by Sr Fidelis
It’s All Relative
Several weeks ago, we looked at our first piece of Gregorian Chant, and noted some of the differences between modern musical notation and chant notation. The square notes represent relative pitch, while the modern notes represent absolute or fixed pitch. For example, if you played a middle C on a piano, it would sound a certain pitch. You could play that same note on a flute or violin, and it would sound the same pitch. But with Gregorian chant, it’s all about the relationships between the pitches.
You can try this little exercise which might help illustrate what relative pitch is. Take a well-known song – like “Mary had a little lamb” – choose any note “out of the air” and sing a phrase or two. Now, choose a higher pitch and sing the same familiar words. Next, choose a lower pitch and do the same. Most likely, you’ve automatically adjusted the notes to make the tune work because you know the relationship between these pitches by heart! High or low, or just in the middle, you’ve sung “Mary had a little lamb”.
Gregorian chant is all about these relationships. The best tool we have for working with a relative system of pitch, is called SOLFEGE. Thanks to Julie Andrews, and her hit song from The Sound of Music, “Do, a Deer” , most of us are somewhat familiar with the Solfege syllables – DO – RE – MI – FA – SOL – LA – TI – DO. These syllables indicate pitch relationships. If you look below, you’ll see these syllables written out on chant staves with corresponding square notes, going up and down the scale. You can listen to the audio track and sing along with pitches, using the solfege names.
No, Julie Andrews did NOT invent solfege….its been around and in use since the 11th century, but thanks to her infectious rendition of “Do, a Deer”, most of us — whether musically trained or not — have that sound in our ear, and it will be invaluable to us as we look further into the chant!