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We know a lot about what music was sung

and played from the time Rome fell in 476 AD

to the time Columbus sailed across the sea a

thousand years later. Most of it is in

manuscripts preserved in churches

and tells us that music was then, as it still is

today, a very important part of worship.

Medieval music for the church was mostly a

cappella, (from the chapel) that means sung

without accompaniment because instruments

were not allowed. The words were always in

Latin and the melodies, called plainsong or Gregorian Chant, were

sung in unison, just like we sing the National Anthem today. Around

1200 some adventurous musicians tried singing these plainsong

melodies in parts—that is, one voice would start the tune on a high

note, another would join in, or “harmonize” on a lower

one. This early kind of harmony was called “organum.”

because it sounded very much like an organ—the only

instrument that was permitted in churches in early times.

Most Medieval popular music wasn’t written down, so

we can only guess what it really sounded like by looking at

pictures of singers and instrumentalists that are found in

manuscripts from the period. With the exception of

the troubadours and minstrels who went from castle

to castle singing songs about love and crusading,

most of the singers shown in the pictures didn’t look

like they were having a very good time! It seems as if singing


was a painful experience for them—wrinkled brows,

pinched noses, squinty eyes. Were the words they were

singing that unpleasant? We’ll never know for sure.

Those drawings do show that there were many

instruments played during the Middle Ages: flutes,

recorders, drums, bagpipes, trumpets, harps, lutes,

guitars—all similar to the instruments we have today.

Carvings and sculptures in many churches show those

instruments being played by happy angels. But we are

sure that the people in the towns were very happy as

they made their joyful noises by tooting their flutes and

banging their drums.

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