Gregorian Chant - Rock Music

How Gregorian Chant Reminds Us Of a Vital Principle for Setting Lyrics

A number of years ago I wrote a blog article called “Pop Songs: What Checking the Fossil Record Can Do For Us“. In that post, I made a comparison between how Gregorian Chant (the music of the early Christian church of about A.D. 500) bore certain similarities to the way melodies are written today.

You may be familiar with the term Gregorian Chant, but have never familiarized yourself with its distinctive sound. Here’s a version of “Victimae Paschali”, a chant melody that was sung in the Catholic Church at Easter. If you use your imagination, you can picture adding beats and chords to this, changing the vocal style, and you’d wind up with something not that far off from what songwriters are creating today.

There is one aspect of Gregorian Chant that differs greatly from any music written today: it wasn’t notated with specific rhythms. For any of you that read music, you’ll see that the notation being shown in that video amounts to note heads of various shapes, but except for a dotted note at the end of each phrase, no reference to rhythm.


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That’s certainly not to say that vocal rhythm was totally absent. Go back to that recording and listen again; you’ll hear that the performers hold some syllables a little longer, while other syllables are sung a little more quickly. The differences are subtle, but it’s quite clear: there is a free, almost improvisatory sense of rhythm in the performance, even though it’s not notated.

To say that another way: it would hurt the performance if the singers tried to hold each and every note for precisely the same rhythmic value. That would be too robotic a performance.

So, two questions: 1) How did performers of Gregorian Chant make decisions regarding rhythm when they sang; and 2) Why should songwriters today care?

How Gregorian Chant Rhythm Works

In large part, the slight alterations in rhythm that you hear in a good performance of Gregorian Chant come from the natural pulse of the words being sung. There was no need for the musicians of the day to even invent a rhythmic system for this, because the rhythms were going to be whatever happens when you read the text aloud.

Some lines of English prose might imply almost no rhythm at all. Take, for example, this line:

“I was walking down the street”

Say that line to yourself several times. You can hear a quick alteration between strong syllables and weak ones (I was walk-ing down the street), but generally you pick up the steady patter of sounds. Each syllable sounds to be about the same length.

But try a line like this:

“Comes into view like a bird on the wing”

Now we start to see something new: a kind of triplet feel to the words, so that “comes”, “view”, “bird”, and “wing” all take a place of significance, with two “weak” syllables in between. So it starts to infer a time signature (3/4 time). But it does more than that; it feels natural to elongate those selected words, and unnatural to elongate the words on the weak syllables. You’d never set that line to music so that the word “a” is elongated.

We pick up that rhythmic quality even though we haven’t received any instructions regarding rhythm at all. It’s natural. And preserving that sense of time signature and rhythm is vital to good lyric writing when we go to set that line to music.

And that’s something that we learned from Gregorian Chant. To put that principle concisely: When you say your lyric to the rhythms of your melody, it should sound natural and easy. The rhythms we use when we sing words should be practically identical to the way we’d say them. All the natural pulses and stresses should be retained.

Why Should Songwriters Today Care?

Take some well-known classic hits from the pop music world, and try speaking those lyrics rather than singing them. You’ll see that in most cases, the rhythms that the songwriters chose for those words support the rhythms and natural pulses of the words. The words that are held longer sound right when they’re held longer:

  • “Yesterday, all my troubles seemed so far away.” (“Yesterday”, Paul McCartney)
  • “Tin soldiers and Nixon coming, we’re finally on our own” (“Ohio”, Neil Young)
  • “It’s a quarter after one, I’m all alone and I need you now.” (“Need You Now”, Lady Antebellum)
  • “Clap along if you feel like a room without a roof” (“Happy”, Pharrell Williams)
  • “Every breath you take/ And every move you make” (“Every Breath You Take”, The Police)

The good news is that there’s more than one way to say a line of lyric. And choosing to change the words you emphasize can change the meaning in slightly different ways. In “Need You Now”, emphasis is placed on the word “I’m” in the second phrase (LISTEN). Consider the slight difference in what we call subtext if you chose to elongate the word “all” instead. (You hear her anxiety a bit more poignantly with the emphasis on “I’m”). These are the things that songwriters (and producers) constantly think about.

And it all started 2000 years ago. We often forget that some of the most interesting principles of songwriting – the way we set lyrics, the primarily stepwise characteristics of melodies, the fact that most good melodies have a noticeable shape and design – have been with us for centuries.

And most music today still adheres to those principles, and does so practically without us even thinking about it. What’s even more interesting is that when our songs don’t quite work the way we’d hope they do, it’s often one of those basic 2000-plus-years-old principles that have been violated.

In many very real ways, not a lot has changed in the way music is written. Certainly performance style has, but music at its very core is still written with a nod to the same basic principles.


Written by Gary Ewer. Follow Gary on Twitter

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