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Vocal music was important in both sacred and secular music in the Medieval and Renaissance periods.

In this lesson, you will find out about the development of vocal styles during these time periods.

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Early Medieval Period

Singing went through some serious development between the Medieval period, sometimes referred to as the Middle Ages and considered to be roughly 500-1450 in music history, and the beginning of the Renaissance period, which is typically thought of as 1450-1600 in music history. It all started in the medieval church.

The church was incredibly powerful at the time, and it regulated music with specific rules, including what notes were allowed or not allowed to be sung.Church-approved singing was one melody without harmony, resulting in just one musical part. This was called Gregorian chant. Gregorian chant is commonly defined as church music sung in a single vocal line.

Each syllable was given one pitch, so it sounded like this (please see the video at 00:53 to hear this chant). It may not sound very exciting by today’s standards, but it was the choice of church-going Medieval Europeans from the year 800 on.

Polyphony and Organum

Eventually, the rule of singing only one part went by the wayside, and polyphony, or music with two or more musical parts played simultaneously, was allowed. Around the year 900, a simple 2-part medieval harmony, called organum, developed. The singers were still confined to following the chant pitches and rhythms from earlier days, but at least they could have some harmony.

Later, around the 1100s, the higher-pitched singer was allowed to improvise pitches to go along with the chant, as long as they were creating harmony that fit within the constraints of the prescribed pitches.


A mere 100 years later, the melody became less restricted, and the highest-pitched singer was given melismas, or a succession of pitches sung on one syllable. French composer L;onin was quite masterful at this and created 2-part compositions with extended melismas. His successor, Perotin, went a step further and added 3- and 4-part harmony with the melismas, resulting in songs like this (please see the video at 02:28 to hear this example).

These two composers exemplify the late medieval organum style.

Medieval Motets

The complex organum developed by L;onin and Perotin inspired motets, which were sacred songs with multiple vocal parts of varying texts. The earliest motets were written in the late 1200s.

The motet was more complex than organum, both musically and in text. Musically, the motet had added differing vocal parts. The text was also highly complex, as it was often two or more different texts sung simultaneously, sometimes even in two different languages.As secular ideas gained popularity at this time, many motets included secular text.

Guillaume de Machaut was a key composer of motets in the 1300s, and his efforts made great strides in reaching new musical ideas in the Renaissance. His Quant en Moy is a famous example.

Renaissance Motets

The motet remained popular during the Renaissance period, which immediately followed the Medieval period, but it was quite different than the medieval motet. Compared to the medieval motet, the Renaissance motet is smoother and imitative, meaning it has successive voice parts that echo each other. Surprisingly, the Renaissance motet is also simpler, with more singable melodies than the medieval motet. The sacred Renaissance motet is always in Latin and is for the ordinary mass. Josquin des Prez is a well-known composer of Renaissance motets, and his Ave Maria can be heard here (please see the video at 04:24 to hear this song).

Medieval Minstrels and Troubadours

Not all medieval music and musicians were regulated by the church. Royal courts also hired musicians since they could afford to pay for entertainment. Two types of court musicians and poets, called minstrels and troubadours, sang songs of courtly love and heroic tales. Though they were similar, troubadours held a higher status than minstrels and, as such, made more money and got to travel.

Renaissance Madrigals

Entertainment was the way to go, even in the Renaissance period.

In the 1500s, madrigals, which are secular multi-voice songs sung without accompaniment, were quite popular. Madrigals were based on love-related poetry. Like the Renaissance motet, the music is imitative.

One main difference between madrigals and motets is the language. Where motets are sung in Latin, madrigals are in the language of the people, such as German, French, Italian or English.Madrigals also express emotion through words and a musical technique called word painting, where the music reflects the text. For example, if the text says ‘running down,’ the notes will sound descending. One famous madrigal composer was Italian Carlo Gesualdo. He is well known for emotional madrigals, such as Moro, lasso.

Lesson Summary

In all, significant development was made in vocal music during the Medieval period, roughly 500-1450, and the Renaissance period, roughly 1450-1600.

What started with a single melodic line in Gregorian chant soon developed into polyphony, which is music with two or more musical parts played simultaneously. The organum represented polyphonic church music in the 900s with simple 2-part medieval harmony.Later, melismas, in which a succession of pitches are sung on one syllable, were added to add a level of complexity through polyphony. L;onin and Perotin developed the style by adding 2-, 3- and 4-part harmonies to develop what would eventually be the motet, or sacred songs with multiple vocal parts of varying texts. Near the end of the Medieval period, Guillaume de Machaut set a precedent for the Renaissance motet.The main differences between the Medieval and the Renaissance motets are that the Renaissance motets were imitative, with successive voice parts that echo each other, and that they had simpler melodies, which allowed for deeper harmonies to be written.

Josquin des Prez was possibly the most well-known Renaissance motet composer.Secular music also developed during this time period, with the two types of court singers, the minstrels and the troubadours. In the Renaissance period, madrigals, which are secular multi-voice songs sung without accompaniment, were quite popular. Madrigals differed from motets because they were sung in the language of the people rather than in Latin.

Carlo Gesualdo was a well-known Italian composer of madrigals.

Learning Outcomes

After completing this lesson, you’ll be able to:

  • Summarize the transition in vocal music from the Medieval Period to the Renaissance Period
  • Identify Léonin’s and Perotin’s contributions to melismas
  • Differentiate between Medieval and Renaissance motets
  • Describe the rise in popularity of secular music and its impact on vocal music

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