Definition of Plainchant

Plainchant (or plainsong) is the traditional ritual singing of the Western Christian Church that first developed during the earliest centuries of Christianity.

Plainchant/plainsong in the strictest sense describes the following:

  • A single line of unaccompanied vocal melody (monophony),
  • Lyrics are in Latin,
  • Sung in free rhythm – not divided into bar-lengths. The words recited (prayers and psalms, etc..) give rise to a free plainsong rhythm associated with speech rather than strict rhythms of music.
  • Uses modes (instead of major/minor scales).

It is called Cantus planus in Latin and Canto plano in Italian.

Have a listen to this example of monophonic plainchant titled Pange Lingua:
Monophonic Plainchant example image

Plainchant Example

It is helpful to understand how Cantus Planus (plainchant) contrasted with other forms of Cantus (song). In Cantus figuratus (florid song), counterpoint was added to the melody, whilst Cantus mesuratus (measured song) had regular rhythms.

Plainchant Notation

Plainchant has its own form of notation.
It uses a stave that has 4 lines instead of the 5 found in typical sheet music.
Have a look at this example of medieval plainchant from the 13th century:
Plainchant notation example

A 13th century Cistercian gradual from the Abbey of San Stephano at Corno, Lodi, Italy

Gregorian Chant

Gregorian Chant refers to the repertoire of the Franco-Roman chant.
Have a listen to this example of Gregorian Chant titled Deum Verum.

Note: The Greek Orthodox Church and the Jewish Synagogue have similar traditions of unaccompanied melodic song, but these are not normally covered under the terms plainchant or plainsong.

Performing Plainchant

Plainchant is written to be performed in various ways:

Monophonic Plainchant – this plainchant is written to be performed by a solo voice (as in the first audio example on this page)
Responsorial Plainchant – in a responsory, a solo singer alternates with a choir.
Have a listen to this performance of a Matin responsory by Palestrina (1525-1594) (it is based on the original, but with English lyrics).

Antiphonal Plainchant – this plainchant consists of alternate singing by 2 groups of singers.

The Development of Plainchant

Plainchant, like all styles of music has developed and changed through time.
However, the development of the plainchant style has been intrinsically linked with the Western church and has therefore been influenced by various events in church politics over the centuries. For example, Pope Gregory instituted a major reform in the 6th century and other subsequent church-led reforms followed in the 16th and 19th centuries. Plainchant is now performed by choirs and, as in the responsory example above, has sometimes been translated or set to English lyrics.

Contemporary Plainchant

Whilst contemporary compositions of plainchant are relatively rare, the enchanting and ethereal nature of the music continues to attract audiences in the contemporary world and each year sees the release of new choral albums celebrating the genre.