Early Music for Metalheads Part 2: Organum

The influence of classical Greek thought was present in most aspects of intellectual life in the middle ages. Aristotelian thought is central to the works of Thomas Aquinas, perhaps the best known theologian of the era and neoplatonism was influential on those theologians of a more mystical inclination. In the musical world, the basis of medieval music theory – the Church modes – was derived directly from the medieval understanding of Greek musical theory. This musical theory had its origins in the Pythagorean school. Pythagoras was the first westerner to record the mathematical relationships between pitches and used these relationships to derive musical modes. Related to this was the idea, also attributed to Pythagoras, of the music of the spheres, the concept that the proportions of the movements of celestial bodies create an inaudible music that is superior to any form of audible music. Implied in this idea is the belief that audible music should microcosmically re-create this celestial music.


Medieval music theorists did not interpret this Pythagorean conception of music as a mere metaphor. There existed a consensus that certain musical intervals were superior to others by virtue of their simpler and therefore more universal harmonic ratios. As a result the earliest examples of organum in medieval music involved the doubling of a chant melody at a consonant interval (1). Over time this practice evolved organically, with the added voice being granted greater independence from the original melody. Eventually organum evolved into a practice where the notes of the chant melody were extended into lengthy drones while the added voice sung extended composed melismas. This practice was known as florid organum.


This example shows an earlier form of organum with the added voice having some independence, however parallel consonsances still form a significant component of the musical texture.


This next example comes from the St. Martial of Limoges school of composition which produced a large number of works in the 12th century. This piece is not based on a chant melody and is therefore not an organum but rather a conductus. This shows the trend towards more freely composed music.


By the latter part of the 12th century the practice of organum was widespead across Europe and numerous theoretical treatises had been produced which shed light on the musical thought of the time. One of these treatises came from an English music student studying in Notre-Dame, Paris, who is known only as Anonymous IV. He wrote at length about the two musical masters working out of Notre-Dame whom he called Leonin and Perotin. If not for Anonymous IV’s treatise the names of these composers would not be known. Together these composers made a number of significant innovations in the composition of organum and other genres which ushered in a new era of musical composition and played a key role in the eventual development of counterpoint and harmony.


The older of the two composers of the Notre-Dame school, Leonin, is best known for his organum duplum (organum with one voice added to a chant melody) which employ a form of rhythmic organisation using six rhythmic modes (short rhythmic patterns). Leonin’s younger contemporary, Perotin, was probably the earliest composer to add a third and fourth voice in his organum. He was therefore instrumental in the development of counterpoint of which his music is an early example albeit following different rules to those that governed the counterpoint of later composers. Perotin also utilised the six rhythmic modes although in contrast to Leonin’s free and improvisatory use of these modes Perotin created thematic structures from these rhythmic materials which were developed and varied throughout a piece. Through the use of this and other techniques Perotin composed organum which were an early example of large scale, structured compositions of the kind which became the standard during the common practice period.


This example is a somewhat stylised performance of an organum composed by Leonin. The use of rhythmic modes and melismas above a chant melody are made quite clear.



And here we have one of Perotin’s two surviving organum quadruplum: Sederunt Principes.



[1] It may be of interest to note here that this doubling of a melody at a consonant interval is precisely the same technique as playing a melody in power chords rather than single notes since the melodic line is doubled at the fifth.

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13 thoughts on “Early Music for Metalheads Part 2: Organum”

  1. Jonathan says:

    Please, for the love of god, switch back to the old site design. It’s not that I’m a curmudgeon complaining about a new layout, it’s just that this layout wastes on-screen real-estate and messes up the comment section on old articles as responses to other user’s replies in the comment section are displayed as generic comments, eviscerating context. The new management of DMU can do a lot better and they know it. I say this as a fan and a budding elitist. I love the abundance of content Rosales has published now that Brett has relinquished the helm.

    1. Anthony says:

      Seconding this. There’s no easy way to go through the reviews or the interviews. It just dumps all of them at once, with the only organization being new-to-old.

    2. LostInTheANUS says:

      I agree, the old layout was nice and compact, this new one is just like a massive shit being dumped on your face.

  2. WTROADS says:

    Echoing the sentiments above.

  3. Tom Devereux says:

    There seems to be a consensus here. It seems that most of the issues with the new layout would be resolved by having a separate feed for articles as opposed to news items. Unfortunately I have no say in this matter. Hopefully this will only be a temporary problem.

  4. Dave says:

    You guys need to go fuck yourselves. I mean really. What have you contributed to this site? Anything? DMU is finally becoming a reputable metal news site and all of you want it to devolve into clubhouse circle-jerk for metal autists.

    1. Stuka says:

      “DMU is finally becoming a reputable metal news site”

      Why would we want that? There’s more than enough mediocre, lazy, brainless ‘metal news’ sites that merely regurgitate the press releases sent to them by labels and their PR puppets. DMU’s recent content focus has deviated too far from its founding tenets: Death Metal, the Underground, and the noble principles that are still described here on the ‘About’ page:

      …Its mission includes ongoing inspection of heavy metal music, its history, culture, imagery and philosophy.

      Our analysis originates in two ideas: that heavy metal is a form of art and culture, and that the origins of heavy metal can be found in the late Romantic movement in art and literature whose imagery and ideals it carries to this day.

      More analysis please (such as this post), and cut the ‘news’.

      Bring back Mr Stevens, or at least his influence and guiding hand. I don’t agree with everything he says, nor all the music he likes, but at least his posts here are usually thought-provoking and aligned with the DMU mission.

      I also agree with the consensus here about the new page layout. It sucks. The old layout did the job well enough, so please bring that back too.

      1. no troll says:

        Haha, but I’m sure this is precisely Brett’s influence and guiding hand. He is probably trolling the fuck out of people here, thinking “this is what you lazy faggits deserve”, while otherwise being too busy promoting Germanic supremacy to even fix this atrocity of a new layout (srsly, no one noticed the search bar sitting half out of the white frame in anything other than a widescreen monitor?).
        On the other hand, David and Tom here are making decent attempts at salvaging the site’s reputation with one or two good articles amidst 100 news posts that even metal archives regs don’t give a shit about.

  5. Abstracted Fade says:

    What has happened around here? The site looks terrible, and though articles like this are always welcome, why does a site called Death Metal Underground feature news about non-death metal bands more than it runs features for real death metal artists? Either change the name to reflect the actual content or get back to covering what truly matters to actual death metal listeners.

  6. Murph says:

    Is Hildegard of Bingen important at all in the development of polyphony or Western music in general, or do modern scholars just play up her importance because feminism?

    1. Tom Devereux says:

      Hildegard of Bingen composed wonderful music in her own right, however her compositions were, as far as I am aware, almost entirely monophonic. It is important here not to confuse musical quality with innovation and influence on later developments. Originality should not be considered an end in itself.

  7. Murph says:

    Also, the beginning of the posted Perotin composition and Obsequiae – Boreas sound quite similar.

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