Is Chant Like Folk Music?

Somehow we have this impression that Gregorian chant is part of a high Church ethos. It’s for conservatives and traditionalists who favor their liturgy buttoned up, obedient, and strict. On the other hand, this line of thinking goes, people who want authentic human expression of spontaneous religious experience should embrace popular music and a looser liturgical ethos.

I’ve always been puzzled by this caricature. And it is more than puzzling. It is poisonous to the liturgical debate because it reduces the whole issue to questions of taste, style, and education. It results in a strange class war that has nothing to do with what the liturgy is in its essentials and is asking from us.

If you look back at the roots of chant, and even just take time to understand what it means from a musical and historical point of view, you quickly find that it has nothing to do with music conservatories, stuffy performance venues, and rule-bound authoritarians. And, moreover, it has nothing to do with social class, taste, and educational level. The issue of the chanted Mass is really about whether the liturgy is going to be permitted to be what it is or whether we are going to replace its authentic voice with something else.

Maybe people forget that Gregorian chant is premodern in its origin. It was not somehow invented in the age of winged collars, top hats, and mutton chops. It arose from the world of the first millennium—before there were universities, conservatories, cathedrals, or individually owned books. Chant arose among people poorer than is even imaginable to us today. The singers were from the lowest class. The composers too were monks drawn from every strata of society. They did not write their music down because no one had figured out how to write music. That only began to happen in a coherent way about the 11th century. The work of the chant composers continued for many centuries and the results have been handed on to us today.

This is why chant is what it is today. And if you look closely, you can discover that first-millennium sense about it. The more you sing it, the more you discover its humane qualities—written and sung by people just like us.

At the same time, it is a window into a world we do not know. The sensibility of chant is spontaneous. It tells stories in the folk vein. It emerged out of a culture of sharing. It wasn’t about musical theory and technique. In those days, people couldn’t write music. Mostly, the people who heard it couldn’t read either. There was no point because books were exceptionally rare and only available to a tiny group. Chant came about within this world to be the most compelling way to express the faith in a worship context.

You know how folk music from the 1960s expresses stories of this lived experience of people, a means to carry on ideas and lessons that provide an authentic expression of truth? In many ways, chant does the same thing.

Readers who were around in the sixties might remember that this was precisely the attractive element behind the “folk Mass” of the period—the paradigm-shattering approach that defined the liturgical experience of a generation and led to the current sad situation in Catholic parish music programs. Chant shares some or many of those qualities that led the “hippies” to imagine that they were breaking with tradition.

Here is Ken Canedo’s recent description of this music and the “free culture” ethos that surrounded it:

The folk song, like the Bible, grew from an oral tradition, pre-dating radio and recording technology. A singer observed a slice of life, turned the observation into a song and, with guitar or banjo, presented it to anyone who would hear, perhaps on a front porch, at the town square, or down in the mine. If people liked it they would sing along and bring the new song home to share with a new audience…. Sometimes the lyrics would change, sometimes the tune was modified, and no thought was ever given to composer credits or copyright protection. A song was a song, something free and sweet for the entire world to sing. And a good song was very sweet indeed.

What strikes me about that description is that if you leave out the banjo part and perhaps the town square venue, you have a pretty good description of the origin of the music behind Gregorian chant. Chant too was passed through an oral tradition, not through one or two generations but through many centuries and over many lands. One of the things that struck researchers of the late 19th century is the remarkable similarity of chants from places as diverse as France and Switzerland and England. There was a certain uniformity to it all.

The oral culture of chant becomes obvious once you look closely. I’m thinking in particular of those chants that use the Parables as the text. Here you have a musically evocative way to tell a story in a culture without books.

Consider the communion chant that sets the final part of the story of the Prodigal Son. This is the happy part of the story, when the father is overwhelmed with joy that his son is back. His son begs forgiveness and the father readily grants it. He is absolutely elated. The text is “It was fit that we should make merry and be glad: for this thy brother was dead and is come to life again; he was lost, and is found.”

Now, if the chant were all about just creating an eery and stern atmosphere of suffering—and a sword-and-sandal epic from Hollywood might have it—this chant could be set in a minor mode and be generally dreary. But no. This is a happy text, one that celebrates the great moment in a father’s life. So of course the monks who put this together in the first millennium chose a happy tune, so happy that you can nearly imagine a dance. It is deeply emotional in that way, almost ecstatic with joy.

Microsoft Word - oportet.doc

Here is a sung version of it, presented by a single singer. The musical structure is dance-like but of course the setting dictates the presentation and here it is sung with emotional containment fitting to the liturgy. It is a joy to sing too, and it strikes the singer every time. You can just sense the joy and elation of a great turn of events.

Another example of a Parable-based communion chant is Simile Est. This is the story of the merchant who trades pearls. I’m particularly intrigued by this chant because each time it speaks of pearls (margaritas) the melody dips down and rises up again. When the most valuable pearl is discovered, the melody goes wild—at the moment of discovery and then again at the mention of the pearl itself. So the merchant goes into debt to purchase it and the melody digs deep. But then he finds salvation as a result, while the melody soars and settles back down again.

If you were going to construct a song to convey this story to people in a folk-style way, this is pretty much what you would come up with.

Microsoft Word - simile.doc

You can listen to this song here.

There are innumerable examples of this type of composition in Gregorian chant. I think of the chant about Lazarus being raised from the dead. The melody reveals the action taking place. So too for the entrance chant that tells the story of St. Thomas and his doubts about the resurrection. The listener can almost hear the physical test taking place. It’s true that there are many formulas in chant too, but what always strikes me is how often the formulas are adapted to accommodate the textual meaning.

Examining them makes you realize that chant is not just liturgical mood music. It is designed to achieve a particular objective that is part of the liturgy, whether that be to inspire deep contemplation, entice a sense of anticipation, evoke a human emotion, or just tell a great story as the one above does.

There are thousands of chants that constitute the corpus labeled as Gregorian. They are hugely diverse. They have many moods and many purposes—as many as there are moods and purposes behind the texts they set. After all, that is the primary purpose of chant: to provide a certain elevation of the text, to make it come alive and live in our presence in a special way.

Folk music swept the Catholic Church in the 1960s because that generation had some sense that it represented a more authentic and human story of faith than the old music did. They were wrong about this, and understandably so. The world of chant in the preconciliar world had indeed become stuffy and cartelized, ruled mostly with an elite who pushed it as the fulfillment of rubrical obligation.

Today matters are different. An elite is dictating the music in your parish but it is a new elite that emerged in the wake of the pseudo-folk trend. Today that group represents the establishment and its existence is dependent on copyright and control. You can’t sing their music without paying them a fee.

But a new generation of chanters is also being raised up, attracted by the sheer authenticity and organic quality that the true music of the Roman Rite represents. Like the folk music of the 1960s, all the chants are free to use, share, and sing. And this stands in stark contrast to the copyright/industrial cartel that distributes music in many parishes today.

It’s a beautiful thing to see history turn like this. But in order to complete the task, the chanting singers of today need to let go of their own high-art attachments and embrace the chant for what it is at its root: the true music of the Catholic people, born of an age before universal literacy in which music itself was a tool of evangelism, communication, and the most authentic form of the worship of God.

Editor’s note: The image above of  “Angel Musicians” was painted by Hans Memling in the 1480s.

Jeffrey Tucker


Jeffrey Tucker is managing editor of Sacred Music and publications editor of the Church Music Association of America. He writes a bi-weekly column on sacred music and liturgy for Crisis Magazine and also runs the Chant Cafe Blog.

  • Charles Lewis

    Bravo! What a great story. It would be a fantastic to put this story in the hands of every Catholic and every priest and bishop. What more can I say?

  • Billiamo

    The Mass I attended yesterday evening featured a combo with pianist, guitar player, and a couple of vocalists. They’re good — but the best part was the last verse of the penultimate song, which they performed a capella. It made me yearn for chant.

  • Amy Corrieri

    Can you post any clips of this “new generation of chanters” being raised up? I haven’t heard anything, but I would welcome it wholeheartedly.

    • HV Observer

      Get a bag of popcorn, go to this hour-long video, and you will see the New Generation of Chanters not merely being raised up, but raising the roof. Plus you’ll see lots of Jeffery Tucker and his friends.

  • mhall46184

    Why do you base your arguments on debased class-warfare issues?

    • Jeffrey Tucker

      It’s not my argument. I don’t care about class warfare. I’m addressing those people who believe that this is an issue.

  • We work very hard to do contemporary music that is liturgically correct and uplifting in it’s melodies. Yes, and we are volunteers. Greogian chant is beautiful and has it’s place. Is there no place for music that people relate to today? I don’t mind paying copyright fees for great Catholic song writers like Matt Maher and Tom Booth. They have families too. I guess I just get tired of the attacks on contemporary music efforts that are especially attractive to young people. World Youth Day is coming this July in Brazil. The theme song for that event is a good example of bringing the youth to Christ. Give it a try.

    • Jeffrey Tucker

      Matt and Tom are great guys but they do not write liturgical music. It is not possible for any musical to be called liturgical if the texts do not draw from the liturgical source.

    • Scott Waddell

      Is there no place for music that people relate to today?

      Yes. The social hall.

      • Enders_Shadow

        And there we have it; a total failure to understand that we are created in the image of God and ALL our life should relate to Him. Instead we see in the comment a separation of life and religion that reflects the Old Covenant, but is fundamentally challenged by the ending of the Aaronic Priesthood; WE are the temples of the Holy Spirit, not some building over there.

        • Jeffrey Tucker

          ??? The point is not complicated. The liturgy should be liturgical. What’s not to understand?

          • Enders_Shadow

            So you are saying that the formal religious events of the church should be accompanied by music that emerged in the second half of the first millennium in one corner of the world, whereas the people of God are free to enjoy any music that they like in the rest of their lives. As I’ve said, that reflects an understanding of church worship that derives from the Jewish temple, not the new covenant. I repeat: ‘our bodies are the temple of the Holy Spirit’. God is with us at all times. All of our lives are worship of God, in everything we do we should be worshipping God. Therefore the musical background to everything we do should be ‘liturgical’.

            The mistake – as I’ve said – is associating the church’s worship with a particular style of music because it’s a denial that God IS incarnate in the church, which is what transubstantiation is a reminder of; at best it’s a statement that God was incarnate, and of course it’s suggesting that He was incarnate in the later years of the first millennium, not as a Jewish man in Galilee. Actually the old claim that Gregorian chant could be traced back to the Jewish temple did give it some claim to extra legitimacy, but even that’s now gone. Nice music but bad theology – in that you are not alone…

        • Scott Waddell

          That’s a highly hyperbolic and tendentious reading with likely a little bad faith thrown in. I didn’t say chant was the ONLY acceptable music for Mass. Rather I am going with what Our Lord’s Church has said: Chant is to be given pride of place. For the context of the discussion here where Matt Maher was mentioned (whom I think a very good pop-rock composer), I had Benedict XVI in mind:

          On the one hand, there is pop music, which is certainly no longer supported by the people in the ancient sense (populus). It is aimed at the phenomenon of the masses, is industrially produced, and ultimately has to be described as a cult of the banal. “Rock”, on the other hand, is the expression of elemental passions, and at rock festivals it assumes a cultic character, a form of worship, in fact, in opposition to Christian worship. People are, so to speak, released from themselves by the emotional shock of rhythm, noise, and special lighting effects. However, in the ecstasy of having all their defenses torn down, the participants sink, as it were, beneath the elemental force of the universe. The music of the Holy Spirit’s sober inebriation seems to have little chance when self has become a prison, the mind is a shackle, and breaking out from both appears as a true promise of redemption that can be tasted at least for a few moments.”

          • Enders_Shadow

            Indeed – the question is whether the evidence we have about the nature of worship as demonstrated in the Old Testament is supportive of the style that we have today, or whether it’s something different. Consider first Ps 150:

            3 Praise Him with trumpet sound;
            Praise Him with harp and lyre.
            4 Praise Him with timbrel and dancing;
            Praise Him with stringed instruments and pipe.
            5 Praise Him with loud cymbals;
            Praise Him with resounding cymbals.

            then we have David dancing before the Lord with such enthusiasm that his wife disdained him; David was not impressed:

            “12 Now it was told King David, saying, “The Lord has blessed the house of Obed-edom and all that belongs to him, on account of the ark of God.” David went and brought up the ark of God from the house of Obed-edom into the city of David with gladness. 13 And so it was, that when the bearers of the ark of the Lord had gone six paces, he sacrificed an ox and a fatling. 14 And David was dancing before the Lord with all his might, and David was [h]wearing a linen ephod. 15 So David and all the house of Israel were bringing up the ark of the Lord with shouting and the sound of the trumpet.

            16 Then it happened as the ark of the Lord came into the city of David that Michal the daughter of Saul looked out of the window and saw King David leaping and dancing before the Lord; and she despised him in her heart.

            20 But when David returned to bless his household, Michal the daughter of Saul came out to meet David and said, “How the king of Israel distinguished himself today! He uncovered himself today in the eyes of his servants’ maids as one of the foolish ones shamelessly uncovers himself!” 21 So David said to Michal, “It was before the Lord, who chose me above your father and above all his house, to appoint me ruler over the people of the Lord, over Israel; therefore I will celebrate before the Lord. 22 I will be more lightly esteemed than this and will be humble in my own eyes, but with the maids of whom you have spoken, with them I will be distinguished.” 23 Michal the daughter of Saul had no child to the day of her death.”

            And note again lots of noise… trumpets and shouting. We are not talking a quiet vespers here… so we mark Benediction with less enthusiasm for the body of Christ than the Jews showed for the ark of the covenant. There’s surely something wrong herethe Lord, over Israel; therefore I will celebrate before the Lord.

            • Scott Waddell

              For another view of the “David danced before the Lord” as license for white geriatrics to prance about the sanctuary like wood fairies, see:

              • Enders_Shadow

                Nice try, and an interesting link. However I refer you to Ps 150: v 4: ‘Praise Him with timbrel and dancing’, and you’ve not engaged with the issue of NOISE, that is so clearly present in the style of worship being described.

                • Scott Waddell

                  I’ll leave it to readers to decide whether a few cobbled-passages from the Old Testament somehow constitute a liturgical manual that outweighs the copious amounts of liturgical instructions the Church has given us. Frankly, invoking “David danced before the Lord” and the psalms reminds me of when I was a Sola Scriptura Protestant. It’s like a roulette wheel: round and round she goes, where she stops nobody knows.

              • mama10kids

                Do you have to insult people with every comment? Your “blue haired warblers, social hall and white geriatrics” are just plain mean comments meant to demonize the people you disagree with.

                • Scott Waddell

                  I speak plainly and these comments are not directed to anyone in particular. We are virtually in a situation where liturgy is frozen in bad 1970’s amber and it is costing vocations and maybe even souls. And where it isn’t tired pseudo-folk, it’s pop-culture pandering with the result being the same: the young, and particularly young males not of the beta-type (you know, that group where we are supposed to get our vocations from) are being driven out of the church.

          • Robert Feduccia

            Very often, when the General Instruction on the Roman Missal quote stating the pride of place of chant is cited, the full quote is not referenced. The full quote says that “all things being equal” chant holds pride of place. What it should do equally well is foster the participation of all the faithful in the liturgy. As it stands now, it doesn’t seem that it fosters participation in the liturgy by all the faithful as equally well as other music, which is not by any means excluded from the liturgy. Mr. Tucker is working to put it on equal footing. I don’t find it to be there now.

            • Scott Waddell

              Well, that brings us to the “active participation” debate, which I’ll save for another day.

    • musicacre

      “Gregorian chant is beautiful and has its place.” Which is where? My daughter, in her 20’s is also a volunteer, which is hard, because a degree in music wasn’t cheap and she’s still paying for it. She leads the Latin Mass choir (very small) and is overjoyed to do it. It is music that she and many young people that go to that Mass “relate to”. Just because it’s not instantly accessible why not encourage people to hear it, learn about it, and give it a chance? And by the way,Latin music takes way more hits; it is the David in a Goliath culture of pop muzak EVERYWHERE! It’s too bad we have this Twinkie culture, where books have to be easy, like it’s easier to eat a Twinkie than a vegetable. It’s easier to listen and tap your toes to music that is by its nature mostly rhythm, but I for one cannot meditate or think about God when that peppy dance music is playing. And my children feel the same way.

  • Enders_Shadow

    ‘[Chant] arose from the world of the first millennium’. And that, ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, is the problem. Christianity is an incarnational faith; God became flesh, God becomes flesh. To continue to adopt the forms of a previous age, of a culture that is no longer alive to most of the population, is to implicitly deny that Jesus Christ BECAME FLESH AND DWELT AMONG US. I really really don’t care how much you can justify it in terms of church history – what it meant then – because now it doesn’t. It is speaking Latin to a world that doesn’t. It makes the mass less accessible for most people. This is placing a extra stumbling block to people struggling to find faith. The RCC – after 400 years pretending otherwise – finally realised that the liturgy in Latin was a mistake. Using Gregorian chant more broadly is equally mistaken.

    Please note that I speak as a fan; on my visits to monasteries that maintain the tradition, I am impressed. But for the average resident of the West today – i.e the sort of person who’s been bought up on ‘rap / hiphop / punk’, it’s totally inaccessible. Sad but true

    • Joe

      Two points: First, chant can be adapted to the vernacular. Second, these people to whom chant is “totally inaccessible” made an album by a bunch of monks (from Santo Domingo de Silos) a huge bestseller just a few years ago.

      I think one way advocates of chant can bring chant down off of its ‘high art’ pedestal is to welcome and embrace translation and to actually carry out composition of chant-style pieces for the vernacular texts. Latin is both a great treasure-house of liturgical history and beauty AND an obstacle to many of the faithful. We can let chant re-infuse our musical tradition without trying to roll back the vernacular.

      • Enders_Shadow

        Latin per se has nothing to do with this – I was merely referring to that as having had a similarly obscuring effect on the effectiveness of the church.

        The fact that ONE CD did achieve a breakthough to a wider audience doesn’t prove very much; that it has not been followed up with people storming the digital download sites demanding Gregorian chant is surely evidence that it is a minority interest. And of course the power of Taize chants is also an indicator that the style is not wholly inaccessible. However the reality is that it is the churches that offer a style of worship that IS immediately accessible are the ones that are getting people along. Of course that’s not the only measure of success, but it’s a factor we should be aware of. And surely it is also relevant to remember that AT THE TIME Gregorian chant was at the cutting edge of musical development; the danger today is that we present the church as a museum of ancient art, and therefore only relevant to those who ‘like that sort of thing’.

        To be clear here: I’m not saying that the use of Gregorian chant is wholly flawed and inappropriate. But equally I’m not prepared to accept that it is in any way normative, and that to do so IS badly flawed. We must seek to serve our Lord in our generation in the way that is most effective for His service; to impose our choices when they obstruct that service is thing we must avoid.

        • Elizabeth

          So I suppose Vatican II was wrong to say that Gregorian chant is the normative music of the liturgy and that it should be given “pride of place” (or, to translate the Latin more literally, the principal or first place)?

          I could bring out a number of examples of churches that went FROM contemporary TO true sacred music and saw their attendance leap dramatically. Not to mention thriving Catholic colleges such as TAC or Christendom that offer sacred music in their liturgy and have dozens of young people interested and on fire for singing this music in the choirs there.

          And as for God becoming incarnate to every generation, this is absolutely true. This is why we have religious music that IS in more contemporary styles, and I like much of this music. But the Mass is something else altogether; the Mass is God lifting US up to HIM, and so we need to transcend our every day realities when we go to Mass. Bishop Olmsted of Phoenix put it best, I think. Here is a quote from his recent 4-part series of articles on sacred music: “We see here a double movement – the interplay of two profound mysteries of faith: the Incarnation (characterized by an earth-ward movement and proclamation) and the Paschal Mystery (characterized by a heaven-ward movement and transformation). This double movement is all the work of Christ: As the Eternal Word he enters into our history, becoming flesh in the Incarnation; and then he suffers, dies, rises, and ascends into heaven, to draw all people to himself. Like Christ and in him, the church engages authentic human culture wherever she finds it. She proclaims the good news of Jesus Christ to a specific culture; and then whatever is good in the culture she purifies and transforms, drawing it into her own communal life in her various ecclesial “rites” (in our case, the Roman Rite). The distinction between religious music and liturgical music embodies this double movement: religious music is, we might say, the earthly expression of a given culture’s faith in Christ; liturgical music is the sacramental expression of Christ and the true nature of the church. The former tends to be particular, individual, temporal, and profane; the latter tends to be universal, communal, eternal, and sacred. Religious music comes from human hearts yearning for God; liturgical music comes form Christ’s heart, the heart of the church, longing for us.”

          So it is precisely *because* chant and polyphony are NOT the music of our times that they are so appropriate for the liturgy. This is because they remind us that the Mass is not a thing of our times; it is a foretaste of eternity, of which eye has not seen, nor ear heard, nor has it entered into the heart of man, to put it in the Apostle Paul’s words.

          • Enders_Shadow

            Thanks for an interesting reply; I’m reminded of the response of the Carthusians to claims by Cistercians that their music was the best; the Cistercians lined up lots of musicologists to comment on how excellent their worship was; the Carthusians referred to a prophecy by St Brigid that affirmed their being heaven’s favourite.

            However this sort of line of theology is typical of material that leaves me totally unconvinced; it probably has no roots in anything but relatively late tradition because the distinction between liturgical music and other is totally undocumented. However I can’t actually disprove the line, merely express my feeling that it is fatuous.

            • Scott Waddell

              However I can’t actually disprove the line, merely express my feeling that it is fatuous.

              Fair enough. Call us when you can actually invalidate the argument.

              • Enders_Shadow

                Yup – I deserved that reply; I was getting impatient…
                There are two ways to invalidate an argument – challenge the logic, or challenge the presuppositions that underlie the argument. In this case I’ve spent a fair amount of time challenging the presupposition that liturgical worship should be of a different culture / form to the rest of our life. Having done that, the argument I’m referring to does become lacking in foundation – but I admit that I should have joined up the dots; thank you for the opportunity to allow me to explain myself more fully.

      • Alan

        We can’t presume that the best-selling chant CD by the monks of Santo Domingo was popular because so many people were using it as a vehicle for their personal prayer. Anecdotally, the Sunday morning it was playing at Starbucks, the two young baristas behind the counter were talking about how great it was to get high to.

    • “The RCC – after 400 years pretending otherwise – finally realized that the liturgy in Latin was a mistake. Using Gregorian chant more broadly is equally mistaken.”

      Wow! Which church document/s refer to your statement?
      Vatican II liturgical document ‘Sacrosanctum Concilium’ states the opposite of your statements. Use of vernacular is only by permission while the use of Latin is the norm.

      36. “1. Particular law remaining in force, the of the Latin language is to be preserved in the Latin rites. … 3. These norms being observed, it is for the competent territorial ecclessiastical authority (aka bishops conference) mentioned in Article 22, 2, to decide whether, and to what extent, the vernacular language is to be use; their decrees have to be approved, that is, confirmed, by the Apostolic See.”
      54. “Nevertheless steps should be taken so that the faithful may also be able to say or sing in Latin the Ordinary of the Mass

    • mama10kids

      Thank you for these comments.I really appreciate the compassion you have shown in this comment. I have done music for the last 20 years in my parish. I have chosen any song I use quite carefully and there are some I would never consider. But I am really concerned about the trashing of every piece of music that we have been using. Basically all I hear from these other posts is that there is no music in the last 200 years that is worthy of the Mass. We are one of the most conservative parishes around. We already used some Latin and mostly the organ. In 9 months we do not recognize the Novus Ordo. Our parish is emptying, partly because it has been steam rollered over us. I see all the time on these posts the attitude that those who love the chant only, acappela are holier than everybody. Are we not supposed to be able to enter into the songs we are singing as our offering to the Lord. I am not communicating this well, because I am so upset. It may be away to evangelize where you are but it is having the opposite effect here.

      • HV Observer

        Basically all I hear from these other posts is that there is no music in the last 200 years that is worthy of the Mass
        Not quite, but close. I use this rule: All music, composed from1965-2007 in English, purportedly for Catholic liturgical use, is presumptively intrinsically unworthy of any liturgical use whatsoever (unless it can be proven to the contrary), because: a) instead of being Sacred, Beautiful, and Universal, it is Profane, Ugly, and Provincial, and b) it was composed and published with the expressed purpose of suppressing the Church’s heritage of Chant, in order to Sing A New Church Into Being.
        This is a sufficient reply to the objection.

    • Thanks. This is a great response! Loosely apropos, I think that every high school should make one year of Latin mandatory; with Greek, Latin is the basis of the English and the other four romantic languages.

  • hombre111

    In some ways, a really good article. But I was struck by the picture above the piece: everybody has a musical instrument, while Gregorian Chant is done without any musical accompaniment at all! And then the simple fact, Gregorian Chant is done best in Latin and is very hard to sing. So, non-professionally trained chant groups that I have listened to in the last few years are simply frightful. I was a seminarian in a monastery. We sang Gregorian Chant every day. I know the difference. So, the average parish has a choice: sing Gregorian Chant badly or sing mediocre music? Where I occasionally attend Mass with my family as a retired priest, we have a different problem. The priest has a heavy accent that makes him very, very difficult to understand. His well intentioned sermons are a bust. And so it is the music, as awful as Jeffrey Tucker considers it to be, that saves the day and makes Mass a prayerful experience.

    • Joe

      Chant is not all difficult to sing. In fact, just in terms of musical characteristics, the simple non-melismatic chants are far more accommodated to the untrained singer than, say, “I am the Bread of Life.” Measure accessibility by rhythmic complexity, difficulty of sight-reading, range of notes required – on all these measures simple chants beat out a lot of the music we take for granted as ‘congregational.’ (For example, a lot of parishes sing the simple ‘Agnus Dei’ from Mass XVIII, and it only takes a couple of times to have it down. It compares very very well in terms of musical accessibility to, e.g., ‘On Eagle’s Wings.’ ) I’m not being absolutist – it doesn’t have to be, and shouldn’t be, all chant, all the time. But in the last generation we’ve unnecessarily separated ourselves from a major liturgical and artistic part of our heritage; and one of the misperceptions is that all chant is hard to sing. Some of it is, to be sure. Lots of it is in fact very accessible. We need to let it infuse the contemporary.

      • I’m mostly with hombre111 here. For a person who’s grown up in the modern musical culture, the pseudo-folk songs that pass for liturgical music make much more sense intuitively than chant does. We’ve long left behind the modality of chanted music, which means that, even if it’s technically more difficult to sing On Eagle’s Wings, it doesn’t actually feel that way. You somewhat know where the new songs are going; we’re surrounded by their tonality.

        Sight-reading is significantly hampered by the primitive notation system–that is, if you are more than slightly acquainted with the normal notation. And the fact that it’s in another language entirely (and must be, if the melodies are to correspond with the words) ought not be neglected.

        And yet I would agree that nevertheless chant ought to be preferred, both because of its pride of place in the norms of the liturgy and because it is simply superior musically speaking. Though it may be more difficult, we have precedent in the easy acceptance of the more-difficult and more-traditional Mass translation–given a concerted effort the normalization of chant in our Masses should not be an insurmountable goal.

        • *You* may “know where the new ongs are going”; I do not, and I am not some stuffy octogenarian, being at the tail end of the baby boom generation. Most of Marty Haugen’s melodies are jarring and unexpected to my ear, though a few I have managed on repeated hearings to become emotionally and spiritually affected by. And even though we are not, in the wider world, “surrounded by the tonality” of chant, the first time I heard it and every time since, I have been struck with how much *intuitive* sense it makes to me. and for the record, i find it EASIER to sight-sing from gregorian notation than modern notation, perhaps because my voice changed rather later than normal andi was forced to learn to read the bass clef at an age when my brain was less plastic for learning new “languages” (symbolic systemNow, it’s possible that growing up with a father who sang at least classical-era church music, Bach and so forth, my ear was formed to expect different sounds than my chrono-peers do

          • You should note that I agree with the essential point of the article–chant is liturgical music par excellence, and ought to be used in the Catholic liturgy as close to universally as possible. (I believe the same thing about the Latin language in Catholic worship in general, and esp. with the Mass.) However, I simply disagree with the arguments which were presented in support of this thesis.

            If you reread my comment, I made pains to make it clear that it was coming from the perspective of a musically-trained younger member of society who has a typical knowledge of and exposure to popular music of the last fifty years. The songs employed in may churches, cloying, irritating and nigh-heretical as they may be, at least have the benefit of conforming to this musical landscape–you don’t have to learn a new tonal language to “get” them.

            Yet I’m NOT arguing for the use of these awful fake-folk compositions in Mass. There may well be certain places where it’s fitting (WYD, diocesan youth conferences, LifeTeen, etc), and I don’t want to be absolutist either…hmm. I guess I’m not even sure what I’m arguing any more. So that there’s no more bad blood between us, I’ll just quote in complete agreement the author in one of his comments below: “??? The point is not complicated. The liturgy should be liturgical. What’s not to understand?”

            God bless 🙂

            • Robert Feduccia

              I understand your feeling and your quandary. That’s why there is a lot of latitude when it comes to music in the liturgy. The official documents of the Church don’t settle the argument and leaves a lot of qualifiers. The wisdom of the Church allows for latitude because ministers ultimately have to make a pastoral judgement on what will foster the participation of all in the liturgy. To help guide us in making such pastoral judgements in the US, the US bishops have provided us with the document, Sing to the Lord.

            • musicacre

              I think you hit the nail on the head when you mentioned “musical landscape”. The point of the Mass is that it doesn’t conform to the “world” and was never meant to be. Why would it be a benefit to conform to what people are like on the outside, and offer them more of same. If there is one thing I’m noticing about new converts is that they are excited that the Church is offering something DIFFERENT, that the world doesn’t offer, that they don’t have already. I haven’t seen a single person in my 52 years going to church that said they came to our church because it was copying the rock’n’roll style of the outside world. But my son experienced a group of kids in his first year music theory class that wanted to go to the Cathedral with him,(years ago) because they thought they would be experiencing chant, as their prof had taught them. He said they were dismayed and disappointed when there was no Latin or chant. None of them had ever been to a Catholic church and they were in anticipation of hearing the beautiful chant, but never got it.

  • Mark Voris

    Best leave things moving forward! Chant has it’s place in Worshiping God and so does the new songs that artist are writing these days as well. We don’t want to put GOD in a box and do just one style of music. He created artist/writers to deliver the best of the best. Music is very important as we all know in worship. Doing one style of music put’s GOD in that box. Not everyone is moved by chant. Let us move forward and embrace our options that GOD has giving us.

  • Brian Sullivan

    Is there a relationship between chant and shape-note singing? That’s what I thought of in terms of folk music and chant.

  • Robert Feduccia

    The Church defines only what She must and allows for there to be a healthy debate. Part of the debate is what may/should be sung during the Eucharstic liturgy. The Church allows four options: (1) the antiphon from The Roman Missal or the Psalm from the Roman Gradual as set to music there or in another musical setting; (2) the seasonal antiphon and Psalm of the Simple Gradual; (3) a song from another collection of psalms and antiphons, approved by the Conference of Bishops or the diocesan Bishop, including psalms arranged in responsorial or metrical forms; (4) a suitable liturgical song similarly approved by the Conference of Bishops or the diocesan Bishop.

    It also says that among these options, Chant holds pride of place:
    All other things being equal, Gregorian chant holds pride of place because it is proper to the Roman Liturgy. Other types of sacred music, in particular polyphony, are in no way excluded, provided that they correspond to the spirit of the liturgical action and that they foster the participation of all the faithful.

    However, not all things are equal. If chant will foster the participation of the faithful equally well, then it should be used. If it does not do so equally well, then another appropriate piece of music should used. From my reading of Mr. Tucker’s body of work, he has as his mission the noble task of promoting and using chant so that all of the faithful are well-versed in chant so that the use of chant will equally lead to the full, conscious, and active participation in the liturgy. As someone who was at a Benedictine seminary for 2 years and who worked at a Benedictine abbey as a pay person for 5, I hold a great love of chant. I chant the psalms even when I privately pray the Divine Office.

    Nonetheless, the Church has, perhaps inconveniently, provided with four options. Four options are provided so that the pastoral decision may be made by the minister to choose that which will lead to the full, conscious, and active participation of the faithful.

    Other songs are by no means excluded provided that they correspond to the spirit of the liturgical action and foster participation in the liturgy by the faithful.

    As proper to the liturgy, I am grateful for Mr. Tucker’s work to increase knowledge, appreciation and usage of chant. I am also grateful that, in the Church’s wisdom, four options are given.

  • Hmmm. Interesting that chant was the music of the common person all those years ago and that it told of parables in ‘common language’ as a storyteller. But the musicians who do the same today are considered unworthy? Yes, chant is beautiful. But, yes, a lot of ‘contemporary Christian music’ is beautiful. Both forms have simple and challenging tunes. In regards to paying fees for current music, yes, the artists have families to feed. So what’s the problem? Perhaps years ago when chant was promoted by monks they were housed, clothed and fed by their respective monasteries and so payment was not necessary – or it was made in the collection basket.

    • Jeffrey Tucker

      There are ways of making money without IP. And IP guarantees you need profit.

    • RPTMS

      The only thing “On Eagles Wings” is good for is Muzak for Catholic book stores.

      • musicacre

        And campfires.

    • musicacre

      I don’t know where you go to church, but every time our priest wants to use a “new” tune, there are basically only 2 or 3 that can follow it. They usually have unusually long ties and it is awkward to hold a note that long if you’re not an opera singer. My daughter, who is a classically trained opera singer, has pointed this out. (This is a parish where the vast majority of young people have had years of private voice lessons). But start singing the Salve Regina and the entire church is bursting with song; you can’t even hear the organ! It’s fantastic! I have to admit it took the boomers (people born in the 40’s and 50’s ) a little while to 1) accept it and 2) to join in , but we’re past that and everyone has a good time! It began with a little experiment well over a decade ago when one of the home school Moms decided to phonetically teach the Salve Regina. It took 2 sessions with the phonetic translations under each word or syllable That included 3 to 4 dozen children, , and their children, who are very attached to these Latin songs and definitely didn’t grow up with them If anything, it’s the older people who got stuck on the tambourines and other non-liturgical instruments in the 60’s that have been having a hard time accepting this.

  • GrahamCombs

    And yet the march of “das volk” is relentless through the liturgy. On Palm Sunday — PALM SUNDAY — the audience, I mean congregation, was jerked from the Eucharistic core of the Mass to blue grass and back again. How does one enter the Sacramental now in such liturgical environment? And it may have been worse for me because my parents were born and raised in Appalachia and I grew up with the music on a daily basis. Why does Sunday have to be Monday have to be Tuesday and on to Sunday again? Is there no place in the Church where American life can’t be excluded?

  • Charles Martel

    Jeffrey, good article. Now having said that, please excuse my pedantry, but the phrase should be “sword-and-sandal epic” rather than “epoch”.

    • Jeffrey Tucker

      whoa, you are right.

  • Aside from the musical quality of the chants, and the showboating off-off-Broadway toons for soloists, the chants are beautiful, and reverent, while the toons are often downright awful and their lyrics heretical or narcissistic or insipid or silly. All that aside — what Vatican II should have returned to the Church was her heritage of sacred music along with the heritage from our cousins the Protestants, yes, the Wesleys, Bach, Handel, Vaughan Williams, and so forth. There’s a good reason why the hymns in Protestant hymnals are written in four part harmony: that’s the way most Protestants learned to sing them; ordinary people learned their parts.
    Anyway, if you take a careful look at the music of those hymns, and the poetry, you see that both have a coherent structure, unlike the ad lib semi-chaos of the show tunes, with their weirdo intervals and their veering hither and yon without any sense of where they’ve been. That’s not even mentioning the banality of the “poetry.”
    I teach poetry to young people for a living — real poetry. Young people are like anybody else these days — thirsty for beauty, because the world around them is stupid and drab. You can’t win people with the stupid and drab; you can only distract them for a while. Show me a group of people learning Gregorian chant, and I’ll show you a group whose median age is 25.

    • Scott Waddell

      Show me a group of people learning Gregorian chant, and I’ll show you a group whose median age is 25.

      Bingo. The mad dash to be relevant in liturgical music is an excellent example of adulthood making us stupid. All it does is trivialize, and young people recognize that which is why if you did a survey of schola groups you find young people whereas your typical Haugen/Hass choir it’s the same blue-haired warblers that have been there for decades and oh yeah, the ratio of females to males is about 10:1.

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    “a high Church ethos… …conservatives and traditionalists who favor their liturgy buttoned up, obedient, and strict.”

    You say that like it’s a bad thing.

    • Jeffrey Tucker

      no not really. I’m presenting the caricature.

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  • Thomas Gallagher

    Well done, Jeffrey Tucker. Chant was clearly and forcefully endorsed in Vatican II as the Church’s preferred musical form and genre. Yet in the US it virtually disappeared, and we seldom hear it even now, in this era of the Reform of the Reform. Perhaps when the generation of priests ordained after the Council retires, we’ll hear it again Deo gratia. But I have to say that I’m no “traddy.” I love the novus ordo and I love singing hymns at Mass, especially some of the more beautiful Protestant ones that have been incorporated into recent Hymnals. “Life High the Cross,” “Faith of our Fathers,” (despite its clear reference to Protestant martyrs) “The Church’s One Foundation,” (despite its Protestant rejection of the Petrine foundation) “Be Thou My Vision”–the latter a haunting, haunting melody. Do these hymns help us to pray as well as chant does? I think so. Don’t you? The problem is that so much of the “folk” music that came in to the American Church after Vatican II was simply insipid, vapid, devoid of any melodic beauty or any solidly Scriptural lyrics. In this sense it almost exactly corresponded to the highly artificial and highly commercialized “folk music” of the American mainstream culture–the Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie stuff–sometimes arising from authentic folk melodies, but always with insipid words that reflected the Marxist ideology of the songwriters. Junk. Just simply garbage. You take secular garbage, give it some vaguely pious-sounding lyrics, and it’s still garbage. Dress the pig in satin and jewels and velvet, and he’s still a pig.

    • Jeffrey Tucker

      The problem with those old hymns — and I like them too — is that they have nothing to do with the liturgy.

      • Thomas Gallagher

        Ah, NOW I get it! The decision as to what counts as Liturgy and what doesn’t count is determined by Jeffrey Tucker, and not by the Magisterium!

      • JenB

        Mr Tucker, I am entirely fascinated and very interested in this topic. I don’t mean my questions to just challenge, I really want to understand.

        If, say Matt Maher wrote music that used liturgical language ( I actually think that his album The End and the Beginning is quite liturgical) could we use it?

        I often feel caught between the tension of Divine and Human-that is the Mass is Sacred. However Jesus came to a human body. He came in a way that we absolutely can relate. So, then, can we use music that a culture may understand so that they can relate to the deeper mysteries?

        I am not talking about the hippy dippy stuff from Haugen and Co. I was raised as a Catholic Charismatic and while it “looks” emotional and baseless, the music-when done correctly-is incredibly powered by the Holy Spirit. It directs all of my being to the Creator, to God my Father, to the reality of Jesus’ Christ’s sacrifice for me, my unworthiness, but also a challenge to respond to the love of God. In a different way, I experience this in some of those wonderful old hymns that Thomas just asked about.

        I realize that I sound like I have preferences. I am explaining that I have experienced the power of God in both kinds of music in ways I never have with chant. And I don’t think I am alone. I am not advocating for “my preferences”, only advocating the use of cultural tools to bring people and point people towards Christ and his sacrifice. From what I gather, isn’t that what chant had done, and it was folksy for it’s time?

        Again, my aim is not to take away from the sacred at all. Only how be to bring humanity and Jesus Christ together, so that people will be able to know AND experience Jesus Christ in the holy sacrifice of the Mass. John Paul II’s personal Thomism and St John of the Cross comes to mind, in that experience, when based on the truth, is really quite vital to the full life of a disciple.

        Thank you for bringing this discussion to the table. I am most grateful to keep learning!

  • My parents and I live in Central Florida and none of us like the Christian Pop music that has invaded our services. We were truly dismayed to hear the beautiful Divine Mercy Chaplet on Divine Mercy Sunday sang the Christian Pop way. It was awful. We’re not Protestants! What do we have to do to have this awful pop music removed from our parishes?

    • Bono95

      Exactly, Ms. Kotomski. I prefer English to Latin, but I also much prefer traditional English-language hymns to Contemporary Christian Pop. I don’t like most CCP outside of Church either. It’s good that CCP praises God, but that’s about all I can say for it. Otherwise, so much of it has no rhyme scheme, no tune, and uses the same chords over and over. Give me “Holy God, We Praise Thy Name” (in Church) or “Back In The USSR” (elsewhere, including, but not limited to, the former Soviet Union, which I’ve never visited) any day.

  • Howard Richards

    Modern parish music is ugly and copyright clogged? That doesn’t sound like anything the people who gave us the NAB would permit! Oh, wait….

  • This is very timely! I’m starting to learn to chant the Divine Office and these points are very helpful.


  • William Neal Fancher JR

    I missed my usual morning mass due to laziness and wanting to sleep in, so I attended Sunday evening mass at another parish. (our parish does not have an evening mass). I was in quiet reflection when out of nowhere there came the blaring of trumpets and drums and guitars and downright noise. I was so startled I nearly lost my breath. I would love the return to the mass being sung in chant and a return to the beautiful sound of the pipe organs.

  • Paul

    Jeffery. This was a nicely toned piece of writing. I can’t help but wonder…and I am sorry for being blunt about this…what is your point? If I follow the logic of your argument. Chant is not high church it is low church. It’s the music of the masses and accessible. This is good. Chant is also like Folk music in this sense. This is also good. Folk music is not a break from tradition but in keeping with it. But folk is bad and chant is good? Even though they are the same thing? Folk is wrong to accuse chant of being music of being high church, formulaic, complicated, and inaccessible, but that is exactly what happened to chant over time. I’m really serious when I say that you don’t have a clear thesis or point in this article. You don’t start with a clear position. You don’t argue a particular point throughout the piece and your conclusion seems buried. Ultimately you only make one point to distinguish chant from folk music. Folk music was good when it was free but now it’s not so we should sing chant because it is free. We shouldn’t have pay for music. Which leaves us several options. Sing old disconnected latin chants which don’t translate well to English. Sing new chants which don’t have copyrights (for now). But once those become popular and copyrighted and the 20 somethings who poured their time and energy want to get paid, and inevitable go to publishers to get royalties, we should abandon them and then hope that folk hymns have hit public domain? But maybe that wasn’t your point.

    • Jeffrey Tucker

      hmm, I’m sorry about that. My point is this. The ethos that drew people to pseudo-folk in the 1960s is actually fulfilled by the authentic music of the Catholic liturgy.

  • JM

    Chant is so beautiful, so winsome, and so supportive of the
    liturgy. Why is it we have gone over to the dorky, uninspired, uninspiring, often
    downright awful music that is part of the contemporary celebration of Mass?
    And, yes, as Professor Esolen mentioned, isn’t there room for the music of the Wesleys, Bach, Handel, Vaughan Williams, et al? Please, Bishops and Clergy, hear us!

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  • This is a very fine article and speaks highly of the Dean and REctor of Christ Church Cathedral, (Anglican), in Victoria. BRAVO, Fr Dean!.

  • In my church we sing Gregorian chants from time to time mostly the Ambrosian Mass and the Missa De Angelis. Great article!!! I hope you don’t mind that I share it.

  • Cecilia

    Dear Mr Tucker,
    I wish with all my heart that you could visit Andalucía, introducing the Gregorian chant.
    Most churches do not have an organ, or a piano and if they would, nodoby can play the organ, neither any instrument, except, of course, the guitar. At least, a few accords.
    No choirs, no professionally trained singers. Their seems to be a great resistance to any kind of sacred or classical music, only the extremely banal pop style is usually accepted and even favoured.
    If there is any music, it consists of a group of women, yelling on top of their voices, the Flamenco way. Loudspeakres and amplifiers turned on the highest volume possible.
    resembling rather any pentecostal church than a catholic church.

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