We will be beginning this next series of Vespers soon, so I wanted to go over a little basics for reading chant notation (square notes).
If you are not familiar with chant notation, here are some points for where it differs from modern notation (“round notes”):
- 4 line staff – only 4 lines are used due to the natural range of the human voice. You might get an extra line added above or below the staff for particular notes, but those notes are often just touched before returning to the body of the melody.
- do / fa clef – the clef at the beginning of the staff tells you where do or fa (as in do, re, mi, …) exists. It is placed on either the 2nd, 3rd, or 4th line, depending on which will allow the chant melody to sit easily on the staff.
- movable “do” – one of the very helpful aspects of chant is that the pitch can be adjusted to be most comfortable for the voice range. You may want the do to be on C for one chant, but on A# for another.
- Free rhythm – square notes (neums) are tied the syllables of the words, not to time. Thus, one square note (punctum) is the expression of that syllable, as opposed to it being the length of a beat. You can not set a chant to a metronome because the rhythm is relative rather than adhering to a specific time measurement. The length of the note can be extended (like when you see a “-” above a punctum) or doubled (by adding a “.”), but it is still tied to the the syllable, not a beat.
So, with all of this in mind, lets look at the Pater Noster :
1. Establish the scale:
The “do clef” is on the third line, so we start there and fill in the rest of the notes above and below. The clef essentially establishes where the whole/half steps are. While there is a whole step between most of the notes (do/re, re/mi, fa/sol, sol/la, la/ti), there are two places where there is only a “half step” – between the mi/fa and the ti/do. If we do not sing the whole/half steps correctly, then the melody will not be accurate.
One way to become familiar with this is to play the scale on a piano or keyboard. If you place do on C, you can stay on the white keys throughout the scale. But, if you place do on D, then mi will be on F#, fa – la will return to the white keys, “ti” will be on C#, concluding with “do” on D. Listen for the half steps to try to train your ear. Here is an audio of scale starting on C, then on D, then on E.
Try to sing along with “do / re / mi / fa / sol / la / ti / do” (and back down)
This video presents the scale we will be using for the Pater Noster. The starting note we will use is on G – try singing along. Keep in mind, the low note in the chant is actually mi and the high is do, so don’t worry if the low do and re are a little rough for your voice. Sing it a couple of times to try to smooth it out.
do / re / mi / fa / sol / la / ti / do
It is also good to sing through the scale a couple of times before you learn a chant to get your eyes, ears and voice familiar with the scale.
2. Next, we can learn with the melody by singing the notes through solfege.
Try singing along with the audio:
3. After we become familiar with the melody, we can work on speaking the Latin (you’ll need to click on the link in the video to watch it on youtube).
4. Putting the Latin and the melody together, we have everything we need for the full chant (Pater Noster begins at 0:20):
…There is more to learn with chant notation, but I’ll add to things as we go along. I will post a similar tutorial for the Marian Antiphon tomorrow. I hope you found this helpful.