Seemingly simplistic or rigidly anachronistic, perhaps, the simple truth is that the Church’s music is basically Gregorian Chant. (The other forms of truly sacred music, such as polyphony and reverent hymnody, have grown directly out of it and are therefore closely related to chant.) When you play a CD of chant, what you are hearing is something significant and extraordinary. Developing organically throughout the centuries following the Ascension of Our Lord, the monastic tradition of the Christian West brought us the chant we have today. This chant in Latin (and a tiny bit of Greek) was preserved, grew and developed in the heart of the Church to extend out eventually and spiritually nourish Catholics everywhere. It sounds so alien today. Outside of Classical music stations or televised Vatican Masses, we don’t ever hear it. However, this Chant remains an essential element of Catholic worship. Musical pieces that are composed from and for the psalms, the enormous repertory of Gregorian chant includes a plethora of different settings for complete psalm texts, antiphons (short prayers) for repeating between psalm verses, hymns and songs based on scripture texts and theological ideas, and all the parts of the Mass.
Gregorian Chant is music sung in unison, all voices singing the same words and the same melody line at the same time. Vastly dissimilar to any pop songs we may know today, Gregorian Chant is different in its textual language and its musical language. Composed in the Sacred Language of the Catholic Church, Gregorian Chant is mostly in Latin with a few pieces using some Greek. (Chant in the English language is called Vernacular Plainsong, and although it is from the same general tradition, it is not what is known as Gregorian Chant.) The melodies of Gregorian Chant feature ancient, unique sound combinations. From ancient times the Greeks had classified pleasing groups of note sequences into “scales” called modes. Based on the rules for the ordering of the notes, song melodies could be categorized together into groups, like families, based on these modes. Virtually all of today’s music is roughly based on two of the modes. In contrast, Gregorian Chant melodies can come from any one of the eight different mode “families.” With the recent loss of Gregorian Chant in parish life, we never hear this full spectrum of tone compositions anymore. Nowadays listening to, appreciating, and learning to sing these chants takes some time to get used to. However, the experience in the ultimate of sacred beauty in Church music is absolutely worth it!
Not just for monks and nuns blessedly tucked away in their monasteries, Chant has always been music for all Catholics. There are chant pieces for all levels of musical competence. Truly, Chant is for everyone! In fact, most American Catholics likely can sing three parts of the Mass in a simple, elegant Gregorian Chant setting already: the Kyrie Eleison, Sanctus, and Agnus Dei. These ancient chant melodies were widely known for centuries, and were specially recommended for Catholics to sing at Mass by Blessed Pope Paul VI in the document Jubilate Deo. Jubilate Deo, which he promulgated in 1974, contains the “minimum repertoire of Gregorian chant” he wanted each and every Catholic to know. (This “minimum repertoire” contains dozens of chants: 16 hymns and psalms, as well as all of the congregation’s responses and 5 parts for the Ordinary of the Mass.) Blessed Pope Paul’s vision could very realistically be implemented today. Teaching the chants of the Church to yourself and your children is ridiculously easy in the age of the internet. Looking at sheet music printed out from the many wonderful sacred music websites while singing along with an internet video eliminates the need to wait for the parish choir to begin singing chant at Mass in order to start learning it for yourself.
I have continually used internet resources myself in order to learn sacred music. The Church Music Association of America is possibly having more influence than any other single group in the United States on the revival and restoration of Sacred Music in Catholic parishes. Due to their materials, seminars, and websites, I was able to learn enough about the Sacred Music tradition of the Church almost three years ago to help start a Schola (a Gregorian Chant choir) at my parish. Going from knowing absolutely nothing to being able to rehearse beautiful sacred music for Mass, I owe everything I have learned to volunteers and scholars associated with the CMAA. Now I believe that one day soon Catholics will hear chant again in their churches. The music of God, the music of the Church, the music of Catholic people, Gregorian Chant will return because of the tireless, loving work of many people. You can be one of those people! When you are ready to add Sacred Music to your family’s prayer life, you will enjoy praying with the incredible beauty of this holy tradition. With a little time and effort, you can begin to sing the extraordinary sacred music of your Church.