Question: What is the difference between Gregorian Chant and other forms of Church and secular music?
Answer: The idea of chanting the Scriptures and other religious songs is not unique to Christianity. The greatest part of the material chanted in Catholic worship is the Book of Psalms, taken, of course, from the Hebrew Scriptures. Our chant has its roots in the music of the Jews, and borrows some of the theoretical insights of ancient Greek music. There is some debate among musical historians as to which chants are accurately labeled Gregorian, and as to the degree in which Pope Saint Gregory the Great (590-604) was involved in its formation. The most narrow view has the adjective “Gregorian” applying to only a few hundred pieces composed during the Carolingian renaissance, a century or two after Pope Gregory’s death-in this article we will take the wider view of including any of the monophonic (definition below) pieces found in the Roman liturgical books-but like all things artistic, the choice of which works are “Gregorian” will still be somewhat subjective.
At the end of this article we will print a piece of music in Gregorian notation and point out the symbols described in the body of the writing. The reader may wish to look ahead if a written description seems unclear.
A young person can hear sounds perhaps as low in pitch as 20 cycles per second on up to as high as twenty thousand cycles, discerning between different sounds up to about twelve or fifteen thousand cycles. No one knows how long ago the first humans recognized that some combinations of these sounds were particularly pleasant, and that pleasant sounds could be produced with the voice or by means of an instrument. Likewise unknown to history is the first use of primitive music in worship.
The ancient Greeks seem to be the first people to develop a scientific understanding of their music, asking the question why some combinations of pitch sounded pleasant, while others did not. The philosopher-mathematician Pythagoras of Samos (c.569-475 B.C.) experimented with vibrating strings of various lengths. Shorter strings were found to produce higher pitches when plucked, while longer strings produced proportionally lower pitches. Pythagoras found that when two or more strings were plucked simultaneously they produced a pleasant sound if their lengths were in ratios of small numbers. For example, a 20-inch and a 30-inch string had a ratio of 2:3 and sound pleasant together, as do a 40-inch, a 50-inch, and 60-inch (ratio of 4:5:6). A string and another, half or double the size of the first (ratio of 1:2), sounded particularly well, seeming to be naturally paired with one another.
Centuries later, modern science would determine that the pleasant combinations are those where the individual pitch frequencies mix together in such a way that the ear is incapable of distinguishing the component sounds and their products. “Pleasant,” of course, is a subjective term, varying from person to person, and quite possibly being influenced by the culture in which he grows up. (Music produced by non-Western cultures often sounds discordant to those of us raised in Europe or the modern Americas-and visa versa.)
By properly selecting the string lengths, the Pythagoreans were able to design a harp-like instrument capable of producing pleasant tones when the strings were plucked sequentially or in combination. The Greeks assigned seven letters of their alphabet to the pitches produced by each of the strings. They also noticed that the pitches seemed to repeat again in another set of strings twice as long as the first. The Greeks had come up with a physical explanation of what today we call the “diatonic scale”-the scale in use for most ancient western music, including our Gregorian chant-and appearing on the white keys of the piano.
Modern western music uses Latin letters rather than Greek, and assigns fixed pitches (in “cycles per second” or “hertz”) to each of the notes.
The observant reader will notice that there are eight pitches counting from any letter to the same letter above or below, and that the frequency is exactly doubled or halved in the same transition. We call this run of eight pitches an octave, from its Latin root.
The reader may also notice that the frequency difference between notes increases smoothly (mathematicians say it increases “logarithmically”) except between the B-C and E-F notes. In musical phraseology we say that the interval between adjacent notes is a “whole tone” except between B-C and E-F where it is a “semi-tone.” Modern music inserts five more semi-tones-sharps or flats-between the notes separated by whole tones on the diatonic scale-the five black keys on a piano. The black keys allow the pianist to start a scale with any key, yet maintain the same distribution of tones and semitones between the notes of the scale as found on the diatonic scale. This ability to “transpose” allows the pianist to accompany voices which are comfortable singing a little bit above or below the diatonic scale in the “natural” key of “C.”
SO, WHAT IS GREGORIAN?
There are several types of chant belonging to the Gregorian family, but all have a number of characteristics in common. Gregorian melodies are restricted to two octaves or less-usually about an octave. There is no regular beat, although a certain rhythm may be perceived in the way syllables are accented. The singing is always monophonic, which is to say that there is never more than one note sounded at a time; there are no harmonies generated by complimentary notes sung or played along with the melody. If two voice ranges are employed-say, lower pitched men and higher pitched boys or women-both ranges sing the same notes at the same time, even though they may be an octave or so apart. The notes are diatonic, corresponding (with the exception of a B-flat) to the white keys of the piano, although the pitch of the notes is relative in Gregorian, rather than the absolute pitch employed in modern music. Adherence to the diatonic scale is important even though simultaneous harmony is not attempted, for the notes resonate in the mind and in the church long enough to produce a sort of “serial harmony.” Gregorian is aptly named “plain chant,” for the simple melodies are intended to make the underlying words clearly intelligible, as well as being relatively easy to sing without complex musical training. The more complex forms of Western music were developed over the centuries-often by the Church and Church composers-from the simple forms of the Chant.
It is possible to distinguish a few styles of Gregorian Chant. The accentus is the style of chanting or reciting primarily on one note (recto tono). The pitch is inflected a bit up or down only to signify the punctuation of the text-one can orally distinguish the question mark, the end of a phrase, the end of a sentence, and the end of the text. At sung Mass the priest (and deacon and subdeacon) employs this general style for the Collect, Epistle, Gospel, and Postcommunion.
The consentus style of the chant is more melodic, and is divided into three types. A syllabic chant has one note for each syllable; a neumatic chant has more than one note per syllable, special symbols called “neums” being used to give the order and the pitch of several notes; and finally, a melismatic chant, coming from the Greek melisma, or song, has an elaborate assemblage of notes for each syllable. The use of these three styles is loosely connected to the rank of the feast being celebrated and the degree of its festivity.
Modern musical notation descends from that developed by the Church for the Chant. The earliest written scores were written with no staff lines at all, and no indication of the duration of the notes-if they were written down at all, the notes were no more than markers of relative pitch, written above the syllables of the text-Greek letters and then symbols resembling short hand notation. Later on, Latin letters and even colors became associated with each pitch.
The four line staff for the Chant was invented by the eleventh century monk Guido of Arezzo. Guido’s staff was marked with a Latin F, C, or G to establish the relative pitch of one of the four lines, allowing the notes to be written relative to that line. The pitch notation was placed so that the notes would not run far above or below the four line staff. Guido also introduced the technique known as “solemnization” which enabled singers to learn a new piece by reference back to the syllables in a well known piece. Taking the first syllables from the hymn from Vespers of the Nativity of Saint John the Baptist (June 24), which were each sung on a successively higher note, Guido assigned standard (and singable) values to the notes:
queant laxis (ut) C
resonáre fibris (re) D
mira gestórum (mi) E
fámuli tuórum, (fa) F
solve pollúti (sol) G
lábii reátum, Sancte Joánnes. (la) A
“Ut” would later become known as “do”
Somewhere around the fourteenth century the Latin F, C, and G on the staff lines were replaced with stylized symbols which are referred to as the fa, do, and so clefs. The fa and do clefs are still in use in Gregorian notation, with the do being more common. The fa and do clefs are moved to any of the four staff lines to keep the notes within the lines as much as possible. Small “ledger lines” are drawn beneath notes above or below the staff to make their positions clear.
This is a do clef printed on the top staff line, so that from the bottom up the lines will represent the notes re, fa, la, do (D,F,A,C).
Here the same do clef is printed on the next line down, so now the lines from the bottom up represent fa, la, do, mi, (F,A,C,E).
Finally, a fa clef is printed on the same line, so that the lines from bottom up represent ti, re, fa, la (B,D,F,A)
The G clef is unused in Gregorian notation, but has found its way into modern music, fixing the value of G on the next to the bottom line of the upper or treble staff.
Music can exist only in time. Even when it is reduced to printed notation, the flow of time is implied along the written staff.. Gregorian music differs from modern music in that there are no fixed measures of time, and nothing like a repetitive beat.
Gregorian notation makes us of vertical “bar lines.” The “double bar” or “full bar” extends from the top to the bottom line of the staff, marking the end of a phrase and a brief pause in the singing. The “half bar” cutting the second and third staff lines separates phrases into logical “members”; and the “quarter bar,” cutting only the top line, breaks phrases or members into sections appropriate to the rhythmic chanting of the individual syllables. The rhythm itself is essentially the natural rhythm of the Latin language.
Each musical tone must have some duration. Modern music allows the repeated division of the whole note, symbolized by darkening the oval note, attaching a vertical stem, and attaching pennants. Gregorian notes, on the other hand, are never divided. The single square note, known as a “punctum,” is prolonged a little bit if it is topped by a horizontal line (“episema”), and is doubled if it is followed by a dot (which by some miracle seems to be called a “dot”).
The more complicated chants may have more than one note per syllable. In modern music we are accustomed to see this written with a number of fractional notes bound together by lines. Gregorian notation has a number of stylized square notes, called “neums,” that perform the function. To the novice, it may appear that two or more notes are to be sung simultaneously, but this is never the case-remember that Gregorian is monophonic-only one note is ever sounded at a time.
A close visual inspection will reveal the order of the pitches involved except, perhaps, for the neum represented by one square note directly above another, called the “podatus.” In this case, the lower pitch is always sung before the higher pitch. (The higher pitch may be several tones higher than the lower, as in the illustration at the end.)
The experienced Gregorian singer should recognize the various neums by sight and be able to sing the succession of tones without a great deal of thought. Each of the neums has a Latin name-Chant books like the Liber Usualis have a section in which each neum is pictured with its equivalent in modern notation.
Gregorian Chant is an important part of our Catholic heritage. We have presented a number of technical concepts here, but these are not absolutely necessary to the enjoyment of the Chant, nor are they required in order to be able to sing the Chant along with fellow parishioners when this is done in church. If anything, the Chant is less complicated than the modern music to which we are more accustomed.
“He who sings prays twice”!
Introit -- Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost