Early Polyphony

Historical Background


The turn of the first millennium was a time of great change in western society.  It was also a time of significant change in the music of the Church.  The following article from Donald Grout and Claude Palisca's A History of Western Music summarizes these changes:


Historical Background of Early Polyphony

The eleventh century is of crucial importance in Western history. The years 1000-1100 A.D. witnessed a revival of economic life throughout western Europe, an increase in population, reclamation of wastelands, and the beginning of modern cities; the Norman conquest of England, important strides toward the recovery of Spain from the Muslims, the First Crusade; a revival of culture, with the first translations from Greek and Arabic, the beginnings of the universities and scholastic philosophy, and the rise of Romanesque architecture. The cultural independence of the West was marked by the growth of vernacular literature and symbolized by the final schism between the Western and Eastern Churches in 1054.

The eleventh century was equally crucial in the history of music. During this time certain changes were beginning - changes which, when eventually worked out, would result in giving to Western music many of its basic characteristics, those features which distinguish it from other musics of the world. Those changes may be summarized as follows:

1. Composition slowly replaced improvisation as a way of creating musical works. Improvisation, in one form or another, is the normal way in most musical cultures and was probably the exclusive way in the West up to about the ninth century. Gradually the idea arose of composing a melody once for all instead of improvising it anew each time on traditional melodic pattern structures; and thenceforward a piece of music could be said to "exist, " in the way in which we ordinarily think of it now, apart from any particular performance.

2. A composed piece could be taught and transmitted orally, and might be subject to alterations in the course of transmission. But the invention of musical notation made it possible to write music down in a definitive form, which could be learned from the noted piece. The notation, in other words, was a set of directions which could be executed whether or not the com- poser was present. Thus composition and performance became separate acts instead of being combined in one person as before, and the performer's function became that of a mediator between composer and audience.

3. Music began to be more consciously structured and made subject to certain principles of order - for example, the theory of the eight modes, or the rules governing rhythm and consonance; such principles were eventually formulated into systems and set forth in treatises.

4. Polyphony began to replace monophony. Of course, polyphony as such is not exclusively Western; but it is our music which, more than any other, has specialized in this technique. We have developed polyphonic composition to a unique degree and, it must be admitted, at the expense of rhythmic and melodic subtleties that are characteristic of the music of other highly civilized peoples, India and China for example.

It must be emphasized that the changes we have been describing an took place very gradually; there was no sudden, sharp break with the past. Monophony continued: some of the finest specimens of monophonic chant, including antiphons, hymns, and sequences, were produced in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Improvisation continued after the eleventh century and many stylistic details of the new composed music were taken over - as has always been the case - from improvisational practice. Nevertheless, in looking back over the whole historical development, we can now see that it was in the eleventh century that the first stages of a new and different musical system began to be manifest. During the first thousand years of the Christian era the Western Church had absorbed and converted to its own use all that it could take from the music of antiquity and the East. By about 600 A.D. the absorption and conversion were practically complete, and during the next four hundred years the material was systematized, codified, and disseminated throughout western Europe. This heritage was not abandoned. Polyphonic sacred compositions up to the end of the sixteenth century and even beyond incorporated plainchant along with other borrowed musical materials. Meanwhile polyphony had begun to develop independently of such borrowings and independently of the Church. By the sixteenth century composers were discovering new realms of expression and inventing new techniques to master them; and this is the period of music history in which we are still living. (Grout and Palisca, 97-99)


As a way of comparing the changes in medieval society with the changes in music, you might enjoy taking a look at these two time lines:

Medieval Events Timeline

Medieval Music Timeine



(The timelines are copied from http://www.ced.appstate.edu/intercollege/3850/studwork/medieval/guide/time.htm.)





Musical Processes and Composers


We are going to concentrate here on the early development of polyphonic music, examining a few examples of the ways composers used to create this music, that is, the musical processes, and two of the people responsible for some of the more noted early examples.



Although it is likely that organum was practiced much earlier, we see the first written evidence of a practice of improvising polyphonic music at the end of the ninth century in an anonymous treatise called Musica endiriadis.  Between this time and the mid-thirteenth century there developed different types of organum, each one a little more sophisticated than the previous:


Types of Early Organum (9th-11th centuries)

Parallel Organum – Strict homophony with a second voice singing a 5th below the original voice. It is "syllabic", meaning there is only one note per syllable.  For example:


Listen to a sample (recordings site, track 11):

Introit: Puer natus from 

Missa Magna: Messe à la Chapelle Papale d'Avignon, XIVe Siècle

(The recording title indicates that this style of organum continued to be used well into the fourteenth and even fifteen centuries.)

Modified Parallel Organum – Strict organum with each of the voices doubled at the octave.  This style is also syllabic. For example:

Notice the slight alteration in the organal voice at the end, in order to avoid the tritone interval.  This need to avoid the tritone led to a system in which the organal voice gained a slight degree of independence, resulting in Organum with Oblique Motion.

Organum with Oblique Motion – Here the organal voice moves in generally the same direction as the original voice: sometimes it is parallel (same direction) and at other times the organal voice stays on one pitch - in order to avoid the tritone interval - while the original voice moves (oblique motion).  The music is still syllabic.  For example:

This freedom in the organal voice continued to develop to what we call Free Organum.

Free Organum - Organum with Oblique Motion gains greater and greater freedom, finally appearing like this in the 11th century:

However, it continues to move note against note.  In addition, notice that the organal voice is now above the original voice and that the intervals are restricted.  Unisons, 4ths, 5ths and octaves are considered as consonant (stable and pleasing) intervals.

(Examples transcribed and edited from Grout and Palisca, 100-101)

Organum was usually applied to a section of a piece of music for the Mass of the Divine Office, usually the portion of a chant that would have been sung by soloists.  The rest of the piece would be sung by the choir.

Early in the 12th century, a new type of organum developed, florid organum:

Florid Organum (12th century)

Florid Organum - The upper voice (Vox organalis) sings many notes against every note of the original chant in the lower voice (Vox prinipalis).

In this new florid organum, the voice singing the chant, being held for long durations for each note, came to be called the tenor, from the Latin "tenere," that is, "to hold."

This florid organum is preserved in manuscripts from two places, the monastery of Santiago de Compostela in the northwest corner of Spain and the Abbey of St. Martial at Limoges in south-central France.  Here is an example from the St. Martial manuscript:

Benedicamus Domino-Humane prolis from The Age of Cathedrals

(not yet available on recordings site)

At this time, "the term organum properly refers only to the style in which the lower voice holds long notes;  when both parts came to move in similar measured rhythm, as happened later in the twelfth and early thirteenth centuries, the usual medieval term was discant.  Since florid organum was at first applied in a two-voice texture, one designation for it was organum duplum or purum ("double" or "pure" organum")."  (Grout and Palisca, 103)

Like other styles of earlier organum, the 13th-century organum and discant styles of composition were at first applied only to sections of pieces, still those sections of the chant that were normally sung by soloists.  The sections of pieces that were set in organal style were called organum, and the sections of pieces that were set in discant style were called discant clausulae.  In addition, "the choice of whether to use organal or discant style was not a matter of caprice.  It was based on the general principle that in those portions of the original chant which were syllabic or only slightly florid - in other words, in the portions where there were comparatively few notes to a syllable - the organal style with long sustained notes in the tenor was appropriate; but in those portions where the original chant was itself highly melismatic, it was necessary for the tenor to move along more quickly in order not to lengthen the whole piece unduly." (Grout and Palisca, 112)  For example, look at the chant Alleluia pascha nostrum below:

Alleluia pascha nostrum


Pâques: La Messe, Quelques pièces de l'Office

(recordings site, track 5)

Gregorian Missal

Alleluia for Easter Sunday

In the medieval Mass, the cantor would intone the "Alleluia," of this chant up through the first 11 notes.  The choir would then repeat this intonation and sing the entire "Alleluia."  The cantor would then sing the verse, through the text, "Pascha nostrum immolatus est."  The choir would then sing the final word of the verse, "Christus," which you will notice is nearly the same music as the opening "Alleluia."  Finally the choir would repeat the "Alleluia."

Now notice which words are syllabic, or nearly so, and which are set to florid, or melismatic, music.  The syllabic settings include the beginning of the chant, "Alleluia," and the beginning of the verse, "Pascha."

Let's summarize these observations in a table:

Alleluia pascha nostrum

Division of Roles and Style of Chant


Solo or Choir

Style of Chant



Alleluia with extended ending Choir Syllabic, then florid
Pascha Solo Syllabic
nostrum  Solo Florid
immolatus Solo Florid
est Solo Syllabic
Christus Choir Florid
Alleluia Choir Syllabic, then florid

Now examine the same table with the addition of a tabulation of the sections of an Organum/Discant setting of this piece by the composer Léonin. (See below for more information on Leonin.)

Alleluia pascha nostrum

Division of Roles and Style of Chant

Comparision with Organal/Discant setting by Léonin


Solo or Choir

Style of Chant

Leonin Setting



Syllabic Organum duplum
Alleluia with extended ending Choir Syllabic, then florid Chant
Pascha Solo Syllabic Organum duplum
nostrum  Solo Florid Discant
immola- Solo Florid Discant
tus est Solo Syllabic* Organum duplum
Christus Choir Florid Chant
Alle- Choir Syllabic Organum duplum
luia Choir Florid* Discant
short ending Choir Florid Chant
*In the Léonin setting of this chant, the text alignment is slightly different from what you see in the Gregorian Missal.

You can see that, with the exception of a slightly unusual treatment of the final "Alleluia," - a fancy ending - all the parts of the chant that are treated with organum or discant are parts that would be assigned to the cantor (bold) and that of those parts, the more syllabic sections of the chant are set in organal style (blue) while the more florid sections of the chant are set in discant style (violet).


Go back, and listen to the chant again, while following the music.  Then click the button below, and listen to Léonin's setting, listening especially to the text, who is singing it and the style of music that is used for it, that is, whether the upper voice moves rather freely against very long notes in the lower voice (organal style) or both voices move more quickly (discant style).  It may take a couple of listenings to understand everything.


Alleluia pascha nostrum from MagisterLeoninus, Léonin: Sacred Music from 12th-century Paris

(not yet available on recordings site)



Notre Dame School of Organum, Léonin and Pérotin


There is perhaps no other building more intimately connected with the history of Paris than the cathedral of Notre Dame.  Notre Dame, on l'Isle de la Cité, one of the two islands in the center of Paris and considered to be the "cradle" of the city, was built on the site of an ancient Roman temple.  In 1160 the decision was made to rebuild the already old cathedral, and three years later, in 1163, Pope Alexander III laid the corner stone commencing a construction project that would span approximately 170 years and result in one of the most beautiful gothic cathedrals in the world.


In the 12th century music thrived in Paris and especially at Notre Dame.  The University of Paris established of school of music in 1100, giving music the same academic status as the sciences.  In 1150 a school of music was established at the cathedral itself, where the development of music in the new organal style was fostered by some of the more important musicians in Europe.  Two of the most prominent of these were Léonin and Pérotin.


Léonin (Leoninus) was active at Notre Dame from ca.1163 until his death ca.1201.  He composed a cycle of polyphonic organum for most of the chants of the liturgical year.  This collection, entitled magnus liber organi, (great book of polyphony) "become the most celebrated polyphonic repertory of the middle ages." (Roesner, 6)  The pieces in magnus liber organi, composed in both the florid organal style and discant style, were intended to replace sections of the chant for various parts of the Mass and Office.  We have already seen this substitution process and heard one of Léonin's compositions above.


Pérotin (Perotinus) (fl. 1183) continued and expanded the contributions of Léonin.  He replaced many of Léonin's settings in the florid organal style with the music in the new discant style.  He also replaced many of Léonin's discant clausulae with newer versions of his own, which are generally called substitute clausulae.  In addition, Pérotin expanded these compostion to include three and four voices (organum triplum and organum quadruplum).  Here is an example of such a piece:


Alleluia nativitas gloriose virginis marie from École de Notre Dame de Paris 1163-1245

(not yet available on recordings site)



The motet, which becomes a compositional form of paramount importance in the Renaissance, is born of the music of Pérotin's generation.  Its origin is summarized in the following article by Grout and Palisca:


The Motet

Léonin, as we have seen, had introduced into his organa distinct sections (clausulae) in discant style.  The idea evidently fascinated composers of the next generation - so much so that Pérotin and others produced hundreds of discant clausulae many of them designed as alternates or substitutes for those of Léonin am other earlier composers. These "substitute clausulae" were interchangeable; as many as five or ten might be written using the same tenor, and from these a choirmaster could select anyone for a particular occasion. Presumably, the added upper voice or voices originally had no words; but sometime before the middle of the century words began to be fitted to them - usually tropes or paraphrases, in rhymed Latin verse, of the tenor text.  Eventually, the clausulae cut loose from the larger organa in which they had been imbedded and began life on their own as separate compositions - in much the same way that the sequence, after starting out as a appendage to the Alleluia, later became independent. Probably because of the addition of words, the newly autonomous substitute clausulae were called motets.  The term comes from the French mot, meaning "word," and was first applied to French texts that were added to the duplum of a clausula.  By extension, "motet" came to signify the compostion as a whole. (Grout and Palisca, 120-121)




The conductus  was somewhat similar to the discant sections of organum, but with its own unique characteristics.  First, the words were, for the most part, set syllabically, that is, one note per syllable.  This created the effect of a homophonic (chords moving together) rather than polyphonic (independent melodies being sung simultaneously) texture.  Second, the tenor was newly composed, giving composers quite a bit of freedom.  Finally, the conducti were generally settings of Latin poetry, often addressed to the Virgin Mary, rather than liturgical texts.


The conductus style was a simple, appealing one that was incorporated into many later forms.







The role of the development of polyphony cannot hardly be overstated in the development of musical notation.  When musicians began to sing two separate melodies at the same time, it became critical that both the pitches and the rhythms of these melodies were clearly understood by the performers.



Rhythmic Modes

We saw in our exploration of Gregorian chant that the process of notating pitches accurately by placing them on a lined staff was reasonably well developed by the 11th century.  However, the notation of musical rhythms that were independent from the natural rhythms of speech remained a challenge.  In about the 11th century composers developed a system of grouping notes together in ways to indicate certain rhythmic patterns.  For example:


(Grout and Palisca, 07)


By the middle of the 13th century these patterns were codified into a set of six rhythmic modes.  The rhythmic patterns of these modes corresponded to the metrical feet of French and Latin verse.  Thus, they were still related to the rhythms of speech.  However, now the notes had a new feature, that being a clearly specified time value for each note within the pattern.  This system was adequate for all polyphonic music written until the middle of the 13th century.  


Perotin's Alleluia nativitas gloriose virginis marie, which we have already discussed and heard, is notated in this manner.  Click here to go back and take another look at the style of notation in the manuscript.



Franconian Notation

Even so, the system was limited.  It could not accommodate the notation of any rhythm that fell outside the patterns of the six modes.  To overcome this dilemma, various methods were "proposed, but the codification of a practicable system was in a work attributed to Franco of Cologne.  In the Ars cantus mensurabilis (The Art of Mensurable Music), written probably about 1250, rules were established for the values of single notes, ligatures [groups of notes], and rests.  This system of notation remained in use through the first quarter of the fourteenth century, and many of its features survived until the middle of the sixteenth century." (Grout and Palisca, 129-130)   Here is an example:


Kyrie from Messe de Nostre Dame

Guillaume de Machaut

(ca. 1300-1377)


(Copied from Bessler and Gülke, 61)


You can see - perhaps with some difficulty - that there are individual square-shaped and individual diamond-shaped notes, some with and some without stems, ligatures (groups of notes), and notes that are dotted, all of which are utilized to create divisions of rhythm unavailable previously.


What is truly fascinating about this evolution in the notation of music is the realization that it gives us that until this time, the whole of musical rhythm was based on a fundamentally different concept than that which we use today.  Chant was based on clearly discernible, but "unmensurable" (cannot be measured) rhythms of speech.  This new notation was based on the concept of specific values of time assigned to each note - something that seems fairly ordinary to us, but that was a revolutionary concept at the time.  The following excerpt from Ars cantus mensurabilis will elucidate this:



Franco of Cologne on Mensurable Music


Ars cantus mensurablilis

Mensurable music is melody measured by long and short time intervals. To understand this definition, let us consider what measure is and what time is. Measure is an attribute showing the length and brevity of any mensurable melody. I say "mensurable, " because in plainsong this kind of measure is not present. Time is the measure of actual sound as well as of the opposite, its omission, commonly called rest. I say "rest is measured by time, " because if this were not the case two different melodies - one with rests, the other without-could not be proportionately accommodated to one another .

Mensurable music is divided into wholly and partly mensurable. Music wholly mensurable is discant, because discant is measured by time in all its parts. Music partly mensurable is organum, because organum is not measured in all its parts. The word "organum, " be it known, is used in two senses - in its proper sense and in the sense commonly accepted. For organum in its proper sense is organum duplum, also called organum purum. But in the sense commonly accepted organum is any ecclesiastical chant measured by time.  (Strunk, 140-141)



Choirbook Format

Finally, this new notation system had an unexpected ecological benefit.  Recall that the music written in organal style would have an upper voice (or voices) that moved over very slow moving notes in the tenor voice.  Until now composers would have to write the music in score form, so that the performers could see when the tenor part changed against the other notes.  For example, take one more look at the beginning of Pérotin's Alleluia nativitas gloriose virginis marie:



Alleluia nativitas gloriose virginis marie



(Copied from Bessler and Gülke, 39)


You can see that a lot of paper is used for very few tenor notes.  The newer notation system of Franco of Cologne, because it gives specific time values to each note, does not require that all the parts be lined up in score fashion.  They can, in fact, be written completely separately, and as long as the musicians count their rhythms accurately the musical lines with stay together perfectly.  (This is quite common today in instrumental ensembles of all kinds.  Orchestral players, for example, see only their own parts.  As long as they count the note values accurately, their parts will synchronize with the parts of the other players, even though they will never actually see the music of the other players.)


From about 1230 until the sixteenth century, then, each musical part was written out separately, but all the parts were put on the same page.  It looked like this:


Choirbook Format

The Eton Choirbook (Eton College MS 178)  f. 15v

First page of Stabat mater by John Browne (late 15th - early 16th century)


This format, called choirbook format, allowed the composers to use only the amount of space needed for each part without a lot of wasted valuable paper.  The choirbooks themselves were usually large volumes, and all the singers would stand around a single choirbook reading their respective parts.





Sources and Resources

Sources for This Page

Benham, Hugh.  Latin Church Music in England, 1460-1575.  

        (London: Barrie and Jenkins, 1977).

Bessler, Heinrich, and Gülke, Peter.  Musik des Mittelalters und der Renaissance, 

        Band III/Lfg. 5 of Musikgeshichte in Bildern, Heinrich Bessler and 

        Max Schneider, eds.; Werner Bachmann, gen. ed.  

        (Leipzig: VEB  Deutscher Verlag für Musik, 1973).

Gajard, Dom Joseph, OSB, chant master. Pâques: Le Messe, Quelques pièces de l'Office, 

        Reissued edition.  Performed by the monks of Solesmes.  

        (Accord, 1988).  CD recording, CD #221602

Gregorian Missal for Sundays. (Solesmes: Abbaye Saint-Pierre, 1990)

        ISBN 2-85274-133-4

Grout, Donald Jay, and Palisca, Claude V. A History of Western Music, 4th ed.  

        (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1988).

        ISBN 0-393-95627-X.

Guerber, Antoine, director.  Missa Magna: Messe à la Chapelle Papale d'Avignon, 

        XIVe Siècle.  Performed by Diabolus in Musica.  (Paris: Studio SM, 1999). 

        CD recording, CD #D2819 SM 61.

Hillier, Paul, dir. The Age of Cathedrals: Music from the Magnus Liber 

        Organi.  Performed by Theatre of Voices. (Los Angeles: Harmonia Mundi USA, 1996)

        HMU 907157.

"Medieval Timelines." 


Red Byrd. MagisterLeoninus, Léonin: Sacred Music from 12th-century Paris. (London: 

        Hyperion Records, Ltd., 1997) 

Roesner, Edward H. Notes for The Age of Cathedrals: Music from the Magnus Liber 

        Organi.  (Los Angeles: Harmonia Mundi USA, 1996)

        HMU 907157.

Sherrane, Robert.  Music History 102: A Guide to Western Composers and their music.

        http://www.ipl.org/exhibit/mushist/  (last updated, 12/14/97)

Tillier, Allan, ed. Guides Voir: Paris. (Paris:  Hachette, 2000)

        ISBN 2-01-243127-5

Vellard, Dominique, dir.   École de Notre Dame de Paris, 1163-1245.  Performed by     

        Ensemble Gilles Binchois.  (Paris: Harmonic Records, 1986)



Resources for Further Exploration

Medieval Music Online.  This is a student project that was part of a course entitled Literacy, Technology and Instruction: 3850 course at Appalachian State University.  The timelines on this page were copied from this site.  The rest of the site has some interesting items:

http://www.ced.appstate.edu/intercollege/3850/ (for the course)


(for the student project)

Sifferd, Joseph Allen.  "Music 242: Pérotin and Notre Dame Organum,"


         The gateway site to the entire course, Music of the Middle Ages and Renaissance: