Gregorian Chant, A Beginner’s Guide

Medieval music is typically divided into two major categories: secular and sacred. Anyone who has explored the complex world of medieval music has likely come across religious chants, often referred to as Gregorian Chants. While on the surface it may seem that all chants are pretty much the same (especially for those unaccustomed to hearing medieval religious music), there is a wide variety of styles, themes and functions. Gregorian Chants are not for everyone, but knowing and appreciating the basics is certainly worth it for any musician, historian or music lover.

Medieval Church Music

It is almost impossible to make sense of what Gregorian chants even are without at least some knowledge of the Catholic Church. Rather than try to summarize theology and centuries of religious rites and customs, I will just define some key words that will come in handy. Note that definitions and descriptions are specific to Western Christianity (Roman Catholic) and do not necessarily have the same meaning in the Eastern Orthodox Church.

Cantate Domino, Illustration for Psalm 97. c. 1380

Liturgy- A religious ritual or rite, or the formal arrangement of religious services. The main services of the Roman Catholic Church are the Mass/Holy Eucharist and the Divine Office. Services typically include scriptural readings, prayers and chants. The outline of these services stays pretty constant, but the specific content changes depending on the time of year. The yearly schedule determining which religious content (prayers, chants, etc) makes up these services is called the liturgical year.

Feasts- Feasts are religious celebrations or commemorations of events and/or people. Holidays are feasts. There are two feast cycles that make up the liturgical year. The first is called Proper of the Time, Temporale, or Feasts of the Lord. The focus of these feasts is the life of Christ and includes such holidays as Christmas and Easter. The second feast cycle is the Proper of the Saints or the Sanctorale and is all about the individual saints and their lives.  The two feast cycles overlap. Some feasts are on the same day every year. Others, such as Easter, change dates and are called “moveable” feasts.

Mass- This service is the most important one of the Roman Catholic Church. It is a ritual commemorating the Last Supper. There are musical and nonmusical sections in the Mass, some of which are from the Proper and others are from the Ordinary.

Divine Office, or simply Office– Also called the Liturgy of the Hours and the Breviary. These 8 sets of prayers and services (called “canonical hours”) are done daily and are distinct and separate from the Mass. The arrangement, or plan, of the Divine Office services can vary depending on whether they are done in monasteries, cathedrals or churches. The musical forms used in the Office/Liturgy of the Hours are hymns, psalms, canticles, responsories and antiphons.

Ordinary- The specific texts, chants and music that are used in certain parts of the Mass and Office services that are always the same, regardless of the day or the feast. Melodies may change depending on the taste of the local clergy, but the words are always constant. The musical forms that make up the Ordinary are the Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, Benedictus and Agnus Dei. These songs and chants are permanent parts of the Mass and do not change with the feasts. Here is a link to the full texts of the Ordinary of the Mass.

Proper- The texts, chants and music that make up the Proper are those items within the Mass and Office services that change from feast to feast. The types of music in the Proper that are used during Mass are Introit, Gradual, Alleluia, Offertory and Communion. Other forms of chants are used for special occasions, such as tropes, sequences and processionals.

Are you confused? Keep reading!

So the typical Mass would consist of the standard Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, Bendictus and Agnus Dei (Ordinary). Depending on the day of the liturgical calendar and which feast cycle it is, a feast-specific Introit, Gradual, Alleluia, Offertory and Communion would also be performed (Proper). Throughout the day, separate from Mass, certain prayers, canticles, psalms or hymns would be sung as part of the Divine Office. Each of these would be appropriate for the specific hour or time of day (according to the Liturgy of the Hours).

Religious/liturgical music of the Middle Ages (with traditions continuing into the Modern day) can be narrowed down to two basic types: Psalmodic and non-psalmodic. Within those two styles are varying prayers and chants that are categorized according to the religious source text being used, subject matter and musical form. They are: Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, Benedictus, Agnus Dei, Introit, Gradual, Offertory, Communion, Alleluia, Canticle, Antiphon, Responsory, Psalm or Hymn. There are other forms from the Divine Office Proper that are less common and are not listed here. Some types of chants have been around since the beginning of Christian chant, others were added to the liturgy over the centuries.

The repertory of approved liturgical chants could include a variety of melodies used to sing the same texts and preferred versions would change as musical styles evolved over time. For example, the Kyrie (a prayer of the Mass Ordinary) could be sung a number of ways. Phrases are repeated as many times as the composer felt was musically  appropriate, but the text is always the same: “Kyrie eleison. Christe eleison. Kyrie eleison.

A 14th century Kyrie by Guillaume de Machaut:

A 15th century Kyrie by Guillaume Dufay:

The Roman Catholic musical tradition is far more complex than a group of monks chanting in Latin or a choir singing a hymn. When the average person refers to sacred Medieval music, everything typically falls under the umbrella term “Gregorian chant.” Unless you’re Catholic or especially interested in ancient religious music there is no real need to know the specific distinctions between each unique musical form (such as what distinguishes a Kyrie from an Introit). But as you learn a bit more about Gregorian chants and how they came to be canonized, keep in the back of your mind that the texts themselves hold a great deal of religious significance. It is also important to remember that there is an incredibly wide variety of chants and that many sacred songs of the Middle Ages are not actually chants at all. As you explore the world of Gregorian chant you’ll discover just how unique and beautiful they really are.

Gregorian Chant, a Brief History

Even before Christianity was legalized in the 4th century, early Christians were using unaccompanied singing and chanting in religious services. These chants are known as Plainchant or Plainsong. As Christianity spread, a variety of musical traditions and plainchant repertories developed independently throughout what was left of the Roman Empire.

The known Western traditions included Mozarabic (Roman Spain), the Gallican chants of Gaul (France),  Ambrosian chant (Milan, Italy), Beneventan (Italy), Anglo-Saxon and later the Sarum (England), Old Roman and Gregorian (Rome). In the East, Christians developed plainchant rites and traditions including Byzantine, Coptic, Syrian, Ethiopian and Armenian. Other liturgical forms existed elsewhere, such as the Celtic rite in Ireland and the Slavonic in Scandinavia.

Notated Gregorian Chant

The Gregorian style of chant gets its name from Pope Gregory who reigned from 590 to 604. There is a lot of debate regarding Pope Gregory’s part in creating and shaping the Gregorian tradition in Rome. His actual role seems to have been minimal, if not non-existent. Regardless of who developed this liturgical tradition, its popularity spread incredibly quickly throughout the empire. Over the next couple centuries, the Popes felt it was in the Catholic Church’s best interest to eliminate local traditions in favor of a uniform Roman-based liturgical calendar and musical style. Charlemagne, in particular, was a huge supporter of doing away with any non-Roman traditions and replacing them with Roman rites. Once he became Holy Roman Emperor he forced the clergy to adopt the Gregorian repertory or else.

By the 9th century, Gallican and Slavonic had been completely banned by papal decree. Celtic had been replaced by Sarum, Beneventan was on its way out but would last into the 11th century. The rest of the local traditions were gradually replaced by Gregorian or had morphed enough over the years to be able to co-exist with Roman rites to an extent. Old Roman and Mozarabic were used in some places during the Middle Ages, probably because they borrowed enough from the Gregorian style to be able to survive or fly under the papal radar. Ambrosian is the only style of chant other than Gregorian that was officially sanctioned by the Roman Catholic Church. Both are still in use today.

What makes a Gregorian chant a Gregorian chant?

Gregorian chants are free-form, meaning they are not metered and have no time signature. They are modal, giving composers the option to write a melody in one of 8 specific scales. Most will employ a technique called melisma, which is singing a number of notes for one syllable of text. The overwhelming majority are written and sung in Latin.

For centuries, Gregorian chants were sung a capella as pure melody. They could be sung by a soloist, a choir or a congregation, depending on the type of chant. Most chants were monophonic (one voice), meaning only one melody was sung in unison. They had no harmonies or even instrumental accompaniment. At most, a portative organ might play a single note as a sort of drone, but almost all of the time there was nothing but vocals. Instruments were considered impure, worldly and were deemed wildly inappropriate for Christian worship. Only instruments of the spirit, “living strings,” were worthy means to praise God.

Later, as musical styles in the Middle Ages changed, polyphony (many voices) began to be employed in the church.  Organum was introduced in the 9th century, which is multiple “voices” singing the same melody in unison, but at intervals. The typical chant would have two voices: one being the base melodic line and the other set at a fourth or fifth interval, or even an octave, higher. The purpose of this was not to add harmony the way most modern music does (chords, blending of tones that are distinguished from the song’s melody and rhythm), but more to add depth to, or “enliven” the melody. It wasn’t until the late Renaissance that the Church allowed updated polyphonic choral arrangements of sacred chants to be performed during Mass.

Parallel Organum. 5th Interval

An Invitatory for Trinity: Deum Verum (7th century). This hymn is from the Breviary (Divine Office) and is used during Ordinary time. This chant begins with a monophonic melody then switches to organum. It will go back and forth between the two. Listen for that second line sung at a 4th interval higher.

O Ignee Spiritus by Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179) is another Breviary hymn that is dedicated to the Holy Spirit. The text is prose written by Hildegard herself and not from scripture. This Office hymn is not part of the Ordinary so it is not heard very often. It is a monophonic chant and is heavy on melisma. This particular version uses a mixed choir, which forces organum (men and women sing an octave apart) where it was probably intended to be sung by women alone.

As an added bonus for my musically-inclined readers, I’ve included the following ink to a piano arrangement of “O Ignee Spiritus” with the intent that everyday musicians such as myself may have an opportunity to play a Gregorian chant at home. As I do not advertise or run affiliate links on this site, please consider supporting my work through a digital download!

O Ignee Spiritus Sheet Music

Because the piano did not exist in the 12th century and Hildegard wrote this hymn to be monophonic without instrumentation, this is not a piece that could be considered remotely authentic. However, my love of Medieval music has inspired me to transcribe this chant into a format that stays true to the original melody while adapting it with added harmony to make it playable and enjoyable on the piano. My goal was to capture the otherworldly essence of this hymn, as well as make it fun to listen to and play.

Here is an audio sample (MIDI):

Sources and Further Reading

I am not Catholic so in order to ensure accuracy I relied on information gleaned from the following sources:

A note about the featured image for this post: This is an illuminated manuscript from a 14th century choir book. The image is a cutting that depicts St. Lawrence in the letter “C.” This initial begins the Introit to the Mass for the feast of St. Lawrence.

8 Comments Add yours

  1. Charlie Xu says:

    Thank you for the detailed explanations, they are really helpful since I am taking a music theory course.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. sannieb says:

      Happy to help! I appreciate the comment, Charlie. 🙂


  2. Bella says:

    Lots of very useful info contained herein. Love all the chants, and the background to their existence explains so much. The different ritual observances of all religions are fascinating. In the very strict presbyterian branch of the christian tradition, they never sing, but chant. This of course because they did not like any fluffy stuff, life was hard and their religion reflected this. We wont discuss the demon drink here!

    “If music be the food of love, play on let me have surfeit of it”

    Where would we be without the pleasure of music, to lift our spirits and our hearts? A much sadder place for sure.

    Thank you for this well informed piece.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. sannieb says:

      Thank you Bella. I appreciate the feedback and I am so glad you found it to be a worthwhile read! I also find religious traditions very fascinating. And I couldn’t agree more about music. A world without music would be a sad world indeed.


  3. trkingmomoe says:

    Thank you for following me.


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