Music historians have traced the origins of Western Music, back to the 6th and 7th Centuries, during the Early Medieval period. Since then, surviving hymns, notation and compositions, have enabled us to observe how music developed over the centuries.

The drone was a popular favourite during the Medieval period (or the Middle Ages). When wonderful exotic instruments, such as the hurdy gurdy or the bagpipes, would simply hold one long droning note while the various musicians – perhaps singers, recorder players, or percussionists – would improvise solos over the top. These occasions would have been similar to today’s jazz or blues musicians jamming. From the manuscripts that still exist, these impromptu ‘jam sessions’ were highly virtuosic, with extraordinarily complex scores, percussion, voice, and drum beats.

Interestingly, the concept of the drone wasn’t just found in Western music, but appears in the traditional music of Europe, Africa, The Americas, Asia, and of course Australia, where the Australian Aborigines hollowed out branches to produce the now famous droning sounds of the didgeridoo.

The main advancement for Western music, began in the Catholic Church, with the Gregorian Chant. Named after Pope Gregory I, originally these chants consisted of one glorious note, sung to utter perfection, with only one goal in mind, to glorify the name of God. Then one fine day, someone, somewhere, thought, ‘What happens if we put another voice on top of that one?’ This was considered blasphemy at the time, but eventually the church had to except this outrageous new idea!

Over time, another voice was added, then another, and by the time the Renaissance came along (about 1300), eventually these combined voices formed what we now call harmony – soprano, alto, tenor and bass. These early laws of harmony are still the foundation of all harmonic music today. This idea developed over the centuries, becoming common place in the Renaissance , and later the Baroque period and beyond. Bach, for example, would improvise using six voices, or even seven or eight!

Throughout the Renaissance (approx. 1300-1600) and Baroque eras (1600-1750), musicians were highly sought after by Royalty and the elite upper classes. In fact they were similar to todays elite athletes, in other words, they would go to the highest bidder!

A ‘jam session’ 1700s style!

The finest courts and richest families of course had the most famous musicians. The Medici family in Florence, the Vatican in Rome, and all the Royal households throughout Britain and Europe, paid large sums of money, constantly competing with one another to acquire the finest musicians money could buy!

The highest paid musicians in those days were mainly the lute players (the equivalent of the modern day guitarists), who were bought, sold and traded for their talents and skills. Queen Elizabeth I had six lutenists in her court who were pretty much doing the same job as our modern day ipods! In other words, they accompanied their employers wherever they went, writing and improvising highly virtuosic music, on the fly, to suit every occasion (that takes some serious talent!). Just like today, where we listen to music wherever we go, those in the 1300-1700s did exactly the same, only their music was live and ours is digital. These musicians created music for whatever event was taking place – dances, balls, banquets, religious services, garden parties, soirees, all manner of leisurely endeavours, not to mention of course, in the boudoir!

The French King’s lutenist was second highest on the court payroll, the first being the Minister of Defence. This was the case in courts across Europe, indicating just how much music was loved and admired. To put it in perspective, in Italy the lutenists were number two on the Medici payroll, while the genius Leonardo da Vinci was number seven!

Music was held in the highest esteem, not only did they employ the best musicians, but members of every wealthy family and Royal household learnt an instrument. King Henry XVIII was an accomplished lutenist, and is credited with writing the now famous Greensleeves, as well as other dance tunes that are still performed to this day. For many years The Vatican employed lutenist, Francesco da Milano. Milano was considered the greatest lutenist of the day, known throughout Europe as Il Divino –  The Divine One!

Francesco da Milano – Il Divino!
(note the right-hand, thumb behind, technique of the Early Renaissance lutenists)

In those days, sacred or religious music, was composed for the sole purpose of transporting the listener to Heaven. It was believed that when a musician played here on Earth, one would also be playing in Heaven, thus the performer was literally channeling the Divine. Even for the everyday folk, going to church gave them an opportunity to witness and experience the very presence of God.

Music of course was not just for the wealthy upper classes, in the days of no television or radio, music, song and dance were found in every household. For those unable to afford instruments, family members simply sang. Music was the only form of entertainment and everyone made the most of it!

While elite musicians were either composing their own music or playing music by the most famous composers of the day, the every day folk, were creating exactly that – Folk Music. Each village and region had their own style, producing their own unique songs and sounds. Folk musicians sang about their everyday lives, loves and losses, Folk dances were played wherever a crowd was gathered, while bawdy drinking songs spilled out of every tavern!

The Medieval period spanned many Centuries from the 5th to the 14th, and throughout this time, the church was at the centre of, and controlled, every aspect of life. Secular Folk music may have covered many subjects and been the focus throughout each week, but on Sundays,  music was sacred and the only focus was God. Sacred music throughout this entire period was unashamedly ‘simple’ (deceptively so as in fact it was highly virtuosic!). As it was believed that only the ‘simplest’ and purest of notes would reach Heaven. There was no vibrato, no embellishments, just purity, and an almost childlike innocence. For it was written of course, that ‘only as a child may ye enter the Kingdom of Heaven’!

As music, and the skills of the musicians, advanced over the centuries, more and more flourishes were added. The music of the Renaissance (1300 to 1600) was far more elaborate, and by the time the Baroque period began (1600- 1750), the music was rich and complex, intricate and ornate.

Of course, there were not only lutes and lute players. There were viols (the early violin), the viola da gamba (the early cello), citterns, which were double stringed similar to the twelve-string guitar of today, along with many other stringed instruments, simple flutes, horns and trumpets, and of course numerous drums and percussion instruments.

Just like The Rolling Stones a standard Renaissance ensemble would consist of a percussionist (the drummer), a lutenist (the lead guitarist), a viola de gamba (the bass player), a viol (the second guitarist), a singer (or multiple singers), and sometimes a harpsichordist (or keyboard player). Their music had the same structure and chord progression as todays music, in fact, the similarities are quite astounding. One could say that these early ensembles were the birth of the rock ‘n’ roll band!