How Did Plainchant Begin?

Definition and Description of this Medieval Style of Music

Monks at the Monastery of Santo Domingo de Silos
Luis Davilla/Getty Images

Plainchant is a form of medieval church music that involves chanting or words that are sung, without any instrumental accompaniment. It is also called plainsong.

You might be more familiar with the term, Gregorian Chant, which you may have encountered while reading about early music forms or you may have heard about it at church. Gregorian Chant is a variety of plainchant, although the two terms are often incorrectly referred to as synonymous.

Christian Tradition

An early form of music, plainchant emerged around 100 C.E. It was the only type of music allowed in Christian churches early on. In Christian tradition, it was believed that music should make a listener receptive to spiritual thoughts and reflections.

This was why the melody was kept pure and unaccompanied. In fact, the same melody would be repeatedly used throughout the plainsong. There are no harmonies or chords that embellish the melody.

Why Is it Also Called Gregorian Chant?

In the early centuries, there were many different kinds of plainchant without standardization. Around the year 600, Pope Gregory the Great (also known as Pope Gregory the First) wanted to compile all the different types of chants into one collection. Named after him, this compilation was known as Gregorian Chant, which later became a term used to describe this variety of music in general.

The different types of Gregorian Chant include prayer, reading, psalm, canticle, hymn, prose, antiphon, responsory, introit, alleluia and much more.

Musical Notation of Plainchant

As opposed to modern music notation, plainchant is written on 4 lines instead of 5 lines. Also, a symbol called "neumes" was used to indicate pitch and syllable phrasing. There is no record of notation for the earlier forms of plainchant.

Plainchant Today

Today, Gregorian chants are still being sung in Roman Catholic churches around the world. It is set to Latin text and sung, either solo or by a choir. Take a listen to Paris's Notre Dame Gregorian Chants to get a feel for what plainchant sounds like.

Outside of churches, plainchant has seen a cultural resurgence and has even entered popular culture in recent decades. In 1994, the Benedictine monks of Santo Domingo de Silos in Spain released their album titled, Chant, which unexpectedly became an international hit. It reached #3 on the Billboard 200 music chart and sold 2 million copies in the U.S., earning it a double platinum certification. The monks were interviewed on The Tonight Show and Good Morning America.

Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, plainchant remained in vogue as a relaxing kind of classical music. Another hit Gregorian Chant album was released in 2008, titled  Chant – Music for Paradise and recorded by the Cistercian Monks of Austrian Heiligenkreuz Abbey. It reached #7 on UK charts, #4 on U.S.'s Billboard classical music charts and was the top-selling album in Austrian pop music charts.