Sorry. I can’t resist posting this one.

Robert Greenberg, in his third lecture “The Middle Ages–Darkness, Change, and Diversity” in Part 1, “The Ancient World Through Early Baroque” of his Teaching Company series “How to Listen to and Understand Great Music” says that the role of church in the early Medieval church was twofold:

  1. To create a mood of peace conducive to these long hours spent in prayerful contemplation.
  2. To embellish the formal services, to make them more impressive and more solemn.

After playing a wonderful example of this, a plainchant hymn called Ave Maris Stella, Greenberg wonders what made early church music so peaceful and prayerful, “so conducive to meditation and spiritual quietude.” He gives three reasons why the music they sang had this effect:

  1. It is vocal monophony.. . . There is no compositional complexity here whatsoever. It is quite natural in that it is simply being sung without any accompiamental material whatsoever.”
  2. It is highly conjunct. This means the notes of the tune are close together; missing large jumps, etc.”
  3. There is no beat.” “All the rhythms of this piece are a function of vocal articulation. The rhythm is an outgrowth of the words. No a priori dance beat will be heard in this music. Indeed, dance-beat music, music with a strong pulse, will be frowned upon by the church. Please, let’s remember what happens when we hear a strong beat. What part of our body begins to move? The lower half of our body! The fun half of our body! The part of our body that will get us in trouble, the sinful half of our body. My friends, dance music can do nothing but remind us our physicality, our sexuality, our hedonism. We will not hear strongly defined beats in the music of the Catholic Church. We just won’t.”

Keep in mind here that Greenberg is addressing a secular audience and is a bit eccentric, and I think this could be worded a bit more carefully. Still, he is using broad generalities on purpose to make a point.

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