Learning to sight-read music with Gregorian Chant

The text below describes a three 90-minute session in-person class (See also online learning resources). This class approaches music notation through the historical* progression of music theory and provides basic tools to read music. Basic reading allows conscious participation in singing. These tools will allow the students to:


Panic happens either when neophyte sight readers see written music they think they cannot process fast enough. Panic results in either the singer freezing, or in following any sound heard, making singing in harmony with other voices impossible. Singing in harmony requires sight reading. Unfortunately many parishes now have given up on conscious participation and tend to rely on instruments and metric rhythm to avoid panic. A “herd” effect is sought. But this also prevents congregation from learning how to sing. Awareness of that panic is the first step to improving sight reading skills.

It is not rational to panic: if you can sing 1-2-3-4-5 on the tune of DO-RE-MI-FA-SO, then you know enough to read most music (Maria Von Trapp was correct!). So the prerequisite is that you can sing DO-RE-MI-FA-SO like in this video. If you can do that, there is no reason to panic.

STEP 1: realize that the music written as Gregorian Chant is as simple as 1-2-3-4-5, sounding like DO-RE-MI-FA-SO, but that could be sung also as SO-LA-TI-DO-RE, or FA-SO-LA-TE-DO. Realize that DO-RE-MI-FA-SO-LA-TI-DO-RE is like singing 1-2-3-4-5 twice in a row… So, if you know DO-RE-MI-FA-SO, you can practice singing the three, and then practice SKIPPING notes (ex: DO-MI-SO, is like singing silently your RE and FA, or DO-FA is like muting your RE and MI,…) .

For a piece of Gregorian Chant, the relative position of the first sign on the left (the “Clef”) to the notes on the lines and spaces, will look like one of these six (6) possibilities below. The DO Clef and the FA Clef are here to help: they tell you where DO or FA are located, which also tells you where the half-steps are located. You will soon discover that the only difficulty in reading music is to know where the half-steps are… see lower.

TIP for STEP 1: You may soon realize that skipping notes is easier when you go up (ex: DO-MI-SO) than when you go down (ex: DO-LA-FA). Singing “Joy to the World” can help you step over this temporary difficulty: skip the words (ex: Joy…the…the) then sing DO-LA-FA…

(a book publisher developed this tip into a very helpful book to those learning chant. CLICK for more info)

STEP 2: Going back to 1-2-3-4-5 before singing each note is not practical… But it gives us a foundation to avoid panic. We need now to trust this foundation, and short-cut to the essential: the INTERVAL between each note. Numbers are helpful: for example, between 1 and 5, the interval is called a Fifth (5th), between 1 and 3, a Third (3rd). There are only six intervals needed to sing Gregorian Chant. Can you memorize six songs having two notes each? How about twelve (6 intervals going up, 6 going down…). Of course, you can! If you know a few songs, you already know these intervals. We just need to reorder your memory to make them available on demand. For example, Jingle Bells is MI-MI-MI-MI-SO-DO-RE-MI. If you sing Jingle Bells, you sing a minor 3rd up, a perfect 5th down and two major 2nd up… See more examples like Jingle Bells by downloading this exercise, singing the songs you know and consciously noticing the intervals in these songs. As you will see, you already know how to sing these 6 intervals…

In only ONE MONTH, you can learn to recognize these 6 intervals by practicing these EAR TRAINING EXERCISES daily.

The NOTE “TE” is the note “TI” lowered by half a step. The only accidental note in Gregorian Chant. In Gregorian Chant, all the intervals involving “TE” are also the 6 intervals described above. No exception. This is one more reason why Gregorian Chant is so much easier to sight-read than modern notation.

STEP 3: Memorize these intervals with the help of a keyboard. You do not need to know the name of all the notes on the keyboard, or what “key” you are in. Just the DO RE MI FA SO LA TI DO, but mostly the sound of the intervals between 5 notes consecutives. You will notice how these 6 intervals sound alike, even when played on different parts of the keyboard. Noticing these similarities is a major breakthrough!

STEP 4: Congratulations! Now, you know how to recognize each interval played between 5 consecutive notes, and to place them on music written as Gregorian Chant (square notes). You also know that the DO Clef and the FA Clef can move up and down the horizontal lines and spaces we call the “staff”.

Step 4 is a long one… We must now practice these intervals… Daily. For now, we will avoid two panic-inducing obstacles: 1- complex rhythm, and 2- language difficulties (like Latin). We recommend practicing with the eight “Gloria Patri tones” of the Roman Gradual (download below, click here for practice help), the dialogues of the Mass (English or Latin), or simple English Proper. At this page, you can also find help practicing hymns in both Latin and English.

STEP 5: Now, with the help of the below, you can also read “modern notation”. By reading Gregorian Chant, you practiced moving the DO or FA clefs up or down the staff (the horizontal lines). Now you can call this method of sight-reading the “MOVEABLE DO” method, and memorize the “circle of fifths” will do the rest… Now you need to learn the rhythmic language of modern notation. You will start counting. A very different world from Gregorian Chant where the Word and our breathing are the rhythmic foundation.

The above is really the only music theory you need to read music. You know enough to never PANIC (go back to 1-2-3-4-5 if you do…), and always THINK CONSCIOUSLY… But you cannot read music fluently yet…. Only practice, practice, practice will accomplish that. The downloadable sheet below gives examples on how to read the “circle of fifths”

( * why do we call this a “organic and historical” way of learning? Because singing came first, and writing music came later. Writing music for singing developed organically from the 9th to the 13th centuries. Square notes is the simplest system resulting of this early development. The original do-re-mi was invented in the 11th century, a thousand years before the “Sound of Music” version, for singing Gregorian Chant, and involved a hymn to John the Baptist called Ut Queant Laxis .

Congratulations! Gregorian Chant maybe the easiest path to learning music, but not the only one. This video does a fine job complementing the above, from a different angle (keyboard):

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