Medieval Music: Introduction to Gregorian Chant

By Sonja Maurer-Dass

With its free-flowing melodies, sacred Latin texts, and signature monophonic texture, Gregorian chant is one of the most iconic musical legacies of medieval Europe. Developed and propagated during the Carolingian dynasty, Gregorian chant can seem worlds apart from the much more contemporary epochs of Western music to which many of our ears are well-accustomed; yet it is from this ages-old liturgical tradition that our current understanding of Western music and its accompanying system of musical notation descends.

Essentially, as succinctly stated by medieval music scholar Margot Fassler, “Gregorian chant is the foundation of Western music.” In the following sections, we will explore the origin and dissemination of Gregorian chant, a few of its notable characteristics (specifically, texture and melody), and some of the earliest forms of medieval musical notation that evolved alongside this enduring type of chant.


For many medieval music enthusiasts today, Gregorian chant (which is also known as Frankish-Roman chant) is likely the most familiar liturgical chant tradition; however, in early medieval Europe, there were several different types of sacred chant that varied depending on region. To name a few, Rome, Spain, Milan, Gaul, and Benevento each had their own liturgies and accompanying chants by the end of the seventh century CE (that is, Old Roman chant, Mozarabic chant, Ambrosian chant, Gallican chant, and Beneventan chant respectively). Considering the many different Western liturgical chant traditions that existed, why, then, has Gregorian chant come to be the most widely known and preserved among them? The answer to this question lies within the political efforts and religious ideals of the Carolingians.

Gregorian chant was developed between the eighth and ninth centuries CE, during a time when Frankish kings, notably Charlemagne, sought liturgical uniformity among their territories. When Charlemagne’s father Pepin the Short reigned, he wished to supplant the Frankish Gallican liturgy with that belonging to Rome. Subsequently, in 789 Charlemagne decreed that all of his territories would be unified under one Roman liturgy and chant.

This newly implemented transregional liturgy was further solidified and disseminated during the reigns of Charlemagne’s son Louis the Pious and his grandson Charles the Bald and is thought to have mixed to some extent with the Franks’ preexisting Gallican chants. In essence, Gregorian chant was, as Margot Fassler summarizes it, “the revised chant of the Franks” that developed from an amalgamation of Old Roman chant and the Franks’ Gallican chant. Consequently, as a result of the Carolingians’ desire for liturgical unity, many of the aforementioned chant traditions (such as that belonging to Benevento), were superseded by the Frankish-Roman synthesis.


Thus far, we have briefly explored how the Carolingians played a significant role in the dissemination and development of Gregorian chant, but what of the popular story that credits Gregorian chant to the hand of Pope Saint Gregory I (“Gregory the Great”)?  He is, after all, the sacred songs’ eponym, so how does his story come into play and is there any truth to the tale that he composed Gregorian chant? According to legend, Gregorian chant was the most sacred and authentic form of liturgical chant as it was believed to have been sung to Gregory I by the Holy Spirit who appeared to him in the form of a white dove.

While this account of divine inspiration certainly seems to compliment Gregorian chant’s ethereal sound, scholars, including Margot Fassler, assert that the heavenly origin story of Frankish-Roman chant was born of a Carolingian effort to further substantiate and make irrefutable its authenticity. On the other hand, some musicologists have suggested that Gregory may have possibly contributed to the codification and consolidation of existing chants that eventually formed the basis of later Gregorian chant.

Although the aforementioned legend is not factual, the story of Gregory I and his connection to the creation of Gregorian chant has been immortalized in a number of portraits that often depict the saint with a dove hovering near his ear. The dove is usually depicted as singing its sacred melodies to Gregory while he simultaneously dictates the dove’s melodies to a nearby scribe.

A dove representing the Holy Spirit sitting on Pope Gregory I’s shoulder symbolizes Divine Inspiration.

The Texture and Melody of Gregorian Chant

Generally speaking, the musical texture of Gregorian chant (like many other types of chants from around the world) is monophonic and singers sing in unison (all singers sing the exact same melody together). “Monophonic” is a musical term that means a single melody is performed unaccompanied (that is, there is no harmony played with a melody). In some cases, however, chant may be performed with the accompaniment of a drone—a sustained pitch that is played for the duration that a melody is sung.

You can hear a drone in the first minute of the following chant example which was composed by the twelfth-century abbess, philosopher, mystic, and composer Hildegard of Bingen. In summary, if you were to sing a melody by yourself (or if you and some friends were singing the same melody at the same time), this would be considered monophonic.

As for melody, if you have heard different recordings of Gregorian chant, you might describe its melodies as sounding very fluid in comparison to many contemporary styles of Western art music and popular music. The late musicologist Willi Apel described the melodies of Gregorian chant as compositions unrestricted by the confines of meter (as we currently understand and relate to it) and harmony that were essential components of melodies composed in subsequent musical periods. Gregorian melodies were composed using the notes of an organized pitch system called modes (these were different from the major and minor keys that are currently used in Western music) and were set to sacred Latin texts of the Mass and the Divine Office. These melodies could be syllabic (a note sung on each syllable), neumatic (typically two to four notes sung per syllable), or melismatic (many notes sung on the vowel of a single syllable) and were often conjunct (melodic motion that moves in steps as opposed to skips or larger leaps called “disjunct motion”).


Gregorian Chant and Early Types of Medieval Musical Notation

The need for notated chant was fueled by Charlemagne’s proclamation that liturgy and chant should be standardized across all regions. This required a way to record melodies so that they could be accurately taught and transmitted without the fallibility of human memory.  The earliest forms of Western chant notation emerged in the latter half of the ninth century and did not indicate precise pitch or rhythm as our current Western notation system does. Rather, it employed symbols called “neumes” that acted as a type of prompt for melodies that had already been learned and memorized through an oral tradition. These neumes (which can appear as dots, dashes, or lines that are placed above chant text and vary in appearance from scribe to scribe) are called “adiastematic” and indicate relative ascending and descending melodic motion. Margot Fassler explains that this very early form of notation did not eradicate the need for melody memorization; it worked in conjunction with it. One of the oldest extant sources of this notation is the St. Gall 359 manuscript of the Benedictine Abbey of St. Gall, Switzerland (which was copied in the tenth century).

Stiftsbibliothek Cod. Sang. 359 p.5

The appearance and precision of neumes continued to evolve over the following centuries in different parts of Europe, and early versions of the musical staff began to appear in manuscripts. In eleventh-century Arezzo, notable music theorist Guido d’Arezzo continued to lay the groundwork for notation as we have come to know it by introducing a four-line musical staff separated by intervals of thirds (an interval is the distance between two pitches. Today, the musical staff consists of five horizontal lines separated by thirds on which notes are written). In the prologue of his antiphoner (only the prologue is extant) Guido explained the way in which his staff worked:

The notes are so arranged, then, that each sound, however often it may be repeated in a melody, is found always in its row. And in order that you may better distinguish these rows, lines are drawn close together, and some rows of sounds occur on the lines themselves, others in the intervening intervals or space. – translation by Margot Fassler

Additionally, Guido introduced an important pedagogical tool (called solmization) to further enable sight-singing of written notation on the staff, a method that has since evolved into today’s solfège. If you took singing lessons or sang in a choir, this may be familiar as Do-Re-Mi-Fa-Sol, etc., whereby each syllable corresponds to a written note (the syllables Guido used varied slightly— the first syllable he used was “Ut” instead of “Do”).


Square Notation

By the time the thirteenth century arrived, Gregorian chant was notated with square notation that was written upon a four-lined staff. Square notation provided more melodic details that could be interpreted by singers who may not have been familiar with the material. This is in contrast to the aforementioned adiastematic neumes that only provided limited notated prompts to aid singers who had already memorized the melodies.

You may have already seen some square notation in medieval chant manuscripts such as: punctum (a single note sung to one syllable); podatus (consists of two notes—one is written on top of the other and the lowest of the two notes is sung first followed by the second note which moves in ascending motion); clivis (contains two notes that are sung in descending motion); and torculus (three notes sung consecutively—the first note is followed by a note slightly above it, which then descends down to the first note again), among others.

At first sight and first listen, the notation and melodies of Gregorian chant may seem very foreign and unfamiliar when compared to our modern experiences of melody and notation; but upon closer examination, it is fascinating and possible to see how the earliest attempts to record and accurately transmit sacred chant evolved over many centuries and eventually matured into the comprehensive system that is widely used and understood in the present day.

Sonja Maurer-Dass is a Canadian musicologist and harpsichordist. She is currently pursuing a PhD in Musicology at Western University (London, ON, Canada) where she is researching eighteenth-century French musical exoticism and its relationship to Enlightenment philosophy. Additionally, she holds a master’s degree in Musicology specializing in late medieval English choral music and the Old Hall Manuscript from York University (Toronto, Canada). In 2019, Sonja presented her paper titled Royal Authorship in the Old Hall Manuscript: A New Approach for Examining Roy Henry’s Identity and Compositions at the 9th International Medieval Meeting held at the University of Lleida in Lleida, Spain. Follow Sonja on Twitter @SonjaMaurerDass

Further Reading:

Apel, Willi. Gregorian Chant (Burns & Oates, 1958)

Fassler, Margot. Music in the Medieval West: Western Music in Context (W.W. Norton and Company, 2014)

Levy, Kenneth. Gregorian Chant and the Carolingians (Princeton University Press, 1998)

Taruskin, Richard. Music from the Earliest Notations to the Sixteenth Century (Oxford University Press, 2010)

Top Image: Adiastematic gregorian aquitanian notation. Wikimedia Commons




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