Medieval Church Music: Gregorian Chant & Plainchant

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  • 0:05 Church Domination of…
  • 0:46 Plainchant
  • 1:07 Gregorian Chant
  • 2:31 Organum and Interval…
  • 3:47 Development of Organum
  • 4:17 Melisma
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Liz Diamond-Manlusoc

Liz has taught music for K-12 and beyond. She holds a master's degree in Education Media and Design Technology.

Why is Gregorian Chant called 'Gregorian Chant?' Learn the answer, and discover the specific elements of Gregorian Chant, including its harmonic structures, variations and how it changed throughout the Medieval Period.

Church Domination of the Medieval Period

Now this is a story all about how
The music of the church was to be allowed.
The domination of the Catholic Church grew year after year,
Claiming absolute power and taking land by fear.

The Church and the Arts

In Medieval times, 500-1450,
The church aligned the arts to serve the liturgy.
Powerful and rich, they made most decisions,
Dictating the work and paying musicians.

Plainchant

The church made a list of guidelines to follow.
This music, called plainchant, sounded hollow.
The unaccompanied church music (sung in unison)
Varied just slightly within each region.
Still, sacred music was most prevalent,
And it's rumored that the music rules were heaven-sent.

Gregorian Chant

The standardizing elements supposedly
Came from a dove who whispered to Pope Gregory.
This sounds crazy, but it's the only documentation,
So, the possible myth has survived for generations.
Where it really comes from, we'll never know.
So, the legend lives on as status quo,
That he's the one that regulated the cans and can'ts,
And that is why we call it Gregorian Chant.

The type of plainchant is sung as one voice.
No other accompaniment was a choice.
No harmony or instruments, they all sang the same.
This monophonic texture was incredibly tame.
It was drawn from other ancient religions,
And maybe just copied inflections a smidgen.
Each syllable was sung on a single note.
This made long free-flowing rhythms for just a small quote.

Organum and Interval Definitions

As time went on, the music seemed dull.
One melody is empty but they wanted it full.
In the year 900, their dreams came true.
Instead of just one note, they could have two.

Organum consisted of two melodic lines
Sung in parallel intervals - specifically defined
The distance between two pitches on the staff.
You just look at the notes as if you're reading a graph.
You can find the interval by counting lines and spaces,
Including both notes and the empty places.

Only certain intervals were church-approved,
'Cause legend said the others made the devil feel moved.
On three intervals, the clergy conferred:
The fourth, fifth and octave were worthy of the word.

The fourth spans the range of four consecutive pitches -
Count up 1, 2, 3, 4 - it never switches.
It doesn't matter if you start with a space or a line,
Just count to four, and you'll be just fine.

The fifth is another one that's commonly found
From the bottom, stacked to five, and this is how it sounds.
The fifth is easy to see because it matches in places,
Both of the pitches rest on lines or spaces.

Lastly, the octave is the largest span seen.
With the range of eight pitches in between.
Perfect for choirs of men and boys,
An octave produces this glorious noise.

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