Early Music is a generic term for any music written before 1400-1450, in other words, during the "Middle Ages". One notable architectural style belonging to the middle Ages is Gothic, and the photo on the left is of Canterbury Cathedral, Kent, England. Building of this Gothic masterpiece commenced in 1174. The middle ages are sometimes described as the 'dark ages', because the western world was embroiled in wars, mass migrations of peoples from one land to another, and a lack of stability. Most people were peasants, with no education, unable to read or write. A few were kings and nobles, feudally ruling their subject serfs, although many in this ruling class were equally illiterate. And lastly, there was a very substantial number of clerics, belonging to the Roman Catholic Church. These people were fairly well-off compared to the peasants, and they were the only people who could read and write. It is not surprising that they were also the only people who wrote down any music.
Of course there were minstrels who roamed the country singing at village fairs, or who were employed at the courts of the nobility. But their traditional music was passed on from generation to generation without ever being written down, so we have very little knowledge of the secular popular music of this period. From paintings we know that lutes, pipes and drums were used by minstrels to accompany their singing.
Some church music from the Middle Ages has survived in notated form from this period. One such example is the plainsong Alleluia from the Catholic mass for Epiphany. You may click on the row below to hear this. Most church music from this period is vocal, but the organ was increasingly employed in churches as the period progressed. The church frowned on other instruments being used in religious services, because they had been used in pre-Christian pagan ceremonies.
Most written music from this period is monophonic chant, called plainsong, or Gregorian chant. It consisted of parts of the Catholic Mass sung in Latin, by voices all in unison, with very little defined rhythm, and the melody moving up and down over a narrow range of pitches, a step at a time. Around 800 AD some monks added a second melodic line at a fixed interval of a fifth above the original chant. This was called organum. Later around 1100 this upper part started to be performed with variations in the interval above the bass chant, and at a faster tempo. The lower part was called the cantus firmus. The intervals above this still tended to be perfect fourths and fifths, which to today's ears have a hollow sound, but they were an exciting innovation in their day. Thirds were banned by the church, because they had a luscious sound, condemned by the church authorities as "lascivious".