First, why are the notes square? For a “quick answer”, download: Neumes and Square Notes – HB 4-2019
Gregorian Chant is a fantastic tool to learn how to read music. Two reasons: paleographic and cosmic. The two may be tackled together in the concept of “Modality” (see Modality – introduction ).
Below you can find an example of the same music (Entrance Chant for the Feast of Corpus Christi) printed in both:
- the Chant music notation system used in the Roman Gradual and most books of chant. This is sometimes referred to as “square notes”.
- the Instrumental music notation, or “modern” music notation.
Which is better? It depends who you ask.
The Chant notation system is objectively simpler: it has only 4 lines (instead of 5), and you will only find one “accidental” note (when a note is altered) versus over 20 possible “accidental” notes in the modern notation.
However, most instrumentalists have spent most of their life studying and learning to read music in the modern notation system. For them, unless they also studied chant, reading chant notation is a difficult exercise of “transposition”. Few instrumentalists are able to transpose music at sight.
Why this difference? When two singers decide to join voices, it will take them a fraction of a second to agree on singing the same note. They listen, the brain adjusts, et voilà!
But instruments do not have a brain and cannot adjust their sound to each other. Instrumentalists had to think for them, and come up with a universal “modern” system to tune their instruments to each other before they can play together. It was thus decided that the “A4” note (the one between the 2nd and third line from the bottom) would correspond to the sound of the frequency of 440 Hertz. Not very “spontaneous”, but it works for instrumentalists. Singers had to follow suit: to find the first note of the above chant, the singer has to “think” two lines below the 5-line “modern” staff (so it really is a 7-line staff in this case, when 4 lines clearly should be enough… ).
In comparison, with the 4-line chant notation, the singers can visually identify the important note, the one held on “adi..” or on “petra”, and just needs to know that the starting note is “a sixth” under that most important note (the “dominant”).
There is a proportionality to ancient Gregorian Chant melodies that makes them easier to sight-read than anything that was written later. Pythagoras in the 5th century BC and Boethius, in the 6th century AD are among those who have written why, and this link provides a good sum-up.
Check also Chant and Time.
You guessed it, at Longbeachchant, we prefer the Chant notation system, but always understand the pain of instrumentalists wondering how to transpose chant notation into the system they learned for many years.
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Need more help with reading Gregorian sheet music? Start here.
More questions about chant? click here