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Early Music: Music of the Medieval and Renaissance Eras

Updated: May 9, 2023



What is "early music"? Where does it fit in the timeline of classical music? Does it really count as classical music? What is a madrigal? What is a troubadour? What early music should I listen to?


Read on for the answers to these questions and more! If you're interested in a more in-depth look into the world of early music, check out our online course: Introduction to Classical Music: Part I: Early Music (476-1600AD)!


 

What is early music?

Where does it fit in the timeline of classical music?



Early music is loosely defined as classical music from the fall of the Roman Empire in 476AD: the beginning of the Medieval Era/the Middle Ages in Europe. Some people consider the end date of Early Music to coincide with the end of the Renaissance (approximately 1600AD), while others also include the music of the Baroque Era (ending 1750). For our purposes, we choose the end-of-the-Renaissance option, as:

  • Medieval + Renaissance is already a huge period of time - over 1000 years!

  • Music was much less frequently notated (written down) and codified (with established rules) during this time than it was in the "common practice" period, which began during the Baroque Era.

  • The Medieval and Renaissance Eras set the wheels in motion for the developments of the Baroque and beyond.

Most early music was for unaccompanied or accompanied voices. Purely instrumental music was primarily used for dancing or court music.


Here is a basic timeline of Western classical music history divisions:

Exact dates are debated:

  • Different movements and changes happened at different times depending on the exact location - what was going on in Florence was not the same as what was going on in Paris!

  • Just like today, people groups did not always agree on what was important, what was good, or what was appropriate/tasteful within society and art. While some people might have been ready to accept new styles of music and other changes, others did not agree! This means that some examples of music from 1650 can have more characteristics in common with what we expect of the music of the Renaissance than the music of the Baroque.


 

Does early music really count as classical music?



When the music of the Early Music period was composed, the genre of "classical music" did not exist. Music was generally either written for church contexts (in which case it was sometimes notated), or secular - often as the "pop" music of the day.


Nowadays, we generally consider "classical music" to be "art music" - music which exists for its aesthetic qualities rather than simply for entertainment, composed by people with knowledge of musical structures and elements.


If a lot of early music was just written and performed for entertainment, how can it be classified as classical music? Though much early music would not be considered "art" music by today's standards, it was fundamental in establishing the art music traditions and trends that would develop later.

 

Terminology



Madrigals, motets, troubadours, trouvères, viols, sackbuts... these words may be a bit, or completely, unfamiliar! There were certain things which existed previously which no longer exist today in the same way, so the terminology to describe them has largely fallen out of use.


Here's a quick list of what these particular words mean:

  • Madrigal: A type of (usually) unaccompanied song for several voices singing different parts; usually a love song.

  • Motet: A type of polyphonic (many sounds) vocal work for several voices; usually religious.

  • Troubadour: A poet-composer (singer-songwriter) of Old Occitan poetry. The troubadour movement spread throughout Europe, creating and influencing similar movements, such as the northern French trouvère, the German Minnesang, and the Galician-Portuguese trovadorismo movements.

  • Viol: The predecessor to modern-day string instruments. A viol was a member of the family of hollow wooden instruments which were bowed (played with a bow), fretted (with spaces along the "neck" of the instrument to change the note), and stringed (producing sound from vibrating strings).

  • Sackbut: A type of trombone.


 

What early music should I listen to?


That all depends on your taste in music! Scroll down for a few examples to get you started! If you find a piece you like, you can search the name of the composer or the name of the work online to get similar recommendations and more information!


Ready to learn more about early music?




  • Notker the Stammerer: Natus Ante Saecula


  • Etienne de Liege: Gloria in excelsis Deo


  • Adam de la Halle - Le jeu de Robin et de Marion: J'ai encore un tel pasté


  • Guillaume de Machaut - Je vivroie liement/Liement me deport


  • Palestrina - O magnum mysterium


  • John Dowland - Flow my tears


 

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