Thursday, March 30, 2017

The 13th-century Motet

Let’s wrap up our month of Medieval music by looking at a very important genre that developed in the early 13th century – the motet.  This type of polyphony adds a newly-written Latin text to the upper voices of clausulae. Wait – what does that mean? “Clausulae” were sections of organum (see my last post!) that could be removed and replaced with a new section. Therefore, a motet contained a new text sung with a lower part that usually was taken from chant. Eventually more voices were added, singing their own individual texts. The motet developed in form over time and was performed both inside and outside of the church. One example of a leading motet composer is Guillaume de Machaut.

Guillaume de Machaut
Courtesy of
Around this time, we see more developments in notation including note duration signified by note shapes – quite similar to how we notate music today! Also, we see mensuration signs, the ancestor to modern-day time signatures.

Next month, we’re taking a leap forward in time and hitting our annual music and cinema month in Clef Notes! Join me as we look at our favorite films and how music plays a major part.

Monday, March 27, 2017

An Introduction to Polyphony

This month, Clef Notes has been looking at music from the Medieval era. It’s impossible to cover everything in just one month’s time. Hopefully, however, you have at least been given a good glance at where our Western music tradition finds its roots. This week, let’s wrap up the month by looking at polyphony – music in which multiple voices sing together on independent parts.

Polyphony first rose in significance during the 11th and 12th centuries with the purpose of adding ornamentation to liturgical music. It helped develop the ideas of counterpoint and harmony. It likely existed prior to this point in history, however the earliest written records of this type of music date from this time period. There are various genres of polyphony. We will look at organum today.

Organum consists of a melody sung against a drone or a melody doubled at a consonant interval. It includes two voice parts that follow counterpoint rules. There are various types of organum that we will briefly mention here, but I strongly encourage you to explore more on your own if you find this topic interesting. Parallel organum uses a pre-existing chant in one voice and adds an “organal” voice a fifth below, note for note. Free organum allows the “organal” voice more independence, moving in similar motion (same direction but different interval), contrary motion (opposite direction), or oblique motion (one voice stays the same while the other moves) to the chant voice. Later in the 12th century we see more ornate examples of this type of polyphony, with anywhere from one to three notes in one part to every one note in the original chant voice. Around this time, we see musicians beginning to compose rather that just improvise music, and their system of notation began to indicate duration of notes. It didn’t look quite like music notes do today. They used combinations of note groups rather than note shapes to show the desired duration.

Two important Notre Dame musicians of the time were Leonin and Perotin. These men wrote polyphony, specifically organum. Leonin was known for his collection of two-voice organum, while Perotin also wrote for three or even four voices!

I think that’s probably enough early music for one sitting. Let’s look more at another polyphonic genre next time – the motet!

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. 

Monday, March 13, 2017

What's a neume?

Welcome to Medieval Music History month in Clef Notes. We’re stepping way back in time to look at some of the earliest forms of music. Last time, we talked about how music history follows Christian church history, since music was so important to the early church services. In order to unify a divided church and divided lands, church and political leaders sought to standardize the chant used within a church service. One way to help ensure people from different regions were singing the same thing was to come up with a system of notation. Up until this point, most music traditions were transmitted orally, which wasn’t always accurate. Key features often got lost in translation!

During the 9th century, we see the earliest examples of notation. At this point, neumes were used to represent contour of a chant only. There was no pitch designation, and typically no rhythm indicated. What’s a neume, you ask? A neume is a sign used to write down chant notation (similar to a note head today, but not quite!) During the 10th and 11th centuries, neumes were arranged relative to one another in order to suggest pitch. During the 11th century, a monk named Guido of Arezzo suggested using lines and spaces to help indicate pitch. He used a line in red ink to show F and a line in yellow ink to show C. The staff we know today evolved from this early form of notation.

You may have heard of a scale. But what about a church mode? Join me next time to learn more!

Thursday, March 9, 2017

The Origins of Music Notation

It’s easy to take a musical staff with five lines and four spaces for granted in today’s world. Everyone recognizes music notation when they see it – whether they can read it or not. But where did music notation come from? Let’s dig into this a little bit.

The history of music corresponds somewhat with the history of the Christian church. The reason for this is that the church was always known to use music in its services. Music notation was actually invented for use in the church. The music seen in early church history consisted of the chanting of scripture and the singing of psalms. These early chants had various dialects depending on the region or the division of the church. During the first millennium, the Roman Empire had split into the Western Empire (this became the Roman Catholic Church) and the Byzantine Empire (the became the Orthodox Church).

During the mid-8th century, Pope Steven II needed military alliance and Pepin the Short, King of the Franks in the North, wished to use the church in order to unify the lands. This is when we see the standardization of chant. By eliminating the various dialects and coming up with a standard chant and means of notating it, people from different regions would more likely feel unified. When Charlemagne took over as Holy Roman Emperor in 800, he declared that every church had to sing the same thing in order to help with this standardization process.

But how did this lead to music notation? And what did music notation look like? We’ll continue looking at this next time.

Monday, March 6, 2017

An Introduction of Medieval Music

This month, Clef Notes is geared to the true music nerd. We are stepping way back in time to look at how Western music is actually rooted in antiquity. We will then walk through the development of chant, notation, and the importance of music in the church during the Middle Ages.

Did you know that ancient Greek writings provide influence for Western views on music? More writings about music survive from ancient Greece than from any other civilization. Some of these writings focus on how music affects the listener. Others talk about music theory. You’ve probably heard of Plato and Aristotle, right? They wrote about how music can affect mood. Plato believed that music should only be used to educate while Aristotle’s views said that it is perfectly alright to listen to music to bring pleasure.

We don’t really have much in the way of notated music dating from ancient times. Most of what we know comes from writings such as these. It is believed that musicians of that time tended to rely more on their memory and formulas when passing along musical ideas orally rather than on notation.

The church played a large role in Medieval culture. In fact, it is what helped music traditions develop, eventually leading to the system of notation we know today. We’ll talk about this more next time.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Edvard Grieg and Nina Hagerup

This month, Clef Notes has been looking at composer love stories throughout history. Let’s wrap things up by mentioning Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg, who fell in love with his first cousin while working in Copenhagen.

Nina Hagerup was a talented singer who grew up with Grieg in Norway but later moved with her family to Denmark. The couple fell in love and married in 1867. Nina became Grieg’s preferred interpreter of his songs, and the inspiration behind some of his music. The pair often performed together and the public loved them! Listen here to a song cycle, Grieg’s Haugtussa, op.67, written for his wife.

What other famous love stories can you think of from music history?