Chanting Or Singing A Religious Service -- Why?

I went to a funeral yesterday for a coworker and the service was Serbian Orthodox. Now, I don’t know from Serbian Orthodox, but the service was largely conducted in semi-melodic chanting – you know, like Gregorian chanting – each section followed by the the three-tone “amen.” I know that they do this as well in Greek Orthodox churches (at least sometimes), having been to a Greek Orthodox wedding, and my Roman Catholic boss tells me they used to conduct the Latin High Mass in the same way. And I believe at least some sects of Judiaism do similarly, though I may be wrong. Back at work, someone asked the obvious question: Why do they do that? Why do they sing the service instead of speak it? Where did the practice originate? Nobody knew, but I had a pretty good idea of how I could find out – my secret weapon, The Straight Dope Message Board.

So someone eradicate my ignorance and I promise to spread the joy by in turn eradicating my coworkers’ ignorance.

What, how else can you pray? You mean we should just read the words? Sounds… dull.

Or do you mean that only the priest or preacher or cantor should pray, and everybody else should just listen? Praying is a group activity, isn’t it?

BTW, in all Orthodox and Conservative - and most Reform - Jewish synagogues, almost all the Hebrew prayers are sung, each one in its own tune and its own fashion. In many ways, the singing is the prayer.

With respect, ALESSAN, I am not making value judgments about the practice, though you apparently are, as you are free to do. I am asking if there is a particular reason some religions have services that are largely sung and where or when the practice originated – or, conversely, where, when, and why the practice was given up by some (namely, the Protestants). If you do not know – and it appears you do not – maybe someone will wade in who does.

And way back when a majority of the congregants were illiterate, and even before that when the religion was being passed down by oral tradition, what was a good way to memorize a long, complicated passage? Why, rendering it into a poem or song seems to work rather well. And later on, when it is formalized and written down, it stays chanted because of:
(a) It’s how we always do it; and more important
(b) Getting the congregants and celebrants into a “groove” helps enhance the experience (by focusing them, or by helping them let go of the mundane). There’s a continuum from the cantor “singing” the reading for the day or a cloisterful of monks doing plainchant or the mue’zzin’s call to prayer, to a Black Baptist preacher delivering a sermon in rhyme with a rockin’ Gospel choir backing up…

Mmmm…because it’s easier to remember the words when they’re set to song? I don’t think I could recite the words to Lecha Dodi if my life depended on it, but I can sing it to five different tunes.

Jodi, I’m sorry - I was not making a value judgement, although I can see how you may have thought I was. I was just trying to point out that things that seem odd to you can seem perfectly natural to me, and vice versa. Any implied disparagement can be chalked up to poor rhetoric, not malicious intent.

Actually, I do have some ideas as to the reasons we pray as we do, but I was (and am) rather pressed for time, and I chose - wrongly, it seems - to be flippant, rather than informative.

One of the advantages to chant in the old Medieval churches was that because of the acoustical hangtime, the words could be intoned in a way that everyone could hear. If the words were spoken at a normal pace, the sound would be a jumbled mess. But if the words were chanted, everything was more intelligable.

But of course Catholic chant followed the practice of Judaic chant, so this is a fortuitous consequence, not an explanation of why it came to be.

Just one quibble, IIRC I don’t know that it’s the prayers that are chanted in the Eastern Rites or were chanted in the Roman rite. It was the formalized parts of the service (e.g., the Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, and Agnus Dei) along with the parts of the service proper to the given day that got chanted.

I attended a Ukranian Orthodox funeral a few years back in which the service was chanted. It was an absolutely mesmerizing experience!


the orthodox church has various chants to help with the meaning of the words. the words you are singing are the most important part. in the beginning you could only have one note per syl. then things loosened up a bit and some chants like znameny are rather polyphonic. in orthodox churches only human voices and bells are not allowed because an organ or piano, etc cannot speak.

the funeral service you were at was mostly in the 6th tone, very minor key (my fav.) esp. the ending when memory eternal was sung. since you were in a serbian church i’m figuring it was in church slovanic? so the part before people would go to pay last respects. serbian chants tend to be a bit “trilly” 2-3 up and down notes to each syl.

greek and middle eastern churches have a drone note (bass) with usually a tenor voice singing what ever tone the day or service is in. the wedding you were at would be in mostly 5th or 7th tone, major keys. happy tones.

many of the rules for singing in oc come directly from the jewish tradition.

btw how cloudy was the church?

read that as “are allowed.” dang cat!

Sister Cyprian, my 4th grade battleax-nun teacher, always said, “Singing is praying twice.” (She was one impressive lady; we sang a lot in her class.)

I’m a Christian, sort of Methodist to be more exact, though I have my own form of religious beliefs.

I cannot stand gospel music or similar singing. It just annoys me all over the place – worse than real old time country and western songs.

I don’t like the harmonious ‘chanting’ some churches use.

I really dislike the way many white and black preachers or ministers have this ‘singsong’ way of preaching. Especially in the South. I found out that many of these guys and gals are actually taught how to do this in whatever seminary school they go to.

'Annnnd yoou be DAMNED - ah- if you -ah - don’t LIVE a RIGHTIOUS life!"

Or the more common: “Yew (high note) will be damned (low note) for nawt following the (high note) scriptures as (low note) you should.”

I’m not real happy with chanting of any form, but probably because I really dislike people trying to force me to conform and also, I have a problem with magnificent, hideously expensive churches, positioned on acres of land, festooned inside with various riches, while people suffer in abject poverty and die from the inability to purchase medical treatments. A good church, in my opinion, would sell off most of it’s riches to help those in dire need.

As you might guess, I disapprove of the opulent Vatican and the Great churches of people like Oral Roberts and preachers of his ilk.

I kind of liked the old Priest portrayed in that old John Wayne movie, where he lived on a Hawaiian Island and his adopted daughter was actually the princess and his never seen real daughter, a business executive, was dropping in to visit. They kept donating money to the Priest to get the badly leaking roof of his chapel fixed, and he kept giving it away to the poor instead.

Besides, I figure we need new, lively religious songs. I’ve been exposed to some of the new ‘rock religious’ groups and find the ‘holier than you’ look on the lead singers faces annoying.

I get annoyed at a lot of things.

Just ignore me.

Kyla is the closest.

Musical intonation utilizes brain functions much older than modern consciousness. Long before writing, Homer’s works were performed by teams of individuals (much like the “book people” in “Farenheight 451”). Couple this ancient mode of memory with preconscious religious experience and you instigate a powerful spiritual experience.

My understanding is that it was tied to a general distaste of things considered “Papist” - if the RC church did something, it must be bad, so we won’t do it.

Mind you, not all Protestant churches have given up on chanting - the Anglican liturgy, for example, can generally be both said and sung, depending on the theological/liturgical preferences of the rector and the congregation.

Actually, the Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus and Agnus Dei are prayers. :slight_smile:

Attending Catholic Mass, I’ve often heard these parts chanted or sung – as opposed to spoken (which would seem to be the norm, at least in the churches I’ve been to). Much of the Liturgy of the Eucharist (the words surrounding the Transubstantion) are also often spoken or sung.

The chanting/singing has always seemed special to me, more formal and majestic. It usually happens on holy days, although not always, which would seem to make sense. I’ve never really thought about it apart from that…

In addition to what some have already mentioned, I should point out that in Judaism, singing one’s praise to G-d is a tradition that goes back to the Song at the Sea of Reeds (wrongly known as the Red Sea). The reason for that singing is explained in its second verse, Exodus 15:2 - “This is my G-d, and I will beautify him.” Praising G-d in an aesthetically pleasing way is therefore a commandment in Judaism.

Also, it’s easier to sing an chant in unison than to speak in unison, and when the congregation does things in unison, it reinforces a feeling of community and belonging and shared belief. This has been exploited by secular institutions as well. Think of other times when people chant or sing: in the military, singing the National Anthem, saying the Pledge, chanting at rallies, etc.

I don’t know the historical answer to your question, but I am a Greek Orthodox Christian and the Divine Liturgy that I attend each Sunday is celebrated in a mixture of spoken and sung prayers. When passages of Scripture are read, either the whole thing (in Greek) or the final few verses (in English) are sung. The service I attend is done in about half English and half Greek.

All of the choirs responses are sung, although they speak the Lord’s Prayer and the Nicene Creed.

The answers presented all make sense to me. Easier to remember a song, easier to understand and recite. And I would add this speculation: It’s more beautiful.

I understand where you’re coming from completely, but I think to make churches/ temples remove things which set them apart from “ordinary” buildings is to rob them of something fundamental to their purpose.

I have to say that there is something about an ornate church dressed in the trappings of its particular faith that, when “experienced” in combination with a powerful chant can produce a transformative experience.

All I mean by transformative is that for a brief period of time, you can feel detached from the mundane concerns of the everyday world and more aligned, dare I say, with the spiritual.

Look at the temples of the ancient worlds… stepping into them, one feels like they are stepping into another world, which a goal of religion in one sense.

I know this is no excuse for the construction of opulent churches at the expense of people’s suffering, but people go to these places for look for something beyond the ordinary, and if it can be provided without harming them, I think it should be encouraged.

In addition to other reasons already mentioned, there is an acoustical advantage to chanting – particularly for a soloist in a large room. Generally speaking, you can categorize voice sounds into speech sounds and singing sounds. If you imagine a spectrum of voice sounds, ranging from ordinary speech to the extreme of operatic/classical singing, chanting falls more into the region of singing sounds. The differences have a lot to do with vocal tract resonances, or formants, and perception of certain frequencies by listeners, but the short of it is that the singing voice (or a sing-songy quality) can be a lot louder and carry much further than the speaking voice. (For a better, more detailed explanation see Johan Sundberg, The Science of the Singing Voice) It’s a more efficient way to use your voice without wearing it out. So if, for example, you are a cantor trying to project the text to the back rows of a large church (especially if you have long passages to recite in several services a day) it’s a lot easier on the voice to sing/chant it than speak it. The speaking voice can be very expressive, but chanting allows you to be expressive at a distance. Intelligibility is still a problem in a big space unless you enunciate strongly and clearly.

BTW, the so-called “singer’s formant” can be used to cut through a 90 piece orchestra, and allow you to sing safely at that dynamic level for several hours. If you tried to speak or shout over all that sound, you’d get hoarse pretty quickly and the people in the upper balcony would never hear you.


Along the lines of Podkayne, rhythmic chanting does make it easier to remember liturgy. I’ve learned Tibetan Buddhist(entirely foreign) mantras much easier in a group out-loud situation than on my own. I can read OK, but when it’s put outloud rhythmically, it sticks in my mind much more concretely. That was an intentional part of training. Repeat, repeat, repeat. I didn’t get it at the time, but find that the mantra is in my mind, and I can better use it in practice when needed.

As to why the human mind hinges so well onto rhythm, I think it’s a given parameter of the monkey-mind. Spiritually oriented agencies use it because it works, well, to disengage the day-to-day mind from it’s habitual track, freeing up the better part of our selves for “transcendence”. All that means is dropping all pre-occupations and being open to the moment.

Lifting your voice with others helps you realize that moment. I’ve heard it in an AME gospel choir, but can’t seem to get there in with an Episcopalian Hymn book. Maybe it’s the bassline…