How to Learn Gregorian Chant

Mater Dolorosa Berlin-Lankwitz

Gregorian chant basics

By Markus Bautsch

Gregorian chant makes high demands on those who perform it, as many aspects have to be taken into account during interpretation. Based on an understanding of the liturgy of the Roman Rite, the Latin language and the Gregorian neumes, knowledge of music theory and theological knowledge is very useful. In order to be able to reproduce the unison and unaccompanied Gregorian chant in a qualified manner, the articulation of the Latin language and the intonation of the singing are also essential.

In the following, the mentioned aspects will be considered a little more closely. Further research is easily possible using the references and the technical terms mentioned.


Word and rite are closely related in the liturgy. There is no liturgy without the Word, and there is no liturgy without a rite. Liturgy can only be lively shaped and preserved from an understanding of the traditional word and the traditional rite.


In principio erat Verbum, et Verbum erat apud Deum, et Deus erat Verbum.
Hoc erat in principio apud Deum.
Omnia per ipsum facta sunt, et sine ipso factum est nihil, quod factum est;
(after the Nova Vulgate)

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
In the beginning it was with God.
Everything came into being through the word, and without the word nothing came into being.
(according to the standard translation)

Right at the beginning of his gospel, the evangelist John tells the reader how essential the word of God is in faith. Gregorian chant is also based essentially on the word of God. The texts of the Gregorian chant are largely taken from the Bible; mostly from the Old Testament and especially from the Psalms, but occasionally also from the New Testament. There are also many hymns and sequences whose texts were only composed in the Middle Ages.

For word-melody relationships in Gregorian chant see here: About word-melody relationships in Gregorian chant

For the use of texts from the Gregorian repertoire in German-language hymns, see here: About counterfactures of the Gregorian repertoire


Gregorian chant is the original and universal chant of the Roman Catholic Church. It is sung consistently worldwide in the Latin language of the Roman Catholic Church. The oldest pieces of the Gregorian repertoire have a tradition of well over a thousand years within the Roman rite. The original melodies have been largely restored thanks to the restitution of Gregorian chant, which has now been going on for over a century, and thanks to Gregorian semiology, despite the major simplifications in the Gregorian repertoire initiated by the great liturgical reform of the Council of Trent. The universal meaning of Gregorian chant was also confirmed by the Second Vatican Council.

There are amazing parallels between the Byzantine and Roman notation of liturgical chants, so it can be assumed that both traditions go back to the same early Christian roots.

The special solemnity of church services with Gregorian chant is emphasized by the fact that the choral scholists wear liturgical clothing. Theological laypeople often wear a white choir shirt over a floor-length black gown, religious people usually sing in their religious costume.

There are chorale books with the appropriate pieces for the respective liturgy for mass celebrations on weekdays, Sundays or festive days as well as the divine services for the hourly prayer. The recurring pieces of the ordinarium can be found there as well as the pieces of the proprium that are specific to the respective day of the church year.

Music theory

Gregorian chant is based on a medieval tone system, and the melodies have only been recorded in a tonal script, the neumes, for a good thousand years. In the early Middle Ages, most clergymen knew the Latin texts of all psalms by heart, and the melodies were given to the chorale singers by the cantor simply by waving (wink in Greek νεῦμα (neuma)) indicated by hand, who also had to master the melodies by heart. Since around the 9th century, more and more cantors have been able to fall back on the written down adiastematic neumes, which were used to support the memory of the melodies and as a template for hand movements to guide the fellow singers. These neumes reflect the rhythm, but not the exact pitch of the melodies. Later, the diastamatic neumes were increasingly introduced, with which the relative pitch of the individual tones could also be read off. Finally, in the 11th century, the square notation was developed from this, which is based on a staff system with clefs.


The modes of Gregorian chant are based on a diatonic heptatonic scale with the tone designations A, B durum (= H), C, D, E, F and G. The two semitone steps lie between the B durum and the C as well as between the E and the F Only the B major can be shifted a semitone down to the B minor, so that the semitone step then lies between the notes A and B minor, which is mainly used for falling melodies.

A Gregorian melody ends in each mode on the respective keynote, the so-called finalis. The most frequently reached, sung or repeated tone is typical for each mode - this tone is known as the repercussa, tenor or recitation tone. This tone is used very often in psalmody in particular.

Gregorian chant is modally based on the four church modes (or church-tone sexes) Protus, Deuterus, Tritus and Tetrardus, each of which has an authentic and a plagal expression. The melodies in the original modes (with the suffix “authenticus”), in contrast to the melodies in the derived modes (with the suffix “plagalis”), never or only rarely and slightly below the pitch of the respective finalis. In total, there are the following eight modes:

    • Protus authenticus (I. tone)
    • Protus plagalis (2nd tone)
    • Deuterus authenticus (3rd tone)
    • Deuterus plagalis (VIth tone)
    • Tritus authenticus (5th tone)
    • Tritus plagalis (VIth tone)
    • Tetrardus authenticus (VIIth tone)
    • Tetrardus plagalis (VIIIth tone)

For the ethos of the church tones see here: About the ethos of the church tones

For the origin of the diatonic tone scale in Greek antiquity, see here: About the Pythagorean roots of the Gregorian modes


In the adiastematic neumes (without staves) the relative pitch steps are not visible, but only in the diastematic neumes (with staves), as in the square notation. A transposition to other basic tones is unnecessary, since in Gregorian chant no absolute pitches and therefore no vocal tones are fixed; the C or F clef of the square notation can be placed on any of the four staff lines, so that no auxiliary line or only a small number of auxiliary lines is required. However, it is not common to use the bottom line; Instead of the F clef on one of the two lower staves, the C clef is generally used on the corresponding of the two upper staves.

Simple neumes, the so-called single tonums (for example the virga or the punctum) consist of a single note. Group neumes are given their own names and are made up of two (for example, Pes or Clivis) or three (for example, Porrectus, Torculus, Scandicus or Climacus) single tonumens in the case of the double tonumen. Group neumes can in turn be combined to form even more extensive multi-group neumes. In addition, there are additional designations, ornament neumes, expansion symbols (Episeme or Morae) and additional symbols (the Litterae significativae), which are important for the interpretation.

Small cue notes, so-called liquescences, use square notation to clarify tones of two consecutive syllables that are connected by consonants. Such pairs of consonants are not uncommon for German native speakers, so they usually do not cause problems during pronunciation and can be ignored under these conditions.

in the Gradual triplex In addition to the square notation, two authentic adiastamatic manuscripts are given to convey the exact rhythm to the interpreter. At the end of the 20th century, the square notation was further developed into what is known as neography, which not only indicates the relative pitch, but also provides significantly more rhythmic indications. The requirement of the additional study of the adiastematic neumes should be eliminated or at least weakened through the use of neography.


Language is not created solely through articulation or syllable rhythm, but both aspects are closely intertwined and have to be implemented simultaneously when speaking and singing.


In linguistics, articulation means the distinction between different phonemes, i.e. essentially the pronunciation and vocalization of the various vowels as well as the voiceless and voiced consonants. The stringing together of phonemes creates syllable sounds in a language, which in turn are put together to form words and sentences.

For German-speaking native speakers, some deviations in the pronunciation of church Latin should be noted:

  • The "C" before "ae," e "," i "," oe "and" y "is like the" Z "and otherwise - ie before" a "," o "and" u "- like the" K " “Pronounced in the German language.
  • The “J” is represented in Latin by an “I”, but this is usually followed by another vowel. This diphthong is pronounced as the beginning of a word or syllable or as a complete syllable such as at the end of the "Alleluia" not with two separate vowels or with a syllable separation, so that the pronunciation as a J sound results relatively easily.
  • The "S" is voiced if it is followed by a vowel, otherwise - especially as a double "s" - voiceless.
  • The “T” is pronounced in front of the “i” and if another vowel follows immediately afterwards like the “Z” in the German language.
  • The "V" is rather soft, like the German "W" pronounced.

In the Latin language, the hiat is sometimes avoided in conjugated or declined words, so that a word syllable does not begin with a vowel if the preceding word syllable ends with a vowel. In the many cases where this occurs, however, both vowels are pronounced separately, for example in “de-us”, “fi-li-us”, “fi-li-o”, “tu-o” or “tu” -i ".


The musical articulation, i.e. the connection of successive melody tones, is determined by the neumes, which not only indicate the pitch but also the rhythm. The neumes often have a direct relation to the words set to music and thus support the linguistic articulation of the words and the linguistic rhythm. In no way is the rhythm of Gregorian chant uniform, as in equality, which had spread since the Renaissance. The rhythm is also not based on a rational arithmetic with whole numbers, as it was practiced in Gregorian chant in mesuralism and which is used in modern notation, for example, with its whole and half notes or quarter and three-eighth notes.

Rather, the rhythm of the Gregorian chant essentially corresponds to the rhythm of speech and is often syllabically assigned to the neumes. In addition, there are tone repetitions on a syllable that are repercussed - that is, repeatedly increasing and decreasing - sung, and sometimes even entire melisms, as in the Jubilee of the Alleluia chants, which, in accordance with the rhythmic indications in the neumes, do not have to be sung uniformly or should. There is a certain scope for interpretation for a tempo rubato for the conductor or a vocal soloist.

Audio sample of the offertory Reges Tharsis:

Since the Gregorian chant is performed unanimously, the irregular accents do not result in the fundamental problems that would arise with polyphonic compositions or with marching or dance rhythms. With the development of polyphony, which was initially performed homophonically in all voices in the Middle Ages, it was necessary to finally and inevitably move away from the free linguistic rhythm of the song so that more complicated forms such as canons or fugues could even be carried out in practice. With purely instrumental music, the instrumentalists do not have to take the rhythm of the language into account anyway.

Unlike Spanish or French, German is one of the accent-counting languages ​​in which the time intervals between successive syllables are not necessarily the same. This is also important when interpreting Gregorian chant, since the various and especially the episemized neumes require an anisochronous syllable rhythm and evoke them accordingly when singing.

The word accent in the Latin language is always determined by the ending. It is usually on the penultimate syllable. In the case of a short penultimate syllable, the accent slips onto the third last syllable, which in liturgical texts is usually indicated by a corresponding accent mark. Example: hómo, hómines.


The human singing voice lets words from the Gregorian repertoire sound in melodies and rhythms. The uniformity of the tones contributes significantly to the quality of the presentation. Accurate intonation and timbres rich in overtones are very useful.


On the one hand, the notes of the Gregorian melodies result from the system of modes; on the other hand, the relative pitches and thus also the intervals in Gregorian chant are determined by the ancient Pythagorean mood. Since Gregorian chant is unanimous, all voices sound at the same pitch or in octave parallels; in the organum also in pure fourths or fifths. Singing in unison places high demands on the uniform intonation of everyone involved.

For octaves there are no deviations from other temperaments, and for fourth intervals (AD, B durum-E, CF, DG, EA, FB molle, Gc) and fifth intervals (AE, B molle-F, CG, DA, EB durum, FC and GD) the deviations between Pythagorean, equal and medium-tone tuning are relatively small. In the Pythagorean tuning system, however, all fourths and fifths that occur are completely pure, whereas these intervals are only almost pure in most other temperaments.

Since two different tones are never sung at the same time with one-part melodies, there is no requirement, for example, to also sing major thirds consonant, as is the case with polyphonic choral music. This is only possible with the mean-tone tuning developed in the Renaissance. In the Pythagorean tuning, however, all major thirds (C-E, F-A and G-B durum) are slightly larger than in the modern equal-scale tuning that is predominant in keyboard instruments today, and much larger than in the mean-tone tuning.

From this it follows at the same time that in the Pythagorean tuning all minor thirds (D-F, E-G, G-B molle, A-c, B durum-D) are slightly smaller than in the equal-scale tuning and significantly smaller than in the mean-tone tuning.

Looking at it differently, it can be stated that all small seconds (E-F, A-B molle and B durum-c) are very small. With rising melodies the leading tone can therefore be perceived as quite high today and with falling melodies as quite deep.


The sound of the human singing voice is essentially determined by the formation of the vowels in the vocal tract. This consists of the larynx with the glottis, the throat, the oral cavity, the nasal cavities and the lips. The different vowels of the vowel triangle are determined by the position of the lower jaw and tongue, as well as the shape of the lips. Certain frequency ranges, the lower formants with the frequency fu between 300 and 1000 Hertz and the upper formants with the frequency fO between 800 and 3200 Hertz, amplified or weakened accordingly. The strongest high-frequency components have the bright I and the least the dark U. With the A, the lower frequencies are already in a bright, slightly higher-frequency range. Along the lines in the vowel triangle, the vowel colors can be designed practically continuously. The Y lies between the Ü and the I and appears in Gregorian chant with loan words from Greek, such as "Kyrie".

The characteristic of a singer's voice is given by the individual shape and size of the unchangeable parts of the vocal tract, but can be favorably influenced by the deformation of the changeable parts, such as the soft palate or the lips, or the position of the tongue or the lower jaw.

A fatigue-free and melodious singing voice can be achieved by training the respiratory muscles and the voice attachment. This not only requires mastery of the physical basis for the formation of sounds without exertion or even cramping, but also requires appropriate hearing-physiological and mental prerequisites for perceiving sounds.

The trained singing voice differs from the speaking voice in particular through the use of the so-called singer formant between 2600 and 3400 Hertz, i.e. high in the area of ​​the upper formants. The singer formant gives the voice a special shine and good carrying capacity, even without the objective volume having to be increased. Voices with activated singer formants mix particularly well in choral singing, especially when this is performed unanimously, as in Gregorian chant, and make it easier for the singers to achieve an even intonation.

See also

Last modified: 2021/05/13 22:45 by