A Brief Overview On The Music Of The Middle Ages And Its Instruments

Medieval music is characterised by the historical period encompassed between the years 400 to 1400. Its two main branches are represented by liturgical (i.e. religious) and secular (non-religious) music.

On the other hand, with respect to the usages of instruments it’s important to mention that there can be identified three main musical categories as follows: only vocal performances (such as those from Gregorian chants or other church choirs), only instrumental performances (most notably in secular medieval music), and, last but not least, vocal performances accompanied by a series of instrumentations (such as the odes sung in the honour of monarchs and brave knights).

A fresco depicting medieval musicians. Image source: www.pixabay.com

It’s equally significant to mention the fact that during the Middle Ages the foundations of music notation and theory were written down and applied. As for the instruments used, the following range was mainly in question when talking about medieval music composition:

  • Woodwind instruments (such as the pan flute, bagpipes, or the gemshorn)
  • Stringed instruments (such as the hurdy-gurdy, lute, or mandore)
  • Brass instruments (such as the sackbut)
  • Percussion instruments (such as the glockenspiel, tabor, or early cymbals)

The medieval music progressed concomitantly with the Middle Ages themselves, evolving from the pioneering state of the Early Middle Ages to stability during High Middle Ages and, ultimately, richness at the transition between the Late Middle Ages and Renaissance. In these respects, it would wise to enlist several noteworthy composers of the medieval era:

  • Notker the Stammerer (Frankish composer of the Early Middle Ages)
  • Leo VI the Wise (Byzantine Emperor during the late 9th and early 10th centuries)
  • Guido of Arezzo (Italian composer of the 11th century)
  • Richard I of England (King of England in the late 12th century)
  • Walther von der Vogelweide (German High Medieval lyric poet)
  • Denis of Portugal (King of Portugal during the late 13th and early 14th centuries)
  • Guillame de Machaut (14th century French lyricist and composer)
  • Francesco Landini (14th century Italian composer and organist)

The reciters of epic poems or legends in the halls of the kings were accompanied by various instruments. These reciters were mostly known as minstrels or troubadours, being welcomed at the king’s court for what we would nowadays call entertainment. Below is a fine example of what medieval music sounded like:

Documentation sources and external links:


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