Tuesday, March 10, 2020

An App for Those Learning to Sing the Chants of the Church

Here is an app for Android or iPhone to help people learning the chants of the Mass, which I found on the Google Play store: Mass Propers for the Proper of Seasons, in both the Ordinary Form and Extraordinary Form; some propers for major feasts and solemnities; most commons for both the OF and EF; the Latin Kyriale, including all 18 traditional Masses and 6 Creeds; some Marian antiphons (simple and solemn forms) and a smattering of other antiphons and hymns.

It is produced by the Oblates of St Joseph, who certainly deserve a mention for producing such a helpful device which costs only $2.99. They promise more to come, and invite people to let them know what to add. With that in mind, I had an app called iChant which seems to be defunct now, and which allowed me to tap notes from a Gregorian scale relative to the note do, the pitch of which I could change to suit my own voice. Perhaps you could introduce this feature too, Oblates of St Joseph if you’re reading?

With this app you can listen to the melodies of the chants, adjusting speed and pitch, and stop and replay sections of each chant repeatedly. The viewing settings seemed to be convenient for use on my Android; I was able to change settings easily, zooming in, zooming out. There is a great search function that allows for search by name, or by entering words or phrases from the body of texts.

Square Note plays through the notes when you tap the screen, beginning at any note on the score, which you tap. The sound is in a clear, (if rather anemic) electronic tone, but putting that aside I can see it improving my accuracy in singing the chants.

What it would not do is help with the interpretation of the notes once you know them, so for that I would probably refer you to Corpus Christi Watershed. I see the two resources as complementary.

I can imagine some questioning the value of learning from a device like this. I have sung in choirs where learning from libraries of recorded chants - such as this or Corpus Christi Watershed - is frowned upon, as it is felt that it would undermine the ability to sight-read scores.

In response to this, my thought is that in the ideal, chant is primarily an oral and aural tradition. It is best learned, therefore, by standing next to someone who knows how to do it and listening to them repeatedly. This is what would happen in a monastery for example. The first grasp of the memory is of the sound of the chant, not the pattern of the notes as they appear on a printed page. The score then becomes a secondary aide-memoir. Oral transmission as a method of passing on a tradition lends it breathing space - it is through the potential for slight imprecision that you will get gradual changes in accord with the broad principles that define what chant is.

If written scores are the primary method of transmission, which is the condition that existed when the scholars of Solesmes began to resurrect the ancient chants of the Church in the 19th century, then it is frozen in time. The scores should reflect what is sung well, rather than the other way around. These technological aids are in fact helping us, at least in part, to move towards an ideal of learning by listening, and are therefore more traditional in method than that of relying solely on the ability to sight-read.

As an example of this idea: when I was learning chants at the church I go to now, the pastor encouraged me to listen first to home-made recordings of a cantor he knew well. Only then, he said, once I was familiar with the sound of it, should I look at the score. Wherever the two were at variance, he told me to go with the cantor, not the score. That seems about the right balance to me. It could, of course, also go wrong, since it relies on the good judgment of the pastor to recognize the cantor’s expertise of the cantor, but that is a risk worth taking. The alternative is a sterile, fossilized tradition that will wither on the vine as it almost did before.

As ever, I will read any views readers have on this topic with interest!

More recent articles:

For more articles, see the NLM archives: