A Short History of Liturgical Music – Gregorian Chant

You may have noticed that the Newman Choir sings a lot of different styles of music – everything from chant to hymns to praise and worship. This is intentional – the goal of the choir is to bring all the beautiful traditions of Catholic liturgical music to students at the Centre during mass. It is such a blessing that we are able to put this beautiful music where it belongs – in the context of the liturgy. So over the next few weeks, we will go through some of the different styles of music you will hear at the Newman Centre at Sunday mass so you can understand better what we are singing.


Gregorian Chant


You may notice that during Advent and Lent our mass parts change. We go from a choral four-part mass setting to a more austere (though equally beautiful) chant setting in Latin. We sing a very simple Gregorian Chant mass setting. Gregorian chant, or plainchant, is one of the earliest forms of liturgical music, dating back to the 9th or 10th centuries (though it’s earliest forms date back further!). The ‘Gregorian’ part of its name is (perhaps incorrectly) often attributed to Pope Gregory the Great.


Did you know that Gregorian Chant was written on a very different musical staff than we know today? It usually had four lines (rather than five) and a different system of notation (with square notes and different markings). The music we sing at the Newman Centre has taken this notation and written it into notation that we can read easier. You may also notice that chant is written without many bar lines. As such, rather than singing with a specific beat, we take care to have the music reflect the words we are singing and the phrasing of it. This is one of the greatest challenges when singing chant in a group! Most often the Newman Centre choir will sing with multiple harmony parts. But in chant, we sing together, taking care to sound like we are one voice!


This idea of singing as one voice is amplified by the fact that the Chant setting is use is not unique to us at the Newman Centre, or even here in Canada. It is sung around the world. For example, when I was in Norway one summer, I went to mass, obviously in Norwegian, so I didn’t really understand the specific words being used. However, I was delighted when the priest began the Kyrie – in Latin chant! Using the same setting we use at Newman! I was able to sing along in unison with my Norwegian friends.


Some of the popular chants that we use at Newman (besides the mass setting) is the Pange Lingua (text written by none other than St. Thomas Aquinas), the Veni Creator, or the Crux Fedelis (sung on Good Friday).


Take a listen:

By: Holly Ann Garnett, Director, Newman Centre Choir


By Newman Catholic Students' Society Executive

For more information about the Newman Catholic Students' Society executive, please consult the Executive Committee page under the About menu on this website.