Gregorian Chant

In the Medieval Period (400 – 1400), a genre of sacred songs emerged which took the medieval, religious world over. The Gregorian Chant. The Gregorian Chant was a monophonic, a cappella piece which the Catholic Church developed. It was sung in religious services, traditionally by monks or male clerics. They were part of two prayer sessions scheduled eight times during the day called Mass or Office. As the Church expanded and moved away from the larger cities, because of the smaller amounts of monks and clergy, men from the Mass, were allowed to join in and sing the Gregorian Chants in some of the liturgical rites. In convents, women were only allowed to sing the Mass and Office as a function of their sacred life; however, the official liturgical duty was reserved to the clergy.

History of the Gregorian Chant

Gregorian Chant takes its name from Pope Gregory I also known as Gregory the Great. He was believed to be responsible to bring the chants to the West based on Eastern Byzantine music, however, there is no real evidence for this.

Because of the time lapsed since the Gregorian Chant first made its appearance hundreds of thousands of years ago it is hard to determine when the Gregorian Chant really started and where it came from. Scholars still debate to this day when the Chant actually emerged, and where it came from. Some like James McKinnon, believe it emerged in the later dates of the 7th century, however others like scholar Andreas Pfisterer argue it was earlier that this.

In the earlier centuries such as the fifth and the sixth century, the chant was very distinct for different regions. They were written very basically with squares called neumes. They were not a perfect example of where the pitch was just an indicator however the relationship between the notes (intervals) had to be observed. In the ninth and tenth centuries however, under the reign of Charlemagne, the Gregorian Chant unified and became more decipherable in musical notations. This advance in the notation of Gregorian Chant is believed to be the reason behind it scattering so far and wide around Europe.

The Music and it’s Performers

In most Western Music since the Renaissance the pieces are based on one of two modes: Major or Minor. As a consequence, many people hear the melodies of the Gregorian Chant and often think it’s a simplistic view on modern music. While the melody is rather simple the modal system behind it is rather complex. The system behind them is based directly on the octoechos system of eight modes used in the Byzantine music and the Greater Perfect System of the Greeks.

The chants are superficially the same as our modern diatonic scale. B natural – C – D – E natural – F – G – A, in all essence being our modern C major or A minor scales. This however, was not seen this way by people in the medieval period. People then saw an octave span as the result of overlapping hexachords. Our seven note ‘do re mi fa so la ti (do)’ scale is an extension of the medieval six note hexachord ‘ut re mi fa so la.’ Hexachords were defined into the natural hexachord – C – D – E – F – G – A, the soft hexachord – F – G – A – Bb – C – D, or the hard hexachord – G – A – B – C – D – E. The only variable in the mix being the B flat which is the only note that ever changes. Any other notes used was known as musica ficta, meaing made up notes and music. The Gregorian chant mostly falls into one of eight modes. While some do fall outside of these eight, they often can be categorised into one of the eight modes.

The rhythm of the chants are often free without any accent or beat. This is to place more emphasis on the words of the chant rather then the rhythm and melody. As mentioned previously, the melody is not fixed pitch wise however the intervals do have to be respected. The words would sometimes have just one note to a word or syllable, however sometimes there would a dozen, therein lies the hyponotic effect it has when one listens to chant. In the earlier days of chant, the chants were written as lines and were hard to make out, however, the chant developed and later on was written on a staff similar to our 5 line 4 space staff, however, the medieval staff was 4 lines, 3 space staff. The notes are called neumes which don’t have stems, but were often stacked. Not to show chords but to show the melody is going a certain way.

As polyphony developed and more parts were added, young boys and Castrati were made to sing the higher parts. As these numders dwindled and the churches moved away from the larger cities, women were allowed to sing the higher parts. Although polyphony was inevevatably created, Popes for many years after its time, still enjoyed the Gregorian Chant, while the Churches still call it the official litrugical music.

Gregorian Chant in Liturgy

The Gregorian Chants, like other chants of other rites, were only used to sing some parts of the liturgy. Bishops, Priests and Deacons sang the other parts highlighting these segments. The parts sung in Gregorian Chant in the Roman Mass include:

The Introit

The Kyrie

The Gloria

The Gradual

The Alleluia

The Sequence (Easter Sunday, Pentecost, Corpus Christi, and All Soul’s Day)

The Credo

The Offertory

The Sanctus and Benedictus

The Agnus Die

The Communion

The Introit, Gradual, Alleluia, Sequence, Offertory and Communion texts are called the Propers, because they are proper to day and season, meaning they were often changed to suit the times. The Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, Benedictus and Agnus Die, remain unchanged, called the Ordinary of the Mass.

The Catholic Church also later allowed music to be written by individual composers, to replace the Gregorian Chant in the Ordinary Mass. This is why a Mass by Mozart would include the Kyrie but not the Introit.


    Ainsley, Robert. The ultimate Encyclopaedia of Classical Music – Plainsong to Polyphony. Carlton Books Limited. 1995. P 207

    Author Unknown. Gregorian Chant. Wikipedia, 2006.

    Author Unknown. Early Medieval Music. Wikipedia 2006.

    H. Bewerung. The Catholic Encyclopaedia – Gregorian Chant. K. Knight, 2005

    Hope, Alison. History of Gregorian Chant. Ecclesia Dei Society, 2001

    Kephart, Rick. Gregorian Chant Notation. Catholic Home School Society, 2000

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