Secular Music During the Middle Ages

How the Church, Troubadors and Composers Affected Music in the 14th-Century

A manuscript from Francesco Landini

Francesco Landini / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

Sacred music was overcome by secular music by the 14th-century. This type of music differed from sacred music because it dealt with themes that were not spiritual, meaning non-religious. Composers during this period experimented with freer forms. Secular music flourished until the 15th-century, afterward, choral music emerged.

Sacred Music

During the Middle Ages, the Church was the main owner and producer of music. At least music that was recorded and preserved as manuscripts were written by church clerics. The Church promoted sacred music such as plainsong, Gregorian chant, and liturgical songs.​​

Instruments of the Middle Ages

Because music was seen as a gift from God, making music was a way of praising the heavens for that gift. If you look at paintings during this period, you'll notice that often, angels are depicted as playing different kinds of instruments. Some of the instruments used are the lute, shawm, trumpet, and harp.

Secular Music in the Middle Ages

While the Church attempted to suppress any form of non-sacred music, secular music still existed during the Middle Ages. Troubadours, or itinerant musicians, spread music amongst the people since the 11th-century. Their music typically consisted of lively monophonic melodies and lyrics were mostly about love, joy and pain.

Important Composers

During the rise of secular music in the 14th-century, one of the most important composers of that time was Guillaume de Mauchaut. Mauchaut wrote both sacred and secular music, and he is known for composing polyphonies.

Another important composer was Francesco Landini, a blind Italian composer. Landini wrote madrigals, which is a type of vocal music based on secular poems set to music that had simpler melodies.

John Dunstable was an important composer from England who used 3rd and 6th intervals rather than the 4th and 5th intervals used earlier. Dunstable influenced many composers of his time including Gilles Binchois and Guillaume Dufay.

Binchois and Dufay were both known Burgundian composers. Their works reflected early tonality. Tonality is a principle in music composition wherein at the end of the piece there is a feeling of completion by going back to the tonic. The tonic is the principal pitch of a composition.