Instruments of the Medieval Era
The instruments of the medieval era fit into three different instrument families: wind, strings, and percussion.
Flutes are a type of wind instrument that were popular during this time, but was very different than the flutes you would see in an orchestra today. Medieval flutes were not made of metal and did not have the airtight padding which make playing easier. Instead, flutes were made from carved wood and had simple holes which needed to be covered completely by the player’s fingers. Like the flute, was the recorder. The difference between a recorder and a flute is a fipple, which directs air across the edge of the tone hole. Also, the playing position of a recorder is different. Flutes are played with the instrument horizontal and recorders point down to the ground.
Stringed instruments during the Middle Ages were larger than their counterparts we use today. One instrument that went through significant changes in the way that it was played during the Middle Ages was the dulcimer (dull-sim-err). The dulcimer is a large, board-like instrument covered in strings of different lengths to produce different tones. Originally, the instrument had to be plucked like a lute – the ancestor of the guitar – but once metal strings became cheaper and easier to make, they were hit with small hammers. The way the hammered dulcimer – as it was now called – operates is like a piano, in that a piano has eighty-eight small hammers that pound on small metal strings to produce tones.
Another stringed instrument we will look at is the vielle, a predecessor of the violin. The vielle was a large, handheld instrument that was played much like a violin, with a bow. The vielle was shaped a bit like a figure-8 and could have different numbers of strings. In the image below, you can see a three-stringed vielle.
The different instruments used in the Middle Ages were all varied and had different uses. Even though some of them may look strange, there is no denying the connection between the instruments used then and those used now. Learning about where our musical instruments came from helps us to appreciate them all a lot more.
The history of music is the history of the world. All through history, there has been music and musicians. Even though music did not start in the medieval period, the information that we have about music from this period gives us a lot of details about the world at that time. From the instruments to the composers, here are the most important aspects of medieval music.
The History of Medieval Music
Medieval music is divided into three periods: early medieval music, high medieval music, and late medieval music. Early medieval music was mostly composed of chants or what is called ‘plainsong’ which is just the combination of the words ‘plain’ and ‘song’. This song was a single melody without an accompanied harmony, like we see in more modern music. Eventually, chants would incorporate another voice in parallel above the first voicing. This was called “organum” and is the prelude to modern counterpoint and harmony.
High medieval music was more advanced than the previous plainsong of the early period. In this time, there were poet-musicians called Goliards who wrote and sang songs in Latin. Many of the songs at this time were religious, but the Goliards sang songs about everyday life among other topics. Many of these lyrics have survived in the medieval text The Carmina Burana, although the music itself did not. At this time, professional musicians called troubadours (troo-buh-doors) and trouvères (troo-ver-ays) were developing more complex melodies but were removed from the religious tradition of older music. Troubadours wrote music that was for the common people, using common language. Many of their melodies survive to this day.
Late medieval music was incredibly diverse. As the groups of people who made the music got more advanced, so did the music itself. In fact, music began to get so specific in different parts of the world that different countries began making their own kinds of music. In France, they began working with a practice called ‘Ars nova’ which means “new art”. In this new art secular (meaning non-church) music gained a more advanced type of melody. Even though this term mostly applies to French music, it is often used to describe all music from this part of history. In Italy, their musical movement was called ‘Trecento’. Much of the musical traditions of this time would continue into the next major time period, the Renaissance.
The history of music is a long one that is always changing. During the medieval period, we can see music going through many different changes; from single-note plainsongs to the more melodic work of the troubadours, music is a constantly flowing river that never ever stops.