History Timelines


Western classical music has various roots: Greek tradition, Pythagorean theory, Roman dance, Hebrew chant, even Asian music all influence early Western music.

Before 500 AD

Boethius’ De institutione musica (c. 500–510) summarises ancient Greek thought about music. Greek thought is really important at this time.


St Benedict, founds the Benedictine Catholic order of monks and nuns.

Different chants start to develop in Europe, such as Mozarabic and Gallic. Each region in Europe has a slightly different chant.


Prophet Muhammad migrates from Mecca to Medina: Muslim era begins.


Lindisfarne Gospels created – one of the most spectacular and beautiful manuscripts to have survived from Anglo-Saxon England.


Moors begin conquest of Spain.

Byzantine Emperor sends an

c. 756

organ to Frankish king Pepin III.


Pope Leo III crowns Charlemagne Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. The Roman Empire is re-born.

Earliest surviving books with complete Mass chants date from c. 800.


The anonymous Musica enchiriadis (c. 843) instructs how to write polyphonic music (more than one voice). The voices moved an octave apart: it was called ‘parallel organum’.


Earliest surviving chant books using ‘neumes’ – early notation symbols – to notate pitch.

c. 994

Organ installed at Old Minster, Winchester.

c. 965

Denmark and Poland adopt Christianity.

c. 1000

The Winchester Tropers (997–1006): the earliest surviving collection of two-part music (church polyphony) in Europe.

c. 1020

Guido of Arezzo defines the musical stave/staff: the beginning of modern musical notation.


The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is continued after the Norman Conquest. The old English traditions do not die out.

Hermannus Contractus is born (1013), an early theoretician and one of the first composers whose name we know.


Berno of Reichenau dies (1048). He was important because he reformed the Gregorian chant of the church. What we hear today is partly his legacy.


The Eastern and Western Christian Churches split, the ‘Great Schism’, over a doctrinal disagreement which mirrors political divisions. Christendom is divided.


Battle of Hastings begins the Norman Conquest of England: William of Normandy invades England and defeats Harold.


English Domesday Book.


First Crusade (1096–99). The Church Militant seeks to recover Jerusalem from the Turks and succeeds… for a while. Crusaders bring back Arabic ideas.

Hildegard of Bingen is born – she was a composer and many other things besides!


1093 onwards – Durham Cathedral, the finest Romanesque cathedral, is built. Great structures in stone will soon be followed by great structures in sound.

Hildegard of Bingen (c 1150) writes ‘mystery plays’ and expressive developments of Gregorian chant. She is a creator of musical drama.


The Second Crusade proves a failure but more and more Arabic ideas about everything, even music, are spreading.

The troubadours, trouvères, jongleurs and ménestrels in France develop a courtly and secular music which marries words and music closely.


In Spanish cities such as Toledo, Muslim and Jewish scholars translate Arabic versions of Greek classics into Latin. The twelfth century rennaisance is underway.


Notre Dame, Paris is built (1163–1250), a fine cathedral and home to the greatest school of medieval polyphony.

Léonin starts the Notre Dame School of polyphony by writing music in two independent voices: he compiles the Magnus liber (c. 1160–1180)


Hildegard of Bingen dies.


Pérotin at Notre Dame revises Léonin’s Magnus liber c.1180–1190 and extends polyphony to three and four voices.


Rebuilding of Chartres Cathedral (1194–1260) in Gothic style, after destruction by fire: it boasts newly expressive statues.

German Minnesingers develop the secular style of the troubadours in German lands around this time.


1200–1250, universities established in Paris, Oxford, Cambridge, Padua and Salamanca – soon to become hot-beds of new thought.


The Albigensian Crusade in southern France (1209–29) remorselessly roots out heresy. The Catholic Church is becoming stronger.

Passion, Christmas, miracle and Easter plays are becoming popular, from which theatrical drama and dramatic music will slowly develop.


Thomas Aquinas born. He goes on to produce a version of Aristotle’s philosophy and this remains the official philosophy of the Catholic Church.

Carmina Burana manuscript compiled c. 1230 – now famous thanks to Carl Orff’s popular 20th-century choral work.


Ferdinand takes Seville from the Moors, and the following year the Moors are driven from Portugal.

The so-called ‘Reading Rota’, Sumer is icumen in, from the mid-13th century, is an early and remarkable example of an old English ‘round’ or canon – a kind of polyphonic writing.


Cimabue (c.1240–c.1302) introduces the first clear hints of perspective into western art.


Marco Polo’s travels begin (1271) and incite great interest in eastern lands further away even than Arab lands.

Franco of Cologne describes mensural notation, with notes given fixed rhythmic values. Important in developing the Ars Nova.


Adam de la Halle composes Jeu de Robin et Marion in 1282 or 1283, possibly the earliest French secular play with music.


Dante born (1265): he becomes the most influential Italian poet of the age.

Guillaume de Machaut born in c. 1300 (dies 1377). A giant of the ars nova, he writes the first surviving Mass by a named composer.


Papal Court in Avignon (1309). This will create a problem: how can there be two popes, one in Rome and another in Avignon?

c. 1310–1370, transition from ars antiqua to ars nova: the ‘new art’ described by Philip de Vitry is rhythmically more flexible than the ‘old art’.


Wycliffe born (c. 1320). He goes on to produce the first English translation of the bible and inspires an early version of Protestantism.

Francesco Landini born in 1325 (dies 1397). Blind from childhood, he goes on to become the great figure in the ‘Italian ars nova’.


Giotto, a giant of renaissance art and master of expression and perspective, is chosen to design the new bell tower of Florence Cathedral.


Hundred Years’ War begins (1337–1453): a series of conflicts between England and France. It will help define both national identities and spread cultural ideas.


Chaucer born (c. 1340), a great poet whose influence does much to standardise English.


The Black Death peaks c. 1347–51, wiping out a third of Europe’s population.

Meistersingers, who form guilds to perform poetry and songs, are active in Germany.


Donatello born (1386–1466), a sculptor and one of masters of the Florentine renaissance, helps to humanise art.


Chaucer begins his Canterbury Tales (1387–1400).

Guillaume Dufay born in 1400 (dies 1474). Becomes one of the most influential of the ‘Burgundian School’ of composers.


Battle of Agincourt (1415). Henry V defeats the French. Can he unify France and England? No: he dies too soon.

c.1415–1420: the Squarcialupi Codex, a richly illuminated Florentine manuscript including 352 works.


Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy (1419–1467). His court sees the emergence of the great ‘Burgundian School’ of composers who write more expressive music.

English composer John Dunstable is active – spends years in Europe and influences the Burgundian School with his elegant harmonies.


c.1420 Brunelleschi, early renaissance master of architecture, begins work on the dome of Florence Cathedral.

Completion of the Old Hall Manuscript – the largest, most complete, and most significant source of English sacred music of the late 14th and early 15th centuries.


Dufay composes motets that combine the old with the newer style that will soon influence composers such as Josquin.


Joan of Arc burnt at the stake in Rouen (1431) and Henry VI is crowned king of France, but the English supremacy in France is to be short-lived.


Jan van Eyck finishes painting Adoration of the Lamb for Ghent Cathedral. He introduces a new realism to North European art.

Cosimo de’ Medici establishes fuling dynasty in Flrence.


Invention of the printing press c.1439 by Johannes Gutenberg in Mainz, Germany. This will transform how music and all other information can be distributed to people.

Trent Codices (c.1435 – after 1470) – a collection of seven large manuscripts of mostly sacred music.


Eton College founded (1440). English public schools will for centuries provide trained choirboys.

Birth of Josquin des Prez (1450/55). He goes on to be the greatest composer of his age.


The Lochamer Liederbuch, the richest source of music from 15th-century Germany: most of the collection is from 1451 to 1453.


Leonardo da Vinci born.

John Dunstable dies, a composer the Burgundians have called the ‘Father of Modern Music’; Ockeghem is working at the court of France.


Ottomans take Constantinople and Roman Empire ends; end of Hundred Years’ War: England loses everything in France except Calais. England and France are separate countries.

Binchois dies; Buxheimer Orgelbuch compiled (1460–70)


Erasmus born. He becomes the sane proponent of reason in a religiously divided Europe.


Machiavelli, the first wholly modern political theorist, is born (1469). His cynical view of politics is ‘Machiavellian’.

Dürer (1471–1528) born: the greatest Northern European artist of the renaissance, he introduces a new human quality to art in German lands.

Guillaume Dufay dies, mourned as one of the greatest composers.


Michelangelo (1475–1564) is born and goes on to achieve a semi-divine status as supreme artistic genius of the Italian renaissance.


William Caxton prints books in English.


Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile together establish Inquisition against heresy in Spain.


Raphael (1483–1520), another great Italian artist of the High Renaissance.

Josquin serving Sforza family in Milan.


Eton Choirbook collected (1490–1502), a rich collection of English sacred music which will survive the Reformation.


Columbus reaches Bahamas; final defeat of Moors in Spain by Ferdinand and Isabella.


Da Vinci’s The Last Supper (1495–97), a mural painting in Milan – now one of the world’s most famous artworks.

Ockeghem dies.


Dürer’s Self-Portrait and Leonardo’s Mona Lisa (c.1500–1506)

Petrucci of Venice prints music from moveable type, very influential in the spread of notated music.


Complete works of Petrarch are published.

Thomas Tallis  (c.1505–1585) born – goes on to compose music for both the Protestant and Catholic churches; Obrecht dies.


France cedes Naples to Spain.


Construction of St Peter’s Basilica, designed by Bramante, begun in Rome.


Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling (1508–1512) sets a new standard of achievement in art.


Henry VIII becomes king of England (1509–1547): Protestantism and dissolution of the monasteries, as well as several wives, will follow.

Josquin’s Ave Maria… virgo serena is published and becomes one of the most admired motets and influential musical works.


Sir Thomas More’s Utopia published. It describes an ideal society.


Martin Luther nails his 95 theses to door of castle church at Wittenberg, leading to the Protestant Reformation (the Western church will split).


Magellan sails round the world. In fact he dies in the East but a few of his crew return; Leonardo dies.

Martin Luther reforms the church service, emphasises community singing and encourages the widespread study of music.


Palestrina (1525–1594) born.


Bruegel born (c.1525–1530).


Sack of Rome. The mutinous German and Spanish troops sack what is part of the Papal States; Pope Clement VII is captured.

Agricola issues his Musica instrumentalis deudsch, a study of musical instruments – one of the earliest books on music.


Turks besiege Vienna.


Henry VIII becomes supreme head of the English church.

First edition of John Calvin’s Genevan Psalter, containing songs and hymns based on psalms, for use by the whole congregation in Reformed churches of Geneva.


William Byrd (1543–1623) born; Tallis joins the Chapel Royal, performing and composing for Henry VIII then Edward VI then Mary I then Elizabeth I.


Copernicus states that the earth goes round the sun, not vice versa: his rejection of the idea that the earth is at the centre of things was a major event in science (though he was correct!).


Council of Trent – a group of Church personnel – begins meetings to discuss the threat of Reformation. They continue to take place over nearly 20 years.

Tomás Luis de Victoria born – the most famous composer of 16th-century Spain and, with Lassus and Palestrina, one of the most important composers of the Counter-Reformation.


The Book of Common Prayer published by Thomas Cranmer – the services were in English so could be understood by all literate members of a congregation.


First edition of Giorgio Vasari’s Lives – biographies of famous artists – the foundation of art history.

Orlando di Lasso (Lassus) begins writing church music around this time; he becomes one of the most influential composers by the end of the century.


Mary Tudor becomes Queen and England returns, briefly, to Catholicism.

Palestrina produces his first book of Masses and develops the Catholic Counter-Reformation polyphonic style: smooth and technically perfect.


Holy Roman Empire grants freedom of worship to Lutheran states in Germany.

Byrd becomes organist at Lincoln Cathedral. Tallis writes his masterpiece, Spem in alium.


Palestrina’s Missa Papae Marcelli showed you could combine polyphony and hear the words being sung.


Religious wars in France begin between Huguenots and Catholics.


The Council of Trent, set up to decide how to counter the protestants, ends with Catholic reform.


Shakespeare (1564–1616) born – he will become the greatest English-language playwright; Galileo (1564–1642) born – he will become the father of modern physics.

Monteverdi (1567–1643) born. He will go on to revolutionise music in his time.


Philip II of Spain imposes a reign of terror on the Netherlands after a Protestant uprising.

Elizabeth I gives Tallis and Byrd sole right to print and publish music in England.


Titian, the greatest painter of 16th-century Venice, dies.


Northern provinces of the Netherlands set up Dutch Republic and break away from Spain (1579–81).


Portugal loses its independence to Spain – King Sebastian had died in 1578 with no heirs.


Supported by Elizabeth I, Sir Walter Raleigh sends an expedition to Virginia, paving the way for English settlements in the New World.

Giovanni Gabrieli becomes organist at St Mark’s, Venice.


Early Music

(c. 500–1600)

Until quite recently, most of the music written before the Baroque era was hugely underappreciated and underperformed. We’re still discovering more about it; much of it wasn’t written down (performers had amazing musical memories!) and even when it was, we don’t always fully understand how it would have sounded – for one thing, the instruments they used were very different from the ones we use today. The biggest split is between medieval (c. 500–1400) and Renaissance (c. 1400–1600) music, but within that there were hundreds of different styles, genres and techniques, from huge, complicated sacred works praising God to short, secular love songs.