Early Medieval Dance Music

By Ellisif Flakkari
Copyright (C) 1994 Monica Cellio

The earliest recorded dance music we have dates to the 13th century. For a span of about 150 years, several related forms appeared in Frnace, Italy, and England. No choreographies have survived, though several manuscripts containing music have. A rough description of the dances, written by Johannes de Grocheio (c. 1300), has also survived.

This article describes the music for these dances and includes suggestions for arranging and performing these pieces. I have found that they are also fun to compose, and include two examples of compositions in the style of this music.

Some general cautions should be applied when doing research in this area: while there are surviving pieces, there are too few to allow one to confidently draw conclusions. The pieces described in this article come from a repertoire of under two dozen pieces from three countries. This article describes the properties of those pieces, but we cannot know if all pieces of these types shared those properties.

Types of Dances

There are four related forms from this repertoire: the estampie, the istanpita, the ductia, and the nota.

The estampie is French and dates to the second half of the 13th century. Eight examples of this form survive, all in a triple meter. An estampie consists of between 4 and 7 verses (called puncta); each verse is repeated, and all share the same alternate endings. That is, an estampie with 4 verses (A, B, C, D) and two endings (1 and 2) would be played in the following order: A 1 A 2 B 1 B 2 C 1 C 2 D 1 D 2. Further, both the verses and the endings can vary in length within a single piece (suggesting that the dance was not regular); surviving examples range from 8 to 20 measures in length per verse. [Mensural notation was not used in these manuscripts; this refers to the number of measures in a modern transcription.] The range of these melodies is generally about a tenth.

Example 1 shows an estampie with 4 puncta. Both endings are 4 measures long; the verses sans endings are 4, 8, 7, and 6 measures long. [To save space, the endings are only written out once. A full transcription can be found in McGee.] Example 2 shows an estampie written by the author. [Again, the music is written in the compact form. A more playable copy can be had for the asking from the author.]

The istanpita is Italian and dates to the late 14th century (1390+). Eight examples of this form survive, all in duple meter. Like the estampie, the istanpita consists of several verses with the same first and second endings, and the playing sequence is the same. Unlike the estampie, there is more structure within the verses in some examples. The istanpita named Parlamento, for example, has the following verse structure: A B 1 A B 2 C B 1 C B 2 D B 1 D B 2 E F 1 E F 2 G F 1 G F 2. (The structure can get considerably more complex.)

Istanpita are more chromatic than estampie, and the verses are much longer (up to about 100 measures). The melodic range is similar to that of the estampie. Example 3 shows the first verse of Parlamento. [The full piece can be found in McGee.]

Grocheio refers to a dance form called the ductia in his manuscript of c.1300, but no extant manuscripts contain pieces labelled as such. He describes the ductia as like the estampie but more regular; perhaps this refers to an estampie with verses all of the same length. [This appears to be the interpretation chosen by Davison & Apel, and it is also suggested by McGee.] There are a few examples (generally labelled simply as dances) that fit this description.

The nota is English and dates to the late 13th century. Like the estampie and istanpita, the nota has several verses. It does not appear to have the alternate endings that characterise the other forms. Each verse may consist of the same phrase with different counterpoints above or below. One example has five verses, with the same melody occupying the bottom part of verses 1 and 2 and the upper part of verses 3 through 5 (and transposed a fifth). As with ductia, there are no surviving pieces labelled as notas in period, and identification is based on Grocheio's description.

Arrangement Techniques

There are few surviving examples of polyphonic arrangements of these types of dances; we have one (presumed) nota and two polyphonic estampies from the late 14th century in England. (These slightly predate or perhaps are contemporary with the istanpita; they post-date the estampie by about a century.) Thus, we must be cautious in drawing conclusions from the limited sources we have. However, we can look at these sources and other music of this period for arrangement ideas.

The arrangements we have from this repertoire are in two parts, with an individual line occasionally being itself polyphonic. (Presumably such lines were intended to be played on polyphonic instruments.) In the nota, the lines are very close to each other (soprano and alto ranges), but do not cross. In both English estampie, the top line is in the soprano/alto range and the bottom in the tenor range (and again, the lines do not cross).

The bottom line is often slower-moving than the upper, but runs of 16th notes are not unheard-of. This is only a general guideline.

Rhythmically, lines often move together or with one a rhythmic elaboration of the other. The "back and forth" rhythms that show up in a lot of late-period polyphony do not appear here to any great extent, and should generally be avoided for this style.

In terms of pitch, both parallel and contrary motion are seen, and parallel fifths and octaves appear to be common. (Note that this is a practice that becomes frowned upon at the end of our period.) The strong intervals are the octave and the fifth, but the third is also used. Resolutions of phrases are to the unison, octave, or fifth.

Runs of fast notes are seen, and while these are often stepwise, they sometimes jump by a fourth or fifth, often in rapid alternation between two notes. [See, for example, verse four of Petrone, transcribed in McGee.]

Example 4 is a composition in two parts, for soprano and alto, of an estampie.

Performance Practice

No extant primary sources tell us which instruments were used for which types of dance music, or even (reliably) which were used for dance music in general during this period. We can find literary evidence for just about any instrument of the period, and artistic evidence for many, but no specific information. (For a good discussion of medieval instruments in general, see Munrow.)

We do have some evidence: Grocheio lists the vielle as the ideal instrument for all secular music. Instruments seen in artwork being played for dancing include lute, vielle (and other bowed strings), pipe and tabor, shawms, and tambourine. Page gives evidence of the frequent use of the fiddle in troubadour music, which is contemporary with part of this period, and it is not unreasonable to assume that it might have been used for other sorts of music as well. Given its popularity throughout the middle ages in Europe, it is reasonable to assume that the recorder would have been used a fair amount. Personal experience suggests that while artists may have drawn them, solo lutes tend to be too quiet to accompany dance.

Several types of ornamentation are appropriate. Jerome of Moravia (as described by McGee) discusses trills (rolls?), grace notes, and rhythmic division (replacing a note with two or three notes of shorter duration, on the same pitch). Given the amount of repetition present in these dances, it seems reasonable that the musicians would have embellished the piece in different ways to vary repeats of the same phrase.

Dances were sometimes performed by solo musicians, if the artistic evidence can be believed, and sometimes by large ensembles, if the literary evidence can be believed. Little is written of what they actually played, however.

Given the construction of the dances with repeated endings, one interpretation is to have one instrument (or set of instruments) play the body of the puncta and another play the endings (or have additional instruments join on the endings). This would help the dancers maintain their place in the music as well as emphasizing the structure. The nota appears to consist of variations on a single theme (or small number of themes); having dominant instruments playing the theme while other instruments fill in around it would work well. It is possible that polyphony was sometimes improvised and not generally written down.

It is difficult to determine appropriate tempo with any degree of confidence, knowing nothing of the dances done to this music. We can take a hint from the name estampie (to stamp) and infer that at least some of these dances are fairly lively. Grocheio's statement that the estampie have a strong percussive nature suggests this as well, but it is still only a guess.

I have found that this repertoire works well when played briskly and cleanly, generally at about one second per measure. This is a guess, of course, but it seems to work well and I can easily imagine doing lively dances to it. This is also consistent with several recordings from generally reputable performers.

I find this a fun repertoire to play, and encourage others to give it a try.


  • Davison, Archibald T and Apel, Willi, Historical Anthology of Music, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1946, 1949.
  • Hughes, Dom Anselm, Early Medieval Music up to 1300, New Oxford History of Music Volume II, London: Oxford University Press, 1954.
  • Marrocco, W. Thomas and Sandon, Nicholas, The Oxford Anthology of Music: Medieval Music, London: Oxford University Press, 1977.
  • McGee, Timothy J., Medieval Instrumental Dances, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1989.
  • Munrow, David, Instruments of the Middle Ages and Renaissance, Oxford, NY: Oxford University Press, 1976.
  • Page, Christopher, Voices and Instruments of the Middle Ages: Instrumental practice and songs in France 1100-1300, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986.
  • Rohloff, Ernst, Die Quellenhandschriften zum Musiktraktat des Johannes de Grocheio, Leipzig: Deutscher Verlag, 1972 (as quoted in McGee; I can't read German).
  • A Few Useful Recordings

  • Calliope, Festival: An Italian Renaissance Revel, Nonesuch 9 79049-1 G, 1983.
  • Polonska, Elena, The Medieval Harp, Vox Turnabout CT 2307, 1974.
  • St. George's Canzona, Medieval Songs and Dances, Musical Heritage Society MHC 9561K, 1978, 1985.
  • Walther von der Vogelweide Chamber Choirs, Music of the Middle Ages: Troubadours, Trouveres, Minnesingers, and Minstrels, Volume 4, Musical Heritage Society MHC 249442T, 1966, 1970, 1974, 1975.
  • About the Author

    Ellisif Flakkari (Manche) is a tenth-century Dane who believes there is never enough jewelry.
    Monica Cellio is a technical writer, plays hammer dulcimer, runs a folk music band named On the Mark, has two cats named Erik the Redhead and Baldur, and believes there is never enough music.

    Copyright and Distribution

    This article may be reproduced for non-profit educational purposes within the SCA or similar medieval re-creation organizations, so long as no alterations are made and the author receives a copy of any publication in which this article is reprinted. Any other reproduction requires the author's permission.