CityLIS Writes: Gregorian chant and the story of musical documentation by David Baker

***This essay was written by CityLIS student David Baker in December 2016. It is reproduced here with the author’s permission as part of our CityLIS Writes initiative.***

Gregorian chant is the name given to a large collection of monodic (i.e. single-line) melodies which were sung as part of the religious rituals of the medieval Christian Church in the Latin West, from around the eighth century onwards. Somewhat ironically, in recent years this type of music has found its way into a secular context, primarily in the form of ambient playlists for purposes of relaxation and reflection, or as part of the soundtrack for many a medieval-inspired film and television drama. Nevertheless, it has a deep-set history in the Roman Catholic liturgy[1] and is still used today around the world in the daily prayers of monastic and clerical communities and in the celebration of Mass according to the Roman rite.[2]

As with of all kinds of music which date from before the invention of sound recording devices in the mid-nineteenth century, our knowledge of Gregorian chant is entirely dependent upon written documents which survive from the Middle Ages, the earliest of which are dated to around the year 900 AD. The history of these documents and the forms they take can tell us a great deal about the transmission and reception of chant. What is more, they are also our main source for the sounds of Gregorian chant itself and for much of our information regarding the practices and modes of worship of the medieval Church. In this paper, I will investigate the ways in which the documentary forms given to this important repertoire of medieval music mirrors wider issues of changing musical documentation and notation.

First, it is worth examining a little more closely some of the concepts involved in the documentation of music. As a form of human communication, music is thought to be about as old as language itself. Yet, in some ways, music could be said to resist being recorded in abstract written symbols in a way language does not. Our aural experience of hearing a melody, on the one hand, relies upon the perception of successive combinations of pitch, tonality and rhythm, in the same way as speech does. On the other hand, the elements required to create an efficient transfer of information by means of the written word—that is, a recognised series of signs which, when combined, allow the user to encode the semantic content of the message—are at once fewer and less dependent upon a precise performative context than in the case of music. To put it another way, while the written word aims to give form to what is—or, rather, was—said, it does not for the most part need, and is not able, to offer an account of what it sounded like.

Music, by contrast, is the result of an ordered series of sounds normally produced by means of vibrations emanating from either the performer’s vocal chords or from some form of instrument. A large part of the essence of a melody resides in precisely how these sounds are experienced, in real time, by a listener or group of listeners. For this reason, forms of musical documentation can be said necessarily to involve the encoding of some sort of performance: [3] one which either occurred at some point in the past or is envisaged as being enacted in the future. Like a recipe book or play script, therefore, written musical notation can function as a record which points towards the successful reproduction of a certain aural experience—provided, that is, that enough information regarding the performative factors which characterise that experience (such as, in the case of music, pitch, note duration, rhythm, tempo, etc.) has been supplied. Modern sheet music, for example, includes a complex system of signs, markings and annotations, all of which enable the performer to interpret how the composer or arranger of the piece of music in question had intended it to sound, and then to reproduce the same effects (albeit with a certain amount of space left for artistic licence).

Earlier forms of musical document, situated as they are in a different context, can appear more simplistic in their approach to the representation of musical information. The earliest examples of musical notation from the Ancient Near East and the Greek world typically involve the substitution of letters or other signs for particular sounds.[4] This system is sufficient to encode the pitches of the melody, but the absence of elements suggesting factors such as rhythm or note duration can make it difficult for those familiar with modern methods of musical documentation—largely a product of the nineteenth century and the rise in the popular mass printing of music that occurred during this period—to interpret how these melodies might have sounded. Since early musical production was conducted as part of a primarily oral culture, its performers had the advantage of being situated within a living musical tradition. This meant that they either knew or had learnt melodies through other, most likely aural, means. In this context, early notation systems were likely intended as a memory aid for a performer or, in the case of music for religious rituals, perhaps as a way of establishing which melodies were to be performed together with which texts. As we shall see, all these points also apply to the forms of document in which we find Gregorian chant recorded.

As has already been mentioned, written records of Gregorian melodies first appear in manuscripts dated to the late ninth century. The Latin texts associated with the chants, of which the majority are excerpts from the Book of Psalms and other parts of the Bible, are of course much older in terms of their textual tradition as part of the biblical canon; their assignment as texts to be sung during certain parts of the complex ritual drama that makes up the Church’s liturgy, and at certain standard times and seasons in the year, can be traced back to around the end of the seventh century, first appearing in documents dating from around 700 AD.[5] This process of standardisation had its origins in the practice of the church in Rome in the early medieval period and the customary forms of worship sponsored there by successive Roman pontiffs, including Pope Gregory I the Great († c. 604), after whom Gregorian chant is sometimes thought to be named.[6]

In the wake of Charlemagne’s coronation of himself as Holy Roman Emperor in the city in 800 AD, these practices also became the official standard and were promoted throughout the Frankish king’s extensive realm. Since, for political reasons, the Carolingian rulers were eager to have their liturgical customs be seen to be in communion with those of Rome, they likewise sought to adopt Roman method of singing the liturgy by employing cantors who had been trained in the papal courts to teach their own monks and cathedral singers. Very little is known about what precise form this music might have taken, since no contemporary documents for it survive, but scholarly consensus suggests that much of the repertoire we know today as Gregorian chant is the product of an amalgamation of Roman and Frankish traditions of liturgical song.[7] Indeed, it is precisely within a Carolingian sphere of influence that these melodies first become tangible, in the form of manuscripts containing the liturgical texts notated with signs (or neumes) indicating a progression of relative pitches, the earliest of which were produced in the decades surrounding the year 900 AD.[8]

As we might expect of a religion which had always put great store by the technology of the codex, books had a large part to play in the liturgical life of the medieval Church, and books of chant were no exception. Various types of medieval document containing chant notation survive, most of them dating from later in the Middle Ages; from the evidence of these it is possible to trace, among other things, some aspects of the development of chant notation in the medieval period.

The most common kinds of medieval book to contain Gregorian chant in notation are the gradual and the antiphonal. Together with other texts such as the missal and the breviary, these represent part of the extensive collections of documents which monastic and other church communities in the Middle Ages required in order to perform the daily round of services which comprised the Church’s liturgy. The gradual contained the texts and music for the parts of the Mass sung by the choir; it typically gave the antiphons (short pieces of chanted text) for the ‘proper’ of the Mass, that is, those texts which vary according to the season of status of a particular day in the Church calendar (as opposed to the ‘ordinary’ texts, which are sung at every Mass). The missal, by contrast, contained all the texts for the different parts of the Mass, including the prayers recited by the priest, the scriptural readings, and the chants. These also sometimes included notation for the chant melodies. Although during the Middle Ages, it became a liturgical requirement to have the missal open on the altar during celebration of the Mass,[9] nevertheless, medieval missals commonly give only the opening words of readings and chants, suggesting that they were primarily intended for reference rather than as a functional performance text.

Rather like the gradual, the antiphonal contained the chant texts for the antiphons sung as part of the Divine Office (otherwise known as the Liturgy of the Hours). This was the name given to the series of eight services made up of psalms, prayers and readings that were sung at regular times throughout the day.[10] The full set of texts for the Office was contained in another book called a breviary; many of these also contain musical notation. Especially during the later Middle Ages, the breviary was employed primarily for private devotion and was therefore of slightly smaller and more portable format than the larger choir books, the gradual and the antiphonal. The large number of these kinds of books that were required by monastic and other church communities in the Middle Ages in order to supply the necessary information for their liturgical needs is attested by the substantial number which have survived in libraries the world over.

That the function of medieval books containing chant was to serve as a point of reference for the memory of singers, rather than as a book to read from while performing, is indicated by their format and by the style of their notation. As Crocker (2000) observes, most liturgical manuscripts produced before the fourteenth century are simply not large enough for a group of singers to stand around and sing from. Some are very richly decorated, these may in fact have been intended for show, as visible objects of authority to be placed on the altar or carried in procession through the church; alternatively, the time and effort taken to illuminate these manuscripts may be a measure of the honour given to their contents and their official status as approve service books for Mass and Office.

The form of notation in medieval chant manuscripts also developed throughout the Middle Ages. The graduals and antiphonals that have survived from the ninth and tenth centuries employ a form of staffless notation, the aim of which is to represent the musical shape of the melody in terms of a succession of single pitches and groups of pitches, represented by way of fine strokes of a scribe’s pen that appear to hover almost weightlessly over the line of text.[11] This type of notation can be best seen in the gradual from Laon (Bibliothèque municipale, MS 239) dated to c. 930.[12] In the eleventh and twelfth centuries, a movement towards a notational practice which employed a staff of a kind more familiar from later Western musical tradition, was inspired by the work of the Italian monk and musical theorist, Guido d’Arezzo († c. 1050). Guido’s innovation was the use of a four-line staff, with the lines for the notes F and C marked in a different colour or by using a clef (a sign to indicate which pitch corresponds to which line). Since these two notes each come above a semitone in the standard diatonic scale (inherited by the Middle Ages from the Greek musical tradition, and used as standard in Gregorian chant), it is possible to map out other pitches in the melody by reference to those.[13]

The introduction of the staff does not necessarily signal a change in the primarily mnemonic function of Gregorian notation, at least not as far as the traditional repertoire of melodies was concerned. As Hiley (2009) points out, part of the motivation behind the introduction of tools to help singers towards a more accurate pitching of chant can be explained by the influx of new melodies to liturgical corpus, in response to the addition of more saints’ days to the calendar during this period during this period. Thus, the singers (or the cantor who trained them) would still have been able to intone their familiar melodies by heart, while needing the help of the staffs to interpret those which were outside the tradition.

Much of the methods used to notate Gregorian chant in the Middle Ages would stay practically the same up until the waning of the tradition itself at the dawn of the Renaissance, and its replacement with new forms of liturgical music. It is only in the later revivals of earlier forms of Gregorian chant as a practical music of liturgical worship by the monks of Abbey of St Pierre in Solesmes in the nineteenth century that a new chapter in the story of the documentation and reception of chant begins to open. Inspired by the reawakening of Catholic life in France and a new appreciation for Gothic art and architecture during in the first half of the nineteenth century, a number of monks from the newly-founded community of Solesmes began to study medieval chant manuscripts (many of which had, by this point, been collected into the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris, established in 1789). Their hope in doing so was to rediscover the original, pure forms of liturgical practice and, above all, methods of singing which had been lost in the Revolution.[14]

The results of these labours were several publications, beginning in 1883 with the first Solesmes Graduale Romanum, which sought to present Gregorian chant as the most authoritative and most natural style of music for the Church. Suitably framed in typefaces and a notational style that evoked the glory days of fourteenth-century French Gothic art, these books were accompanied by companion volumes which offered collections of facsimiles of the principal chant manuscripts from libraries across Europe.[15] The use of photo-reproductive technologies and the production of facsimiles signalled the final step in the changing reception of Gregorian chant from one of a living tradition in the medieval Church to a scholarly and antiquarian field of study which valued a particular conception of the past. With the publication of the official Vatican edition of the Solesmes-produced Graduale (1908) and Antiphonale (1912), and subsequent revisions of both these texts following the Second Vatican Council (1963-1965), the Solesmes method of representing Gregorian chant has gradually become the authoritative standard. For those in the modern Catholic Church with an interest in the musical heritage of the liturgy, these documents are now the primary form in which Gregorian chant is encountered.

In conclusion, the importance of Gregorian chant notation lies in the fact that it is the direct ancestor of much of our modern traditions of musical documentation. Yet the changes that occurred in the documents that represent chant in written form also mark its transformation from a part of the oral tradition of medieval Christian worship to a form of music that belongs to the past and needs to be re-learnt today (if it is learnt at all) by reference to standardised service books. It is fitting, therefore, that this part of our musical heritage—one which even in the Middle Ages sought to represent an authoritative liturgical standard for —should still, to a modern listener, seem to evoke a standardised (albeit somewhat stereotyped) image of the spirituality and mysticism of the medieval past.


Barlow, C. (compiler) (2011) Singing the Mass: Sung Order of Mass in English and Latin.

Solesmes: Éditions de Solesmes.

Bent, I. et al. “Notation.” Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online. Oxford University Press. Available at: (Accessed: 19 December 2016).

Bergeron, K. (1998) Decadent Enchantments: The Revival of Gregorian Chant at Solesmes. Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press.

Clemens, R., and Graham, T. (2007) Introduction to Manuscript Studies. Ithaca, N.Y.:

Cornell University Press.

Crocker, R. (2000) An Introduction to Gregorian Chant. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Fowells, R. (2007) Chant Made Simple: An Introduction to the Ancient Neumes. Brewster, Mass.: Paraclete Press.

Gant, A. (2015) O Sing Unto the Lord: A History of English Church Music. London: Profile.

Gleick, J. (2011) The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood. London: Fourth Estate.

Graduale Romanum (1974). Solesmes: Abbaye Saint-Pierre.

Gregorian Missal (1990). Solesmes: Abbaye Saint-Pierre.

Hiley, D. (2009) Gregorian Chant. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

doi: cbo9780511807848 (Accessed: 28 November 2016).

Saulnier, D. (2003) Gregorian Chant: A Guide. Translated by E. Schaefer. Solesmes: Abbaye


Strayer, H. (2013) ‘From Neumes to Notes: The Evolution of Music Notation’, Musical

Offerings, 4(1), pp. 1-14. doi: 10.15385/jmo.2013.4.1.1

Available at: (Accessed: 13 October 2016).

Whitworth, B. (2012) Music in the Liturgy. London: Catholic Truth Society.

[1] ‘Liturgy’, from Gk. leitourgia, denotes a ‘service’ done for the public good; in the context of Christian worship, it refers to everything that is performed as part of the daily round of services that are offered up by the Church on behalf of the faithful to give thanks and praise to God.

[2] Among the most accessible introductions to Gregorian chant as it appears within the context of modern Roman Catholic liturgical practice include those by Crocker (2000), Saulnier (2003), Fowells (2007), and Whitworth (2012). The chants for the post-Vatican II Roman rite (in Latin) can be found in the Solesmes editions of the Graduale Romanale (1974) and (in English and Latin) the Gregorian Missal (1990); for an edition of the Ordinary of the Mass based on the new English translation of the Roman Missal (2010), see also Singing the Mass, ed. by Christopher Barlow (2011).

[3] This of course holds true as much of recordings of music on CD or MP3 as it does of musical notation in written form, although in a slightly different way. Indeed, the modern experience of encountering music (including Gregorian chant) divorced from a performance situation in the present is uncannily one of extending the audible life of a musical performance which occurred at a moment in the past.

[4] The earliest clear example of musical notation is to be found on a cuneiform tablet from the Mesopotamian city of Nippur dated to around 2000 BC. With the emergence of the Greek alphabet in early centuries of the 1st millennium BC, the way was cleared for Greek musical notation to harness an alphabetic method of describing pitches; this seems to be the case from around 500 BC. For more on ancient musical notation, see the discussions in Bent et al. (2016) and Strayer (2013).

[5] See the discussion in Crocker (2000), chapt. 6.

[6] Crocker (2000), p. 7.

[7] See, for instance, the discussions of the issue in Crocker (2000), Saulnier (2003), and Hiley (2009).

[8] Two of the earliest surviving examples of these manuscripts are Stiftsbibliothek St Gallen, Cod. Sang. 359; and Laon, Bibliothèque municipale, MS 239. For images of these manuscripts, see Crocker (2000), pp. 154-55; online facsimiles can be found here (via E-Codices):; and (via Europeana) here:

[9] See Crocker (2000), p. 153.

[10] These are: Matins (or the Night Office), Lauds, Prime, Terce, Sext, None, Vespers, and Compline. For more information on the Office and the Mass, see the discussions by Hiley (2009, chap. 1), Saulnier (2003, chap. 2) and Crocker (2000, chap. 6).

[11] This type of notation can be best seen in the gradual from Laon (MS 239) dated to c. 930.

[12] For an image of this manuscript, see Crocker (2000), p. 155, Plate 2. A full online facsimile is also available online via Europeana here:

[13] The first surviving manuscript using this notation is a gradual from Rome dated to 1071 (Cod. Bodmer 74 in the Fondation Martin Bodmer in Cologny, Switzerland). For a facsimile of the manuscript see the one provided online by the e-Codices project, available here:

[14] On the aesthetic motivations of the Solesmes monks, see the discussion by Bergeron (1998).

[15] For instance, the series Paléographie Musicale, first published by the monks of Solesmes in 1889.


More of David’s work can be found on his blog The Cathologuer, and you can follow him on Twitter @thulrbaker.

About lyn

Dr Lyn Robinson is Head of Library & Information Science at City, University of London. She established and directs the London Library School known as CityLIS. Contact:
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