MSC 1003 - Music in Civilization

Musical Properties of Gregorian Chant
In the previous class we talked about the role of the church in Medieval society and the role of music within the church. You could say that we were trying to understand the original social context of Gregorian Chant. In this unit we will think about Gregorian Chant more like music, comparing it to other kinds of music we know.

At the top of the page I have a complete eight-minute lecture video that explains all this like I would normally do it in class. Below that is the same info all written out, with a few clips to click on. You can choose which one you want to use.

Once you've familiarized yourself with the material, Assignment #3 asks you five questions. (Link will open in a new tab.)

Full Lecture Video

The Z100 thought experiment

I like to start off this conversation with a little thought experiment. Imagine you are driving in a car on a sunny afternoon and listening to Z100 on the radio. They finish a song by Drake and then the next thing that comes on is our Kyrie eleison!

Track Links: Apple Music YouTube Spotify
Album Links: Amazon Mp3

You would immediately know that something strange was happening. Maybe the Catholic Church bought the radio station. Maybe the world is ending! But anyway, it would be very obvious that this Gregorian Chant is not something that normally belongs on Z100. It has certain musical properties that are very different from typical pop music.

(This is another pretty good brainstorming pause for the in-person class. It's pretty easy to think of ways in which Gregorian Chant is weird. What would YOU say?)

No Instruments

Our Gregorian Chant is performed entirely by a small group of singers, with no instruments. This method of performing music is often called a cappella.

These days you might hear that term quite a bit, due to popularity of Glee and those silly Pitch Perfect movies. Most people probably don't realize that it's really two words, which could be translated as "from the church" or "in the church style." Even though we are now more likely to apply it to a bunch of college-age dudes harmonizing to "Pokerface," the core concept refers back to the Medieval and Renaissance era when sacred music was usually performed without instruments.


The Kyrie eleison recording I embedded above is a small group of singers, and there is something else notable about them. They are all men!

The Early Christian church did not want women and men to participate in religious services together, so these melodies would have been sung by either all men or all women. Even today this music is usually performed in a segregated format, to preserve the original sound.

Here is a recording of two chants used by an order of Cistercian Nuns in the 14th century.

Track Links: YouTube Apple Music Spotify

No Harmonies (= Monophonic)

Animation of our Kyrie

Another thing that is fairly easy to notice is that no one is "harmonizing" the Chant melody. It's just a melodic line with no other parts.

In technical terms we would say that Gregorian Chant has a monophonic texture. Our next unit will revisit our texture terms in a lot more detail, but for now it is probably enough to say that monophonic means "one sound," and a monophonic texture refers to any music that is just a single melody with no other parts.

No beat or pulse

Gregorian Chant is also performed without any obvious sort of beat. Certainly you could not dance to it! Instead, the rhythm seems to flow very gently, with pauses that follow the words.

Our Kyrie sheet music does not specify rhythm

The notation system for Chant does not specify how long each note is supposed to last. Thus, singers who are performing this music need to listen very carefully to each other and stick together.

Performed in a reverberant space

This is something that students frequently point out. The old stone cathedrals were very echoey or reverberant, naturally extending the sound of the singers so that each note lasts longer and the sounds blend together a little. It makes sense to continue to perform this music in what musicians call a "wet" space.

Singing it in a "dry" space with no reverberation, on the other hand, would sound pretty disappointing.

Stretching out the words

I've mentioned before that our Kyrie eleison has very few words, so the anonymous church composers gave it a long, flowing melody and made something pretty out of it. Taking a word and "stretching it out" with lots of notes is called melismatic writing, and each string of notes on a single syllable is called a melisma.

In our Kyrie some of our vowels receive a ribbon of notes that undulates up and down for quite a while.

The opposite of melismatic writing is called syllabic - as the term implies, this is when you only use one note per syllable and keep moving through the text.

The concept of melismatic singing can actually apply to lots of different kinds of music. In particular, it reminds me of something you frequently hear in Gospel and R & B, where a singer shows off by extending the words and singing a lot of notes.

For an example, lets look at "Fallin," the song that made Alicia Keys famous.

The main tune is a little melismatic, extending the words "falling" "out" "never" "one" and so on.

In the intro to the song, however, she really goes off, unfurling a long melisma on "in."

And the climax of the tune presents overlapping melismas on the word "falling."

(As we'll learn in the next unit, the overlapping voices make this part polyphonic as well as melismatic.)

We might say that most aspect of Gregorian Chant are fairly strange, with a lot of musical properties that are different from those of contemporary music. But the use of melismatic writing is something that it has in common with stuff you might hear on American Idol.


All right, Assignment #3 asks you five questions about all of this. Link will open in a new tab.

Footnote One - a bunch of dudes harmonizing to Pokerface

back to blog