Thursday, March 23, 2017

Secular Music in the 12th Century

This month, Clef Notes has been looking at music from the Medieval era. So far, we’ve emphasized the importance of the church in relation to the development of music. But did music exist outside of the church? Let’s find out.

Most people outside of the church did not read music during ancient times. In fact, most people were not literate, so much of the music from that time period was never written down. That makes it quite difficult for historians to learn much about the secular music from this time period! We do know that music was seen outside of the church, most commonly as settings of poetry as a means of entertainment.

During the 12th century, we know that many secular, newly-composed works were about unattainable love. There were various types of musicians, depending on the country, who performed music for entertainment purposes. One type was known as a Jongleur. A Jongleur was a lower-class musician who traveled around performing tricks, telling stories, and playing music. A Minstrel is another type of musician seen during the 13th century. A Minstrel was employed by the court as an entertainer. We also know about Troubadours and Trouvereres – poet-composers sponsored by aristocrats in the court. These secular musicians were known by different names depending on the country, but essentially performed the same role.

Courtesy of

Monday, March 20, 2017

Early Sacred Music

Earlier this month we mentioned that the history of music corresponds somewhat with the history of the Christian church. In order to fully understand early music, we must understand how chant fits into the Christian liturgy.

The Mass was considered the most important part of the church during the Middle Ages. It commemorates the Last Supper and includes various rituals, psalm singing, prayer, and scripture reading. You may have also heard of the Office – 8 services performed daily at specific times. The Office is mostly seen in monasteries and convents. Each service includes psalms paired with antiphons (chant sung before and after the psalm). It also includes Bible readings, responsories, hymns, and canticles. Have you heard of a psalm tone? This is a term that refers to a formula used to sing psalms in the Office. These formulas were written in a way to fit any psalm and there was one psalm tone for each church mode.

We have looked at early music in the sacred context. It was a huge part of the church service, both in the Mass and the Office. But did it exist in the secular world? Let’s look at this next time. 

Thursday, March 16, 2017

All About Church Modes

How has music changed over time and where does the Western music we know today have its roots? We’re walking through Medieval music history this month on Clef Notes and are glad to have you along! Today’s post is all about church modes.

Have you ever heard someone refer to music as being in the Dorain mode? Or perhaps Phyrgian, Lydian, or Mixolydian? Then you have heard a reference to a church mode. There are eight of these modes and their names were adapted from Greek scale names during the 9th century. But what are they?

Think of church modes like you would a scale – only not quite! In a mode, pitch is relative, not absolute. Each mode is determined based on intervallic relationships rather than on a certain pitch. Make sense? Good! Let’s continue…

The intervallic relationships revolve around a significant note in the mode called the “final.” This note is typically the last melody note. There’s also a second significant note in each mode known as the “reciting tone.” This note is normally the most prominent note, occurring most often in a chant. There are four total finals – two modes per final, resulting in eight total church modes. If two modes have the same final, their range will differ. Modes known as “authentic” have a range extending from one step below the final to an octave above, while modes known as “plagal” extend from a fourth or fifth below the final to a fifth or sixth above.

Church Modes
Courtesy of A History of Western Music, 8th Edition, Burkholder, Grout, and Palisca, pg. 42

I know this is getting a bit technical but it’s key to the development of music! Each chant in Medieval times was assigned a mode in order to help people learn them. The system was fully developed by the 10th century.

Now that we have a grasp on what exactly chant is along with notation and modes, next week we’ll start to look at how it was used in both sacred and secular settings.