Organum (a term drawn from the Greek word for “organ, instrument, tool”) is a style of plainchant melody (think: chanting monks) that dates back to the Middle Ages. In its earliest days, “organum” described what we now call polyphony – combining two or more harmonized melodies. In other words, organum is, in part, a pioneering step in musical history. It marks the beginning of something we now accept as a matter of fact: more than one voice singing to create harmony.
Organum typically involves a chorus made up of two voices. The first is a tenor holding long notes in a drone. The second is a higher-pitched voice that sings along with the drone in parallel in perfect fourth or fifths, at different rates and speeds, or as an accompanying chant. Styles that would move away from each other, whether in speed or octave, usually begin and end in unison.
Listen to this clip from Argentinian composer CowesAudio where you can hear many of these elements at work to create the beautiful, soulful harmonization common to organum.
Originally, organum was partly improvised. One singer would perform “by ear” – still at a fourth or fifth – and this was called the vox organalis. The other performer would sing a notated melody called vox principalis. The latter’s goal was to create the drone, with the former meant to make harmony.
Where did organum originate?
Organum is rooted in the Gregorian chants of the Catholic Church during the Middle Ages, with a record dating back to as early as 895 A.D. in a treatise called Musica enchiriadis. It’s possible organum – or at least vocal harmony – existed before then, but records make that hard to say definitively. So, the musica treatise (whose authorship is unclear) is credited with being one of the earliest attempts to create firm rules for polyphony.
At the time, organum wasn’t meant to be true polyphony as we know it today but rather aimed to use the second accompanying voice to serve as harmonic support for plainchants performed during High Feast.
If you listen to this clip from Canadian composer Chippy12000 you can hear the worshipful qualities that organum brings out.
Nonetheless, the inherent invention and potential of vocal harmony ensured that organum spread, gaining momentum until it expanded in the 11th and 12th centuries. That was due to the Notre Dame of Paris School and two composers there named Léonin and Pérotin, who decided to more thoroughly formalize organum, cementing its place in musical history and music overall.
How did this music genre become popular?
Even before Léonin and Pérotin, organum began expanding across Europe thanks to its promising and novel musical advancements. By the time it arrived at Notre Dame–considered the center of the music world–it was further developed. More formal rules outlined by the Notre Dame composers eased organum’s adaptability and adoptability worldwide. Furthermore, organum’s roots in religious ceremonies and institutions, the power of the Catholic Church, and its omnipresence in the world at the time undoubtedly provided a valuable network for organum to spread.
Where can you hear organum now?
Even centuries later, organum remains a common element of churches and abbeys across the world. Musical groups like Ensemble Organum also keep the style going. Modern uses, however, exist as well. For example, composer Max Richter played with organum for scores he’s written for the HBO series The Leftovers and My Brilliant Friend.
In a way, however, we still hear organum everywhere. Gregorian chants may not be making the Billboard charts. Still, organum’s influence in bringing about vocal harmony in music means much of what we listen to now on the radio, Spotify, or wherever else exists because of organum.
Two tips for using organum in your creative projects
- What one might call a “traditional” organum can sometimes invoke associations with its religious roots. If not that, then certainly it can evoke a solemn mood. Bear that in mind if you use “traditional” organum, and ensure its tone suits your creative project.
- That said, organum can offer a fertile starting point for creative deviation. Composer Max Richter, again, is a great example, as his use of it has managed to evoke wonder, grief, and more. So, don’t be afraid to tweak organum to fit your project’s needs. You can see this in action with this track from the Polish composer MusicLandscapes. It uses the drone common in organum but substitutes the second voice with instruments.
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