Health and Wellness

Gregorian Chant: Music for Meditation and Healing

By Ryan Spooner

If I told you that Radiohead, Duffy, Jack Johnson, and Amy Winehouse were at the top of the UK charts in the first half of 2008, you wouldn’t be that surprised. What if I told you that right there among these stadium-filling mega acts was a group of Cistercian Monks from a monastery in the southern part of the Vienna woods singing medieval liturgical music. Far less believable, right?

Well, on May 31, 2008, that is exactly what happened. “Music for Paradise”, an album filled with medieval Gregorian chant, entered the top ten on the pop charts. It also reached #1 of the classical music charts in England, across Europe, and even in the US.

The monks hail from a monastery that dates back to 1133 AD (or CE). The roots of Gregorian chant date back even further than that. So why was ancient music so popular? Some cite the popularity of the video game Halo, which used Gregorian chant in its soundtrack. However, Father Karl Wallner, the monastery’s communications director, has a different explanation. He believes that the music has a calming power, which has “the ability to touch people’s hearts.”

We are going to examine those healing and meditative powers, but before we can go there, we have to start here...

What is Gregorian Chant?

Gregorian Chant is significant historically. It stands as the first example of Christian liturgical music that was written and preserved.

It developed mainly in western and central Europe during the 9th and 10th centuries. It became the official music of Christian worship in the mid-8th-century.

Popular legend credits Pope Gregory I with inventing Gregorian chant. A fact that scholars have refuted. He likely had no direct involvement in developing Gregorian chant, but was instrumental in helping reorder and unite the liturgy.

Around 850, Remigius of Auxerre, a Benedictine monk, shared a spiritual story on the origin of the chants. A monk, Remigius says, heard angels singing a chant. He memorized it and brought it to Rome. The story illustrates the belief of the monks on the power this music had for worship.

What Does Gregorian Chant Sound Like?

Gregorian chant is, well, a chant. It is vocal music, sung without musical accompaniment. Chants are sung in unison without rhyme or meter. Tones rise and fall in an unstructured fashion.

The characteristics of Gregorian chant are…

  • Free-flowing melody.
  • Monophonic in texture, no harmony.
  • No precise rhythm, notes may be held short or long.
  • Traditionally sung by all-male choirs.
  • It was church music, sung at mass.

Not much is known about the performance style of singers in the Middle Ages. Was it restrained and solemn, or were there virtuoso performers? There are examples of the clergy urging singers to perform with more restraint and piety - suggesting that some performers wanted the spotlight.

Is Gregorian Chant Meditation Music?

Calm Radio member Ekhart Tolle listed our Gregorian Chant channel as one of his essential channels. As Tolle says, “music, like nature, bypasses the conceptual mind.” Gregorian chant can do just that.

The music has barely changed since the Middle Ages. It has moved from church walls into many other spaces. Today, many use the music for practicing meditation. Some clergy believe that chanting creates a rhythmic breathing pattern, which is akin to yogic breathing.

It has the power to pull us into the present moment - to focus on the “journey of now”, to borrow Tolle’s term. It is poignant in its simplicity. It allows you to relax, providing simple music to focus your attention and calm your mind.

Does Gregorian Chant Have Healing Powers?

Many in the Early Middle Ages believed that the chants had healing powers, imparting tremendous spiritual blessings when sung in harmony.

Modern science is uncovering that there may be truth to that, though the research is still in its initial stages. Dr. Alan Watkins, a neuroscientist at Imperial College of London, has shown that the Gregorian Chant can lower blood pressure and help reduce anxiety and depression.

A 2012 study from the University of São Paulo School of Nursing discovered that Gregorian chant helped reduce anxiety for mothers with hospitalized children.

The American Heart Association found that patients with coronary heart disease who practiced meditation and chanting had nearly 50% lower rates of heart attack, stroke, and death compared to non-meditating subjects.

Is Gregorian Chant Classical Music?

Though Gregorian chant seems like worlds away from the complexity of the Classical music tradition, there is no doubt there was some influence.

Its most significant impact was in the development of musical notation. The church wanted a unified mass structure across Europe. Musical notation insured that chants would be sung the same way at all liturgies.

The earliest notation consisted of little dots and squiggles, called neumes. An Italian monk named Guido of Arezzo came up with the idea of using a set of parallel lines ruled across the page, which we now know as a "stave."

Listening to Gregorian Chant on Calm

Now that you have learned all about Gregorian chant, it’s time to listen to this transcendently beautiful music. Calm Radio has two channels dedicated to the healing, meditative powers of chant:

Gregorian Chant: Music from Benedictine Monks and other Gregorian choirs of the gothic style. Ideal music for meditation and calm.

Monastery Chants: The purest of acapella male and female voices going back hundreds of years, possibly earlier than gothic times, Gregorian monastery singing is similar to modern day deep meditation.

Experience these channels and all of our relaxing meditation music by signing up for a free or premium membership from Calm Radio.

Happy listening!

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