Music Memes: Recording Sacred Sound

28 Jul

Pope Gregory I (540-604) is credited with developing the musical style of Gregorian Chant. In fact it was named for him years after his death. Possibly, the name Gregorian Chant may have been given to this style of chant during the reign of Pope Gregory II (750 to 731).

The Gregorian Chant was used when celebrating mass and other ceremonies. Gregor’s name is associated with the chants partly because during his time as Pope, different chants were categorized and attached to different church ceremonies that had different emotional impact; for instance, one type of chant for a marriage, another for a funeral. Besides being used in religious festivals and mass, Gregorian Chant also had a place in everyday life. Common people would often sing the mass with their families or by themselves before daybreak and before going to bed.

Around the time of Gregory II music began to be notated. This notation is one of the forebears of today’s modern musical notation. The central authority of the Church in Rome wanted the Mass to be sung the same way across their sphere of power in Europe. Since the only way to learn music was by ear, singers would be brought to Rome to learn the officially sanctioned melodies. There was still a great variance as to how the mass was sung from church to church, because they were dependent on the single human voice. 

In response to this, a system of notation was developed to codify and pass on the official Church liturgy in monastic communities where monks would write out and copy texts by hand. The process of producing manuscripts was extremely labour intensive and monks devoted their entire lives to this task, viewing it as a devotional exercise. At first the notation was simple, indicating “whether a melody ascended, descended or repeated a pitch”. This evolved into a system of lines, clefs and staffs that would slowly become the notation system familiar in western music. The production of music notation became a part of the monastic daily routine, and the body of work produced by these communities became a rich legacy of the Middle Ages.

pope gregory