On the Liturgy

Introduction by William Mahrt

The public, communal worship of the Christian church, its liturgy, was always sung or chanted. From Carolingian times, church worship was conducted in Gregorian chants. This enabled the congregation to recite and respond in unison. Chantries were designed for the performance of the liturgy.

Chant Genres

Gregorian chants vary according to the text:

  • Psalms were set in the simplest syllabic style, in parallel members.
Psalms:Songs and poems attributed to King David in the Hebrew Bible.
  • Lessons
    • Old Testament lessons employed a harsh cadence, trumpet-like in tone.
    • Epistles were sung in rhetorical style.
    • Gospels were sung simply, ending with 1/3 step down in pitch and back up.
Epistles: The letters of the Apostles, from the Christian New Testament
Gospels: Four accounts of Jesus Christ's life and ministry.
  • Processionals had several notes per syllable, suggesting the rhythmic motion of a procession
    • Introits
    • Communions
  • Meditation chants were more elaborate, with melodies performed on a single syllable -- called melismas from the Hellenistic word for melody.
    • Alleluias
    • The Gradual.

The graduals and alleluias were the meditative complement to the lessons. By stretching out the words they were meant to slow the listeners’ sense of the passage of time, encouraging contemplation.1

Hours of the Day

The liturgy or "divine office" was not restricted to the Mass. The hours of the day were also marked by liturgical observance.

  • Matins (or Vigils): the night offices
  • Lauds: sung at sunrise

During the day the “little hours” were performed:

  • Prime: at 6 am
  • Terce: at 9 am
  • Sext: at noon
  • None: at 3 pm

The end of the day was celebrated with:

  • Vespers: at sunset
  • Compline: at nightfall, before bed

Monastic communities spent much of the day in the celebration of the canonical hours. Each of the little hours took perhaps 15 minutes; Compline, 20 minutes, Vespers and Lauds, 30 minutes, and 90 minutes for Matins. Mass might last 40 minutes.

Geographical Variety

Chants sung in Northern Europe were more likely to feature leaps (saltine intervals), while the chants of Italy and Southern Europe were more likely to progress smoothly in half steps (spissim). The difference between Northern and Southern textualis or Gothic handwriting is similar: the Northern script is more angular, the Southern script is smoother and rounder -- in fact, it is called rotunda script.


Liturgical music has its origins in fourth-century Jerusalem, but little is know about its early development. Though it is called Gregorian Chant after Pope Gregory the Great who died in 604, it probably developed at Rome in the seventh and eighth century, and the earliest written record we have of its melodies dates from the ninth century.

Carolingian Developments
First to associate Gregory the Great with Gregorian chant were the Frankish kings, Pepin and Charlemagne. They justified the introduction of the Roman rite on Gregory’s authority. However, we do not know how much of the chant came from Rome. Most scholars believe that Roman melodies were adopted to a Carolingian aesthetic. But a few scholars believe that only the verses came from Rome. These scholars think the cantors in Aachen and Metz (now in modern Germany, then in the Carolingian empire) set the words to local tunes.

We are uncertain partly because the earliest record of old Roman chant dates from the eleventh century. At that time, Roman chant incorporated more notes than in traditional Gregorian chant. That could be just because the music had developed further. We do not know. It could even be that after the eighth century Roman chant developed from the Carolingian chants, as Kenneth Levy has suggested.2

Scholastic Music
Romanesque polyphonic music has its roots in unwritten improvision. The first extensive collection of polyphonic music in the West is the Winchester Troper, ca. 1000, Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, MS 473.

Gothic polyphonic liturgical music is a scholastic contribution dating from the last decades of the twelfth century. Its development is contemporaneous with the building of Notre Dame Cathedral at Paris between 1163 and 1250. Indeed, since the time of Erwin Panofsky’s Gothic Architecture and Scholasticism (1951) we have associated Gothic architecture and music with scholasticism, emphasizing their attention to balance and to the structural elements of composition.

Polyphonic Music: Music with harmony, as opposed to music with only a single melody.

Scholastic musicians elaborated on the longer parts of the liturgy, which are the Gradual and the Alleluia in the Mass and the Responsory in the divine office. The cantor’s part of these sections was lengthened (to perhaps 10 or 15 minutes) and elaborated using polyphonic music.3

Monastic Music Theory

Medieval music theory was part of the Carolingian curriculum. For the monks themselves who studied only four of the seven liberal arts (grammar, music, and parts of arithmetic, and geometry), the study of music immediately followed and was parallel to the study of grammar. Students were taught that pitches were like letters. The musical syllables were Ut, re, mi, fa, sol, la, si, which were based on a hymn by Paul the Deacon:

Ut queant laxis resonare fibris
Mira gestorum famuli tuorum,
Solve polluti labii reatum,
Sancte Iohannes.
Prof. Mahrt illustrating the use of the “Guidonian hand,” a medieval mnemonic device used to teach sight reading.

This hymn taught students about the intervals between pitches. The eight modes corresponded to the eight parts of speech in Latin:

  • four declinable – substantive (noun, adjective), pronoun, verb, and participle
  • four indeclinable -- adverb, conjunction, preposition, interjection

Students were also taught to divide literary texts, marking the pauses by dividing phrase (comma), clause (colon), and sentence (period). Chants set these parts of the sentence to the corresponding musical phrases.

Though these terms were used in the Middle Ages they do not refer to the punctuation marks we use today. Instead the pauses in medieval texts were marked by positura, such as the punctus elevatus, punctus flexus, virgule etc.4

Scholastic Music Theory

Scholastics distinguished three different rhythms:5

  1. organum: a long sustained tenor drone, often lasting 30 seconds
  2. copula: an intermediate rhythm in the tenor part.
  3. discantus: rhythmic tenor.

Scholastic music theory was based on Augustine’s treatise on music and on the classical meters of the hymns. With few exceptions, the technical vocabulary was derived from other fields – the term `copula’, for example, comes from grammar and logic. One exception is a term we still use today: gamut. Gamut is short for the gamma ut -- that is, the ut designated by the Greek letter gamma (Γ) , the lowest note in the medieval scale, corresponding to the modern G on the lowest line of the bass stave.


Much of medieval music, in all its glory, was especially designed for its role in worship as part of the liturgy. Still popular today, “Music for the Soul,” a recording of Gregorian Chant recorded by the Cistercian Monks of Stift Heiligenkreuz debuted at the top of the popular music chart.6

Like many scholastic disciplines, such as theology, architecture, and script, scholastic liturgical music had its roots in the Carolingian period, entered a transitional phase in the twelfth century, and achieved a pinnacle of perfection in the thirteenth century that has rarely been equaled.


1. For more on the different genres of chant see William Mahrt’s "Gregorian Chant as a Paradigm of Sacred Music," Sacred Music 133 (2006) 5-14.

2. Kenneth Levy, Gregorian Chant and the Carolingians (Princeton, 1998).

3. For more about the development of medieval music, see Jeremy Yudkin’s Music in Medieval Europe, Englewood Cliffs, NJ, 1989.

4. For a list of such marks see Malcolm B. Parkes, Pause and Effect: an Introduction to the History of Punctuation in the West, London 1992, pp. 301-307, reproduced on the internet in Italian.

5. For a more sophisticated discusssion of rhythym, readers might wish to consult W., Waite, "Discantus, Copula, Organum," Journal of the American Musicological Society 5 (1952) 77-87.

6. For a program on Gregorian Chant see “Here on Earth,” July 17, 2008, “Gregorian Chant Hits the Top of the British Pop Chart” featuring Stanford’s William Mahrt.