Gregorian Chant


What is chant, and we do we call it "Gregorian?" The following excerpt from Willi Apel’s classic work on the subject, Gregorian Chant, addresses both questions:

Definition and Terminology

What is the meaning of this term? Chant is the generic designation for a body of traditional religious music, such as Hindu chant, Jewish chant, Byzantine chant, Russian chant, etc. Different though these various repertories are, they have one trait in common, that is, the purely melodic character of the music or, in other words, the absence of harmony, counter- point or any other kind of accompaniment, especially instrumental. The performance is exclusively vocal, either by one singer or by several singing in unison. In this respect chant is similar to folksong, from which, however, it differs in the rhythmic aspect, since it usually lacks the principle of strict meter and measure commonly found in folksong.

The designation "Gregorian," generally used for the chant of the Roman Church, refers to Pope Gregory I, who ruled from 590 to 604, and who is generally believed to have played a decisive role in the final arrangement of the chants, each of which he (or rather, those to whom he had entrusted the task) assigned to a specific occasion of the liturgical year, according to a broadly conceived plan. True enough, the appropriateness of the term "Gregorian" can be (and has been) questioned. A first disadvantage of this term is that, strictly speaking, it excludes the early development leading up to the period of Gregory as well as the changes and additions that occurred later. Thus, some of the best-known items of the chant, the Kyrie.. Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, and Agnus Dei of the Mass, are post-Gregorian. Moreover, Gregory's role in the development of the chant, as outlined above, is not certain beyond doubt and, in fact, has become highly questionable in the light of recent discoveries and investigations which make it probable that the repertory, as we know it today, was actually formed after Gregory. However, this does not necessarily mean that the "Gregorian legend" is entirely without foundation. It is possible that Gregory at least gave a decisive impetus and clear directions for a work that came to its fulfillment some time after him. Thus, even from the point of view of our present knowledge, the term "Gregorian chant" could be defended, and may well be retained, provided its ramifications are understood.  (Apel, 3-4)

You should also be aware that you will hear this music called by other terms, such as Roman chant, plain-chant or plain song.







The history of Gregorian chant is as fascinating as the music itself. It can be outlined into six basic eras:

Pre-Christian roots

Early Christian development (3rd to 7th centuries)
Carolingian influences (8th to 11th centuries)
Deterioration (11th to the 16th centuries)
Restoration (19th century to the present).


We’ll start our exploration with an overview, provided courtesy of the monks of Solesmes.  They started the present period of  restoration efforts, so they should know the history as well as anyone.


History of Chant Overview



There is a wonderful audio version of this material that can be purchased through Paraclete Press.


Paraclete Press - History of Chant CD



If that whet your appetite and you are dying to find out more, here are some sources to consider:

Gregorian Chant Texts





Medieval Society and Monasticism

We have seen above that the political system under Pepin, and later Charlegmagne was instrumental in the importation of chant from Rome to Gaul, the reworking of the repertory and the promulgation of this reworked music throughout the Frankish empire and eventually back to Rome where it was "canonized."  However, we must now ask the question, "Who actually did all this work?".  It was done primarily by monks, members of cloistered religious communities who vowed themselves to lives of rigorous physical, mental and spiritual discipline.

Medieval monasticism, that is, the monks' way of life, was in a certain sense a fusion of feudalism and religious life.  In the same way that a vassal was submissive to his lord in return for protection, the monk abandoned all of his own possessions and personal desires, submitting them all to the will of the abbot, or head (literally "father") of the monastery in return for his care, both physical and spiritual.  It was through this total submission of self to his earthly "father" that the monk practiced submission of himself to his heavenly father, by means of which he hoped to attain salvation.

"Monasticism played a vital role in the creation, preservation, and transmission of culture in the Middle Ages. Often the only literate members of society were the monks. It was they who made and transmitted written copies of the Bible and other ancient works from generation to generation. They organized some of the first libraries. Often they conducted scientific and other research to benefit the surrounding communities. They were expert farmers who were able to pass on the benefits of their expertise to peasants on the large manors." (Compton's, s.v. "Monks and Monasticism)  Thus, it was monasticism, and in particular the Benedictine monks, that allowed, promoted the development of, and preserved the repertoire we know today as Gregorian chant.

You might enjoy this short pictorial presentation on the origins of monasticism and the Benedictine order.

Pictorial History of Monasticism

Also, take a look at the topic Divine Office, below for a description of the daily life of a monk.






General Characteristics

There are four general characteristics that apply to all Gregorian chant:

Modal                     It uses a unique scale structure. (See Music Fundamentals for an explanation of scales.)
Vocal                    It is sung music.
Monophonic         It consists of a single melodic line.  There is no harmony.
Unaccompanied   There is no accompaniment.
Liturgical             It was composed for use in the religious ceremonies of the Roman Catholic Church.

Let's take these terms in order.  The explanation of modality is a little complex.  However, it should at least be obvious that this music has a very different "feel" to it than other western music.  Some might describe this quality somewhat technically, saying "it feels minor." Others often say that it has an "eerie" or "other worldly" quality about it.  It is the modal scale structure of the music that creates that quality.  


The terms vocal, monophonic and unaccompanied should need no further explanation.  (Singing music in an unaccompanied manner is often called a cappella singing.)  See if you can recognize the first four aspects of this music in the following example:  (We will hear this example again, with the music to watch.  Right now just listen for the basic characteristics mentioned above.)


  Omnes de saba from 

Solesmes: Epiphanie & Presenatation

The term liturgical refers to the normal context in which this music is sung.  This is described in more detail under the headings Context, Divine Office and Mass, all below. 



Specific Characteristics

Different chants have different specific musical characteristics depending on there liturgical context.  For an explanation of these characteristics go to the heading Mass, below, follow the instructions regarding the adjusting of your screen, open the Table of Medieval Mass Parts, and look at Column 4 and its explanation.






Gregorian chant has a unique system of notation.  It is a "square-note" system that looks like this:

  Gregorian Missal

 Christmas - Mass of the Day

This notation is called Vatican notation, and actually it is rather modern, by chant standards, having been developed in the late thirteenth century.  (To learn how to read this notation see the heading Gregorian Chant - Vatican Notation under Music Fundamentals.) 

As you might imagine from reading the History of chant itself, (above) the history of chant notation forms a rather complex geneological map.  Here I would like to show you a few photos from the "family tree."  

There were several families of notation that evolved independently at about the same time.  The earliest examples we have date from the 10th century.  This earliest notation had no lines: it was written in campo aperto, that is, "in an open field,"  Here is an example of what we call St. Gall notation.  It is from a manuscript written between 950-975.

Bamberg, Staatsbibliothek, lit. 6

1o 6vo - 3rd Mass of Christmas

(This is the same chant as the first example, in the Vatican notation.)


Another style of notation, from Loan, gives both a completely different look to the neums (notational signs) and also a hint of pitch designation by means of placing some of the higher notes higher and lower notes lower on the manuscript.


Loan, Bibliothèque Municipale 239

1o 5vo - Ember Wednesday, Advent


These types of notation are only useful to someone who already knows the music.  They lack the specificity of pitch that would be required for a stranger to the music to be able to read them.  Their intended purpose was to serve simply as reminders to the chant master of the nature of the melodies of a repertoire that was already completely memorized.  These manuscripts were completely unreadable to the nineteenth century monks of Solesmes when they first began their attempts to rediscover the early melodies. (See History, above.)   

One unique manuscript from Montpelier in the 11th century, uses alphabet letter to designate the pitches.  This particular manuscript was of exceptional value to the Solesmes monks trying to decipher the neums of earlier manuscripts.  

Monpelier, Faculté de Médecine, H. 159

 fo 35 

Eventually we see notational systems that are more and more careful about showing the relative distance between pitches.  This kind of notation, that is, one that shows relative pitch levels even though a full staff is not present, is called diestimatic.  At first, just a scratch in the manuscript was used to create a centering pitch (F).  Later this note was shown by a single red line on the manuscript.  Eventually more lines were added, eventually creating a four-line staff.  Take a look at these examples:

Monte Cassino, 542

 p. 154 - Third Sunday of Lent, Lauds

Second half of the 12th century




  B.N.F., Nouvelles Acquisitions Latines 1411

Before 1174



This process eventually evolved to the square-note notation that we call Vatican Notation.  







General Comments

The context in which chant was developed and sung is critical to understanding this music.  The chant varied according to the time of year, the time of day, and the type of liturgy.  Let's look briefly at each of these influencing factors.



The Liturgical Year

The table below summarizes the medieval calendar of the Roman Church.  The background colors for the different cells indicate the color of liturgical vestments typically warn during that season.


Begins with the fourth Sunday before Christmas and continues to Christmas.


Begins with Christmas and continues through Epiphany, January 6 (the 12th day of Christmas).

Time before Easter, including Lent

Begins with Septuagesima Sunday, the 9th Sunday before Easter and continues with Sexuagesima, Quinquagesima, and Quadragesima Sundays.

The Wednesday before Quadragesima Sunday, Ash Wednesday begins Lent.

Easter (Paschal Time)

Begins with the Easter Vigil and continues through the week of Pentecost. (Pentecost occurs 50 days after Easter.)

Sundays After Pentecost

Begins with the first Sunday after Pentecost and continues to the day before Advent.



The Divine Office (The Liturgical Day)

Jesus told us to "pray always." (I Thessalonians 5:17).  St. Benedict took this advice to heart when he wrote his Rule. While he admonished his monks to make everything they did a prayer, he also gave the phrase to "pray always" somewhat of a literal meaning in the way he organized the daily routine for his monks.  Nine times each day, the monks would stop whatever they were doing and come together for prayer.  One of these times was for Mass, and the other eight were for various hours of The Divine Office.  Wille Apel's article from Gregorian Chant explains the Office well:

The Liturgical Day


On any of the days of the liturgical calendar the service of divine worship is organized according to a definite and nearly invariable plan, which we shall now consider. It will be best to describe this service first in its fullest form, as held on high feasts in great churches or monasteries, out- lining later the reductions that take place on other occasions and in other places.


Eight times during the day a service for the offering of prayer and worship is held. This is called the Divine Office (Officium divinum), Canonic Hours (horae canonicae) from canon) i.e., rule, law), or Office Hours. These are:

        1. Matins (matutinum): before sunrise

        2. Lauds (laudes): at sunrise

        3, Prime (ad primam horam)

        4. Terce (ad tertiam horam)

        5. Sext (ad sextam horam)

        6. None (ad nonam horam)

        7. Vespers (ad vesperam): at sunset

        8. Compline (completorium): before retiring


Prime, Terce, Sext, and None take their names from the old Roman calendar, in which the hours of the day were numbered from six in the morning (prima hora) to six in the afternoon (duodecima hora), so that mid-day was sexta hora. Naturally, the time when these Offices are held varies somewhat with the seasons of the year.


The hours from Prime to None are called Little or Lesser Hours, be- cause 0f the greater simplicity 0f their services. Also the term Day Hours (horae diurnae) is used, properly, to denote all the Hours other than Matins, that is, from Lauds to Compline.


The Office Hours were not instituted together at a given date, but developed gradually during the first six centuries 0f the Christian era. The earliest was the Night Office, called Vigils (vigiliae, wakening), which had its origin in the custom of keeping watch the night before Easter, in expectation of the reappearance of Christ. Later this custom was observed weekly, before each Sunday, though no longer as a continuous gathering during the entire night. In the fourth century we find it divided into three separate Prayer Hours: one at sunset, when the lamps were lighted, and therefore called lucernarium (lux, light); one after midnight; and one at sunrise, called laudes matutinae (morning praise). Eventually these received the names Vespers, Matins (subdivided into three Nocturns), and Lauds. Terce, Sext, and None originally had the character of private Prayer Hours, held in the family or in small groups. The Rule of St. Benedict, dating from c. 530, is the earliest document containing the complete course of all the eight Office Hours.


In addition to the Office Hours, the daily ritual includes the Mass, which is of an entirely different character. The Office Hours are mainly occasions for prayer, similar to and, no doubt, partly derived from the prayer hours of the Jews. The Mass, on the other hand, is a service of distinctly Christian character, although it also incorporates elements of an ancient Jewish ritual.1.  It is essentially the commemoration of the Sacrifice of Christ on the Cross, taking on the form of a mystic repetition of the Last Supper. Like the Last Supper, the Mass took place originally in the evening, was later shifted to the morning hours, and is now generally celebrated in the forenoon, between Terce and Sext. Originally called Eucharistia (Eucha-rist; Greek for "good grace"), it was later called Missa, a term derived from the words of the closing benediction, "Ite, missa est" (Depart, this is the. dismissal), and used as early as 400 (St. Ambrose). (Apel, 13-14)

1. See Apel, pp. 23f.

Since the Vatican Council II, the Divine Office has undergone some revisions, both in the items that are included in each of the Hours and in the organization of the Hours themselves.  However, in the more strict monasteries the Office seems little changed to the casual observer.  On the web site for the Benedictine Abbey at Solesmes, France there is an article describing the daily routine of a monk at the abbey.  The following chart from that article shows how the Divine Office and Mass form the center of a monk's life, with other activities, such as work, private prayer, study, eating and sleeping, flow to and from the Office and Mass:



(Actually, it appears that the current version of the Solesmes web site has deleted this picture in favor of a table.)

Translation of La Journée du Moine:   

The Day of a Monk

5:00 Rise
5:30 Vigils (Matins
Afterwards Silent Prayer and Breakfast
7:15 Lauds, followed by Bible Study
9:45 Terce and Concelebrated Mass
11:00 Work
13:00 Sext, Lunch (the main meal), and None
Afterwards (about 14:15) Work
17:00 Vespers
17:30 Supper
20:30 Compline
Afterwards What the monks call "The Grand Silence" until rising again the next morning

Missing from this routine is the Office of Prime, which was suppressed in the revisions made after the Vatican Council II.  Nonetheless, it should give you a good idea of both monastic discipline and the ordering of the Divine Office. 



The Mass

There are two terms typically applied to the medieval Mass, high Mass, and low Mass.  Essentially, a high Mass is sung, and a low Mass is not.  Our concern here is with the high Mass.  The attached table outlines the structure of the high Mass.  Click the button to open it, and then adjust the screens so that you can see the table along with the explanation below.

Structure of the Mass (Tridentine form)

Table Explanation

Column 1: Item.

Notice that there are items in italics and bold.  These are the items sung by the choir or soloists.  (You can confirm this in the third column.)  Thus, they are the items subject to a higher level of musical sophistication.  The other parts of the Mass are either spoken are recited, that is, sung, using simple formulas.


Column 2: Proper/Ordinary

The items in italics and bold in column 1 are divided into two types.  They are either Ordinary Chants or Proper Chants.  Ordinary chants have the same text at every Mass.  The Proper chants change with every Mass.  They are "proper" to the Mass of that particular day. 


It may be useful for you to make your own list of Mass parts, isolating those in italics and bold and further dividing them into Ordinary and Proper parts.  You can also look at the following link, which organizes the Mass parts in this fashion:


Ordinary and Proper Parts of the Mass



Column 3: Performed by

Those parts of the Mass that are more developed musically are sung by the choir or soloists. The priest's and deacon's parts are all sung using simple formulas.  Thus, even though the priest's and deacon's texts change every Mass, they do not require highly developed musical skills because the melodies are the same from one Mass to the next, and they usually consist of only two or three notes, to which the various texts are adapted.


Column 4: Musical Characteristics

There are four types of characteristics listed here, spoken or recited, syllabic, neumatic, and melismatic.  The spoken or recited chants are sung on simple formulas.  The syllabic chants are those with generally one note per syllable.  For example:

syllabic chant


Neumatic chants have generally two or chants note per syllable, and melismatic chants have many notes per syllable.  (You will also see the terms florid and semi-florid used for melismatic and neumatic chants.)  Here are examples of each:

neumatic or semi-florid chant



melismatic or florid chant

(first four notes are syllabic)


Chants are rarely composed in only one style completely.  Typically they are a mixture of styles, with perhaps one being dominant.    Take a look at the entire chant from which the above examples are taken.  Click the speaker button to hear it.

  Omnes de Sabba  from Epiphanie & Présentation: Chant Grégorien

 Gregorian Missal

  Gradual for Epiphany

The individual examples were taken from the second and fourth lines of the chant.  If you examine the entire piece you should see that all three types of chant appear throughout the piece.  However, the piece is dominated by the long florid phrases.  Thus, this piece would typically be characterized as a melismatic or florid chant.


If you compare columns 4 and 3, you can see that the melismatic chants are often sung by soloists.  They are the most difficult chants, and it is logical that they would assigned to soloists.  Looking again at the above example, the soloist's part begins after the V., that is, the verse.  It begins with the word Surge and continues to the end.  (In the Mass, the choir sings the beginning of the chant, that is, the respond or refrain.  Then after the soloists finishes the verse, the choir repeats the respond.



Column 5

These are terms for the books in which the various chants of the Mass are found.  The following is a summary of this column:

Kyriale             -     Book of the Ordinary Chants of the Mass

Graduale          -     Book of the Proper musical chants of the Mass (The Graduale also 

                                               includes the Gradual and the Alleluia, even though the chart  

                                               lists them as being in the Cantatory.  See the term Cantatory 

                                               below to clarify this term.)


Sacramentary    -    Book with the priest's parts of the Mass
Lectionary         -    Book with the Scripture readings for Mass

Sanctorale        -     Book with the Offertory and Secret Prayers of the Mass.  (This book 

                                              is a part of the Sacramentary.)

Cantatory        -      That portion of the Graduale containing the chants with the cantor's

                                              (soloist's) music in them.




Different kinds of chants are sung at different times.  We have already seen in the Table of Medieval Mass Parts that different parts of the Mass tend to have different styles of chant.  This same principle can be seen throughout the repertory.  Each part of each Hour of the Divine Office has a characteristic style of chant designed to  accommodate that part of the liturgy.  In addition, the repertory evolved to provide different music for all the liturgies throughout the year, each fashioned to express musically the sentiment of the specific texts for each feast/Sunday.





Performance Issues -- Note -- The recordings below are not yet available on the recordings site.

The restoration of the chant tradition has brought with it many questions about performance, that is, about how chant should be sung.  The search for answers to these questions has led to the development of several theories about chant performance.  I would like to share three of these with you.

Theories of Chant Performance

Equalist  There are some who simply treat every note equally, concentrating solely on vocal production and diction (pronunciation).

  Salve Regina from Sublime Chant

Solesmes Method  The "Solesmes Method" is a theory develop by Dom André Mocquereau, OSB (1849-1930).  Dom Mocquereau was the the director of the paléographic scriptorum and chant master at the Abbey of St. Peter of Solesmes from approxmately 1879 until his death in 1930.  He had a profound knowledge of the repertoire and some understanding of the neums (early notational signs) of the earliest manuscripts.  His theory espoused the singing of chant with a "free musical rhythm," dividing the chant into groups of 1, 2, and 3 notes and paying special attention to the arsis (rise) and thesis (fall) of the musical lines.  The monks of Solesmes are purported to have perfected this system.  However, it is interesting to note that at least of of the later chant masters of Solesmes, Dom Jean Claire, OSB, claims that the monks of Solesmes have never sung chant with this particular concept in mind.  You can judge for yourself in this example of the monks of Solesmes singing.

  Alleluia pascha nostrum from Pâques: La Messe, Quelques pièces de l'Office

Semiological Approach  The study of semiology, that is the study of the early signs used for musical notation, is one of the hottest topics in chant research today.  While there is a general consensus about what most of the early signs mean, there is by no means the same consensus with regard to how to turn these conceptual ideas into live music.  What is debated the most is just how to interpret the rhythmic signs in the early manuscripts.  Here are a couple of different interpretations of the same chant by groups using a semiological approach.

  Suscépmus from Introitus

  Vidérunt omnes from Hartkeriana: Psallite Sapienter

Although varied opinions about chant performance can give rise to some heated discussions, -- of course, you have to be in just the right social circle to actually experience this -- there is least general agreement that this is an exciting time in the restoration process.  Not only are we experiencing a revitalized interest in "historically informed" performances, but we are also see a renewed interest in restoring chant to more widespread liturgical use.  Amen!  Alleluia!





Sources and Resources

Sources for This Page

d'Abelardo, Eugeen Liven, director.  Hartkeriana: Psallite sapienter. 

        (Hilversum, The Netherlands: Organisatie-adviesburo Lassche, 1996) 

        CD recording, CD #Har 1996-5)

Apel, Willi. Gregorian Chant. (Bloomington:  Indiana University Press, 1958)

"Chants for the Mass."

Gajard, Dom Joseph, OSB, chant master. Pâques: Le Messe, Quelques pièces de l'Office, 

        Reissued edition.  Performed by the monks of Solesmes.  

        (Accord, 1988).  CD recording, CD #221602

Compton's 99 Encyclopedia Deluxe, 1998 ed., s.v. "Monks and Monasticism."

Gagné, Dom Richard, OSB, chant master. Solesmes: Epiphanie & Présentation.

        Performed by the monks of Solesmes. (Solesmes:  Abbaye Saint-Pierre, 1998),  

        CD recording, CD #S 840.

Gregorian Missal for Sundays. (Solesmes: Abbaye Saint-Pierre, 1990)

        ISBN 2-85274-133-4

Hourlier, Dom Jacques, OSB. (Solesmes: Abbaye Saint-Pierre, 1996) 

        ISBN 2-85274-136-9.

Learning About Gregorian Chant.  (Solesmes: Abbaye Saint-Pierre, 1995), 

        CD recording, CD #S 843.

ORB Online Encyclopedia, s.v. "Music - Table of Items for the Medieval High Mass," 

        by Cynthia J. Cyrus. (article dated October 15, 1999) 

Proulx, Richard, director.  Sublime Chant. Performed by the Cathedral Singers. (Chicago: 

        GIA Publications, Inc., 1995), CD recording #CD-338.

Saulnier, Dom Daniel, OSB. "The Story of Gregorian Chant."



Resources for Further Exploration

The web site for the international festival for chant and sprituality at Watou:

The web site for the Gregorian Association:

                This site has several other chant links.

Richard Lee's Chant Links Page:

                An excellent source for annotated chant links.