From Monody to Polyphony with contribution by Guido d’Arezzo

When we had previously discussed early church music, we mentioned the use of instruments with singing. The vocal performances, however, were a single melody.  These recognized melodies by which the liturgy was sung were called Plainchant.  The church excluded instrumental music because of its association with pagan cellebrations and practices.  In the late sixth and early seventh centuries, Pope Gregory I codified the chants and liturgies that had developed among the churches of Catholicism.  The resultant officially recognized chant became known as Gregorian chant.

Two treatises appeared in the 10th century, Musica enchiriadis and Schola enchiriadis. These provide descriptions of how music can be ornamented, either by embellishing the melody or by adding parallel parts at the octave, fourth or fifth, but they did not indicate the actual pitches.  These added lines had no particular interest in themselves. This style of ornamentation was called origanum.  The Winchester Troper, appearing in about 1000 A.D., is the earliest sample of musical writing that specified the pitches and durations of the melodies.

In the 11th century, the Christian educator, Guido d’Arezzo, developed pedagogic tools for singing. He found a song that had certain syllables on an assending scale. From those syllables, we have today the basis of the solfeggio system of sight singing: ut (now do), re, mi, fa, sol, la .   He also developed a four line staff on which he could indicate precise pitches as well as durations.  He could combine several staves for different pitches of singing at the same time, which he identified with clefs.  To teach his system of sight singing, he developed what became known as the Guidonian Hand.  This system became the source of modern notation.  It enabled composers to notate different melodies to be sung simultaneously, which became known as polyphony.

Guidonian Hand and Music Manuscript of the Eleventh Century

For a demonstration of how the Guidonian Hand was used to aid sight singing, see

For an excellent synopsis of the development of polyphony and a scrap of music manuscript of the greatest master of polyphony, J.S. Bach, see .

For a sample of the music of Hildegard von Bingen, who succeeded d’Arezzo, go to

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For a sample of early development of polyphony in the Orthodox tradition, see


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