Medieval Era Music (500-1450) – An Intro with Books, and other Resources


Music of every era has been largely a reflection of the frame of mind the society bore at that period in time. While Western music from the ages to the present is collectively but incorrectly referred to as Classical Music, documented evidence defines the musical era as:
  • Medieval (500-1450)
  • Renaissance (1430- 1600)
  • Baroque (1600-1760)
  • Classical (1730-1820)
  • Romantic (1815-1910)
  • 20th Century (1900-2000)
  • Contemporary (1975-present)
The overlapping years are the transitional period of each era.

Medieval Era:

The end of the Roman Empire marked the beginning of this era, which continued till early fifteenth century. Society broke free from the primitive, uncouth ways of the Dark Ages and took on a polished appeal. European music primarily evolved as sacred music under Christian influence. The initial prayers and the vocals used by the church were monophonic in nature until music arrangement shifted to polyphony. Despite the fact that the church considered blending sacred and secular music as sacrilege, it was the rage of the era. Travel prompted by Crusades further shaped the society and toned the music outlook. Slowly, Arabian love songs, French Troubadours, Trouveres and Minstrels who sang of courtly love and romance, along with the English, Scottish and Welsh bards lend harmony to the mix.

Although there is no dearth of composers for that period, the more famous ones are Phillipe de Vitry, Guillaume Dufay, Johannes de Muris, and Guillaume Machaut. Vitry is regarded as the visionary who formally laid out the Ars Nova theory (includes all European polyphonic music of the 14th century), and as the main developer of the motets. While mostly secular, some of Vitry’s works had a religious tilt. However it was Machaut who embraced Ars Nova and took it to higher heights. Machaut is also well known for his work Mass of the Notre Dame. Dufay, on the other hand, was the transitional composer who handheld the medieval music into the renaissance era. His calm and smooth works were a sharp deviation from the harsh and complicated music composed by his peers.

Below are music selections by composers of the medieval era:

Composer/TitleThumbnailISBN/ASINBest PriceDescription
Les tres riches heures du Moyen Age: A Medieval Journey Box Set

B00000074R $59.98Boxed set of Medieval compositions. Over 7 hours. Composers: Gregorian Chant, Pierre De Breville, Bemart de Ventadom, Folquet de Marseille, Alfonso X, Neidhart von Reuental, Tannhauser, Oswald von Wolkenstein, Adam de la Halle, etc.
Phillipe de Vitry and the Ars Nova B00000204S$19.98The music is full of correspondingly bold, stark harmonies and strongly accented rhythms. 14th century motets - The Orlando Consort.
Patterns in Play: A Model for Text Setting in the Early French Songs of Guillaume Dufay by Graeme M. Boone - American Musicological Society Monographs978-0803212350$90.00Focuses on the early French songs of Guillaume Dufay and proposes a basis for determining some rules of common procedure for interpreting both underlay and style.
Guillaume de Machaut and Reims: Context and Meaning in his Musical Works978-0521036085$57Machaut's works in context of his long-term relationship to Reims and its cathedral
John Dunstable: Complete Works978-0852494080$80Critical edition of Dunstable’s music.
Oeuvres Completes Du Trouvere Adam De La Halle: Poesies Et Musique978-0852494080$31Reproduction of the original published before 1923.


While secular music was the highlight of this era entertainment music was not lacking either. Almost every medieval town, castle, and court had its own musical band known as Waits. Waits were musicians in groups of four that started off as watchmen of the castle and later became sentinels for the town. They alerted the residents of pending danger with high-pitched pipes called the shawns or hautboys. When the sentry role was no longer required these talented people became the official town band.

Musical instruments of the era are summarized in the table below. Most of them are still enjoyed by musicians.


ProductThumbnailBest Price Description
Shawm$50 and upMusical instrument of the woodwind family.
Flute $100 and up Woodwind family instrument.
Recorder $4 and up English version of the flute.
Gemshorn$995 and up Precisely pitched musical instruments frequently used by early music and folk music ensembles.
Ocarina$50 and upAn oval-shaped enclosed space with four to twelve finger holes and a mouthpiece that projects from the body.
Bagpipe$150 and upUses enclosed reeds fed from a constant reservoir of air in the form of a bag.
Lute$200 and upLute can refer generally to any plucked string instrument with a neck and a deep round back.
MandoraNAMandora or mandore refers to various types of lutes.
GitternNAA relatively small, quill-plucked, gut strung instrument that originated around the 13th century and came to Europe via Moorish Spain A predecessor of the guitar.
Psaltery$50 and upStringed musical instrument of the harp or the zither family.
Lyre$150 and upA stringed musical instrument well known for its use in classical antiquity and later.
VielleNAA European bowed stringed instrument used in the Medieval period, similar to a modern violin but with a somewhat longer and deeper body, five (rather than four) gut strings, and a leaf-shaped pegbox with frontal tuning pegs.
Fiddle$150 and upBowed string musical instrument, usually the violin.
Hurdy Gurdy$7 and upAlso known as a wheel fiddle is a stringed musical instrument that produces sound by a crank-turned rosined wheel rubbing against the strings.
Organ$990 and upA family of keyboard musical instruments characterized by sustained tone.
Harp$150 and upA stringed instrument which has the plane of its strings positioned perpendicular to the soundboard.
Trombone$150 and upA musical instrument in the brass family.




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