Sacred music has the power to heal as well as inspire
The 20 adult singers and 30 boy choristers whose voices ring around the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican are among the finest singers of Gregorian chant in the world. As the Pope’s own choir, they are in a privileged position to perform under the watchful eyes of Michelangelo’s angels, while in turn inspiring worshippers to find peace.
The music which has been perpetuated through the monastic tradition has barely changed since the Middle Ages; it is uplifting yet calming. No wonder Gregorian chant is so often used to assist meditation away from church.
Partly, I believe this is down to Gregorian chant’s unique form: its tonal quality is quite unlike anything our ears are accustomed to in normal life. Typically, the music moves by step and within a modal seven note scale, rather than a full chromatic octave as in modern music. This slight, subtle discord is part of what pleases our senses; it sounds off-key to us. Gregorian chant is full of unexpected pleasures that bring the attention back, over and over, to the music.
There are no accompanying instruments to force a beat, the singers create a fluid rhythmic pulse which undulates according to the stress on certain words. And when it is sung in Latin, the words have their own musicality and emotion – it adds to an overall mood of mystery.
For Roman Catholics, Gregorian chant “shows you what theology sounds like”, says British baritone Mark Spyropoulos, who is the first British full-time member of the Sistine Chapel choir. “It is the message of the Church expressed through its music.”
I am excited to learn that there is increasing evidence Gregorian chant may be useful for medicinal purposes as well. Recent studies have shown that the calm state induced by chanting and meditation may have real value for the cardiovascular system.
One of the biggest studies of its kind, presented to the American Heart Association last year, found that patients with coronary heart disease who practised meditation and chanting had nearly 50 per cent lower rates of heart attack, stroke and death compared with non-meditating subjects.
Another study last year of students at Georgetown University found that chanting helped to lower blood pressure after three months of regular practice.
Most curiously, there is anecdotal evidence from France that suggests chanting may not be just calming but also energising. In 1967, Alfred Tomatis, a French physician, psychologist and ear specialist, learnt that the centuries-old schedule of a Benedictine monastery had been disrupted when a new abbot had tried to modernise his monks. The Benedictines had been used to sleeping only a few hours a night, and chanting six to seven hours a day. The abbot cut out the chanting, only to find his monks had become lethargic and sleepy.
No rest was enough for the lethargic monks. But when Dr Tomatis was called in, he reintroduced the chanting, believing that the monks “had been chanting in order to ‘charge’ themselves”.
The result? The monks soon found the energy to return to their normal schedule. Harmony – in every sense of the word – was restored.