Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Chant and praise music

The music minister at a large Presbyterian church once told me that modern "praise songs" were like Gregorian chant because they were repetitious (e.g., "Worthy, worthy, worthy, worthy, is the Lord, Oh, he's so worthy, worthy, worthy...").

This amiable fellow had had a long and pretty distinguished career as a classical vocal soloist, but I guess he had never spent any time carefully listening to, or better yet, singing chant. If he had, he would have known that although chant will sometimes spread a single syllable over several notes, it never repeats itself gratuitously the way praise music habitually does. When chant does repeat a phrase or sentence, it's part of a verse-and-response structure that makes contextual sense. The longest sections of chant in the Ordinary -- the Gloria, Credo, and Pater Noster -- have no repetition at all.

Chant does deliver the words more slowly than we would normally speak them, and maybe that's where some of the confusion comes in. But that's part of its effectiveness: it gives us time to slow down, quiet down, and really let the meaning of the words we're singing soak in.