5 Short Lessons on Reading Chant Notation
Welcome to the International Chant Academy's first blog post. Our mission is to keep the beauty and meaningfulness of Gregorian Chant and Early Sacred Music alive and relevant. We foster understanding of these art forms, and teach the musical and vocal skills necessary to excellent performance.
Each of these five lessons have been designed from more than a decade of teaching Gregorian chant to hundreds of amateur and professional musicians. While these initial lessons will not cover everything there is to know about Gregorian notation, they will provide a solid foundation for discerning all the pitches of a chant melody.
These lessons were originally released one per day, over the course of a week. We recommend working through each lesson thoroughly before proceeding to the next one. In doing so, you will come to develop skill sets which will play an important role in learning to sight sing Gregorian chant with ease.
Ready? Let's get started.
Lesson #1: Finding the flow of the melody
Excerpt from the offertory chant for the feast of the Ascension, taken from the Anglican Use Gradual
When looking at a chant, you will notice a lot of unusual markings. Among these are squares, diamonds, sweeping diagonals, and squiggles that look like lightning bolts. Each of these specific markings signify individual pitches. (The exceptions are the clef, and the custos, i.e. guide note at the end of each line, but we'll treat these a little later.) While it is tempting to analyze each of these markings in detail, we're going to step back for a bird's eye view of the chant first, to find the flow of the melody line.
Rule #1: always read chant notation from left to right. This one is easy - it's the same rule we follow when reading a page of text, or when learning a work in modern musical notation.
Rule #2: when notes are stacked directly on top of each other, read them in order from bottom to top. Paper was a precious commodity in ancient times, and to save space, scribes would sometimes stack notes right on top of each other. I like to remember this rule by thinking of incense, and our prayers rising from earth to heaven.
Exception to Rule #2: when notes are connected and stacked on top of each other, and one is large and one small, read the large note first, and the small note second.
Above: two examples of the liquescent
If you want the technical name for this particular neume, i.e. grouping of notes which are often visually connected to each other, it is called the liquescent. The reason one note is smaller, is to remind you there is a special way to vocalize on that pitch. (And since you're asking...when the small note coincides with a dipthong or a voiced consonant, you should prolong that vowel or consonant a bit more than usual.)
There is one more neume that follows Rules #1 and #2, but you have to know how to visualize it in order to apply the rules. This neume is the porrectus, and contains a sweeping diagonal line. I like to think the scribe just got a little sloppy and forgot to pick up the quill. Just imagine an erase mark right through the middle of that sweeping diagonal, and everything becomes clearer.
above: two examples of the porrectus
Now, go back to the top of this lesson and look at the chant excerpt, "God is gone up."
Can you follow all the notes (squares, diamonds, and squiggles that look like lightning bolts) in the correct order now? You've just found the flow of the melody!
"I was very pleased when she gave a chant workshop for the Archdiocese of Saint Louis a number of years ago...she has done outstanding work preparing and leading the Gregorian chant at the Cathedral Basilica when I was away. Angela truly knows and loves that repertoire, and it shows."
- Dr. Horst Buchholz
former Director of Sacred Music,
Cathedral Basilica and Archdiocese of Saint Louis
Lesson #2: Half steps and whole steps
(or semitones and whole tones)
If you are an experienced musician, you may already know what we are about to cover in this particular lesson. Still, this will probably be good review for you. If today's material is new to you, just know that learning the system of solfege really well is going to make WORLDS of difference in reading chant easily later.
do re mi fa sol la ti do
The pitches on the four-line staff are arranged according to the pitches found in the major scale, a series of half steps and whole steps (or semitones and whole tones) that we use all the time in western music.
Have you ever watched The Sound of Music? There is a song in that movie called “Doe a Deer”. In the song, Maria sings, “When you know the notes to sing, you can sing most anything.” The song is really just a clever take on the major scale in solfege: "do - re - mi - fa - sol - la - ti - do.”
Practice singing the scale. Sing it from the bottom note up, just like Maria and the kids do: "do - re - mi - fa - sol - la - ti - do."
Now, sing it backwards. “do - ti - la - sol - fa - mi - re - do.” Singing it in reverse is a little more challenging, isn't it? Trust me, this is a VERY important skill to have in your pocket. You can make a simple vertical chart like the one below, and paste it into your music folder til you feel more comfortable singing it in reverse:
This system of singing these scale degrees is called solfege, and it is the basis of sight reading any chant.
The half steps (semitones) occur twice in the scale, between mi and fa, and between ti and do.
One neat thing about singing the scale is that you can start from any pitch you want (i.e. using movable do), and it's still the same scale! Being able to start from any pitch is going to be critical in what we will cover in the next lesson.
Let's look at the scale in another way...
Take a quick jaunt over to your nearest keyboard instrument. If do = C, then re = D, mi = E, fa = F, sol = G, la = A, ti = B, and do = C (again).
Play the scale on the keyboard, going up.
Play it in reverse, going back down.
Now play it going up, while singing the solfege name for each note.
Now play it going back down, while singing the solfege name for each note.
The half steps are found between mi and fa (E and F) and B and C (ti and do)!
Hint: For a free online virtual keyboard, you may click here. Click on "letter notes" once to get the letter names, and click on "letter notes" a second time to see the solfege syllables assigned to the white keys. (This keyboard works best from a full screen electronic device.)
I cannot enough recommend that new students take the time to develop the skill of singing the scale in solfege. Once you can sing the scale easily upwards and downwards, knowing where the half and whole steps occur, you will not need to rely upon a keyboard instrument to pick out the pitches of a chant.
Still stuck on half steps and whole steps?
No worries! If you are a real beginner with music, these terms may be new to you. The easiest way to explain them, is with the use of a keyboard (like the virtual keyboard I mentioned above). Find C, and play it. Then play D. C to D is an example of a whole step (whole tone). Now play C, and then C# (C# is the black key just to the right of C). This is an example of a half step (semitone).
Do you hear the difference between the whole step and the half step?
Now play C# and then D. C# to D is also a half step.
Also, the two half steps (C to C# and C# to D) together equal one whole step, from C to D.
Now that you can find the flow of the melody (Lesson #1 above), and you are familiar with the system of solfege (this lesson), we are getting closer to being able to read the pitches of an actual chant!
"The breathing advice and prayerful approach to liturgical music and chant helped to improve the confidence and ease with which I sing at Mass (I’ve only been a cantor for 7 months), the quality of my sound, and the clarity of the words I sing. "I enjoy and am now comfortable with (and fascinated by!) chant history and notation. Multiple parishioners have shared positive feedback with me; a number have commented on their enjoyment of the chants, in particular. "My time with Angela was an invaluable investment and I am so grateful to her!" - Shelly Cuccias in California private chant student via Zoom
Lesson #3: Clefs
Photo from Binghamton University Library: a 16th Century manuscript from the Convent of Santa Croce
Congratulations! You plowed through the lesson on solfege, and since you know that it takes practice, practice, practice to hone this skill, I expect you've been singing that scale up and down, over and over. Do - re - mi - fa - sol - la - ti - do; do - ti - la - sol - fa - mi - re - do. (Do you remember where the half steps/semitones are? If you don't, be sure to review the previous lesson before proceeding below.)
Today we are going to cover the last fundamental that you need to read a chant melody on the four-line staff: chant clefs.
In western notation, we have two frequently used clefs: treble clef and bass clef. These clefs are always found in the exact same place at the beginning of the staff, and the clefs tell you which fixed pitch/sound frequency each line and space on the western five-line staff represents.
In chant notation, we have the do clef and the fa clef.
The clef is always found at the very beginning of a chant. The do clef looks like an old-fashioned telephone, with two square notes stacked directly on top of each other, and a vertical line attaching them on the lefthand side. This clef is always placed on one of the lines of the staff, and tells the reader that the line on which it rests is “do”, or the first degree of the scale.
Usually the do clef is placed on the top line, but sometimes it is found on the second or even the third line from the top. In each instance, the line on which the do clef is placed = do. (If you are playing the scale on just the white keys of the keyboard, the line on which the do clef rests = C).
The fa clef looks a lot like the do clef, but with an extra appendage hanging off the middle of the lefthand side. The fa clef acts like the do clef, except that instead of signifying do, it signifies fa, or the fourth degree of the scale (or "F" if you are playing the scale on the white keys of the keyboard). The fa clef is always found on the second or third line from the top of the staff.
Example: At the very top of this lesson is a beautiful 16th century chant manuscript. Which clef do you see in it? Make sure you locate the four line staff specifically first, and then observe the very beginning of the staff, on the lefthand side. Do you see two squares, or do you see three? (Hint: they are not perfectly shaped squares.) On which line does the clef rest?
Here is the biggest distinction between the clefs of western notation, and the clefs of chant notation. In western notation, once a clef is assigned, each space and line designates a specific, fixed pitch/sound frequency. In chant, do is movable: you can assign any pitch to be do or fa. The only thing the clef tells you, is the relationship of half and whole steps to each other.
Remember in Lesson #2 when I said the half steps always occur between mi and fa, and ti and do? That's the magic of the clefs in chant. The clef tells you where the half steps and whole steps fall, and you get to choose the starting pitch! When we would rehearse chant as a schola at the Cathedral Basilica of Saint Louis, our conductor frequently altered the starting pitch of a chant to find the best vocal range for the group. Regardless of the starting pitch, it's always the exact same sheet music.
Note: sometimes people call the do clef the "C" clef and the fa clef the "F" clef. This is only true if you always assign do = C. If you have perfect pitch and are just learning to read chant, it will be especially important for you to practice singing chant starting from various pitches, and not to become attached to any one fixed pitch for do or for fa.
We've now covered just about all the fundamentals you need to apply the scale to the four-line staff. Are you ready to start reading the pitches of an actual chant? Our next lesson is devoted exactly to this!
"I always try to take some music course or attend a music seminar or convention during the summer. With high gas prices and travel expenses, I decided to take Angela’s Online Chant Course 1. There was much I knew but I learned some really useful information and many things that I didn’t know! We covered types of neumes, solfège, sight-reading using numbers, clefs. What I learned was some history, how to learn and practice new chants, an explanation of the modes, drones, and some new resources. There is a helpful private lesson singing a prepared chant. I have definitely used what I learned in the first course and am looking forward to taking more. I highly recommend the International Chant Academy."
- Kathi Calamari in Louisiana
Online Chant Course - Level I, student
Lesson #4: Putting it all together
Ask, and you will receive / Petite, et accipietis sung by Angela Marie Rocchio
English setting from the American Gradual, by Bruce Ford,
followed by Latin setting and verse in English from Communio with English verses, by Richard Rice
In the first three lessons, we covered the rules to find the flow of the melody in chant, solfege and the relationship of half and whole steps (semitones and whole tones), and the two chant clefs, using movable do.
Now we just need to apply the scale to the staff, and we will be ready to read the pitches of a real chant!
Every space and every line in chant corresponds to a degree of the scale. Once you know the clef and its location, it is easy to figure out where the half and whole steps are. Just assign the rest of the solfege degrees in order, on the spaces and lines.
Here's what it looks like with the do clef.
And here's what it looks like with the fa clef.
Images of solfege pitches on the staff are taken from the Parish Book of Chant
Sometimes there are ledger lines in chant, when the range of the melody is too big to fit wholly on the staff. For instance, in the first example above with the fa clef, do is on a ledger line just above the staff, and ti in the space below it. Just treat these ledger lines and spaces exactly as what they are: extensions of the staff.
The order of the solfege degrees in chant is always the same. The half steps will always occur between mi and fa, and ti and do (unless there is a flat, but we'll talk about that in our final lesson).
The scale degrees will fall on different lines and spaces, depending on the clef and the location of the clef on the staff.
Revisiting our chant from Lesson #1: excerpt from the offertory chant for the Ascension, from the Anglican Use Gradual
Now is the moment you've been waiting for. It is time to apply what you've learned these past few days to an actual piece of chant.
1) The first rule is to check which clef the chant uses, and where it is placed. In the "God is gone up" chant, we see the do clef, and it is placed on the top of the four lines.
2) The first note of this particular chant is on the very bottom line. If we count down over the spaces and lines, then, the very first pitch is re.
3) Recall the rules for finding the flow of the melody. Left to right, and bottom to top (unless we have run into the one exception to the bottom-to-top rule, but fortunately we don't have any liquescent neumes in this chant).
4) We have run into the porrectus neume already, though. What is the rule for finding the notes in a porrectus? (Refer to Lesson #1 if you need a refresher.)
5) Here are the notes in order, up until the half bar:
(cantor intones up to the asterisk) re - do - re - re - mi - fa - sol - la *
(full choir sings after the asterisk) la - ti - do - re - ti - do - la - sol - la - ti - la - ti - ti - la
6) If you would rather use the keyboard and assign do = C, it translates this way:
(cantor) D - C - D - D - E - F - G - A
(full choir) A - B - C - D - B - C - A - G - A - B - A - B - B - A
Can you fill in the rest? (It's okay to write in the pitch names on the chant if you need to.)
CONGRATULATIONS! You are reading chant notation.
There are still a few more things we need to go over. Believe it or not, Gregorian chant has accidentals (gasp!), and I still haven't explained the guide note at the end of each bar. Keep reading for our fifth and final lesson.
"It was my first experience of private lessons with a foreign tutor and online. Angela was available to accommodate for the 7 hour time difference from my country to hers. She is very welcoming, and well prepared for lessons. I did not expect this type of chant lessons. It was much BETTER than I thought!!! I learnt a lot and it was perfect timing since I found myself building on the solid ground she taught me. She facilitates the learning experience, gives lots of encouragement, sends notes after each lesson and helpful links. I definitely recommend her. Angela is a wonderful person to work with."