Discourses in Music: Volume 4 Number 1 (Fall 2002)

A Response to Younkin's "Sing We and Chant It: Revisiting Some Musical Terminology"

By David B. Pruett

In her article "Sing We and Chant It: Revisiting Some Musical Terminology," Younkin addresses an important topic to Western scholars: the categorization of a specific musical repertory as 'chant.' Few terms in academic scholarship have created such ambiguity and debate as 'chant.' However, through constant reexamination of methodologies, terminologies, and practices associated with the Western musicological canon, scholars may proceed beyond the limitations of the past. Younkin makes a significant contribution to chant scholarship by addressing several areas of concern.

As an Ausgangpunkt, Younkin returns to the root of our problem: "What does it mean to describe a sonic event as 'chant'?" Invoking the term's French etymology, Younkin begins with chant's association to singing or song, emphasizing the problem of the overuse of chant as a catchall term applied in numerous, often conflicting, contexts. A reference to Craig H. Melchert's article entitled "Hittite arku- 'Chant, Intone' vs. arkuwa(i)- 'Make a Plea,'" illustrates the many uses of chant and the connotations associated therewith, namely those among non-Western musics. According to Melchert, common descriptions of chant refer to it as category of music that is distinct from song and speech and one that is not tuneful.1 However, Younkin returns to Gregorian plainsong, which scholars often describe as 'chant,' as a conflicting example to Melchert's view.

Along these lines, I have discovered few definitive linguistic sources that solve the chant problem. Other languages do not appear to make a distinction corresponding to the English one between 'song' and 'chant'. In German, the authors of Musik in Geschichte und Gegenwart apply the root word Gesang, or song, to which numerous identifiers may be added in order to describe a particular liturgical practice such as Psalmgesang (singing of the Psalms), Kirchengesang (church song; hymn), and Meßgesang (Mass song). Gregorianscher Choral specifically refers to Gregorian chant that dates back to the eighth century. The Spanish canción, or song, has an equally broad application. The French term chanson as well as the Latin cantus, from which chant derives, also translate as 'song.'

Younkin describes the numerous definitions of chant as falling into two general categories: a) chant as a style and b) chant as an act-in other words, 'chant' as a noun and 'chant' as a verb. An important point here is her clarification of the two. According to Younkin, chant, as a style, is an abstract concept that focuses on musical sound rather than contextual significance. She turns to several uses of 'chant' and 'song' in the literature, namely articles by George List, Andrew Strathern, and Helen Roberts, for illustration.2

In an effort to incorporate recent chant research, Younkin refers to the contributions of Dale Olsen, who, along with Charles Brewer, focused on world chant as the topic of a doctoral seminar at Florida State University in fall 2001. In contrast to the authors mentioned in Younkin's article, Olsen emphasizes an underlying characteristic among musical repertories that are often described as chant: supernatural power.3

In his work Man, Magic, and Musical Occasions, Charles Boilès describes this power as 'extra-normal forces' and elucidates the phenomenon as follows:

...words by themselves have little magical force, but when combined in special ways, when spoken or sung in unique contexts, these words of chants, spells, carmens, litanies, and invocations set in motion those extra-normal forces reckoned within the magical universe of the culture in question.4

Boilès's use of 'extra-normal forces' includes a broad range of musical repertories as well as many that some would consider non-musical. To illustrate his point Boilès turns to sports chant sung by the public or perhaps sideline cheerleaders at sporting events. According to Boilès, "since there is nothing in the music that physiologically abets the team, it must be assumed that at least this music is partly for magical purposes if not completely so."5 This magical purpose evokes the power of extra-normal forces, in this case team 'spirit,' to favor the home side over its competitors.

Younkin posits that musical styles may be called "chant-like" if their musical characteristics fall within certain parameters along a continuum, and she provides a helpful diagram to illustrate her point. These musical characteristics include very strong, regular rhythm or, in contrast, a lack of rhythmic pulse; and similarly a very static melody or a free melody. In summary, chant-like music is a combination of rhythmic and melodic extremes. By focusing on elements of music to describe chant while including variants thereof, Younkin is able include a greater number of repertories that had been previously excluded from the chant domain.

As an ethnomusicologist, I should, however, emphasize the cultural context of music-chant included. In his work Re-envisioning Past Musical Cultures, Peter Jeffrey also emphasizes the cultural context of musical practices. In brief, he asks if it is possible to describe the music of one culture in the technical language of another.6 Caution should be exhibited when basing categorical distinctions based upon purely musical criteria-a practice that produces many inconsistencies when employed in a transcultural context. At the 2001 annual meeting of the Society for Ethnomusicology, William Malm provided the following adage as a musician's guide to the 21st century:

Music is a universal need, but music is not an international language; it consists of a whole series of equally logical but different systems.7

By attaching the signifier 'chant' to musics that contain features existing in Western examples also called 'chant,' we attach Western preconceptions of function and meaning of the particular music in question. Malm and Jeffrey suggest that we examine the context of any given music in order to arrive at an accurate understanding of its broader cultural implications.

Despite its presence in English for several centuries, the term 'chant', like language, has accumulated numerous connotations and applicable contexts. Younkin successfully reexamines several of these contexts in an effort to pinpoint some of their underlying musical features. Perhaps she is correct in proposing that scholars should abandon the term altogether in search of a new one that possesses fewer Western-centric implications-one that embodies both the music and its ever-changing cultural context.


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

2. List, George. "The Boundaries of Speech and Song," Ethnomusicology 7 (1963), 1-16. Andrew Strathern, "Chant and Spell: Sonemic Contrasts in a Melpa Ritual Sequence," Ethnomusicology 39:2 (spring/summer, 1995). Helen H. Roberts, Ancient Hawaiian Music (New York: Dover, 1967).

3. Olsen defines chant as "the intoning of words for supernatural purposes" in Musics of Many Cultures: An Introduction, ed. Elizabeth May. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980: 367. He has since included the concept of supernatural power and its association with chant.

4. Boilès, Charles Lafayette. 1978. Man, Magic, and Musical Occasions. Columbus, OH: Collegiate Publishing: 4.

5. Ibid: 155-156.

6. Jeffery, Peter. Re-envisioning Past Musical Cultures. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992: 2.

7. Malm, William. In his Charles Seeger Lecture at the annual meeting for the Society for Ethnomusicology, 27 October, 2001.