Miniatures from the Cantigas de Santa Maria manuscript (13th c.)


The Middle Ages is the period that runs from the 5th century to the 15th century (from the fall of the Roman Empire to the discovery of America in 1492).
This period can be divided into two phases:
- Low Middle Ages (5th – 11th century) associated with Romanesque art and monophonic music.
- High Middle Ages (11th – 15th century) associated with Gothic art and polyphonic music.
The Christian Church dominated almost everything about life, including music. 


  • Rhythm: Gregorian chant had no beat, but troubadour music and later polyphonic music had beat.
  • Melody: it was modal, it was based on a musical system derived from the Greek modes.
  • Harmony: polyphonic music was supported by the consonances of octave, 5th and 4th. 
  • Texture: monophony predominated which later evolved into polyphony.
  • Timbre: music was mainly vocal. The instruments were arranged in small groups of soloists, which sounded high and penetrating.
  • Dynamics: there were no changes in intensity.
  • Musical notation: neumatic notation which later evolved into square notation.


  • France: Leonin, Perotin, Philippe de Vitry, Guillaume de Machaut.
  • Italy: Francisco Landini, Johannes de Garlandia.
  • Germany: Hildegard von Bingen, Franco of Cologne.
  • Spain: Alfonso X the Wise, Martín Codax de Vigo.


Religious music started as Gregorian chant and then developed into polyphonic music. The Christian Church prohibited singing by women and the use of instruments, because this would distract the faithful in their worship. 

Gregorian chant is a repertoire of music destined for the liturgy of the Christian Church which is featured by a single melodic line (monophonic) without instrumental accompaniment (a cappella) and a free rhythm, determined by the accentuation of the text in Latin. Pope Gregory I the Great encouraged the organization and unification of the chants (hence the name "Gregorian").
Chants were originally passed through oral tradition, but they became so numerous that by the 8th century monks began to draw symbols (neumes) above or below the texts to help remember the melody. Neumatic notation evolved into square notation, achieving a more precise indication of pitch with reference lines (a four-line staff) and clefs.
Neumatic notation and square notation

Types of chants according to the manner of performance:
- Responsorial: alternation between a soloist and the choir.
- Antiphonal: alternation between two halves of the choir.
- Direct: no alternation.

Types of chants depending on the relation between text and music:
- Syllabic: each syllable has one note.
- Neumatic: each syllable has a neume (from 2 to 6 notes).
- Melismatic: each syllable has a melisma (from 6 to over 60 notes).


Primitive polyphony (9th 12th centuries)
Polyphony (different melodies at the same time) appeared in Western music in the late 9th century. 
Primitive polyphony was built by improvising upon the base of Gregorian chant.
  • Organum: it is the simplest polyphonic form.
    • Parallel organum: primitive polyphonic form that comprises two melodies in parallel movement.
      - Vox principalis: it is the original Gregorian melody or cantus firmus (red notes).
      - Vox organalis: it is a second melody that was added at a distance of an octave, 5th or 4th.
    • Melismatic organum: primitive polyphonic form in which the cantus firmus is set in long notes and over it the vox organalis sings melismas.
  • Discantus: primitive polyphonic form that comprises two melodies, but when one melody goes higher the other melody goes lower and vice versa. It evolved into counterpoint.

Ars Antiqua (12th 13th centuries)
Music began to measure rhythm, using Greek metrical feet, due to the need of synchronizing the different voices of the polyphony. The centre was the Notre Dame School in Paris; its main composers were Leonin and Perotin.

  • Conductus: it is built upon newly created melodies (not Gregorian), with a processional rhythm.
  • Motet: it has 2 to 4 voices; each one of them has a different text and rhythm.

Ars Nova (14th century)
Polyphonic music became more complex in its rhythms and melodies. New more elaborate forms arose, reflecting the search of pleasure and purely sonorous effect of music. Mensural notation appeared, in which the particular values were designated for each sound. Main composers were Philippe de Vitry, Guillaume de Machaut and Francesco Landini.

Perotin - Viderunt Omnes
(Ars Antiqua)

Adam de la Halle - De ma dame vient 
(Ars Antiqua - Motet)
Machaut - Messe de Nostre Dame
(Ars Nova)


Profane vocal music was developed at the same time as religious music under the protection of feudal lords. It began with monophonic music and then developed into polyphonic music.

  • Minstrels, jongleurs or joglars: were professional musicians that travelled from town to town entertaining people in castles and villages with staging shows, acrobatics and music. They were considered social outcasts. They were just performers, playing songs taken from other composers.

  • Troubadours: appeared in Southern France in the 11th century. Related movements flourished throughout Europe: trouvères in Northern France; Minnesingers in Germany. They were cultured and refined persons. They were poets and composers. They wrote songs in the vernacular languages of each area. The texts dealt with themes of courtly love and chivalry. Main musical forms: ballad, virelai, rondeau, pastorela. Famous Spanish troubadours: Martín Codax de Vigo (Cantigas de amigo), Alfonso X the Wise (Cantigas de Santa María).
  • Goliards: were clerical students and vagabonds. They wrote and performed monophonic songs written in Latin. The texts focus on two main themes: depictions of the lusty lifestyle of the vagabond (food, drink, carnal pleasures, etc.) and satirical criticisms of society and the church. Some of these songs are compiled in a song book called Carmina Burana.
Profane polyphonic forms appeared in the Ars Nova (14th century). E.g. canon, ballad, chanson.

Adam de la Halle - Je muir, je muir d'amourette

Carmina Burana: O Fortuna


Instrumental music was forbidden in sacred music, but instruments were used to accompany profane songs and dances.
Ancient civilizations practiced dancing in all kinds of social events. Christianism forbade dance because it was associated with pagan rites. But, since the 12th century we find examples of dances, some of them sung and others purely instrumental.

  • Estampie: is the generic name used for dances in manuscripts. It is monophonic and structured in several repeated phrases (puncta).


- String: harp (1), lute (2), vielle (3), rebec (4), psaltery (5), tympanon (6), hurdy-gurdy (7).
- Wind: recorder (8), trumpet (9), dulzaina (10), cornett (11), serpent (12), bagpipes (13), portative organ (14).
- Percussion: tambourine (15), cymbals (16), castanets (17).



  • Rhythm: free rhythm.
  • Texture: monophony.
  • Timbre: male voices.
  • Form: Gregorian chant hymn.
PROFANE VOCAL MUSIC: Alfonso X – Cantiga 100 "Santa María Strela do día"
  • Rhythm: duple time signature (2/4).
  • Texture: monophony with instrumental accompaniment in heterophony.
  • Timbre: male voices, female voices and instruments.
  • Form: cantiga.