Records about the existence of musicians, singers, players of stringed instruments and horns among the South Slavs were left by, among others, Byzantine historians and Arab travellers. Evidence of Slavic musicians is perhaps contained in the songs and dances of the rainmakers - girls adorned with flowers who dance about in the villages to make it rain. Such evidence also exists in the songs sung in processions (whose participants bear a cross and the icon of a saint as they pray for a productive year), and perhaps in other rituals as well.
The Wedding in Canaan, a fresco in the monastery of Novo Hopovo, 1608
Cyril and Methodius converted the Slavs in the ninth century, and they translated Greek books into Slavonic and introduced the liturgy in the vernacular; that is how the development of church music began, or so it is supposed. Greek melodies were probably adapted to Slavonic texts. Later, certain church texts were read, others recited in one, two or three tones, and liturgical songs were sung, it seems, syllabically at first, and with melisma later on.
Serbian medieval music, like the art of the period, developed within the sphere of the activities of Byzantine culture in the Serbian state from the twelfth to the fifteenth century. However, it also continued to develop during the five centuries of slavery under the Turks. The singing was one-part, done as a solo or by a choir (in the two choirs of the church). Through hand movements, the director (domestik) indicated the flow of the melody which was learned by heart. The lead singer (protopsalt, psalmist) would sing the initial intonational formula which was actually an abbreviated melodic preparation for the song, a melodic-rhythmic unit which characterised a certain church melody (knowledge of these formulae made it possible for an experienced singer to sing the whole song). Then the song would be started in unison, in one voice with the choir, though songs could also have other forms as well. If the melody were melismatic, the soloist would sing alone, accompanied by a sustained tone by the choir, the ison.
As sources (models) for the Serbian church melodies were the melodies of the Osmoglasnik (the Octoechoes). The Osmoglasnik was a collection of church songs for the Sunday service (the vespers' service, morning service, and the liturgy), dedicated to the resurrection of Christ. These songs were repeated cyclically over eight weeks throughout the church year in one of the eight church voices - each voice corresponded to a certain modus based on a defined number of formulas. The songs of the Osmoglasnik served as a model for the creation of other church songs. Songs dedicated to Serbian sovereigns had a significant impact, as did those songs written by Serbian writers: in those songs the medieval notes (the pneume) are not to be found, but there are symbols for certain voices, which means that they were meant to be sung.
In the church sources there is information about daily liturgical singing, and about singing that took place on the occasion of the death of certain rulers or on the transferral of their relics. It seems that Queen Jelena, the wife of King Uros I, had a choir of singers in her church, under the direction of the famous domestik Raul of Zihna.
An Angel in a scene from The Last Judgement, a fresco at Decani, 1335
A certain number of medieval Serbian manuscripts record the neumic note signs. Their author was probably Stefan Srbin, whose works, among which are the famous songs Ninja sili ("Now the Heavenly Powers"), reveal common melodic-rhythmical characteristics. His work was followed by Nikola Srbin and Isaija Srbin, whose songs were written in honour of Serbian saints. There were also other writers. These short, single voice liturgical songs of graduated steps (larger jumps between notes indicate important words) make up an inseparable whole with the text. They are based on a few fundamental nuclei which consistently appear in the songs, with variations or in individual fragments. Some of them have rich melismata. They belong to a different spiritual world than that of the Gregorians - they have retained primordial expression and flexibility, and can portray both dramatic and lyric moods.
Although it is sparse, apart from the evidence about religious music in Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Zeta, there is also evidence that music had its place in battle, at the royal court and among the common people. In the state of the Nemanjic family it was part of the court ceremonies. It was performed, as it was in countries all over Europe, by musicians, entertainers and dancers, who were called sviralnici, glumci, and praskavnici in the language of the day. They were those who entertained when the sovereign was crowned (the nobles listened to music on the drums and gusle when Stefan Prvovencani was crowned), they would greet kings with songs (like King Milutin) and despots with bugles (Stefan Lazarevic). When Stefan Dusan, who also had musicians in his lands, would grant someone rule over a territory, he would also give him musicians. Likewise, he exchanged musicians with the town of Dubrovnik for various kinds of celebrations. Dragan of Prizren, a highly famed Serbian musician, was the town musician in Dubrovnik in 1335.
Stefan Lazarevic had a music chapel at his court, and his musicians played on the boats when he hosted the Turkish Emperor. Despot Djuradj Brankovic loved music. In his library there was also a famous psalter, richly illustrated with musical instruments (the Munich Psalter).
At the fifteenth century courts of Bosnia, Herzegovina, Hum, and Zeta (under rulers and lords, Duke Sandalj Hranic, King Tvrtko I, and Balsa Balsic) there were singers, actors, magicians, and jesters; there were also musicians who played the flute, lute, trumpet, bagpipes, drum and other instruments. Their musicians could also be heard in Dubrovnik, and the musicians of Dubrovnik would visit them as well.
The Mocking of Christ, the monastery of Staro Nagoricino, 1317
Musical instruments presented in works of Serbian medieval art from the end of the twelfth to the end of the eighteenth centuries make a valuable contribution to the study of all the instruments of the Middle Ages, which are known as a whole only through their representation in art. Those which are not Byzantine or Middle Eastern in origin could be from ancient sources or from western Europe. It is possible that some of them were actually played in the Balkans in the Middle Ages. They were painted most often within scenes of the nativity of Christ, the mocking of Christ and as illustrations for the Psalms, but they also appeared in other compositions. They often portrayed cymbals, and especially drums, horns and trumpets, various kinds of lutes and psalteries. They are illustrated in Miroslav's Gospel and the Munich Psalter, on the walls of Hilandar, Staro Nagoricino, Decani, Lesnovo, Hopovo, and many other monasteries and churches.
During the Turkish occupation from the mid-fifteenth century onward, the people sang to the gusle, played the tamburitza, zurle (a type of wooden instrument), tapan and some other instruments, far from the prying eyes of their conquerors. Well-known Serbian players of the gusle sojourned in the Polish royal courts of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and later on in the Ukraine and in Hungary. Thus, continuity with the past was maintained and the ground prepared for the renaissance of Serbian music.