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It’s fascinating for a songwriter to look back almost two thousand years into the “ancient DNA” of songwriting. You would be hard pressed to listen to Gregorian Chant and hear any similarity to the music being written by today’s songwriters. But the similarities are there; the characteristics of good melodies from the year 600 are surprisingly comparable to what we think of as good melody writing today, no matter what genre you write in.
Gregorian Chant melodies are the songs of the early Christian church, not actually composed by Pope Gregory the Great, but organized and notated under his leadership. The melodies probably existed many years before his time, and so these melodies come from an age before music was notated in a system that we would recognize today.
But how can familiarizing oneself with Gregorian Chant help today’s songwriters? If you find that your song melodies seem to lack shape, or come across as boring or aimless, you’ll find that the important qualities of chant are the kinds of things you should be keeping foremost in your mind as you construct your melodies for pop, rock, country, folk, or almost any other genre of music.
So what qualities of musical construction did Gregorian Chant show?
- Mainly stepwise motion from one note to the next, with occasional leaps. Chant melodies were written to be sung with ease, by “common folk” as well as musical scholars, and so it was important to keep the melodic design simple. Stepwise motion made music easy to sing.
- Weird melodic leaps were avoided. Leaps of 3rds (for example, C to E) were most common, then 5ths. Leaps larger than a 5th were considered rather awkward. Again, ease of singing was the main guideline.
- The rhythm of the text was the rhythm of the music. When you look at Chant notation, you’ll usually see it written in stemless neumes– note heads with no reference to actual rhythm. That’s because the rhythm of the music came directly from the natural pulse of the words. Today, we use notation that specifies rhythm, so we have an exact idea of what the rhythm should be. Nonetheless, that sense of pulsing music according to the text really still applies today. Your words should be sung so that their natural rhythms are allowed to happen.
- Melodies tended to have a contour that featured a high point. We know that most songs today have a climactic moment, and that concept of the climactic high point had its beginning way back in ancient Chant melodies.
There are other qualities of Chant melodies that have disappeared from common musical composition today. For example, music back then was unaccompanied, unharmonized (i.e., no chord progressions used or implied), and did not use a time signature. So there are limits to what we can learn from these old melodies.
But if you find that your melodies are frustrating you. Try this:
- Familiarize yourself with some Gregorian Chant melodies.
- Sing your own melodies in a Gregorian Chant style: quietly, with a rhythm that’s implied purely by the words alone.
When you do that, you may surprise yourself with how similar your own melodies are to Chant melodies. And it may open your eyes to new ways to modify how you write melodies. And it’s also really interesting to see what musicians today have done, inspired by old melodies, to give them an updated sound.
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