Angela’s Question about Medieval Music

Angela asked;

I would like to understand how a piece was appreciated by people at the time.

The pieces from this period seem a bit flat and monotonous to my modern untrained ear (brain). What am am I not hearing and appreciating. Were they ‘pleasant background mood music’ or pieces people listened intently as we would experience a Morzart Concerto.


Like when you look at a renaissance painting and don’t know how to ‘read’ the symbolism or coding or know enough of the period context to access the full worth of the work packed in by the painter.

Part 1

Hi Angela, yes it is an opportunity to make more videos and to arrange more of these pieces.

These have been created using Dorico, a music publishing programme.  So maybe the flatness is a product of being computer generated? 

There is also another reason for the lack of emotional cues, that is that you were not brought up with this music as your musical access.  ie music to a large extent is a learnt response, we pick up the cues of how to listen and understand music (as far as I know) as we grow up.  A person brought up on Classical Indian music which has a different approach to emotion, or gamalan (Thailand) or Chinese classical music, will not understand the emotional cues that you take for granted in Western Classical music.

We have learnt to understand phrase lengths and cadences, points at which western music starts, groups and ends.  The colour tones of instruments, dynamics, speed and rhythm which tell us when something is repeating, ending, or not ending, ie when you build up an expectation with the listener and then control there emotional response by pulling these things around.  Or putting in a sudden chord change or unusual cadence (pare of chords that are the end signifiers for us). 

Just for reference these cadences we use are built on standard pairs (minimum) or several groups of chords as solutions to end phrases and overall sections of pieces. 

The strongest and most common is “Perfect” which is the one Beethoven hammers out at the end of his symphonies, chord 5 and chord 1, chord 1 is the key chord of the piece, so in G major it is a G chord, C major a C chord, D minor, a D minor chord. 

In a C major scale (the white notes on a piano) we use these letters.

C D E F G A B C…..   So Chord 1 is C major (or C E G)    Chord 5 is five up including C so G major (or G B D)

So in C major Perfect is G chord followed by C chord

The second most common cadence is “Plagal” which is an older pair of chords which goes back to the Medieval period as an appropriate ending.  A lot of Renaissance pieces end with Plagal.  This is chord 4 and 1, it is the Amen at the end of old church hymns and sung parts of the Mass.  It sounds more solemn and less forceful than the “Perfect”. 

C D E F G A B C….   So Chord 1 is C major (C E G) and chord 4 is F major (F A C)

In Plagal in C major it is F chord followed by C chord.

Third is the “imperfect” which is an ending which is unfinished.  It is any chord (typically 1) up to 5.  This is not a strong ending so indicates to our ears that we have not ended, ie there is more to come.  So at the end of the first phrase (musical sentence) so that we can hear that there is a second phrase.  This is one point in which a composer can play tricks with the listener, because he/she knows that the listeners understand this so if you don’t do another phrase or start in a way that is not expected ie not using chord 1 next then it starts to play with your own emotions.

C D E F G A B C….  Chord 1 is C major (C E G) and chord 5 as before is G major (G B D)

In Imperfect in C major it can be C chord followed by a G chord.

Finally, (if you are still with me) we have the “Interupted” cadence.  This is a real crowd pleaser, it basically Interupts the Perfect cadence with an intruder that can leave you feeling high and dry.  Instead of Chord 5 followed by Chord 1 as you are expecting, you get Chord 5 followed by Chord 6.

So in C major

C D E F G A B C D E……   Chord 5 is G major (G B D) followed by Chord 6 A minor (A C E).  (the major minor bit is another explanation)

And then if you are lucky the phrase would be repeated  and resolved properly with a Perfect candence, or the composer might seemingly spin out of control and take you on another journey possible through other variations or keys, until eventually you land safely back on home turf and finish with a perfect cadence in the key that you started with.  (not always, depending on the emotional effect required).

I will also put this out on my Blog at

Hope this makes some sense. Part two in a mo.


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