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How to read Square-note Chant notation

September 2, 2012

In this post we will look at an example of a familiar chant-based hymn in both an English and Latin version.  I will assume that you, the reader, know how to read pitch in modern notation, and I will explain how you read pitch in the square-note notation.  In this post, we will not talk rhythm; for now, if you must have something to go on: all notes get one beat and the ones with a dot get two; be musical, and let the text drive the shape of things.

For our example in English, voila:

If you don’t know this tune, I have guessed wrong; leave me a comment, and I can try again. Meanwhile…

After you notice that the staff has only four lines, the next thing to note is that the instead of a treble clef or a bass clef, we have one of these thingamajigs:

This is a Do clef, and in this case it happens to be on the third line of the staff.  Now, like as not, you know the rest of the note names we are going to be using from the Sound of Music; the full set is: Do – Re – Mi – Fa – Sol – La – Ti – Do.  You might also match them up with the letter names C – D – E – F – G – A – B – C.

Side note: Using Do – Re – Mi as the names of the notes is called solfege, and has been used since medieval times as a pitch-relationship memory aid.  I should also note here that when singing chant, you can choose any pitch you want as Do (this is what is known as movable Do) but the scale Do – Re – Mi – Fa – Sol – La – Ti – Do must be kept a major scale.  Thus if G is Do, Ti will not be F, but rather F#.  Question: If F is Do, what will Fa be? (answer at bottom of post).

Once you know this much, you are almost all set.  However, with this particular chant, we have a flat in front of every clef.  In this case, it is acting like the key signature in F-major and making every B a B-flat (or with the other names, every Ti becomes Te).

Side note: Bother – it’s not ideal to have an example with an exception.  It is much more common to just have a clef by itself, and the flat occurring here and there as an accidental.  But now you know that chant can have a flat; and B-flat is the only one you can have.

So. For clarification, here is the same melody as above, with all the letter names and solfege written in:

(This sort of writing-in-the-note-names exercise is done by all manner of beginning music students in some form or another.  And if you go to college to major in music, you take a course in sight-singing, where you learn to sing unfamiliar tunes at sight without recourse to an instrument to figure them out.  This skill is learned by practicing singing tunes and exercises using the solfege syllables.)

Before you go, here are three more things you should know, examples of which I have put into the figure below.

1. Besides the Do clef, the other clef used for chant is a Fa clef, as you may see below.

2. As we have been assuming, notes are read from left to right; however, some groups of notes have notes which are read from bottom to top, as you may see below.

3. Finally, the swooshy thing is nothing more than a more than a way of writing a group of two notes in a convenient sort of connected fashion.  It is used in groups of notes that go high-low-high AS YOU MAY SEE BELOW.





And, I almost forgot – here is the Latin original of our sample hymn (exerpted from my handy Parish Book of Chant pdf):

Answer: B-Flat

From → Gregorian Chant

  1. Dipi permalink

    What a fantastic explanation. Thank-you very much.

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