Aleteia logoAleteia logo
Aleteia
Thursday 05 August |
The Commemoration of the Dedication of the Basilica of St. Mary Major
home iconArt & Culture
line break icon

Medieval choirs sang from these 3-foot-tall books

CHOIR BOOK

Public Domain

Lucien de Guise - published on 11/13/19

The old plainchant system was easy to read, even for the short-sighted singer. 

Singing from the same hymn sheet is a figure of speech that had more meaning during the Middle Ages. At that time, the people doing the singing were members of the choir. It was a serious religious duty rather than an excuse for belting out a favorite song. Choristers in monasteries and churches needed to get it right. As song sheets were made of parchment – and very rarely paper – they were extremely expensive. Members of the choir had to sing from the same sheet, literally. This required a very large page. 

Many choir books are more than three feet tall. Also making life easier for those using the page was the way that notes were written. Simpler than modern musical notation, medieval musicians used only four lines rather than the five we are used to nowadays. There are none of the complexities that ranged from breves to demisemiquavers. The old plainchant system was easy to read, even for short-sighted singers. 

Thanks to the choir books, we understand medieval Christian music much better than, for example, ancient Greek or Roman notation. Scores from the classical world are almost non-existent despite the huge number of writers engaged in musical criticism at the time. Of those few scores that have survived from the ancient world, the performance is seldom a happy experience for modern listeners. The use of quarter tones creates an obstacle, although recent research at Jesus College, Oxford University, has provided a breakthrough in listening pleasure with re-created instruments and melodies. Medieval plainchant, on the other hand, consistently sounds as serene and spiritual today as it did a thousand years ago. It has been a continuous tradition in those places where the Reformation didn’t destroy it. These days it is no longer sung from the same choir book.

Tags:
Catholic MusicMedieval
Support Aleteia!

If you’re reading this article, it’s thanks to the generosity of people like you, who have made Aleteia possible.

Here are some numbers:

  • 20 million users around the world read Aleteia.org every month
  • Aleteia is published every day in seven languages: English, French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Polish, and Slovenian
  • Each month, readers view more than 50 million pages
  • Nearly 4 million people follow Aleteia on social media
  • Each month, we publish 2,450 articles and around 40 videos
  • We have 60 full time staff and approximately 400 collaborators (writers, translators, photographers, etc.)

As you can imagine, these numbers represent a lot of work. We need you.

Support Aleteia with as little as $1. It only takes a minute. Thank you!

Daily prayer
And today we celebrate...




Top 10
1
Saint Mary of the Angels
Bret Thoman, OFS
All your sins will be forgiven if you go to a Franciscan church o...
2
Philip Kosloski
Most priests can’t absolve these sins
3
Ignacio María Doñoro
Francisco Veneto
The military chaplain who pretended to be a criminal to rescue a ...
4
CARLO ACUTIS
Violeta Tejera
Carlo Acutis’ first stained glass window in jeans and sneak...
5
Zelda Caldwell
World-record winning gymnast Simone Biles leans on her Catholic f...
6
AMERICA'S GOT TALENT
Cerith Gardiner
Nightbirde’s beautiful message as she drops out of TV show
7
Gianmarco Tamberi AND Mutaz Essa Barshim
Cerith Gardiner
This Olympic event captures the true meaning of the Games
See More
Newsletter
Get Aleteia delivered to your inbox. Subscribe here.