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Too many notes?! Structural and ornamental pitches in Gregorian chant.

When first singing a new chant, sometimes the succession of pitches seems random, as though the composer picked up a paintbrush and flicked square notes across a page. Of course, nothing could be further from the truth.

Communion chant "Hoc corpus"

Chant is a living organism with various complementary parts. Each pitch has its own function. Some pitches in the organism are like bones in a skeleton. They are the melodic framework upon which everything else depends, and are what give it stability. Let’s call these structural pitches. Other pitches are like muscles. They cling to the skeleton, and animate the chant organism with movement and life. Let’s call these ornamental pitches (as long as it is understood that they are still essential melodic elements).

country road on a cross country road trip

Here is another way to look at it. When planning an epic cross country road trip, we make stops at gas stations and restaurants, and seek scenic overlooks along the way. These break up the monotony that comes from passing hours of driving, and serve as moments to which we look forward. Structural pitches are like stops along the journey from chant incipit to termination. They provide points of interest which we anticipate, and give purpose to the road that lies between them. Sometimes the melodic road between these points of arrival is delicate and windy; at other times it is bold and a little reckless.

Of structural pitches, the most important is the “final” or home pitch, i.e. the pitch that gives a sense of completion, or feeling of arrival. (Gregorian chant gravitates towards different “finals” than our more modern systems of major and minor, and it can take a bit of ear training to feel comfortable with them.)

How do we find the rest of a chant’s structural pitches? Here are some thoughts:

  • When singing in a resonant space, they are the pitches that we tend to hear a little more prominently than the rest.

  • When sung without the ornamental pitches, they retain the essential characteristics of the melody, and make melodic sense by themselves.

  • Cadential pitches (the last pitch before a bar line) are structural.

  • When singing a neumatic chant (such as the communion chant in this post), a singer should be able to reduce each syllable to a single pitch.

  • When singing a melismatic chant, a singer can usually reduce a melisma down to two or three pitches (these may be repeated several times over the course of a melisma). See example of a melisma below.

Melisma in an offertory chant

Image: a melisma (in red brackets) in the offertory chant for the Fourth Sunday of Advent

When a singer learns how to identify structural pitches, they open a door into a wonderful world of artistry. The natural rhythm, accents and cadences of the text can be rendered with greater ease. The timing of musical phrases with the flow and duration of one’s breath becomes more natural. The singer can gauge and maximize upon the effect of a given acoustic with greater facility. The chant becomes imbued with a sense of animation, seeking and anticipation.

Highlighted in the example below are structural pitches for the communion chant, Hoc corpus. The "final" of this chant is the fifth degree of the major scale, or "sol" (visually, it is the pitch that falls on the middle space between the lines, and the final pitch of the chant).

Structural pitches in the chant "Hoc corpus"

First, try to sing all the pitches of the chant as written. (See blog: 5 Short Lessons for Singing from Chant Notation if you need help with this.)

Next, sing just the highlighted pitches.

Now, sing them again, being sensitive to the text.

What do you notice? Does it help you to understand what the melody is doing a bit better? Does it help you to connect the melody to the text?


The mission of the International Chant Academy 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.


What students say...

"The [Online Chant Course - Level II] was very well structured allowing participants to build upon their personal experience with chant and existing knowledge and skills. Participants had ample opportunity for questions and exploration of alternative performance interpretations of various chants. Having attended several chant workshops, I came to the class with knowledge from a variety of sources, and Angela brought those pieces of knowledge together into a cohesive package. "Angela is a friendly and encouraging instructor. She strives to have each participant succeed in understanding and performing chant. She was very thorough in her presentation of the history of chant and the recovery of this beautiful musical expression of our faith in the present. "I highly recommend this course for anyone who desires to understand the rich musical treasure of the Catholic Church and for those in positions to elevate Sacred Liturgy with music."​

~ Rhonda Sorg-Rossano

Director of Sacred Music

St. Joseph's Catholic Church

Ponchatoula, LA

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