Most Medieval Music Was Instrumental

This article is a collaborative effort, crafted and edited by a team of dedicated professionals.

Contributors: Andranick Tanguiane, Fred Lerdahl,


Although some vocal music was written during the medieval period, the vast majority of music was instrumental. This is because most people were illiterate and music was used as a way to communicate.

What is Medieval Music?

Medieval music was music that was popular during the Middle Ages. This time period lasted from the 5th century to the 15th century. During this time, most music was instrumental. This means that it was played on instruments, not sung.


Medieval music is music written in Europe during the Middle Ages. The period is usually considered to have begun with the fall of the Western Roman Empire in 476 AD and to have ended with the death of Martin Luther in 1546, or sometimes a little later, with the end of the Renaissance. The term “medieval music” is often used for European secular (non-religious) music of this period, of which there are numerous surviving examples from virtually every musical genre included in musical education today: religious and liturgical works (including Gregorian chant and other types of plainsong), works for courtly entertainment such as dance music and instrumental works, works written for performance by professional musicians whether in churches or at secular events, and amateur works such as troubadour songs.

One major source for medieval music is manuscripts, many of which were produced by monasteries during this time period. Many surviving manuscripts are from Notre Dame de Paris and other French cathedrals. Other sources include paintings with musical scenes, such as the Bayeux Tapestry, which includes dancers and musicians performing several instruments including lute, tambourine, drums and cymbals.


In the Medieval era, music was heard in churches and in homes. The music of the Medieval era was characterized by its religious nature, use of plainsong melodies, and intricate rhythms.

Most Medieval music was vocal and used plainsong melodies. These melodies were often passed down from generation to generation and were used in both sacred and secular settings. The use of plainsong melodies in Medieval music allowed for a great deal of creativity on the part of the composer, as the composer could add his own personal touches to the melody.

The rhythms of Medieval music were often complex and were created using a system of rhythmic modes. This system of rhythmic modes was used to create different rhythmic patterns that could be superimposed over one another. This type of rhythm was known as isorhythm.

Where Did It Come From?

Though most medieval music was instrumental, there are a few exceptions.


The term “medieval music” refers to the musical traditions of Europe during the Middle Ages, which lasted from approximately the 5th century to the 15th century.During this time, there was a great deal of diversity in music styles and genres. Church music was the most commonly heard type of music during the Middle Ages, and it was usually performed by monks and other religious figures. However, secular (non-religious) music was also popular, particularly in aristocratic courts.

There are many theories about the origins of medieval music. Some scholars believe that much of it originated from folk songs that were passed down orally from generation to generation. Others believe that it was heavily influenced by the types of music that were popular in Ancient Greece and Rome. Still others believe that medieval music was largely influenced by Islamic music, particularly during the Crusades.


During the Medieval era, music was used primarily for entertainment and political purposes. It wasn’t until the 13th century that composers began to write specifically for an instrument. Prior to that time, musical notation only indicated certain aspects of a composition, such as melody and tempo. The first “notated” instrumental piece dates back to 1250, and is aplays for two players on a single organetto (a small portative organ).

The organetto was one of the most popular instruments of the Medieval era, along with the lute and fiddle. recorder. The popularity of these instruments led to a demand for new music specifically written for them. This period saw the development of what we now know as “art music” – music that is written down and performed by trained musicians.

As composers began to write specifically for instruments, they also began to experiment with new ways of combining them together. This led to the development of Orchestras and other largeEnsembles during the Renaissance period.

What Instruments Were Used?

Medieval music was mostly instrumental, because most people couldn’t read or write. This meant that most music was passed down by oral tradition. The instruments used in medieval music were mostly stringed instruments. The most popular stringed instruments were the lute, the viol, the gittern, and the rebec. The lute was the most popular instrument of the medieval period. It was used in almost all genres of music.

Types of Instruments

During the medieval period, guitars, lutes, harps and other string instruments were commonly used in addition towind instruments such as shawms, trumpets and horns. In the late medieval period, keyboard instruments such as the organ andpipe organ became increasingly popular.

How They Were Played

Music in the medieval period was primarily transmitted through oral tradition, and through works written down in musical notation. In addition to singing, which was often done by monks in monasteries, music in the medieval period was largely created and performed on instruments. Several different types of instruments were used during the medieval period, including stringed instruments, woodwind instruments, brass instruments, and percussion instruments.

stringed instruments
The most common type of stringed instrument during the medieval period was the lute. The lute is a plucked string instrument with a long neck and a pear-shaped body. Lutes were often played by minstrels, who were professional musicians who performed for royal courts and other members of the nobility. Lutes could also be played by amateurs for personal enjoyment. Other stringed instruments played during the medieval period include the fiddle (a bowed string instrument), the citole (a plucked string instrument with a short neck and large body), and the mandore (a plucked string instrument with a short neck and small body).

woodwind instruments
The recorder was the most popular woodwind instrument during the medieval period. It is a side-blown aerophone (wind instrument) made of wood or bone. The recorder has a narrow cylindrical bore and a flaring bell at one end; it is held vertically while being played. Recorders were often used to accompany singing voices, particularly in religious settings such as monasteries. Other woodwind instruments used during the medieval period include pipes (similar to pan pipes) and bagpipes (an early type of clarinet).

brass instruments
Horns were among the most popular brass instruments during the medieval period. They are coiled valves that open and close to produce sound; they can be either natural or conical in shape. Trumpets were also commonly used during this time; they are coiled valves that open when air is blown into them, causing them to emit a loud note. Bugles (smaller horns without valves) were also used on occasion.

percussion instruments
Tambourines, drums, cymbals, and bells were among the most common percussion instruments used during the medieval period. Tambourines are handheld drums with small metal discs called jingles attached to them; they are shaken or struck with the hand to produce sound. Drums are percussion instruments that can be either handheld or mounted on stands; they are struck with sticks or beaten with The downside transcription doesn’t reveal all of what happened improvisationally – how performers related to each other moment-to-moment – but it does give us more detail about what actually happened than our imperfect memories ever could., resulting in different timbres being produced.. Cymbals are thin metal discs that are meant to be clashed together; they create a sharp sound when they collide

What Did It Sound Like?

Medieval people loved music. They played all kinds of instruments including the lute, harp, and keyboard. However, most of the music from this time period was instrumental. This means that there were no lyrics or singing.

Music Examples

The following are examples of Instruments that would have produced the type of music played during the Medieval time period.
-Wind Instruments such as the Flute, Recorder, and Pan Pipes.
-String Instruments like the Harp, Lute, and Lyre.
-Percussion Instruments such as the Drum and Tabor Pipe.
Most music from this time was played with these instruments. The music wasn’t designed to produce a melody that someone could sing along to. The purpose of the music was for people to enjoy listening to the instruments being played.

Why Was Most Medieval Music Instrumental?

Medieval music was mostly reliant on instruments because of the technology of the time. Vocal music required a high level of breath control, which not many people had. Instruments were also easier to carry around, which was especially useful for traveling musicians.


One reason that most medieval music was instrumental was that the church frowned upon the use of instruments in worship. The church believed that only humans should sing praises to God and that instruments were the work of the devil. This attitude began to change in the 13th century, but it was not until the 15th century that instruments became more common in churches.

Another reason for the lack of vocal music in the Middle Ages is that few people could read or write. This meant that there were few opportunities for music to be written down and preserved. Most medieval music was passed down orally from generation to generation.

Finally, many of the instruments used in medieval times, such as lutes and harps, were not well suited to accompanying vocals. This made it difficult for singers to perform with accompaniment. As a result, most medieval music was purely instrumental.

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