The History of Vocal Music

By Nova Safo

People have been singing since before the invention of modern language. But vocal music as we know it today has its roots in the Middle Ages.

History

The earliest form of music known to man is vocal music. Before 900 A.D., vocal music was not written down. It was sung from person to person, often transmitting vital information about history and culture. In the Middle Ages, vocal music started its evolution into modern form.

Middle Ages

During the Middle Ages, chant singing tied to religious practices was the common form of vocal music. Songs were monophonic, containing a single musical line with no harmony. Chants were sung often in religious settings. In secular environments, troubadours, wandering musicians for hire, sang monophonic songs. Much of the surviving troubadour music of this era comes from France and Germany.

Renaissance

With the European Renaissance beginning in the 14th Century, Western vocal music expanded from monotonal chant to increasingly complex song structures and harmonies. Madrigals, popular secular songs of the era, became the purview of both troubadours and amateurs. Singing with instrumental accompaniment rose to prominence.

Modern Day

As harmonies and musical structures evolved in European-influenced countries, so did songs. Vocal music expanded into the theater in the form of the opera, a musical play. Composers also wrote songs to be performed in the concert hall.

Western

Contemporary vocal music in European-influenced countries such as the United States has its roots in the Western tradition, which includes concepts such as musical notation on a five-line staff, an eight-note musical octave and harmonies based on major and minor scales.

Non-Western

Vocal music takes on distinctly different forms in cultures outside of the European tradition. In countries such as India, vocal music can include notes that are nonexistent on the Western eight-note octave. Other countries continue to pass on vocal music, such as folk songs, through the oral tradition instead of written form.

About the Author

Nova Safo is a Los Angeles-based freelance journalist. He can be heard regularly on National Public Radio and other news outlets. Specialties include arts, humanities and culture coverage, reporting on the business side of the Hollywood entertainment industry, and stories focusing on the convergence of politics and public policy. Safo earned a Bachelor of Arts in broadcast journalism from the Annenberg School of Journalism.