Four Traits of Gregorian Chant

In the previous introductory article to this series we discussed the principles of what makes certain types of music inappropriate for use in the liturgy. We spoke about art as communication and the function of musical forms and also mentioned that Gregorian chant is the native liturgical music in the west. In this article we will offer a definition Gregorian Chant and discuss the ways in which it is distinctive.

Gregorian chant is the official music of the Roman Liturgy; or more precisely it is the official sung prayer of the Roman liturgy. Chant is not music sung at the liturgy as an artistic decoration placed on the liturgical action. Rather it is liturgy. To put it another way, Gregorian chant is the liturgical prayer sung rather than spoken. It is important to note that Gregorian chant is not a style. The collection of chant contains several styles. Rather, Gregorian chant is a corpus of music. This corpus includes simple things such as singing the Mass responses on a single note as well as difficult and ornate antiphons sung by trained choirs.

In understanding this definition, the distinction between what Gregorian chant is and what is done at the typical Mass should become quite clear. The debate over what type of music should be used at Mass is not just about what styles and forms are or are not appropriate. It is also a question of whether we are singing at Mass or singing the Mass. As this particular point is rather objective, the debate cannot be simply reduced to a matter of taste.

There are several characteristic traits which distinguish chant and draw a contrast between the chant and other types of music. It is monophonic, has free rhythm, is sung a capella and is prayer.

It is monophonic. This means there is only one voice. There is no harmony. The voices of the singers sing the same words at the same time with the same melody. The many voices are united into one.

It has free rhythm. Nearly all other forms of music have a metrical rhythm. This means that there is a regular repeating rhythm. Think of dance music; it has to have a repeating, predictable beat. This is not the case with the vast bulk of the Gregorian repertory (the exceptions being office hymns and sequences). Rather, Gregorian chant has what is called free rhythm. The reason for this is that the music is wedded to the liturgical text, which is usually prose speech. Think of speech. Does it have a rhythm? Of course, but it is different from the regular reoccurring rhythm of, say, a clock ticking.

Chant has rhythm, but it is that of the natural rhythm of prose speech that is different from what we are used to hearing in most other forms of music. This has an importance for spirituality. Music with a strong beat appeals more to the carnal part of man, it affects the passions. This can easily be demonstrated by playing music with a strong beat in any room full of preschoolers, they will move with the music. Gregorian chant on the other hand appeals more to the intellect and spiritual faculties.

It is a cappella. This means it is sung on its own without instrumental accompaniment, or at least it was originally. In the last few centuries chant has been sung with organ accompaniment, to support weak singing or out of belief that it is too plain in its natural state. This is a subject of debate among those who perform chant, and it seems that organ with chant is currently seen as unfavorable by many. I’m not aware of any statistical data to confirm or confound this, and thus it remains a matter of discussion. But in its original form and composition, it is undeniable that chant was originally sung a cappella.

Most importantly, Gregorian chant is sung prayer. Ensuring that the use of chant is prayer and not a performance is important. It is easy to get hung up on the mechanics of chant when learning to sing it. The singers should have an awareness of what they are singing and strive to really mean it. Ensuring that the chant is prayer has the greatest priority.

In the next installment, we will look at how chant applies to the liturgical structure and roles.

By Ben P.