Secular Music of Middle Ages
music for court, dancing, and singing

Music Outside of the Church - Secular Music

I hear the sound of cornet, flute, harp, sackbut, psaltery, dulcimer, and all kinds of music.

Daniel 3:3

During the Middle Ages, if a person wasn't a monk or nun singing chants for each canonical hour of the day, music was unlikely a large part of his or her life -- unless the person were an aristocrat with spare time to pursue the demands of learning to play an instrument and performing. Beyond mandatory attendance at church where vocal music was performed regularly, there just wasn't time for the "average" Joe to pursue music in any depth when animals and crops needed care. Nevertheless, music did flourish, though less brightly, in the medieval secular world, and the growth of secular music paralleled the development medieval church music. Secular music was an important part of medieval court life, providing necessary accompaniments for court ceremonies, tournaments, dances, and after-dinner entertainment. A mark of a nobleman (or noble woman) was the ability to sing and dance competently. The repertoire of secular songs include an even mix of solo vocal songs, song accompanied by instruments, and purely instrumental works. Whereas sacred music -- plainchants, organum and polyphonic masses and motets -- was written down in musical notation on parchment, most secular music and songs were not, except for compositions by anonymous church musicians who had extra time to compose music for entertainment. Today, as musicologists (music historians) dig deeper into the archives of monasteries and churches, more and more secular songs and instrumental works are being discovered. The number of CDs and DVD recordings in the area of medieval secular music is expanding; professional musicians are specializing in the unique playing styles and improvisational methods. The quality of some recordings of medieval secular works is stunning.

Troubadours and Trouvéres

The poems of the troubadour and trouvére ranged from love songs, ballades, war songs, laments, and songs about the Crusades. The songs idealized the virtues of valor, honor, the search for love, and unrequited love. Other songs are about cycles of nature, rebirth, spring, and fertility of the land. In the sad songs, the object of the poet's desire was usually unattainable, either because of mismatches in social rank or because the beloved was already wed to another (or she was just way out of the guy's league.) Not much has changed in this area in 800 years. The majority of love songs are from the man's perspective, expressing his sorrow or embarrassment at being rejected by a lover. As women had fewer options for marriage and socializing outside the home, it was additionally painful for her when a man cheated on her or betrayed her love. This double standard in love especially applied to women of nobility. The following French song A Chantar (It is Mine to Sing) is from Beatriz of Dia, who was a countess married to William of Poitiers. As marriages among the nobility were arranged and because people married not for love but for real estate and heirs, it was common for a husband and wife to live together but to take lovers when they could get away with it. But there was usually a double standard, as the singer of A Chantar m'er bitterly cries. This song is apparently aimed at her lover, not husband. C'est la vie.

A Chantar m'er

A chantar m'er de so qu'eu no volria,

tant me rancur de lui cui sui amia;

car eu l'am mais que nuilla ren que sia:

vas lui nom val merces ni cortezia

ni ma beltatz ni mos pretz ni mos sens;

c'atressim sui enganad' e trahia

Com degr' esser, s'eu fos dezavinens.

I must sing of what I do not want,

I am so angry with the one whom I love,

Because I love him more than anything:

Mercy nor courtesy moves him,

Neither does my beauty, nor my worthiness, nor my good sense,

For I am deceived and betrayed

As much as I should be, if I were ugly.

Secular Song Characteristics

Machaut, Composer of Love Songs

knight_2.jpg Guilliam de Machaut (pronounced "Ma-show") was a contemporary of Geoffrey Chaucer, whose poetry he influenced. Machaut was one of the most influential composers of the 14th century. Not only did he compose more than anyone of his period, but his works are widely varied in style and form. Machaut's life outside the Catholic Church inspired him to write almost as many secular songs (in French called chansons) as he did for religious services. Many of Machaut's chansons dealt with courtly love. During the time in which Machaut lived, it was a common practice for men, when writing poetry, to address a lady, either real or imaginary, to whom they would dedicate their undying love and loyalty. Most of the secular poetry in the middle ages was an expression of the love young man to a noble woman. It was believed that to love made a man more noble, but only if the love was controlled and dedicated to a woman of higher status. In addition to his song, he wrote many poems and letters to his friends. In one autobiographical poem of more than 9000 lines he describes his love for a much younger girl named Peronne. They never hooked up, but Machaut's unrequited love drove him to write several songs with her in mind. To his beloved Peronne, he wrote in a letter,

"I am sending you a roudeau with music of which I made the tune and the text some time ago, but I've newly made the tenor and contra-tenor [lower voices]; should you like to get to know it, it seems to me good."

Puis qu'en oubli

Machaut wrote his chanson (song) Puis qu'en oubli in rondeau form, which was a circle dance. The characteristic of the rondeau was its structure: A-B-a-A-a-b-A-B. The upper case "A" represents a refrain or a repeat of music and text, and the lower case "a" represents a repeat of music with different text. This song is set for three male voices in a low melody range. It is possible that Machaut composed Pius qu'en oubli in response to his unrequited love for the much younger Peronne.

Puis qu'en oubli (Since I am Forgotten)

Refrain (A-B)

Puis qu'en oubli sui de vous, dous amis,

Vie amoureuse et joie à Dieu commant.

Since I am forgotten by you, sweet friend,

I bid farewell to the life of love and joy.

Verse (a)

Mar vi le jour que m'amour en vous mis,

Unlucky was the day I placed my love in you.

Partial (A)


Puis qu'en obli sui de vous, dous amis.

Since I am forgotten by you, sweet friend,

Verse (a-b)

Mais ce tenray que je vous ay promis,

C'est que ja mais n'aray nul autre amant.

But this I will keep as I have promised you.

That is, that never will I have any other lover.

Refrain (A-B)

Puis qu'en oubli sui de vous, dous amis,

Vie amoureuse et joie à Dieu commant.

Since I am forgotten by you, sweet friend,

I bid farewell to the life of love and joy.

Sumer Is Icumen In

The English song Sumer Is Icumen In ("Summer Is A-coming In") is the oldest known composed round, composed in England around 1310. It is an early ancestor of the rounds "Frere Jacques" and "Row Row Row Your Boat." These types of works are also called canons, in which a melody that is sung or played by two or more voices that begin at different times. The melody has to be written to overlap itself in a way that the notes sound consonant against each other. Unlike rounds, which go round and round, most canons have composed ending. Sumer Is Icumen In features consonant intervals of thirds (notes three scale steps apart) and major tonality. Keep in mind that functioning major and minor keys do not appear until the Baroque style period, about 300 years after this medieval round was composed. The Renaissance musical group, Ars Antiqua, perform Sumer Is Icumen In with traditional period instruments. Watch the smiles on the children's faces.

Sumer Is Icumen In (c.1310)

Vite Perdite

The medieval popular song "Vite Perdite" is from Carmina Burana is a collection of medieval Latin and Middle High German poems and songs found in the Monastery of Benediktbeuren in Upper Bavaria, preserved in a manuscript that dates, it is thought, from about 1230, with additions from later in the century. The songs of the Carmina Burana represent the largest preserved collection of medieval Latin lyrics. They thus provide an extraordinary source on both the poetry and music of the late Middle Ages, and lend an especially human touch to the period. The two hundred or so poems fall into four groups, works of moral or satirical intention (carmina moralia), songs of spring and love-songs (carmina veris et amoris), songs of drinking and gambling (carmina lusorum et potatorum), and songs of spiritual content (carmina divina). Most of the texts are anonymous, forming the most important surviving collection of goliardic songs, the work often of wandering scholars and clerics. The secular themes follow conventional literary patterns and need not be taken as a reflection of the actual behavior of the writers, while many of the poems suggest a level of scholarship that points to an educated audience (Excerpted in parts from Naxos Music Library).

"Vite Perdite" from Carmina Burana

Source: CD Liner Notes from Carmina Burana: Medieval Poems and Songs. Naxos Music Library.

Gaite de la Tor

Gaite de la Tor ("Watchman Near the Tower") is a French Provençal instrumental dance composition from the eleventh century. Crank up the volume; Gaite de la Tor is the rock-n-roll of the middle ages -- without the sex and drugs, of course.

Gaite de la Tor

Medieval Instrumental Music

Many Americans today belong to local renaissance guilds who "reenact" the lifestyles and games of the middle ages, such and the Merry Greenwood Players. There is something satisfying about playing a musical instrument that you have built with your own hands. No pianos, no drum kits, no videos, no Macintosh computers, no difficult-to-manage software to make web page lessons! Instruments of the Middle Ages and early Renaissance periods were used mainly to support dancing, official government ceremonies, and vocal music by doubling a voice part or accompanying the whole vocal group. Compared to the number of scores of vocal music that have survived intact, the number of written instrumental compositions is very small. Instrumental music, including solo playing and ensemble playing, was improvised in the same way modern jazz is improvised, so players didn't need to write down notes that they would change or embellish to fit the immediate performance circumstances. Many instruments used in the Middle Ages have survived in private collections and museums. Scholars have examined the instruments in medieval paintings and illustrations to infer playing techniques and to reconstruct the some of instruments themselves. Medieval instruments fall into the same categories as do modern instruments: strings, woodwinds, brasses, and percussion. They were also grouped according to how loud or soft a sound they produced. Soft instruments were played indoors, used to accompany singers or other soft instruments.

Soft (Indoor) Instruments



The recorder is a simple instrument related to the flute; it is sounded by blowing into one end and the pitch is adjusted by covering finger holes. This instrument does not have a reed but is voiced simply by forcing air through a whistle mouthpiece. The Renaissance recorder differed from that of the Baroque in that the Renaissance recorder had a more cylindrical bore, while the Baroque recorder had a more conical bore. During the Baroque era, the recorder was overshadowed by the transverse flute.


Renaissance Flute

A transverse woodwind instrument that is held horizontally and sounded by blowing across the mouthpiece, much like blowing into a bottle to produce a tone. It has a cylindrical bore and six finger holes and was probably in use from the late fifteenth to the second half of the seventeenth centuries. The originals are made from a variety of woods available to the makers of the time. Most of the instruments are made of boxwood and some are made in various fruitwoods such as plum or pear. The renaissance flute was designed to blend well with other soft instruments, and it was often played with other flutes in a consort, or perhaps with voices or other soft instruments.



The lute is a plucked string instrument of the guitar family, it has a short, fretted neck, a rounded back, and a large body something between oval- and pear-shaped. The number of strings is variable, as is the size, but in the Renaissance, lutes with six courses of strings tuned in A or G became standard. The lute was popular in the Renaissance because of its beautiful tone, its portability, and its aptitude for accompanying the voice. Lute kits are available for guitar students who want to make a hand-make Renaissance instrument.



An ancient instrument related to the harp. The lyre does not have the triangular shape of the modern harp, but instead the strings are strung perpendicularly to the soundbox, which rests on the players should, and with two arms connecting the soundbox to the yoke. The yoke supports the strings opposite the soundbox. The lyre was used in ancient Greece and Rome.



A Medieval and Renaissance bowed stringed instrument either pear shaped or long and narrow, typically with three strings. In the Middle Ages the most common rebec was the soprano, played by resting it on the shoulder, across the chest, or in the armpit. The instrument often has frets, and probably had a thin nasal, penetrating tone, Rebecs are associated with secular instrumental music, especially dance music.

Renaissance ensemble.jpg

Vocal Ensembles

Medieval secular vocal music involved one to six voices accompanied by other instruments. Songs set to dance rhythms were common, as the excerpt demonstrates. Songs expressed short love poems, with other topics being honor, adventure, death, war, etc.; they were extremely popular in England, Italy, France, Germany, and Spain. During the Renaissance era, medieval songs evolved into madrigals, characterized by word painting and greater harmonic and rhythmic contrast.

Medieval and Early Renaissance Instruments Continued

Loud instruments were played outdoors for tournaments, fanfares, and courtly processions, or played in large dance halls. The instruments below are only a small sample of the great variety of instruments used in medieval and renaissance periods.

Loud (Outdoor) Instruments

Three holed pipe.gif

Three-Holed Pipe

The three-holed pipe is a simple flute-type instrument, which has four basic positions of the fingers giving four different notes. By blowing a little harder higher notes can be produced allowing for ranges of at least one full octave and up to two octaves on larger pipes. The pipe only requires one hand to produce all the notes, leaving the other free to play something else, such as a tabor drum.



A popular Medieval and Renaissance instrument, in use from the 13th to the 17th century. The shawm has a widely conical bore and is made of wood. It has a double reed and a particularly loud, rough, nasal tone. The shawm was made in seven sizes and preceded the oboe. They were used in civil ceremonies, and in bands.


Sackbut (early trombone)

An early English brass instrument and ancestor to the trombone. The name is derived from the Middle French sacquer and bouter ("push" and "pull"). The slide allows the performer to lengthen or shorten the length of tubing in the instrument, thus allowing the harmonic series to be altered, making the instrument fully chromatic.


Crumhorn (curved horn)

A Medieval and Renaissance wind instrument related to the recorder, but with an encased double reed. Thus, the crumhorn was sounded by blowing into a mouthpiece, not by placing the lips directly on the reeds. The crumhorn is curved and shaped like the letter ''J'' with finger holes similar to those of a recorder. The sound produced by the crumhorn is much harsher than that of an oboe, resembling more closely that of the bagpipe with a buzzing, squawking sound. The crumhorn was made in a variety of sizes from treble to bass.




A family of ancient instruments still in use today that is made of a sack or bellows which holds air, several pipes, and a double-reeded, fingered pipe called a "chanter". The unfingered pipes are called drones and produce pedal tones. The bagpipe makes a constant, unbroken sound as the air stored in the sack is constantly being supplied to the pipes. The most famous bagpipes are those of Scotland and Ireland.




Nakirs are the ancestors of our modern kettle-drums (timpani) and were originally introduced into Europe from the Middle East and North Africa. These drums were rope tensioned animal skins over a copper or stoneware bowl. The drums were often small enough to be worn on a belt around the waist resulting in a very portable and playable drum kit. One of the drums has a snare. Simply an extra piece of rope over the skin to produce a rattling effect.


Tabor (drum)

A small drum that has a strap by which it is suspended from the players shoulders. Usually the tabor is played consecutively with the pipe by one performer.


Musicians from the medieval and renaissance group, Ars Antiqua, perform the Estampie, which is a medieval dance. Kamien also presents the estampie on page 74.


Allemande and Tripla (by Johann Hermann Schein)

Musicians from the medieval and renaissance group, Ars Antiqua, play two short dance works in duple and triple meters.

from Dance Suite No. 11

Caro Ortolano (by Giorgio Mainerio)

Musicians from the medieval and renaissance group, Ars Antiqua, describe the cornettino and perform a church processional piece composed by an Italian priest, Giorgio Mainerio.

Caro Ortolano

Short Listening Quiz 1

In the following quiz, see if you can differentiate the types of medieval and Renaissance instruments by their timbre and relative loudness or softness. (Note: These instruments will likely not appear on the next unit exam, but if they do, I will include ones that are obvious to pick out.)

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Short Listening Quiz 2

In the following quiz, see if you can differentiate the types of medieval and Renaissance instruments by their timbre and relative loudness or softness. (Note: These instruments will likely not appear on the next unit exam, but if they do, I will include ones that are obvious to pick out.)

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END Lesson