FAQ about Gregorian Chant


What is Gregorian Chant?

Gregorian chant is the Church's own music, born in the Church's liturgy. Its texts are almost entirely scriptural, coming for the most part from the Psalter. For centuries it was sung as pure melody, in unison and without accompaniment, and this is still the best way to sing chant if possible. It was composed entirely in Latin; and because its melodies are so closely tied to Latin accents and word meanings, it is best to sing it in Latin. (For an exception, see "Can you sing Gregorian Chant in English?" below.) Gregorian chant is in free rhythm, without meter or time signature. Because the liturgy was sung almost entirely in Gregorian chant in the Middle Ages (with part-singing saved for special occasions), every type of liturgical text has been set in chant: readings, prayers, dialogs, Mass propers, Mass ordinaries, office hymns, office psalms and antiphons, responsories and versicles.


Is Gregorian Chant the same as Taize chant, or the chanted verses of our English Responsorial Psalms?

Not quite. Many other types and styles of music are similar to Gregorian chant or inspired by it, but one should distinguish them from Gregorian chant. Taize chants are generally in Latin, similar to Gregorian chant antiphons. But the musical style is quite different: metered and with choral harmonies and/or instrumental accompaniments. Many psalm tones have been written since the Second Vatican Council. They are much like Gregorian chant psalm tones with their free rhythm and their repeatable melodic formulas. By Gregorian psalm tones, however, we mean a set of particular melodies, one for each of the Gregorian modes, always in the form of two measures. The Gregorian psalm tones are well-suited to the Latin language, but do not work very well with English accents, unless if one takes freedom in adapting them. For English psalm verses, it is probably wiser to use psalm tones written for the English language.


When was Gregorian Chant written?

In every century. The repertoire keeps growing. Since we have no notation before the ninth century, we can only guess what chant sounded like in the early Church. Perhaps it was rather simple, with mostly one note per syllable, to allow congregations to participate by singing refrains and hymns. Or perhaps in a culture far removed from ours, congregations were able to sing quite elaborate music. No doubt cantors were able to improvise with rather free-flowing and florid melodies. By the early Middle Ages, there must have been stable melodies in widespread use, such as well-known strophic hymns and simple Psalm antiphons of the Office repeated week after week and year after year. When choirs and choir schools developed in the seventh century, they composed melodies for the Mass propers. In the eighth century, the melodies of the Mass propers were all revised in modern day France , and these melodies are the ones still in use. New melodies continued to be written for new feasts added to the calendar. New genres were created, such as tropes and sequences. Starting in the 11 th century, medieval Marian devotion brought about the composition of the Marian antiphons (e.g., "Salve Regina," " Regina coeli") for singing after Compline and other liturgies. In the late Middle Ages, Mass ordinaries such as the "Missa de angelis" (Mass VIII) were written. In 1643, the simple melody we still use for the "Salve Regina" was written in France . At the end of the 19 th century, a monk of Solesmes wrote the simpler melody for the " Regina coeli" which we still sing. The revised four-volume Antiphonale Monasticum for the monastic Liturgy of the Hours, which began appearing in 2005, has many newly written antiphons to match the Gospel readings of the three-year Mass lectionary or other texts not part of the pre-Vatican II liturgy.

This vast repertoire coming from 20 centuries varies widely in its style, level of difficulty, and, most would say, in its musical quality. But each era, including our own, has made its contribution.


Does Gregorian Chant have pride of place in the liturgy after Vatican II?

Yes, according to the Second Vatican Council. More accurately, however, the Council said, "Other things being equal, Gregorian Chant should be given pride of place in liturgical services." These "other things" are all the other concerns that one must also take into account - the structure of the reformed liturgy, the importance of active participation, the value of vernacular languages, the cultural context of the worshiping community, the customs and traditions of that community, the musical abilities of the singers, the ability of the worshipers to unite themselves to Christ's paschal sacrifice by means of Gregorian Chant, and so forth. The Second Vatican Council strongly affirmed the value of Gregorian Chant and certainly intended that it continue to be sung by congregations and choirs in the reformed liturgy. But the Council's statement on the "pride of place" of Gregorian Chant must be understood in the context of all the Council's teachings, so that this great treasure will be used appropriately to edify worshipers and build up the Church. (For further reflections on this topic, see the editorial "Pride of Place?" in the first issue of our online newsletter, Custos.)

Can you sing Gregorian Chant in English?

You can, and many people have attempted to do so, but most experts would advise against it. The reason is that the chant melodies are intrinsically tied to the Latin language. The melodies grow out of the Latin language, and in more ways than you might imagine. Gregorian chant melodies reflect the all of the following in the Latin language: accents; syllable length; variation in stress between heavy and light syllables; sounds of vowels and consonants; syntax, grammar, and sentence structure; and spiritual/theological meaning of individual words and phrases. Gregorian chant psalm tones, although they are musical formulas repeated for varying texts, are designed for the Latin language, where accents almost never fall on the final syllable. English is very different from Latin in that the last syllable of a line is oftentimes accented with a one-syllable word such as "Lord" or "God." For this reason, Gregorian psalm tones do not work very well with English, unless if one takes great freedom in adjusting the musical formulas and applying them to the English text.

For Gregorian Chant melodies to work well in English, one would have to employ great sensitivity to the English text, and be prepared to take all the necessary freedoms in adapting the Latin melody to English. While this can be done, it might be more advisable to compose new melodies which grow out of the English language just as the chant melodies grew out of the Latin language.

An important exception to all of this is strophic hymnody. Here, the same melodic formula is intended for many stanzas of text without respect to the accentuation and meaning of the words in each stanza. Gregorian chant hymns (e.g., "Conditor alme siderum," "Veni, Creator Spiritus") can be sung quite well in English.

Is Gregorian Chant easy or hard to sing?

It varies a lot. Some chant is quite easy and singeable by congregations; some chant is more challenging but suitable even for a beginning choir; other chant is best left to advanced choirs; and some chant is extremely difficult (and beautiful!) and intended for a highly trained soloist. Some congregations can sing easier dialogs and responses (e.g. "Dominus vobiscum." / "Et cum spiritu tuo."), and the easier Mass ordinaries (e.g., Sanctus XVIII, Kyrie XVI). Some chant is congregational because it is very ancient and comes from an era when congregations spoke Latin and participated in the liturgy (e.g. Sanctus XVIII); other chant is congregational because it was written much later and is similar to modern tonal music (e.g. "Salve Regina," composed in France in 1643). Many choirs can sing easier antiphons from the Graduale Simplex , and perhaps some of the easier propers in the Graduale Romanum . Other propers in the Graduale Romanum are quite challenging, even for highly trained choirs. Examples of chant for the highly trained soloist are the verses to the gradual in the Graduale Romanum , or the offertory verses in the Offertoriale Triplex.

Why is the notation for Gregorian Chant so different from modern five-line notation?

Because it comes from the Middle Ages. Notation has varied a lot throughout history. For many centuries, the entire chant repertoire was known by heart and no notation was used. The earliest notation, used only by the conductor, was little squiggles which suggested the general shape of the melody to remind the conductor of what was known by heart. Up until the late Middle Ages, singers sang without any music-think of how confidently and freely they must have been able to sing! Conductors, however, needed more help to remember the melodies, and gradually one and then more staff lines were added to indicate the exact pitch. Four lines became standard by about the thirteenth century, and four-line notation has been customary ever since. Square note heads as used in what is now France eventually became the notation used and printed everywhere. This four-line, square note notation has one major advantage over our modern five-line notation: it groups many notes closely together over one syllable, and thus it shows rather clearly how all the notes are for one syllable.

Can you put Gregorian Chant in modern five-line notation?

Sure. History shows lots of variety (see the preceding question), and to the purists who insist on four-line square-note notation, you might reply that the really authentic thing would be to sing chant by heart with no notation. The important thing is making music and praying the text, not what is on the page.

However, there are good reasons for learning the four-line square-note notation. It does not take very long to learn. As daunting as it appears at first, one becomes comfortable with it in a surprisingly short amount of time. It is the traditional notation used universally in the Church. It is the only notation used in the official chant books, and one will never have access to this repertoire without learning the notation.

Whether to give singers traditional or modern notation probably depends on the situation. If only a small amount of Gregorian Chant is sung, it is probably easiest to sing from modern notation. As easy as the traditional notation is, it is a psychological barrier for many singers. But if the plan is for the choir to sing more Latin chant, it might be worth it to learn the traditional notation. Either way, the musical and spiritual result is the most important thing.

How do you pronounce the Latin text for Gregorian Chant?

People have done it many different ways, and no doubt in the Middle Ages there were regional differences. In modern times the Holy See has advocated pronouncing liturgical Latin like modern day Italian, but this has not been followed universally in Europe . Italian pronunciation has long been standard practice in the U.S. , though, and this continues to make the most sense today. Note that an entirely different pronunciation, pre-medieval "classical Latin," is commonly taught in schools today and used for reading classical Latin authors like Cicero.

How are you supposed to sing confidently and prayerfully when you don't understand the foreign language?

This is a challenge! As much as possible, the singers really must understand the Latin text in order to sing it well. You should write below each Latin word its English translation, and then you should translate the whole text into idiomatic English. Before singing the Latin text, you should speak it aloud several times until you can recite it confidently while praying its meaning. As much as possible, you should become so comfortable with the text that you can recite it by heart. This is a demanding process, but the rewards of singing with confidence make it more than worthwhile. If for any reason the singers are not able to sing the Latin text confidently, it would probably be pastorally advisable to sing an English piece instead-but don't give up on the ultimate goal of being able to speak and sing Latin liturgical texts confidently!

I've heard of several theories for chant rhythm-which one is correct?

Opinions have varied widely in the past, and there will probably never be complete agreement. Until the mid-20 th century, the three main rhythmic approaches were oratorical (based on text accents), mensuralist (based on mathematical proportions such as three to one), and equalist (the Old Solesmes school where each note is an even eighth note, and these are divided into twos and three). Because Benedictines did so much to teach chant to the wider Church, almost everyone in the U.S. sang according to the Old Solesmes method. This method is actually modified equalism, for some notes are modified by rhythmic signs such as a dot (which doubles the value) or a horizontal line (episema) which lengthens a note somewhat. As faithfully as the Old Solesmes method was followed in so many places, it is important to note that at Solesmes Abbey itself they did not follow the method rigidly. They allowed themselves rhythmic nuances, however subtle, as the text suggested to them.

The new approach coming from Solesmes, advocated by most scholars, and practiced very widely in Europe is called "semiology," based on the "sign" (semion in Greek) of the early lineless neumes. It is explicitly text-based, with a wide variety of rhythmic values based on all the subtleties and nuances of the Latin text. The earliest chant manuscripts support this approach. But many people in the U.S. are accustomed to and appreciate the beauty of the Old Solesmes School . Some say that the old method is practical and makes it possible for choirs to sing chant in the liturgy. However, the Holy See has revised the four-line square-note notation in recent decades along the lines of semiology, and future chant books (such as the revised Graduale Romanum ) will no doubt use this notation which presumes a text-based interpretation.

Whatever rhythmic approach you use, the most important thing is to pray the Latin text, and to sing with awareness of and sensitivity to the text.

Can Gregorian Chant be sung in harmony?

Sure. We even have a name for the earliest harmonization of chant: organum. This seems to date back to the eighth century, right to the beginnings of the era when our Mass propers were written. Most of the liturgy was sung in unison right up until the end of the Middle Ages, but harmony was added for feast days and for high points of the liturgy. Today one can experiment with singing some chant in the style of early organum by adding a second voice at the interval of a fourth or a fifth above or below the melody. Another possibility is having low voices sing a sustained pedal point (the final note of the piece gives you the pitch), or this note along with the note a fifth higher. It is also possible to combine a pedal point (or two) with a harmonized melody-experiment and see what you like!

Is Gregorian chant really intended for monks, or can it be sung by other men and women and children?

Whatever the impression given by some popular CD recordings, Gregorian chant is for everyone. It was originally sung by the whole Church, congregation and choir alike (back when congregations spoke Latin). It has always been sung by religious both male and female, and at least a bit of Latin chant has been sung by congregations throughout history. Medieval monasteries typically had boy choirs (we know less about girl choirs but they were also a part of women's religious houses), and all the chant at every liturgy was sung in octaves by monks and boys. This provides historical justification for having men and women sing together in octaves today. On the other hand, one might vary the sound between men and women together in octaves, men alone, and women alone, not just because of the challenge of getting octaves perfectly in tune, but also for pleasant variety.