“By Ear and In the Memory:” Vernacular Music Processes and the Pedagogy of Medieval Music

Angela Mariani Smith


For many years, the teaching of western music history relied upon an evolutionary paradigm in which medieval music—actually over seven hundred years of diverse repertoire—was relegated to a role analogous to the proverbial one-celled organism from which subsequent life-forms arose. In truth, a great deal of the earliest western music is no less musically and rhetorically sophisticated than later music; nor is it characterized by one homogeneous style whose trajectory leads directly to the Common Practice period. A study of the processes, procedures, and transmission of many medieval music repertoires will reveal more commonality with vernacular musics than with the “classical” music of later eras: aural acquisition and retention in the memory, oral transmission from one musician to another, reliance on the agency of the performer rather than on the composer for its content, and evidence of improvisation, variation, and invention on the part of the performer. As musicology continues to move away from an evolutionary paradigm of music history to an approach more attuned to context and process, I propose that those of us who are scholars and performers of medieval music need to change the way medieval music is understood within the continuum of western music history, and to create new paradigms for teaching it, in both the classroom and the ensemble rehearsal studio.

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