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Ecclesiastical Chant and Music

From Catholic Liturgics* by Richard Stapper, S.T.D.


1. Origin and Development of Chant. Chant was used even by the most ancient peoples at divine service; it was because of this intimate relation with worship that mythology frequently represented the musical art as a gift of the gods. Later, singing became more and more foreign to pagan cults, developing into a collection of unintelligible magical calls, which were intended to keep away the powers of evil and entice the gods, the good spirits. The feats of the gods and demigods, however, were still praised in rather wordy hymns at religious processions and sacrifices.

Chant also had a place in Catholic liturgy from the very beginning (cf. Acts 2, 46 ff.; 1 Cor. 14, 15 ff.; Eph. 5, 19; Col. 3, 16). It is significant that St. Paul exhorts the Christians to sing hymns and canticles “in their hearts.” The Apostle evidently regarded singing as a becoming means of giving honor to God, but only in as far as it is an expression of the dispositions of the heart. Accurate information concerning the character of the most ancient ecclesiastical chant comes to us from the age of the apostolic Fathers. The practice of the Jewish synagogues was followed in regard to the manner of singing Psalms and canticles, which resembled psalms, were rendered by soloists; at certain intervals the people intervened with a refrain (responsorial chant). Soon the Greek practice of alternate or antiphonal singing was introduced in the communities of Gentile Christians and developed in accordance with the spirit of the Church.

The recitative chant among all peoples is derived from the usual tone of conversation. A characteristic of the ancient Jews in chanting psalms was the change of the dominant in both sections of the verse, in order to express ecstasy and other vehement emotions of the soul. Thus before the eating of the paschal lamb the Jews sang Psalm 113 with extraordinary feeling. For the chanting of the same psalm at Sunday Vespers the Church adopted a similar practice, and still uses the irregular tone or the so-called tonus peregrinus. Originally, it seems, there were only four tones for the chanting of psalms. Development in the chanting of antiphons led to greater variety in chanting psalms, so that the number of tones was increased to eight. The ancient Christian chant seems to have derived its richness of modulation and particularly its change of tones from the ancient Greek music, which abounded in choral and antiphonal singing.

In the Western Church St. Ambrose and St. Gregory the Great were very influential in the development of ecclesiastical chant. The former introduced antiphonal psalmody in Milan; the latter determined the texts of the chant which were to be used at a solemn Papal Mass. His reform, the Gregorian choral, spread through England in the seventh century and through France, Germany and the other countries of the West in the eighth and ninth centuries. The choral is based upon the diatonic, that is, upon the common scale with seven intervals, of which five are whole tones and two are semitones. The effect, therefore, is that of peace and quiet. In its melodies there is a sacred earnestness and sublimity which elevate the soul and inspire it with pious feelings. Out of plainchant with its simple accompaniment, polyphonic singing gradually evolved. By the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries it had reached its highest stage of development. Many decrees of the Church have been directed against the degeneration of polyphonic singing, though in itself it is expressly permitted and even recommended. Two composers have especially promoted the ideal of ecclesiastical polyphony in all its classical purity: Palestrina (d. 1594 in Rome) composed more than ninety Masses, while Orlandus Lassus (d. 1594 in Munich) was the composer of about twelve hundred motets, fifty Masses, the Penitential Psalms, the Lamentations, the Magnificat and several hymns. The secularization of polyphonic singing manifested itself in the compositions of Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert and K. M. von Weber, and especially in Italian concert music.

According to the example of the Old Testament, the chant of the ancient Christian Church was originally executed in one voice. At least the responses of the people, the psalms and the trisagion intended to imitate the cry of the cherubim and seraphim in Heaven, were chanted in the synagogues this way. The early Christians also called upon one another to chant the Sanctus in one voice (una voce dicentes).

The philosophers and ecclesiastical writers of Alexandria regarded this type of liturgical chant as most in accord with the unity of the Divine Essence and the union of the faithful with one another; likewise as directly opposed to the discord among the pagan deities and to the blustering polyphony of the music in the Greek temples. For this reason the Christian Church zealously adhered to the employment of plainchant in the liturgy. According to St. Basil, it was a means of promoting fraternal charity: “Who can regard him as an enemy with whom he has sung in one voice for the glory of God? Therefore the chanting of psalms also engenders charity, the most precious blessing....” (Hom. in ps. 1, 2). In a letter of the year 561 from Constantinople, it is stated that in the chanting there of the Gloria in excelsis, the priests and faithful used to “grasp one another’s hands in token of their unity and harmony” (Kirchengesch. des Zacharias Rhetor V. 11, ed. Ahrens-Krueger, Leipzig, 1899, 83). The union of their voices and their bodies in singing was intended to strengthen the union of their hearts.

The most ancient document of ecclesiastical music dates from the third century. It was found on a piece of papyrus at Oxyrhnchos and was published in 1922. It contains the text and Greek plainchant notation. But it was not very long before the Byzantine Church was forced to permit polyphonic singing in the churches, a change necessitated by the splendor with which divine service was conducted at the imperial court. At first the so-called paraphonists were introduced. They accompanied the rest of the singers with only one additional voice in the fifth or the fourth. Paraphonists made their appearance in the church choirs of the West at the time of Gregory the Great.

2. Choirs of Women and Boys. At first the whole congregation, as far as possible, carried out the liturgy. Women, of course, also participated in the ecclesiastical chant. St. Ambrose expressly states that “women should take part in the singing of psalms, for the joining of such a great number of people in one choir is a strong bond of unity” (In. ps. 1, Migne, PL, 14, 925). Especially was the chanting of psalms zealously adopted in the ancient convents of women (cf. Peregrinatio Aetheriae 24, 1). Opposition to the participation of women in the chant of the Church arose, however, in some places as in Syria at the time of St. Ephrem, when heretics employed women to chant hymns of heretical content. Moreover, the singing of women on other occasions, generally accompanied by the playing of the flute and dancing, gradually fell into disrepute. For this reason, all participation of women in ecclesiastical chant, and especially women’s choirs, were absolutely forbidden. In support of this action the words of St. Paul, “Let women keep silence in the churches” (1 Cor. 14, 34) were cited. The participation of women in congregational singing was, however, soon permitted and even urged again, as in recent times by Pius X.

According to the Peregrinatio Aetheriae (24, 5), choirs of boys existed in the fourth century in Jerusalem, where the singing of the Kyrie eleison was entrusted to them. In the Syrian Church, boys sang the psalms alternately with the deacons and priests (Testam. Domini, c. 22, Rahmani 143). In the ancient Gallican Church, choirs of boys used to sing the Kyrie eleison at Mass and in processions. Furthermore, it is certain that a choir of boys took part in ecclesiastical chant in Rome from the time of Pope Gregory the Great.

The chant of boys was especially preferred by the Church because it did not involve what the Fathers of the Church frequently feared as the consequence of the artistic rendition of hymns by women’s choirs, namely, the dramatic appeal to the senses (cf. Augustine, Confess. X 33). The chant of boys’ choirs is firm and earnest, but nevertheless pleasing.

3. Purpose and Use of Ecclesiastical Chant. By its melody and rendition, chant must serve the twofold purpose of liturgy: the glorification of God and the sanctification and edification of the faithful. It must, therefore, keep aloof from melodies which seek merely to arouse sensual delight, border on the profane or aspire after the theatrical. It should render the liturgical texts in a complete, intelligible and edifying manner, since that is the only reason for the existence of the melody (Motu proprio of Pius X, November 22, 1903).

Plainchant is characterized by its sacredness, by its astonishing richness of themes and its great artistic value. It is the ecclesiastical chant in the strict sense of the term, for Pius X declared it the norm of liturgical music. The clergy, therefore, should be zealous and diligent in promoting it. Only an intelligent rendition of it can produce the sublime effects which flow from its very nature.

At first the neums served as musical notes. In some respect they correspond to the motions of the choir director and by means of points, bars and crotchets indicate the rising or falling of the tone, though not the exact length of the intervals. By simplifying the already existing linear system, Guido of Arezzo (d. about 1050) made it possible for everyone to recognize the exact intervals. Plainchant has retained Guido’s system of four lines down to the present. In the 12th century the so-called square note developed in France. At that time the square form, as used today, was also adopted for the signs of entire groups of notes.

Classical polyphonic chant is closely related to plainchant, and therefore also merits a place in the liturgy of the more important festive occasions in order to contribute toward their splendor. The so-called Palestrina style especially betrays its origin from plainchant; from it “there streams forth a quiet and calm disposition which transcends the individual, a transfigured, celestial, frequently seraphic devotion” (Wagner, Einfuehrung, 119).

The Congregation of Rites has frequently declared that only Latin chant is permitted at strictly liturgical functions. Such functions are as follows: every high Mass, even when it is celebrated without the assistance of a deacon and subdeacon; any part of the Divine Office; the Asperges; Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament (Decr. auth. nn. 3496 ad 1, 3830 art. 7, 3113 ad 1, 3230, 3994, 3827, 3975 ad 5, etc.).

At other times, however, devotional singing in the vernacular is frequently permitted in connection with divine service. Such singing lacks the universal character of plainchant and is distinguished instead by its national characteristics. When the official language of the liturgy ceases to be the language of the people, their part in rendering liturgical chant was necessarily restricted. In countries where the people did not speak a Romance tongue, they merely sang in simple fashion the Ordinary of the Mass and the acclamations. Hence, they sought some compensation by giving expression to their religious feelings in the singing of devotional hymns outside of liturgical functions. Since congregational singing played such an important part in the religious service of Protestants, Catholics also extended the use of hymns in the vernacular. In some sections of Germany, hymns in the vernacular were even substituted for parts of high Mass, but during the last century were again forbidden in great part by the Church.

Provided vernacular hymns are in accord with the spirit of the Church as to both text and melody, they are permitted as accessory to the liturgy; they may, therefore, be sung during low Mass, before and after high Mass, before and after the sermon, at processions and pilgrimages and at all popular devotions, and likewise when the Blessed Sacrament is publicly exposed.

In an Apostolic Constitution of December 20, 1928, Pius XI again inculcates the principles that should regulate church music, church choirs and congregational singing, and also adds some valuable and practical suggestions.

4. Musical Accompaniment. In the beginning the Church opposed the use of musical instruments at divine service, though they were extensively employed in the old dispensation (cf. Num. 10, 8-10, Chron. 2, 24-28).

Instrumental music was intimately associated with pagan worship and was regarded, during Christian antiquity, as being at variance with the spirit of piety. Novatian complains that the holy instruments came to be prohibited “through the trickery of the devil” (De. spect. 3, Migne, PL, 4, 811). They were used as a magical means of warding off demons and appeasing the gods. Especially were the playing of flutes and the accompaniment of drums and zithers regarded as an expression of pagan worship; the former took place at all sacrifices in the temples of the Greeks and Romans, while the latter was used in the ancient mystery cults to inspire religious ecstasy. Clement of Alexandria was opposed to the use of the flute, because it recalls the cult of Dionysius and Cybele and results in an ecstatic condition, with which wild outbursts of passion were associated. St. Athanasius directs his attention against that instrumental music which is used at dances; St. Augustine, against instruments which recall the music of theatres. St. Jerome did not like to have Christian virgins even know the purpose of the lyre and the flute, for those instruments were used at that time by roving Syrian women as an accompaniment to their songs, which were in great part of an obscene character. Many Greek philosophers were also opposed to the noisy music of sacrifices, on the ground that it was unsuitable to an internal worship of God (as Philo, De special, leg. II, 193).

It seems that the Christians at first permitted only the zither for the purpose of accompanying the chanting of psalms and hymns. The Apocalypse refers to the saints in heaven as having zithers in their hands in chanting the “new canticle” to the Lamb, Christ (cf. Apoc. 5, 8 f.).

Clement of Alexandria wrote that no one was to be blamed for singing to the playing of the zither or the lyre, because he merely followed the example of David, the king of the Hebrews (cf. Paedag. II, 4). But about the year 400 stringed instruments were probably forbidden at divine service both in the Orient and in northern Africa (cf. Canones of St. Basil).

Later, when the organ was invented, it was adopted first in monastery churches, and then in cathedrals and other churches. Its sustained, uniform and full tone made it easier for choirs to hold the dominant in solemn chanting. The organ gradually became in the strict sense the musical instrument of the Church. It was not until the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries that other instruments also came into use at church services.

In regard to instrumental music, it is important to note that it is permitted for the sole purpose of sustaining and accentuating the liturgical chant. It has no independent character. The liturgical texts which are recited or sung must always remain the principal element of Catholic worship. The one musical instrument which is specifically ecclesiastical is the organ. Definite rules concerning its use at liturgical functions are found in the Caeremoniale episcoporum (I c. 28). They are supplemented by the Motu proprio of Pius X of November 22, 1903, and the Apostolic Constitution of Pius XI of December 20, 1928.

a) The organ should accompany only the singing of the choir or congregation, but not that of the celebrant or his assistants, the deacon and subdeacon. The playing of the organ should be serious and dignified and, wherever possible, also artistic.

b) If parts of the Kyrie, Gloria (not of the Credo), Sanctus and Agnus Dei, or of the hymns, psalms and canticles are supplied by the organ for the purpose of relieving the chanters, it is necessary for the sake of completeness to recite the respective texts aloud (intelligibili voce).

c) Since the organ imparts a solemn and joyful character to liturgical functions, its use is strictly forbidden on Sundays and ferials of Advent (except the third Sunday) and Lent (except the fourth Sunday).

d) For the same reason, preludes, postludes or interludes are also prohibited at high Masses of Requiem.

In regard to other musical instruments, the Church prescribes that they may be used to accentuate the chant, but may not stifle it. Expressly forbidden are the rather noisy instruments, such as drums, cymbals, castanets and the like; the piano and the phonography as well as the playing of bands in the church are also proscribed. By such laws the Church evidently desires to remove from Catholic liturgy whatever is worldly, profane and strongly subjective.

In the aforementioned Motu proprio, Pius declares — in words similar to those of Clement of Alexandria, St. Athanasius, St. Augustine and St. Jerome — that instrumental music is not ecclesiastical if it savors of the profane, theatrical or pagan. Furthermore, Pius XI in his Apostolic Constitution recommends the organization of boys’ choirs, even in the smaller parishes; these choirs should be trained not only in Gregorian chant, but also in sacred polyphony. Orchestral accompaniment should always be kept within moderate bounds.


* Catholic Liturgics, trans. by David Baier, O.F.M., S.T.D., St. Anthony Guild Press, Paterson, New Jersey, 1935.

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