Plainsong (also plainchant; Latin: cantus planus) is a body of chants used in the liturgies of the Catholic Church. Though the Eastern Orthodox churches and the Catholic Church did not split until long after the origin of plainchant, Byzantine chants are generally not classified as plainsong.

Plainsong is monophonic, consisting of a single, unaccompanied melodic line. It generally has a more free rhythm than the metered rhythm of later Western music.



A sample of the Kýrie Eléison (Orbis Factor) from the Liber Usualis, in neume notation. Listen to it interpreted.

Plainchant is believed to originate from the 3rd century A.D. Gregorian chant is a variety of plainsong named after Pope Gregory I (6th century A.D.), although Gregory himself did not invent the chant. The tradition linking Gregory I to the development of the chant seems to rest on a possibly mistaken identification of a certain "Gregorius", probably Pope Gregory II, with his more famous predecessor.

For several centuries, different plainchant styles existed concurrently. Standardization on Gregorian chant was not completed, even in Italy, until the 12th century. Plainchant represents the first revival of musical notation after knowledge of the ancient Greek system was lost. Plainsong notation differs from the modern system in having only four lines to the staff and a system of note shapes called neumes.

In the late 9th century, plainsong began to evolve into organum, which led to the development of polyphony.

There was a significant plainsong revival in the 19th century, when much work was done to restore the correct notation and performance-style of the old plainsong collections, notably by the monks of Solesmes Abbey, in Northern France. After the Second Vatican Council and the introduction of the New Rite Mass, use of plainsong in the Catholic Church declined and was mostly confined to the Monastic Orders[1] and to ecclesiastical Societies celebrating the traditional Latin Mass (also called Tridentine Mass). But, since Pope Benedict XVI's motu proprio, Summorum Pontificum, use of the Tridentine rite has increased; this, along with other Papal comments on the use of appropriate liturgical music, is promoting a new plainsong revival.[verification needed]

Interest in plainsong picked up in 1950s Britain, particularly in the left-wing religious and musical groups associated with Gustav Holst and the writer George B. Chambers. In the late 1980s, plainchant achieved a certain vogue as music for relaxation, and several recordings of plainchant became "classical-chart hits".

Chant types

The following is a classification of Gregorian chants into types. Other chant traditions, such as the Ambrosian or Visigothic, may lack some of the types listed, and may have other types not listed.


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Look at other dictionaries:

  • plainsong — (also plainchant) ► NOUN ▪ unaccompanied medieval church music sung in free rhythm corresponding to the accentuation of the words …   English terms dictionary

  • plainsong — [plān′sôŋ΄] n. [transl. of ML cantus planus] 1. the monophonic and unmeasured ritual chant of the early Christian church, esp. Gregorian chant 2. any similar religious chant, as in Hindu liturgies …   English World dictionary

  • plainsong — noun Date: 1513 a monophonic rhythmically free liturgical chant of any of various Christian rites; especially Gregorian chant …   New Collegiate Dictionary

  • plainsong — /playn sawng , song /, n. 1. the unisonous vocal music used in the Christian church from the earliest times. 2. modal liturgical music; Gregorian chant. 3. a cantus firmus or theme chosen for contrapuntal development. 4. any simple and unadorned… …   Universalium

  • plainsong — noun A form of monophonic chant, sung in unison using the Gregorian scale and sung in various Christian churches …   Wiktionary

  • Plainsong — Generic term for the unaccompanied music of monks singing in unison, e.g. *Gregorian chant. The rhythm of the song was and still is determined by the natural accents of the text being sung. The word plain refers to the single line of melody, its… …   Dictionary of Medieval Terms and Phrases

  • Plainsong —    See Chant; Plainchant …   Historical dictionary of sacred music

  • plainsong — I (New American Roget s College Thesaurus) n. [liturgical, Gregorian, etc. ] chant. See music, rite. II (Roget s IV) n. Syn. plainchant, chant, Gregorian chant, melody; see song …   English dictionary for students

  • plainsong — plain|song [ˈpleınsɔŋ US so:ŋ] n also plainchant [U] a type of old Christian church music in which people sing a simple tune without musical instruments …   Dictionary of contemporary English

  • plainsong — plain|song [ pleın,sɔŋ ] noun uncount a type of old religious music heard in Christian churches, sung by a group of people together without the use of musical instruments …   Usage of the words and phrases in modern English

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