USIC IS, among other things, profoundly sensual and physical. It often effects an involuntary bodily movement in us, as when we tap our feet or nod along with it. This effect is most obvious in music that relies on a constant, steady pulse, as in most popular genres, but it is equally true in the more rarified environment of the classical concert hall, even if social conventions mute the effect. This mysterious power of music has an important social side effect, as moving in unison as a group forms tight and cohesive social bonds. The spontaneous dancing that broke out during recent mass demonstrations provides an example of this process at work.
Let us think of this social cohesion as the horizontal dimension of music. This is an unexplained and incredibly important phenomenon, but music also has another dimension, a vertical one, which is common across many musical environments. I mean the frequent phenomenon of the encounter with the numinous brought about by music. Why should it be that this phenomenon of vibrations that we take in through our sense of hearing should cut so deeply into the human soul? Many aesthetic sensations give us this glimpse of transcendence, but none bring it about so readily as music. I have seen this happen even in deeply unreligious people; I imagine it is often their only connection with divinity. The old explanation for this tells that there is a harmony in the human person that corresponds to the harmony of the cosmos, and that the music we hear with our ears brings about deep stirrings within us that resonate with these cosmic proportions. Such an idea of internal harmony forms the basis of many common turns of phrase. We say someone is “high strung” or “ill-tempered,” and what we mean by that is that their mental harmony is out of whack. Plato believed that certain musical modes could create changes in the listener’s mental health; for this reason, music in his ideal republic would be strictly regulated.
Nowadays, this idea smacks of New Age esotericism, but we dismiss its importance at our peril. We have, in plainchant, a vast, highly developed repertoire of music organized on modal principles that gives form and structure to the human experience of time by measuring out the intricate overlapping liturgical cycles of the day, the week, and the seasons. Plato’s modes were not exactly the same as the church modes that govern plainchant, but the creators and solidifiers of the chant repertoire thought they were, and the idea of modal effects had lasting effects in the Western psyche. We see this ancient heritage at work in the image of Pythagoras incorporated into Chartres cathedral. The ethical effects of the various modes were widely described in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, with certain modes eliciting different affective states in the listener. Of course, plainchant is exquisitely tuned, as it were, to govern the daily life cycles of the monk or nun. We need not look back so far in history for confirmation of this view. In Harmonies of Heaven and Earth, Joscelyn Godwin relates the following story:
When after Vatican II the Trappist monks of an American abbey obediently discontinued the singing of their daily Offices in Latin, all manner of things began to go wrong. Most noticeably, they found that they could no longer survive with only four or five hours’ sleep a night, as some of them had done for years. Other troubles followed: sickness and psychological disturbances that threatened to upset the even tenor of their contemplative lives. After trying various conventional remedies, all unsuccessfully, they began to wonder whether the cause of their ills might have been the loss of the hours they used to devote to singing the liturgy in Gregorian Chant. So with special dispensation they went back to their old routine, and their troubles gradually disappeared.
Physical effects aside, might it not be the case that plainchant is uniquely capable of bringing about spiritual benefits in the listener? Chant has the horizontal dimension I described above—it knits together a community in sung prayer. More than any other music, though, it is full of the vertical dimension—the encounter with the divine. I think this accounts for recorded chant’s enduring popularity even in a deeply irreligious age, as its spiritual power is essential self evident. I have never been a monk, but I have had the singular grace to be able to sing the old Gregorian propers every Sunday for almost half of my life now. Thank God for that! Amid all of my life’s disputes, controversies, failures, tragedies, and sins, I know that plainchant has offered an unfailing pathway to the adoration and the contemplation of God. If the Trappists lost their physical health after abandoning plainchant, what can we say about the spiritual health of society since chant’s precipitous decline in the liturgical life of the average churchgoer?
There is a marked difference between plainchant and the music that has mostly displaced it in the Catholic Church in America. The new music is often designed to bring about the aforementioned bodily responses to music—toe-tapping and nodding. What are the normal bodily responses to chant? I think they must be the traditional liturgical actions of bowing the head, kneeling, and folding the hands, for it is quite difficult to tap along with one’s foot. This is not for lack of rhythm—chant has plenty of that, regardless of which interpretive school one adheres to. The difference is the dominance of the vertical aspect in chant, as its supple rhythm is incorporated into a larger project of vocal adoration. It is almost beyond human action; or rather it is the noblest possible human action: the pure glorification of God. Tapping feet, clapping hands, swaying; these are all good, even very good, not least because of the social cohesion they foster. Music with such a pulse may even have a place in Catholic liturgy (I will not go so far as Messiaen, who believed that plainchant was the only properly liturgical music), but it would have to be secondary to chant, which for this very reason is the absolutely perfect liturgical music.
We find ourselves in a difficult time in which many cannot sing at church or cannot even attend church because of the pandemic. Even when we have choirs, we are often reduced in number, or limited by circumstances to monophony. Let us not be disheartened by this. Without denying the communal and public dimension of Christian worship, we have really only lost, for a time, the horizontal dimension of chant. For even one person, singing chant alone at home, forms, in this offering to God, a deep, lasting connection to the divine through the Church’s greatest musical gift. May this gift bring us consolation and health of mind and body.
We hope you enjoyed this guest article by Mr. Charles Weaver.