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  • Writer's pictureMayda Narvey

A Complete History of Music: Lesson 2

A Complete History of Music in 10 Lessons: 2

Hello again and welcome back! If you're joining for the first time, Lesson 1 is a quick read and may make Lesson 2 easier to understand.  In this lesson we'll look at how Plainchant  became the basis for new and exciting developments in musical composition.   

What were the early musical innovations that grew out of the sung Mass?

Gregorian chant, as we noted, was a mesmerisingly repetitive vocalisation of  the Roman Catholic liturgy. Originally, an unaccompanied choir of men and boys would sing together in a monophonic style. However over time an exciting innovation crept in.  While one man sang the chant, or cantus firmus, another would improvise a sort of harmony over his line in the way that singers often harmonise today.   But while our Medieval harmoniser chose the interval of a 4th (the first 2 notes of Amazing Grace) or a 5th, which he considered to be a  consonant or pleasing harmony,  today we tend to choose the interval of a 3rd (the first 2 notes of 'When the Saints Come Marching In') when we harmonise.  We think of the 3rd as the most pleasing interval while the Medieval aesthete found the  3rd to be dissonant or displeasing.  What a strange reversal of taste! 

(A note on intervals... If you have a piano or keyboard to hand you can try the effect of consonant and dissonant intervals.  All you have to do is play C at the same time as playing each of the notes in the scales successively, i.e. C with D which is a 2nd, C with E which is a 3rd etc.  Try to decide which of the intervals sound consonant, that is pleasing and easy on the ear, and which sound dissonant or full of friction and dis-ease. If you are baffled I can answer questions at the bottom of the blog.)

But to return to our two harmonisers...

This singing of two parallel lines in a sort of wavy train track configuration was called parallel organum. Below is an example of parallel organum from the 9th c. You can see, and may be able to hear that at the beginning and end of the line there is a unison and that the harmoniser creeps up to the distance of a 4th from the main voice, step by step:

You may also observe that this short example uses modern musical notation.  But 9th c chant was notated very differently.  In fact, in the early days of the Church, the Mass was sung from memory.  Over time, when the burden of so much to remember became too great, a crude form of notation developed.  Neumes were curved lines which gave a general direction of up or down and a general shape to be applied to the text, rather in the way a conductor might make curvy gestures to indicate to the choir the rise and fall of the music. Rather than actual notation, the neumes were more a mnemonic (no relationship in etymology - the word neume comes from the Greek pneuma  meaning 'breath') to help the chanters remember what they had already learnt.

It is fascinating to follow the growth of precision in musical notation. Three important developments were crucial to a future in which individual composers notated their creations:  The first was the stave - 5 lines on which to place the puncta or points that the neumes had evolved into - which could give an accurate picture of intervals. The second was a way of fixing pitches exactly rather than indicating their relative distance from each other; this symbol is to this day called a clef from the Latin clavis meaning 'key' (as in the key to your house).  And the third was the addition of symbols which referred to the duration of notes.  With these three components, which became ever more complex, a Beethoven could notate his 9th Symphony and musicians could manifest the thoughts in his head!

But not only notation was developing.  With the innovation of parallel organum, the Medieval musical mind began to think outside the box. Perhaps, for instance, the harmoniser didn't have to follow the the line of the cantus firmus in parallel.  Perhaps the harmoniser could sing faster notes along side the slow notes of the chant.  Perhaps there could be more than one harmoniser.

Listen to this chant by the 12th c French composer Pérotin:

Perhaps you can hear all of these innovations.

Unfortunately the Church was not very thrilled with these innovations.  With different singers singing different notes at different speeds, the text became obscured and for the Church, the text was of course the main point of the whole endeavour. There are 4 parts in the above chant of Pérotin so it was called organum quadrupled. But with the addition of even more parts the musical form called motet emerged.

I'd like to end Lesson 2 by looking at a fascinating compositional technique used in a type of motet that first appeared in the 13th c. 

Can you hear the structure in the following motet?

Listen to this short motet which is, in fact, in only 3 parts, by the great 14th c composer and poet Guillaume de Machaut: 

If you are interested the French text can be found here:

('Anyone who wishes to love well should submit himself in the place where his heart chooses to be touched'...).

Although Machaut also wrote sacred music, this motet is secular.  Perhaps you, like me, find it very haunting.  What you wouldn't suspect is that it's constructed using a formula of patterns which came much later to be called isorhythms.  In an isorhythmic motet  the composer constructs a short rhythmic unit called a talea and a unit of pitches called a color.  A talea, for instance, might consist of 8 notes of different durations to which no pitch is assigned.  The color might be only 3 pitches.  If the color is superimposed on the talea and both are repeated throughout the motet it will take 3 repetitions of the talea before it synchronises again with the color.  In that way the mechanical repetitions become hidden and inaudible.  What is audible is a quite ethereal and beautiful music.  You might want to listen again and see if you can detect the repetitions. I find it fascinating that 20th century composers took up these ideas of mathematical repetition in a genre called Serial Music which we'll look at in Lesson 10.

Before leaving you, here are some of the musical terms that cropped up in this lesson:

Cantus firmus

Parallel organum





And 2 composers might want to read more about are Pérotin about whom, in fact, very little is known:

and Machaut who lived a fascinating life recorded in his prodigious collection of poems:

If you have any questions, please post them in the forum.

Next lesson we'll be following the growth of polyphonic music arriving at the great genius of the genre, Johann Sebastian Bach. See you then!

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