3 Chanting in Churches
In this chapter you will
- learn about chanting in Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Christianity
- discover why the custom may have arisen to chant the Bible rather than simply read it
- explore how you can use chanting as a first step toward making vocal music yourself
Rather than only reading about chanting, it will enhance your learning if you actually do it. Don’t worry if you have never done anything like this before. Feel free to consult a tutorial and aim for something authentic from a particular tradition, or just place pitch on your speaking of words from some biblical text. In other words, don’t just say the words; sing them. Do it all on the same note to begin with. Then try changing up the ending to make it more interesting. If you are nervous, do this where no one else can hear you. The point is not to do it in some way that is evaluated as correct but simply to do it. Just as there are things that you cannot learn about driving without getting behind the wheel of a car, there are things that you cannot learn about music without actually making music.
When it comes to the official approach to chanting in one major stream of Christianity, Roman Catholicism, you can find many tutorials online, like on YouTube, that explain what to do and how to do it. If you take the time to explore what is available online, you will hear and see differences among them. They reflect a wide array of chanting traditions, some of which you may have heard of, and others of which may be unfamiliar to you. Many people have heard of plainsong or Gregorian chant, for instance—a historic part of the Catholic tradition characterized by unaccompanied singing in unison. More than one website is dedicated to explaining how musical phrases were notated in that tradition before the modern system of writing music developed. Another site does the same for the Byzantine chant, which is the tradition in Eastern Orthodox churches, explaining its history and its system of notation. There is significant diversity of styles across different denominations and different regions, to which we cannot do justice here. Nevertheless, the very act of chanting Scripture reflects a shared heritage. As we trace this back further still, it is important not to let the treatment of chanting in Judaism and Christianity in two chapters obscure the fact that the very practice of chanting Scripture is something shared in common, even if styles of chanting differ between Judaism and Christianity as well as within each of those traditions depending on location and culture. As mentioned in previous chapters, Christianity emerged out of Judaism. While Christianity often took things in a distinctive direction as it grew into a separate world religion, it is important to recognize the shared roots and origins in addition to the differences.
Why did people start chanting the Scriptures instead of merely reading them? There are undoubtedly a number of reasons. One is that some of the Bible, especially the Psalms, started as song and then took on the status of Scripture. In other words, some of Scripture was sung before it was written. If some of Scripture could be sung, why not the rest? Treating the text in this special way highlighted its significance. You might say it put a “halo of sound” around the words, much as a halo was traditionally added to a saint in paintings. Singing also helps project the sound, and as gatherings of worshipers became larger and larger, it became more difficult and, at the same time, more important to be heard. One thing that many people do not realize is that the same skills you need to sing are the ones you need to speak publicly. Using your voice properly in both ways has a lot in common. Varying pitch is important (you’ve undoubtedly heard someone speak in monotone). Supporting your speech with deep breaths and good support from the diaphragm matters in both. Using the resonance in one’s head rather than pressure on the vocal cords to generate a powerful sound is crucial in both as well. You may have had a teacher who spoke in a singsong voice. They had learned to use their voice in a way that was more interesting and intelligible to the listener and less tiring for the speaker.
I mention this because many who read this book have little or no interest in singing. But most people need to use their voices for work purposes daily and can suffer fatigue or worse as a result of not using their voice properly. Speaking, singing, chanting, or doing anything else with one’s voice is a learned skill. Some people may have bodies that resonate in ways that generate sounds that are highly appreciated, but they still learned to use their voices well. In some cases, people started learning this skill so early that by the time anyone heard them, they assumed it was “natural talent.” Not everyone sounds the same, but making sound with your voice is important to us all, and making music—even if only at a very basic level—is better than not doing so at all. Being a little bit healthy is better than being completely unhealthy. Being a little bit informed is (in most cases) better than being completely uninformed. Don’t just read this book about music. When moments arise when it is natural to do so, sing along!
Before moving on, it would be unfortunate if we left readers with the impression that ancient music that engaged with the Bible only chanted the words of biblical texts. Far from it. An important example is Hildegard of Bingen, and you may want to jump to chapter 23 now before proceeding further.
For Further Reading
DeBona, Guerric, and Eileen Schuller, “The Bible and Liturgy.” In The Jerome Biblical Commentary, edited by Donald Senior, John J. Collins, Barbara Reid, and Gina Hens-Piazza. London: T & T Clark, 2021. http://dx.doi.org/10.5040/9781350182875.092.
Oancea, Constantin. “The Trees in the Middle of Paradise (Gn 2:9) during the Great Lent: Orthodox Hymnography as Biblical Interpretation.” HTS 77, no. 4 (2021): 1–7. https://dx.doi.org/10.4102/hts.v77i4.6699.
Siddons, Kyle. “Utilizing North American Art Song Settings of Psalm Texts in Worship Service.” PhD diss., University of North Texas, 2014.
Yatskaya, Svetlana. “Music and Liturgy in Early Christianity.” MA thesis, UNISA, 2001.
- The website of Corpus Christi Watershed shared a video along with additional tutorial materials and other information that may be useful and of interest. ↵