Getting Medieval on Music

I have a question for those of you who keep up with this site, and a bit of a ramble to go with it.

Who among you are interested in Early Music?  Or by any other name, the sacred and secular tunes of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance?

The reason I ask is because I’m thinking of dipping my toes into these waters.  And by that, I’m thinking of starting another blog project here on this site, this time with an eye towards gathering the research that becomes these blog posts, spit polishing that into a more cohesive form, and ultimately publishing a book.

Hold up, Troy… weren’t you going to open a shop?  Yes, and hopefully that’ll happen.  I’m still in love with the concept and intend to keep working towards it.  But the simple fact is that I need money to do that.  I have no inventory to sell, no means to sell it, and I have effectively overwhelmed myself doing business research to the point where my head is going to explode.  These answers will come, one way or another.  But I’ve been taking account of what I do have to offer, and it comes down to the ability to write.  This I can do, though admittedly I would have to rein in some of the stream of consciousness that goes on around here for purposes of a book.

The idea in my head is this.  Early Music has been a long-standing rabbit hole of mine, one of many.  My fascination with the era and my love of music naturally converges here.  Have you ever attempted to learn about Classical Music?  Or Opera?  There are all manner of books out there that hold your hand and walk you through the big stuff, tell you why it’s important, how the various forms work, who the big names are, how to listen, and so on.  Early Music?  Not so much.  Most of the books out there fall into two categories.  The first category is where the books are so incredibly simplistic as to leave a reader wondering why they even bothered.  Good idea, but not really helpful.  The reason these books are found is because they are inexpensive.  The second category are books written by the scholarly and immersed for the scholarly and immersed.  I suspect many, if not all, of them are written by college professors for use as text books in their classes.  They’re great resources, don’t get me wrong, but many of them are quite pricy, so those on a budget end up making the choice of “buy the book” or “buy more music.”  Personally, I’ll buy the music almost every time, but that’s just me.  Besides, the vast majority of these books talk way over the head of a beginner.  You have to raise your game if you want to meet the book on its own level.

Essentially, the idea in my head is that I can write the book I wished I could have found.  I’ve been wanting this book for over 25 years, and still I have yet to find it.  Well, gee, I wonder why that could be?  The topic of Early Music is so esoteric, even in the world of music, that the only ones who get excited by it seem to be those making the music in the first place.  For those on the outside, most people think it starts and stops with Gregorian plainchant.  Obviously this is a gross simplification, but it illustrates the point.  Like it or not, the Middle Ages is an world alien to our own, and nothing illustrates that quite like trying to figure out which end is up on an Early Music track list.  I’ve been wrestling with this since my first encounter with this music.


Let me give you an example, specifically from the very first Early Music album I ever purchased back in high school.  Before this, the closest I ever got to Medieval music was Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana and various movie scores.  Estimations will vary on how “close” that might be.  But then one day, completely by accident, I found this at my local music store (remember those?).  And there was only one copy of it, so that tells you how much stock they expected to sell.  The Medieval Experience is a 4-CD box set, and it was my formal introduction to the real deal, which excited me to no end just to have it in my hands.  The CDs are arranged accordingly: CD1 – Monks & Troubadours 1, CD2 – Monks & Troubadours 2, CD3 – Motets, CD4 – Masses & Memorials

So what can you tell about it?  For starters, you can instantly see that it has some sacred music (monks) and some secular (troubadours), with an further emphasis on the sacred (Masses & Memorials).  My first question was, “What’s a Motet?”  Keep in mind, the internet didn’t exist then.  Yeah.  Then you look at the track list, which you can find at that link above.  Some of the track names are in English, some aren’t (as one would rightly expect).  Composer names are offered where possible, for example: Dufay or Josquin.  Do these names mean anything to you?  If you know your Early Music, absolutely, but for an outsider, probably not.  At least when you first dip into Classical, you have some kind of starting point with Mozart or Beethoven.  Medieval composers are not exactly household names.  You see what I’m getting at?  When I started doing this in the days before the internet, the only way to learn was blind purchasing.  That’s difficult to do on the budget of an after school retail job, though admittedly the selection was made considerably easier when you factor in the notion that I lived in a small town.  That CD set was quite literally the only such animal in the store.  The internet makes it easier to track down more Early Music, and we can even listen to samples before purchasing, but it’s still effectively blind buying.  You opt-in, hoping you’ll find something to enjoy.  And even if you do, the music is still at arm’s length because it’s unlike anything else out there.  Full appreciation requires background and context.  It’s a quagmire.  It’s a fun quagmire for those with a passion for it, but it’s intimidating in the extreme for a beginner.  You think Opera’s scary and unapproachable?  That’s so adorable…

To add insult to injury, as much as I enjoy this box set, and as fond as I am of it due to the sentimental aspect of it, it’s not the easiest place to start.  This set challenges me as a listener even today.  As I’ve grown in my understanding of this music, so too has my appreciation for what’s actually in this set.

So for the better part of 30 years I keep thinking it just shouldn’t be that difficult.  Much to my unending delight, there are so many people out there who have have taken to playing such music and share their passion with the world.  It’s more accessible than ever.  Still doesn’t make it easy for a beginner to learn about, but accessibility makes it easier.  You know what you like when you hear it, and that’s never a bad way to start.  That’s sort of been my approach all these years.  My recent purchases confirm for me that there are some wonderful ambassadors out there for this music, and they do their part by playing the music and interacting with those who are so inclined to appreciate it.  Even so, I think I could contribute a book from the perspective of one who has no idea where to start.  I get to spend more time in that rabbit hole learning about this music, I can share a blog post here and there as I go, and ultimately I release this book that may be of some value to those looking for such a starting point.  It’s fun for me, and it gives me a little experience with this whole idea of professional authorship.

That’s where my head’s at this morning.  I keep telling myself that someday I’ll learn to just focus on one thing.  Today’s not that day.  Tomorrow’s not looking good either.

14 thoughts on “Getting Medieval on Music

  1. Writing the book you want to read but cannot find is always a wonderful place to start. Sounds like a wonderful project! Have you considered pitching it to a nonfiction press like Amberley or Pen and Sword?

    Liked by 2 people

    • I’ve considered nothing beyond what you read so far. These are the ramblings of a mind being marinated by morning coffee. But it’s a good idea. Perhaps I should prepare a pitch. Gratzi!


    • I have many. I personally find it easiest to start with someone like John Dowland. He was kind of a rock star of the Renaissance, composed mostly (perhaps exclusively?) for lute. Very ear-friendly, and perfect for setting a mood. If you’re looking for a more rich spiritual experience, Thomas Tallis or Hildegard von Bingen are good starting points. I could list off a lot more after all these years, but that’s why I’m thinking about this blog/book idea.

      Liked by 1 person

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