Eliza Bourgault - Musician

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Plainchant

Posted by Eliza Bourgault du Coudray on March 9, 2019 at 11:50 PM

An objective of my studies to become a certified harp therapist is to be able to play and improvise in a variety of musical genres, from classical to contemporary, movie music to jazz and even oriental music. A genre that I focused on recently is plainchant. Here is a video of my own arrangement of the plainchant Victimae Paschali Laudes:

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Plainchant is an ancient sacred singing tradition, dating from medieval times. Usually, the chants would be passed down aurally, as opposed to being written down, since the musical notation system we use today was not in place back then. A medieval composer by the name of Guido of Arezzo eventually devised a way of notating chants, using a staff comprising of four lines. The different pitches would be represented by black squares (called neumes) (see video below).

Plainchant has a number of musical characteristics that make it quite distinct from other types of music. First and foremost is that it is generally monophonic. Monophonic is a term which describes the texture (or number of musical lines) that make up a piece of music. As the prefix “mono-” means one, monophonic means that the music is made up of a single musical line: the chant itself. All singers sing the same melody and there is no accompaniment or other musical line backing up the chant. It can be rather unusual to hear unaccompanied singing these days:


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Another characteristic of plainchant is that it tends to be based on the musical modes. In music we have at least seven different modes; the ionian and the aeolian are the two most common (being the major and minor modes respectively). The chant I performed on the harp in the video above is in the dorian mode, meaning that is like a minor scale but with a raised sixth scale degree. Plainchant has a distinctive musical sound and flavour from the use of those modes.

 

Interestingly enough, plainchant does have an association with therapy. In the Abbeye de Cluny in France, monks used to sing these chants to people who were dying. The musical qualities of plainchants can be beneficial in therapeutic settings: for some people, plainchant will sound unfamiliar and thus will not be associated with any emotions. They can therefore focus on the sound and relax into it. As the rhythm of plainchant is usually quite free-flowing rather than strict, the speed at which to play each phrase can guide or reflect a person's breathing.

 

I hope you found this short article about plainchant interesting!

Categories: Harp & music therapy

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