Discourses in Music: Volume 3 Number 3 (Spring 2002)

"Sing We and Chant It:" Revisiting Some Musical Terminology

By Jamie Younkin

Introduction: the Problem

Thomas Morley's famous incipit evokes a number of musical and visual associations. Images of springtime and youth are perhaps the first to come to mind, but the use of the words "sing" and "chant" to describe what is presumably the same musical sound suggests an inconsistency regarding the two terms. This is but an early glimpse of a semantic quandary that persists to the present day. The "problem" and focus of this essay is a question of language advancement and semantic convention: what does it mean to describe a sonic event as "chant?"

Historically the word is derived from the French chant (singing; song), but it has become in English a polysemous catchall that depends greatly on the context of its use for precise meaning and nuance. English, furthermore, is not the only language in which this problem of meaning has occurred to great confusion. As recently as 1998 scholars have argued the precise meaning of a similar term in Hittite languages:

All standard Hittite lexical agree in listing a single entry arkuwa(i)- . . . the type of hatra(i)- "send a message.". . . There is no agreement, however, on the meaning of this verb. Friedrich-Kammenhuber HW2 1, 309, assumes a core meaning "pray," manifested in Old Hittite as "psalmodize," but in Neo-Hittite mostly as "pray, plead for". . .1

Craig Melchert suggests that arku- denotes a choral (group) response or accompaniment. This, he says, does not suppose "that there was any singing involved (in the sense of a tune and musical accompaniment),2 but that often sung responses were called by the same term. He cites an example translated thus: "While they are drinking, until they finish drinking, that song is being sung. They arku- it back in a 'sung' manner."3 He then concludes his discussion with the suggestion that arku- "has a broad range of meaning, of which 'singing' is merely one realization. One may venture perhaps 'chant' or 'intone' as the closest English equivalent."4

In the space of two short sentences, Melchert suggests the two most common notions of chant: 1) it is distinct from song and speech; 2) it is the equivalent of "intone," that is to say that it is not tuneful. Yet, the word "chant" is also used to describe Gregorian plainsong that, though it does include passages that are "intoned," is arguably rife with flowing and even "tuneful" melodies. Where, then, is the line between chant and song, and what is chant's relationship to other musical terms such as "intone?"

Definitions of chant fall into two general categories: 1) chant as a style; 2) chant as an act. Chant as style is an abstract musical concept that focuses on the way a music sounds rather than its contextual significance. That is to say, it includes all music that may be said to sound "chant-like." One can get a sense of the variety of styles this may actually incorporate by taking note the uses of the word "chant" in scholarly literature. Perhaps one of the most significant efforts to distinguish between chant and song was made by George List in an article entitled "The Boundaries of Speech and Song."5 Chant, he proposed, is intermediate to both speech and song, being closer to song than what he termed "recitation" and, at its most extreme, being either Sprechstimme or monotone. Yet, in the body of his essay, List frequently mingles terminology in a way that obfuscates the distinction between his own categories.

The Australian and North American aborigines commonly borrow songs from other tribes whose language they do not understand. These songs often remain in the repertory of the tribe that borrowed them and are performed relatively unchanged. Since these forms are meaningful to the celebrant of the chant or to the performers in the culture to which the songs are indigenous, it would seem that they should be included within the compass of speech and song.6[emphasis mine]

While readers still cannot distinguish between chant and song (can we sing chant or only "chant" it?) at the close of the article, List's articulation of the problem of terminology remains provocative and relevant. Thirty-two years after "The Boundaries of Speech and Song" was first published, scholars-especially ethnomusicologists-continue to find "chant" a perplexing, but somehow necessary term. In a 1995 article on the Melpa people of Papua New Guinea, Andrew Strathern used "chant" to suggest a ritual or sacred context rather than a musical style (i.e. "chant as an act"), a practice that seems to be in vogue for a number of diverse reasons.

The invocations to the Female Spirit which I here translate as "chants" are distinguished by the Melpa themselves from kenan [non-magical songs] because of their ritual purpose.7

In fact, chant is more commonly used to denote ritual contexts than actual sounds, though no doubt certain styles are also associated with ritual settings in general, whether justifiably or erringly. I will return to styles later. However, it is the use of the term to indicate ritual that is most illustrative of its real significance regarding Western aesthetic and cultural values. And nowhere is this more apparent than in writings about Hawaiian traditional song.

Helen Roberts wrote of Hawaiian music that "the oli method of chanting is fairly well described by the English word recitative . . ."8 but also quoted N. B. Emerson stating that "the inoa was to be recited in an ordinary conversational tone, and not after the manner called oli, that is applied to a singing tone."9 [emphasis mine] Both writers address the same repertory of music, that is the traditional Hawaiian oli, but choose to describe it with different names. While Roberts consistently uses the term "chant," Emerson prefers "song" which, in the above quote, seems to be distinct from a "recited" or "conversational tone." Yet, Roberts' description of the oli sound seems consistent with the idea of recitative. "This chant [her transcription 24] reveals in its general aspect the idea of the oli as a whole, its monotonous pitch, its rhythmic features marked by notes of small time value and hence rapid movement, and its long periods."10 Perhaps one reason for this choice of terminology is to be found in Western aesthetic preferences. J. W. Love wrote of the Hawaiian vocal style that: because formulaic singing can tire listeners unfamiliar with the language, it seldom attracts intercultural interest, especially in the absence of dancing. It often receives the name "chant."11

Chant, used in this manner, has an uncomplimentary affect. On one hand, it suggests an uninteresting musical style (as above), and on the other it suggests a musical, or even cultural primitiveness that both attracts and repels Western senses. Indeed, the title of Roberts' book, Ancient Hawaiian Music, conveys this sentiment clearly. Hawaiian music is not to be listened to for aesthetic purposes, but to be perceived as an artifact of primeval simplicity. It recalls for Western hearers or readers a nostalgia for a past where people could live in a picturesque and secluded bliss-or where people are kept in seclusion and simplicity to maintain financial support from the Western commercial empire. While recently writers have taken extra care to give all the due respect to the subjects of their studies, the use of "chant" to describe certain musics reflects an old motive that continues to plague cultural studies. That is to say there is yet an underlying need to project and reclaim a notion of authenticity for one's subjects. One needs only to glance through studies of world popular musics, notably Timothy Taylor's Global Pop, to see that cultural authenticity is a constant concern to record producers and consumers in the world market.

What is of concern to listeners is that the world music (or alternative rock or what have you) they consume has some discernable connection to the timeless, the ancient, the primal, the pure, the chthonic; that is what they want to buy, since their own world is often conceived as ephemeral, new, artificial, and corrupt.12

Chant, heretofore an acceptable category for certain song repertories, is a way to suggest the authenticity of a music. It alludes vaguely to the ancient; the traditional, and the ritual. And it suggests a number of musical characteristics, but precisely which characteristics depends on the background of individual reader him/herself.

Towards a Non-definition, or "Away from a Definition of Chant"

Within the last year there have been a number of attempts to find or develop a musical definition of chant that would account for all of the world musics Western listeners are likely to describe as such.13 Dale Olsen has suggested that chant refers to music that is intended to have supernatural power (power song) and Andrew Killick noted that vocal music that has either melody or rhythm, but not both, is more likely to be called chant.14 I, too, have attempted to describe general musical styles that may be called chant-like, suggesting that music that has very strong, regular rhythm, a lack of rhythmic pulse, very static melody, or very free melody approaches chant as a style. That is to say that chant is a music of rhythmic and melodic extremes, such that a Western audience may perceive it to be very basic or simple.

Figure 1
Two-tiered melodic and rhythmic illustration of chant style

Still, the variety of styles these extreme characteristics include, and the fact that all music can be said to have or summon a power of some kind, renders all attempts to define chant to this point unsatisfactory. In short, it appears to be neither a constructive, nor in many cases flattering term to employ. Perhaps I should apologize at this point for failing to provide a definitive musical and contextual category for chant, which has been a common word in the English vocabulary for centuries, but such a task may be too great and too unnecessary for the purpose of describing music. Notwithstanding its traditional usages, the time is possibly nigh to abandon "chant" to the same nebulous past it whispers and bring our musical lexis to the present, where concision is the name of the game.

Jamie Younkin is currently a doctoral musicology student at Florida State University, where her research interests include medieval music and liturgy, early American cowboy songs and culture, and the character pieces of Jean-Philippe Rameau.


1. Craig H. Melchert, "Hittite arku- 'Chant, Intone' vs. arkuwa(i)- 'Make a Plea,'" Journal of Cuneiform Studies 50 (1998), 45.

2. Melchert's own ideas of what constitutes "song" and "chant" in the article are also rather unclear.

3. Ibid., 48.

4. Ibid., 50.

5. George List, "The Boundaries of Speech and Song," Ethnomusicology 7 (1963), 1-16.

6. Ibid., 2.

7. Andrew Stathern, "Chant and Spell: Sonemic Contrasts in a Melpa Ritual Sequence," Ethnomusicology 39:2 (spring/summer, 1995), 223.

8. Helen H. Roberts, Ancient Hawaiian Music (New York: Dover, 1967), 70.

9. N. B. Emerson quoted in Roberts, ibid., 60.

10. Ibid, 76.

11. J. W. Love, "On Structure in Hawaiian Vocal Music," Garland Encyclopedia of World Music 9 (2000), 301.

12. See Timothy Taylor, Global Pop (New York: Routledge, 1997).

13. A seminar on "Defining chant" was conducted at Florida State University in the Fall of 2001. This culminated in 2002 in a paper read at the South-East Society for Ethnomusicology meeting by David Pruett, "Defining Chant in its World Context."

14. Based on discussions held in the F.S.U. seminar. See note 13 above.