So You Want to do Music 

Being a paper on some different types of music in SCA period, and where to find them.

Mistress Amelie d'Anjou

cantiga1 small


So you’ve decided that you would like to learn some period music, but where to start?  There are almost 600 years of music to choose from (no, there really isn’t any useable written music from before 1000AD), and if you didn’t study music in school, you may not have an idea of the different types that you can do. 

The first place to start is with yourself.   Do you sing, or play an instrument, or both?  Would you like to do solos or play with others?  Are you really into your persona, and want music to match?  Answering these questions can help you decide where to start.   (I picked my persona based on the music I wanted to do, but that’s probably not for everyone.)

If you’d like to give yourself a mini-education in early music, a great place to start is listening to Harmonia, a radio show produced at Univ. of Indiana (known for a strong early music department).  You can find old shows online at  - check the archives.  The website will also let you know if the show is on a station near you.  Some of the programs are on Baroque music, so not everything is SCA period.  The hour-long programs usually focus on a composer or time period/location, or on current performers and groups. (No, I don’t work for them; I wish they were on a station near me.)

  If you want to play with others, you may have a good idea where to start already.  If you live near a major metropolitan area, there’s a good chance there are already amateurs gathering to sing or play.  You just have to find them.  Your local SCA group may have a newsletter or online chat/yahoo group that will let you know of the various local activities.  If there isn’t a music group, then you can start one.  Sometimes you can meet enthusiasts at local concerts as well.  Your area’s classical station may advertise such concerts.

Whether you play or sing, a great place to start looking for music and information online is the SCA Medieval and Renaissance Music Homepage.  If your leaning is somewhat more bardic, then the SCA Minstrel Homepage also has some great sources.   If you are looking for some books with collections of various medieval music in them, here are some you can order.  From Al Cofrin in Texas ; from Chris Elmes in Scotland .  For strictly instrumental music, look for Timothy McGee’s Medieval Instrumental Dances.  There are also anthologies that have been published with textbooks (I’ve found that a lot of the anthologies have the same set of pieces in them).

One of the challenges of medieval music in particular is deciding how to do it.  That is, there is a melody, but maybe there are several of you – do you all play the tune in unison?  If you want to add harmony, what notes or chords should you choose?  This question can be a lifelong challenge (it’s certainly keeping me interested), but don’t let it put you off.  Just plunge in and pick something – you can always change your mind later.  And remember, they improvised, so if you don’t like something, change it!

If you are a budding instrumentalist looking to play with others, some popular music to start with are the dances published by Tielman Susato and Michael Praetorius.  The most popular instruments in the SCA are recorders, but there are other instruments also, from the buzzy reeds like crumhorns and shawms, to the brass-type cornetti and sackbuts, to strings, either plucked harps and guitar/vihuela/lute, or bowed strings like violins, fretted viols, and medieval fiddles.  And let’s not forget keyboards – not modern pianos, but organs and harpsichords.   Also, don’t limit your playing to strictly instrumental music – instruments can and did play songs.  You’ll just have to decide how best to fit them on your “axe.”  Harpists probably have the most arranging to do, so I’ll mention the popular arrangements by Deborah Friou – I’m sure there are others out there I don’t know about.

If you sing, chances are you might like to start with music in English – it’s always a bonus if the audience can understand you! One of the best sources for English music is (no, not Child Ballads) the Musica Britannica, a multi-volume work that is best found in your local university library.  It will be in the reference section of the music area – no one ever lets you check this out.  (These are available for sale, but extremely expensive!)   There are John Dowland’s lute songs and madrigals, Scottish & Tudor music, and Medieval (15c) Carols, to name the most popular volumes.  There is also quite a bit of period instrumental  music for keyboards, viol consorts and lutes.   If you play guitar, lute would be an interesting direction to explore.  (Some people even get good enough to play and sing at the same time.)  Some music is online, for instance Thomas Ravenscroft’s songs at

If Spain interests you, there is music from the 14th to the 16th to explore.  Two popular sources that are much recorded and available online are the Llibre Vermell and the Cantigas de Santa Maria.  The Llibre Vermell’s 10 songs in modern notation can be found as “The Red Book of Montserrat” at Lochac’s bardic site .   Some of the pages in facsimile can be found at Wikipedia and also here: .   Greg Lindahl’s site  has facsimiles of the Cantigas and articles about them.  For modern notation of the Cantigas, either go to a university library and look for Hignio Angles’ several volume edition, or you can order a new transcription from the Scottish group Gaita at .

Juan del Encina is a popular 15th century Spanish composer, and in the 16th century the most well known today is Tomas de Victoria, who wrote stunning sacred music.

I could go on for each country, but I won’t today.  Suffice to say there’s great stuff from France, Germany, Italy, and other countries too (15th century Franco-Flemish composers were quite amazing).  If you are interested, you can research Polish or Russian music.  I’ll just add one last plug for Greg Lindahl’s site; the dance page: Dancers are usually thrilled when someone offers to play live music.

So get out there and do some music, and have fun!

Amelie d’Anjou, OL


Some Online Sources:

  • if a tune was in various mss., all versions are here, each separate
  • all in modern round notes w/o rhythm, no words - melodies only

  • note: the music can be viewed in Gregorian notation or modern round notes without rhythm
  • also you can expand the plicas (check a box in upper right)
  • also has all lyrics

  • a searchable database of Gregorian chant

  • Playford, all the editions

  • facsimiles


Searches to make on youtube:

Cantigas de Santa Maria (CSM) + a number (1-400)

troubadour, trouvere, minnesanger, chant, Hildegard von Bingen

Leonin, Perotin, Landini, Ciconia, Machaut, Dufay, Ockeghem, Busnois, Binchois, Josquin, Palestrina, Heinrich Isaac, Senfl, Praetorius, Sebastian de Vivanco, Tomas Luis de Victoria, Fransisco Guerrero, William Byrd, Thomas Morley, Tallis, LLibre Vermell, Montpellier Codex, Glogauer liederbuch, Aquitainian polyphony