What They Were Chanting


In the last blog post, I covered how Gregorian chant became ascendant during the Middle Ages. In this blog post, I’ll discuss the nature of the music itself.

The habit of chanting bible passages arose in the monasteries, which were isolated, rural enclaves inhabited by devout Christians known as monks. In these monasteries, the monks took part in a ritual known as a vigil, which was a ceremony that kept them up all night reading from the bible and praying.

In a manner like a mantra, the bible passages were sung by the monks to help provide respite from the rigors of sleep deprivation.

During these all-night-sing-and-pray-a-thons, the monks would often experience meditative states that a Buddhist might call enlightenment or self-transcendence. Chanting was considered integral to achieving experiences like these. Consequently, they poured vast amounts of mental and religious energy into composing, producing, and perfecting the Gregorian plainsong.

Plainsong describes vocal music that is monophonic. That is, music having only one melodic line happening at any given time.

The plainsongs in the Gregorian tradition are known as psalms and hymns.

Psalms and Hymns

The part of the bible known as the Book of Psalms became the go-to text for chanting.

Eventually, a cycle evolved for signing all 150 psalms. This cycle is known as the divine office or as the liturgy of the hours. It consisted of eight worship sessions per day.

The monks prayed at daybreak then again at 6:00 am, 9:00 am, noon, 3:00 pm, sunset, 9:00 pm, and at midnight. The worship ceremonies were named as follows: Lauds was the daybreak ceremony then there was Prime, Terce, Sext, Nones, Vespers, Compline, and Matins was the midnight, vigil-like session.

The Office

The daytime sessions were short so they did not get in the way of a monk’s daily work, but the evening office hours could be long and drawn out featuring many chants and bible readings.

An office worship ceremony consisted of at least these three things: a scripture reading, a psalm, and a hymn.

In addition to the hymn and the psalm, the monks devised a set of chants to sing before and after each psalm. These before-and-after-the-psalm chants are known as antiphons. The hymns, the psalms, and the antiphons of the office ceremony are all Gregorian chants making most of the office a sing-along.

Christians also developed a worship ceremony meant for the congregation. This ceremony was known as the mass. The mass, which was a symbolic reenactment of the last supper with Jesus, had a cycle of chants and scripture readings—just like the office. The liturgy of the mass was organized into the ordinary and the proper: the ordinary described the parts of the mass that stayed the same day-to-day, and the proper described the parts of the mass that changed day-to-day. This arrangement of the liturgy is known as the order of mass, or in Latin as the ordo.

The texts that stay the same—the ordinary—are known as the Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, and Agnus Dei. Each of these mass parts has a coinciding Gregorian chant, originally sung by the congregation but eventually sung by the choir. The other parts of the mass, the Introit, the Offertory, the Alleluia, etc., change day-to-day but also have coinciding chants, usually some form of a psalm (Burkholder, et al. 49 – 50).

Here is the order of mass (ordo) detailing the interaction between the ordinary and the proper:

Picture credit: Burkholder, J. Peter., et al. A History of Western Music. W. W. Norton & Company, 2014. p. 49.

Hymns are sacred music’s version of a pop song. They are meant to be sung with enthusiasm, rhythm, and glee. Psalms, with their flowing, non-rhythmic nature, are sacred music’s serious song. They are meant to inspire numinous feelings by maintaining one’s attention on the scripture. Both psalms and hymns have their place in the mass.

In the traditions of Gregorian chant, the hymn evolved into a strophic song. A strophic song is one in which multiple verses are sung with one melody. This means that one string of note is used to cover multiple lines of poetry (Burkholder et al. 56).

To understand this, consider The Beatles’ song “Let It Be.” The first verse of “Let It Be,” the part that goes, “when I find myself in times of trouble mother Mary comes to me, speaking words of wisdom, let it be,” is sung exactly the same as the next verse, the one that goes, “and in my hour of darkness she is standing right in front of me….” This is because the verses of “Let It Be” are strophic.

According to The History of Western Music, “Hymns are the most familiar type of sacred song, practiced in almost all branches of Christianity from ancient times to the present.” The simplicity (and sing-along-ability) of hymns provided a neat way for the church to attract more peasants to its congregations. Although not quite hymns, the chants of the Ordinary were simple, syllabic melodies that the congregation could easily sing along to. Eventually, however, the schola cantorum, which was composed of the professional singers of Gregorian chant, took over the singing from the congregation. When they did, the chants going along with the ordinary of the mass increased in complexity (Burkholder et al. 59).

The scale and scope of the Roman liturgy, which consists of all the chants and all of the scripture readings for both the mass and the office for an entire year-long cycle, is difficult to grasp without some understanding of the organizing principle behind it all—the church calendar.

The church calendar details which bible readings, which psalms, which hymns, and which antiphons are to be used for the mass and the office on any given day of the year.

It’s based on two large-scale feast days—Christmas and Easter—and around several other, lesser feast days venerating saints such as the Virgin Mary.

The church calendar alternates between seasons of preparation for feast days (known as Advent and Lent) and seasons of business-as-usual (known as ordinary time).


The church calendar provides structure to a vast repertoire of over 1,000 chants. It took the monastic tradition hundreds of years to develop all this music and it took any individual monk a decade or more to learn how to sing it all.

The most amazing thing about the huge Gregorian chant repertory was that it evolved in an oral tradition. This means that the music was passed down the generations through memory.

The huge amount of music on offer, the rigors of learning how to sing it all, and the political aim to standardize the liturgy throughout Christendom are the three main reasons for the evolution of musical notation. Efforts to notate the music didn’t start until the 8th century, however—hundreds of years into tradition’s existence.

Kinds of Chant

The monks developed three methods for performing chant—antiphonal, direct, and responsorial.

Antiphonal chanting entailed two choirs singing back and forth with each other, direct chanting entailed the entire choir singing together at once, and responsorial chanting entailed the choir singing in response to a soloist.

As for text setting, that is, the manner of affixing notes to words, the monks devised three ways for doing this: syllabic, neumatic, and melismatic.

Syllabic entailed one or two notes per syllable, neumatic entailed note clusters of about three to six notes per syllable, and melismatic entailed many notes per syllable.

The melismatic chanting, which was often handled by talented soloists, was the most revered form of chanting and considered by many to be the highest level of beauty found anywhere in the Roman liturgy. The melismatic chants were saved for special occasions such as Christmas and Easter and were usually performed by the best singers in the choir.

The simplest forms of chant, on the other hand, and the easiest part of the liturgy to understand, are the recitation formulas. Recitation formulas are simple melodies with syllabic text settings designed to communicate scripture.

Recitation formulas differ from strophes in that they are less rhythmically strict. This means that they are more of a rough guideline than an actual, fixed melody like a strophe.

Recitation formulas were usually sung by the priest to project the text while inside large meeting spaces such as basilicas. The echo in such places distorts and renders indecipherable spoken words, but sung words carry and can be heard clear in such environs.

Here is a recitation formula for psalm 109, Dixit dominus as shown in A History of Western Music by Charles Burkholder, Donald J. Grout, and Claude Palisca:

Dixit dominus 5

This simple and easily repeatable musical phrase is used to get all 31 lines of Psalm 109 sung.

Notice how most of the text is carried by a reciting tone broken only by a lick in the middle of the line, called the mediant, and again by a lick at the end of the line, called the termination. This monotonous delivery is characteristic of what one usually thinks of as chant.

Not all Gregorian chants were monotonous, however. The antiphons were often flowering and expansive melodically. The antiphons were neumatic with several notes per syllable whereas the recitation tones were syllabic with only one or perhaps two notes per syllable.

In the following example taken from Richard Taruskin’s book, The Oxford History of Western Music, the recitation tone for Psalm 91 is shown with its preceding antiphon.

Taruskin Psalmody Example 002

One detail to take note of here is the text source of the antiphon. In the case of Psalm 91, it’s the twelfth line of the psalm itself that is used. Often if there was a highly representative line or a line that worked to summarize the overall feeling and scriptural message of the psalm, then it was used as the text for the antiphon.

These seized upon and re-purposed lines from scripture are known as stichs. Stichs are used all throughout the chant repertory and usually sung with carefully composed, neumatic melodies.

Notice also that the antiphon begins with a solo part and is then answered by the choir. This structure illustrates the literal meaning of the word antiphonal—back and forth singing.

One more trait to notice about both Psalm 91 and Psalm 109 is that they include the doxology.

The doxology was an assertion of the central tenets of Christian faith and was often inserted into the psalm chant as two additional lines at the end.

The doxology text reads as follows:

Gloria Patri, et Filio, et Spiritui Sancto. Sicut erat in principio, et nunc, et semper, et in sæcula sæculorum. Amen.

This is translated as follows:

Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit: As it was in the beginning, is now, and will be forever. Amen

The doxology is almost always affixed to the end of the psalms.

Later Variants

The traditions of Gregorian chant evolved and matured over hundreds of years from about the year 500 CE until about the year 1000 CE.

As the Gregorian repertory evolved, the professional singers of the monasteries—such as those of the papal choir (schola cantorum)—began to apply their singing virtuosity to new material.

The principal way this happened was with melismas. Remember, a melisma is a melodic passage built off of one syllable but having many notes.

The monks would sometimes use preexisting melismas to sing newly added liturgical texts. The addition of text to established melodies was called prosula. Eventually, three additional chant-forms developed from these prosula practices: the trope, the sequence, and the liturgical drama.

Often the texts, when added to the melisma melodies, created something like a hymn. That is, a song that used a fixed rhythmic structure and strophic melodies. This is somewhat paradoxical since a melisma is rhapsodic and devoid of rhythm for the most part. In any case, these new hymn-like songs devised from melismas and new texts were called sequences.

The sequence is perhaps the most consequential of the new chant forms because it became part of the order of mass. It was adopted as an extra bit of music to be sung between the Alleluia and the gospel.

The trope was another addition to the Gregorian repertory. Unlike sequences, which can stand on their own as separate songs, tropes were an addendum to existing chants.

This means that they were new melodies and song parts added right on to an existing chant. Usually, a trope was sung before the chant as a sort of introduction.

Often a trope was attached to one of the mass antiphons—such as the Introit. In this role, the trope served as a comment or as a summary of the mass that was about to be performed.

Sometimes tropes were sung during the ritual maneuvering that accompanied the offertory ritual.  In this ritual, the preacher had duties to perform such as blessing the Eucharist and whispering the secret to himself. (Both are part of the Christian worship ceremony known as the mass.) And a trope was perfect background music for these actions.

The last addition to the chant, the liturgical drama, is the most elaborate. A liturgical drama entails several singers retelling a story from the bible much like actors in a play or a musical.

The earliest liturgical drama dates from about the 10th century and is known as Quem quertis? (Whom do you seek?)



Quem quertis is a trope at the top of the Easter mass being sung before the Introit.  It enacts a story in which the three Marys of the bible—Magdalena, sister of Lazarus, and the Virgin—are all at Christ’s tomb when an angel appears.

The angel asks the three Marys, “whom do you seek in the sepulcher, oh followers of Christ?” To which the Marys reply, “Jesus of Nazareth, the crucified, oh heavenly one.” The angel then tell them that, “He is not here; he is risen, just as he foretold. Go, announce that he is risen from the sepulcher.”

These lines would be acted out and sung in a responsorial fashion.  The original latin text goes like this:

Quem quaeritis in sepulchro, o Christicolae?

Jesum Nazarenum crucifixum, o caelicolae. 

Non est hic; surrexit, sicut praedixerat. Ite, nuntiate quia surrexit de sepulchro

Liturgical dramas evolved through the 11th and 12th centuries, becoming more and more elaborate. The apotheosis of this art form was a woman named Hildegard of Bingen whose liturgical dramas are rival-less masterpieces of the form.

She is the topic of another post.

Works Cited

Abraham, G. The Concise Oxford History of Music. London: Oxford University Press, 1979.

Grout, D., Burkholder, J., & Palisca, C. A history of Western music. New York: Norton, 2014.

Taruskin, R. The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.

5 thoughts on “What They Were Chanting

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  1. Awesome work – amazing how interlocked music and religion were during these times – I’m inspired by this to write some lyrics, they go a little something like this:
    “The hobo asks the three Marys, “whom do you seek in the sepulcher, oh followers of Christ?” To which the Marys reply, “Jesus of Nazareth, the crucified, oh heavenly one.” The hobo then tells them that, “He’s dead.”

    1. I like your rewrite of “Whom do you seek.” This is probably how they should sing it at the top of the Easter mass. Yeah, the history of Western music is unintelligible without Christianity.

  2. Hi–I just found your site when I was searching for illustrations of the St. Gall Graduale. I appreciate the work you’ve done but in this section your understanding of the music of the liturgy of the Mass is way off–I can only assume that one or more of your sources was incorrect. Grout is the standard into-to music history text in the US; I haven’t seen the most recent edition, but it was accurate last time I looked. I don’t recognize either of your other two sources. To be specific: the Ordinary chants of the Mass are NOT hymns: they are not strophic and they do not have multiple verses. The Kyrie, Sanctus, and Agnus chants do have sections of music that are repeated verbatim, but that is because even when the texts are spoken they are repeated. The musical repetition is not, therefore, a new verse, because the words are the same. The Gloria and Credo are through-composed texts and have through-composed settings, although in later chant settings of the Gloria and Credo there are some recurring melodic “cells” that emphasize certain recurring ideas or texts, but these are not at all strophic. Although the texts for the Propers are often taken from the book of Psalms (not always), the musical settings are nothing like like the Psalm tones that are used for the singing of psalms in the divine office. The amazing repertoire of proper chants forms the bulk of the creative output of liturgical plainsong, and it is extremely complex and varied. BTW, I studied medieval plainsong, polyphony, and notation as a graduate student in musicology at Harvard, and since 1991 I have been singing chant regularly at Mass and Vespers under the direction of Professor William Mahrt of Stanford University (the man who is singing Ut queant laxis and demonstrating the Guidonian hand in your video clip above.) Finally: hymns and simple psalm tones were not sung at Mass in the Middle Ages; they were sung only at the divine office. Polyphonic motets are another matter, but they are not strictly speaking hymns either, because they are not strophic and their texts are not intrinsic parts of the liturgy. Hymns sung at Divine Office are usually part of the actual liturgy. Oh, and liturgically speaking, the offices did not predate the Mass. The “gatherings for prayer” in the early church were for express purpose of celebrating The Lord’s Supper. The Didache is a first century source that includes the earliest known prayers for the Eucharist; they are easily recognizable as the central portions of the Mass in Latin today–yes, even after Vatican II! I’m writing this because I assume that you would rather know the truth about this music than inadvertently disseminate misinformation.

    1. Jean,

      Thanks for your detailed comment. I’ll look into the things you mentioned, and I’ll check some of my sources. I already inspected Burkholder et al. and Richard Taruskin for some clarity about the Ordinary and the use of the noun “hymn.” I made some relevant revisions to clarify that the Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, and Agnus Dei were simple, syllabic melodies, not hymns.

      It’s been about five years since I wrote this post, so I’ll have to do a little reading to get fully on the level.
      I’ll probably make a few more revisions when I have time. The main thing I want to do is cite my photo sources and insert a few more text citations. I’ll also clarify any information or facts where needed once I check my sources further.

      Thanks again for reading carefully,

  3. Sequencs are newly composed, they are not the same thing as tropes. Most melismas have no repetititive structure; sequences are composed with a strict A BB CC DD etc. pattern. Sequences are so named because they were written to be sung following the repeat of the jubilus (the melisma of the Alleluia chant)–“sequentia.” Most of the medieval sequences were thrown out of the Mass at the Council of Trent (1564); the only ones left are for the Feasts of Easter, Corpus Christi, Pentecost, and the Requiem Mass. Tropes were not set to newly-composed music. (Check out the Leonard Bernstein’s Mass–his Gloria has a trope: music by Bernstein, text by Paul Simon.) Liturgical dramas were not part of the Mass–they were performed on the steps outside of the church.

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