Gregorian Chant

February 7, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

Exactly what is Gregorian chant, and how did it originate?

Although most people today think of chant as something different from singing, our English word “chant” comes from the Latin word cantus, which simply means “song.” So what we call “chant” today is actually the type of singing that was used in early Christianity. It dates back before the time of the New Testament. Christians didn’t invent chant. They simply borrowed the style of singing used in the Jewish synagogue and in much of the Roman world. This form of singing is what we know today as Gregorian chant or simply chant. It is a simple, monophonic form of acapella singing.

Chant was organized and more fully developed during the time of Gregory the Great (590-604). That is why Christian chant is generally known today as Gregorian chant. However, as we have discussed, Gregory did not invent the chant form. Christians had been using it for centuries before he was born. Nevertheless, Gregorian chant superseded the earlier forms of chant and represented a musical advancement beyond them.

At first, the chants were learned simply by ear, for there was no system of musical notation. (Actually, the Greeks had invented a form of musical notation, but knowledge of the ancient Greek system had been lost.) Gregorian chant developed in large part because of monastic life. That is because the monks in most monasteries observed various hours of worship eight times a day. Singing psalms and chants made up a large part of monastic life.

Invention of Musical Notation for Chant 

During the Middle Ages, the church re-invented a form of musical notation, which was used for Gregorian chant. Medieval chant notation differed from modern notation in that it had only four lines to the staff. It used a system of shaped notes called neumes. Gregorian chant or plainchant remained the primary form of church singing until the Renaissance and Reformation – and well beyond. During the time of the late Renaissance, polyphony was introduced into church music, which made use of several voices singing different, but complementary lines of music. In contrast, Gregorian chant was monophonic – all singers sang the exact same melody in unison – without additional harmony or polyphony.

 Unlike most music from ancient times, Gregorian chant has never died. It is a beautiful form of music—meditative, relaxing and peaceful—with a very other-worldly sound to it that many Christians still enjoy today.