The fall of the Roman Empire in the fifth century marked the beginning of the middle ages. To say it was a time of great cultural darkness and chaos in Europe is an understatement. In a land where Roman roads once led the way to distant countries, isolated little communities of people hid themselves from the rest of the world. Daily life was bleak and certainly not fun. Every day was filled with work from dawn to dusk and there was little time for any pleasure, let alone music. Of course, there was some music, but since most people were illiterate they had no way of writing down how it sounded, and for centuries, music was passed from person to person only by aural means. As a result, we have very little idea of how music outside of the church sounded.
The oases in Europe in the beginning of the middle ages were the monasteries. It was there that the intellectual traditions of Greece and Rome were kept alive, and in fact, it can be said that the monasteries prevented Europe from falling into total cultural collapse. The monks were literate men who recorded all of their activities, including the music that they sang. They developed a system of notation that allowed them to share their music with neighboring monasteries. Gregory the Great (c. 540-604), who was the Pope from 590 to 604, organized the music that we now call Gregorian Chant. He assigned certain chants to specific times of the day and year. Some of the standards he established remained in effect until the Council of Trent (1545-1563).
Like the music of the ancient world, Gregorian chant was monophonic and tied closely to the words being sung. The text was always Latin and no instruments were used to accompany the singing. The melodies of Gregorian chant are long and have a floating quality. Each note is the same length except for the last note of a phrase, which is held longer. In most chants the monks would all sing in unison, while in others, a soloist would sing a line of text that was followed by the rest of the monks, again in unison.
By the twelfth century many people were no longer content living in isolated little communities, as cities became the important centers of life in Europe. While cities grew, there became a greater need for massive cathedrals that could house the expanding number of worshipers. It was in these cathedrals that the next musical innovations of Western Europe took place. Composers initially tried to make Gregorian chant more interesting by adding extra vocal parts to harmonize the melodies. Master Leoninus (c. 1198-1236) of Notre Dame of Paris was one of the first musicians to write a completely different melodic line to compliment the original Gregorian chant, thus creating what is called polyphony.
Although the sacred music of the last years of the Middle Ages was sung without instrumental accompaniment, musicians who performed outside of the church invented and performed on many different instruments. String instruments like the lute, harp, and medieval violin, and wind instruments like the flute, shawm (a double-reed), and sackbut (a brass horn) were used frequently by secular musicians. Troubadours were the most famous entertainers of the late middle ages. They traveled from town to town in France and Spain, performing their own music and reciting poetry for noble members of the court. Unlike the church musicians, they did not sing in Latin, but would use the language of the common people. Also, their songs often had metrical, dance-like rhythms.