Episode 1

Notre-Dame Polyphony

By Valérie Le Page & Sarabeth Mullins

Sound clip


The architecture of the cathedral was not the only exciting development in the first century of Notre-Dame’s construction. Within the chancel, a group of musicians began composing and performing organum triplum and organum quadruplum, a new and more complex ornamentation of the plainchant used in daily service. In the style of Notre-Dame polyphony, the lowest voice (tenor) sang the well-known melodies of the plainchant, while the duplum, triplum, and quadruplum voices added one, two, or three lines of ornamentation above the tenor. This style of music was difficult to perform and required the singers to have excellent senses of tuning and timing. The polyphony of Notre-Dame was reserved for the most formal occasions and gave a sense of solemnity to the great feasts of the church.  As the old church buildings on Île de la Cité were torn down and rebuilt into Notre-Dame, the acoustical conditions shifted dramatically. The musicians of the chapter were now comfortably embraced by the narrower choir stalls and columns inside the cathedral, which supported their voices and helped them hear each other. In the modern world, we reconstruct the acoustic conditions of this period time to study the way musicians perform Notre-Dame polyphony within these historical conditions.

F. Billiet, V. Le Page, S. Mullins, and B. Katz, “Virtual acoustic reconstructions of Notre-Dame cathedral’s past for musicological study,” in Music and contexts in the Iberian world medieval and renaissance (MEDyREN) : Early Music, Architectural Spaces and New Technologies, May 2022

F. Billiet & V. Nunes-Le Page, “The Past Has Ears at Notre-Dame,” in Musiktheorie, Virtual sound spaces of the pre-modern. An interdisciplinary research field of digital humanities, T. Weißmann (Ed.), Laaber Verlag, Lilienthal, 1, pp. 64-68, 2022.