Georgia Bulletin

The Newspaper of the Catholic Archdiocese of Atlanta


Western Music Grounded In Gregorian Chant

Published May 19, 2005

The Second Vatican Council recognized Gregorian chant as being especially suited to the Roman liturgy and other things being equal, said it should be given pride of place in the liturgy.

Albert Ahlstrom, Ph.D., director of music at Holy Spirit Church, Atlanta, said that Gregorian chant is actually the foundation not only of all Catholic music but all music known in the Western world.

Chant is a musical setting of liturgical text that in its purest form involves pure melody with no accompaniment and uses a system of different scale patterns with different modes and connotations.

Chant developed as an oral tradition of singing liturgical text, principally the Psalms, in early Christian communities around the world to help the faithful experience the eternal mystery of faith. It is believed to have derived from the temple music of Israel and other sources, a matter subject to debate.

Gregorian chant takes its name from Pope St. Gregory the Great, who organized the oral chants into a repository and had them disseminated throughout the Roman Catholic world in the sixth century.

In the ninth and 10th centuries, monasteries in large part began developing a system of notation for the chants beginning with neumes and then moving to pitch notation with staffs. It was the beginning of composition.

“It was a major breakthrough. It shaped all Western music. We have a scale that uses eight tones—it was because of notation of chant that that happened, and fixed pitch. The thinking became about chords and harmonies because of all the chants in the monastic tradition,” said Ahlstrom. “Gregorian chant over the centuries developed a vocabulary that was specifically designed to convey the deepest meanings of the texts that we use daily in our liturgies.”

“Chant is fascinating study; it is not realized how wide the number of sources for this music is, how some of it was actually composed by leading composers of the Middle Ages, and overall the incredible amount of theoretical and spiritual thinking (that) has gone into the selection of the music that we now call Gregorian chant. It is truly the culmination of the work of many centuries in most of Europe and parts of the Middle East. A knowledge of chant also helps unlock a deeper understanding of most Western classical music since most composers were grounded in this music.”

This music director has also found a meditative effect of chant.

“The deep group breathing and singing of long resonating lines of music creates an effect of physical and spiritual calm that I suspect is somewhat like the process of Buddhists chanting ‘Ohm,’” he said. “For choir directors it is wonderful because choirs are always working on uniformity of vowel production and precision of attacks and cutoffs, and this is the very essence of chant, the individual as a part of a larger group.”