Learning to Read Gregorian Notation

As promised, I am sending a little posting in response to the interest I have found by readers and contributors in Gregorian notation. So as not to re-invent the wheel, I include three links, one specifically to a Gregorian chant site and two dealing with basic tuition in reading modern music notation.

Here they are:

The last link is a little “goofy” for my taste and American (the Americans use different music terminology from us Brits – I don’t know about the Canadians). But, it is audio-visual and might help to make learning less agonising and boring. You will find it a lot easier if you have played a musical instrument and had a bit of do-re-mi tuition at school when you were little. It will come back as you work, and your progress will be that much faster.

Just a few general elements: musical notation, whether Gregorian or “modern”, is a language with its own grammar and rules of harmony. If you have never had any musical training, and you really want to make a start, it is hard and there are no short-cuts. There are various methods for learning, and each suits a particular temperament and age of the pupil.

To learn Gregorian chant, the Ward Method takes a lot of beating. It is especially suitable for children, but can be adapted for adults. The first thing is to sing a major scale and identify the two points where there are semitones. You have to identify the notes of this scale with the notes in the lines and spaces of the stave – the C and F in Gregorian notation or the G and F in modern notation are marked by clefs. This association is helped by having a piano or an electronic keyboard instrument. Begin in C major, because there are no sharps and flats. The sharps and flats come in when you sing the scale in other keys.

The next element is identifying and singing intervals, the numerical difference between two notes in the scale. You thus have the second, third, fourth, fifth (quint), sixth, seventh and the octave. The fourth, quint and octave are “pure”. The third and sixth are consonant and the second and seventh are dissonant. You won’t make much sense of what I’m writing here, so you will need to see the graphics and explanations in the sites above.

You must identify the clef in the stave. In Gregorian chant, it is usually a C or a F. In psalmody, your reciting note is generally the A, so you transpose the psalm chant and the antiphon to go with the psalm. If you don’t identify the clef, then you can’t determine where the two semitones are in the major scale.

After you have mastered the basic scale, you need to know about the eight psalm tones and their various endings. You will find all that in the link above or the introduction to the Solesmes Liber Usualis, which is in print (reproduction of the 1962 edition). All Gregorian music is in one of the eight tones. “Modern” music only has major and minor modes.

You next need to know the neumes, which are the symbols that represent groups of notes. Each neume has a Latin name, and I remember some lay brothers looking after a monastery farm who named their livestock after the Latin neume names, Podatus, Clivis, Scandicus, Porrectus, etc.

That’s just for the notes. Rhythm in Gregorian chant is very different from modern music notion with its measured time signatures and bars. The notes come in groups of two and three (triplets). The rhythm makes the chant flow.

All that is a tall order for people who are on their own. The best is to join a choir and go to the practices. There are also Gregorian chant sessions organised in different places, and that is the best way to learn. The music is the same whether the texts are in English or Latin. I strongly recommend learning to sing in Latin, and this will make it easier to sing in English when you are putting something on for your own parish.

If you have questions, I’ll try to answer them as best as possible. But, one thing is for sure – it is hard work and I can’t do the learning in your place.