to jog one’s memory more than a tool for instruction. Presumably, people writing and reading the music would have heard the songs in order to write and read them, so the notes on the page served as a reminder for pitches and changes in pitches, not for a way to create the music from the marks on the page alone. This short video shows and describes early musical notation, including very early squiggly lines indicating pitch changes as well as some early barline-like diagrams almost like the musical staff used ubiquitously today.

Instruments

Stuttgart Psalter
Folio 84v of the 9th-century Stuttgart Psalter

Gregorian chants, a form of monophonic sacred song, were developed in the 9th and 10th centuries. Early musical notation usually indicates songs to be sung, but there were other instruments beyond the human voice as well, two of which can be seen in the richly illuminated 9th-century Psalter to the right. In the illustration, one person sits with a psaltery, a type of ancient harp with several strings running across a wooden soundbox. On the right, a man stands with several percussive instruments, perhaps akin to a castanet or cymbal.

Folio 18r of Angers, Bibliothèque municipale, 0018. ca. 9th century.

The same or similar percussive instrument appears on a page of another 9th-century manuscript on the left, in addition to a long horned instrument called a gemshorn.

Musicians

Antiphonals (or antiphonaries) contain music for performing Gregorian chants and were used widely in the Roman Catholic Church. Additionally, the troubadours and trouvères were more secular groups who were both musicians and poets and performed songs professionally.

Primo Miniatore di San Domenico, a 14th-century Italian antiphonary.