Are We Chanting or Singing?

Or are they the same thing?

Don’t you hate essays that begin dictionary definitions?  “According to Webster, …”

Well, I’m going to use the same old trick but I’ll update it a bit. According to the Free Online Dictionary,  a chant is:

a. A short, simple series of syllables or words that are sung on or intoned to the same note or a limited range of notes.
b. A canticle or prayer sung or intoned in this manner.
c. A song or melody.
And here’s the definition of chant as a verb:
1. To sing or intone to a chant: chant a prayer.
2. To celebrate in song: chanting a hero’s deeds.
3. To say in the manner of a chant: chanted defiant slogans.

It has struck me again and again just how confused people are about what chant is, and what it means if we say we are chanting.  I was charged with teaching all of the kids in my parish the Missal Chants last fall.  Kids had no trouble understanding that “to chant” meant “to sing.”

But what surprised me – well, not really – what struck me was that a number of the adults involved in the CCD program. i.e., teachers, volunteers., etc., didn’t understand that chanting means singing.  It became clear in my many conversations with them that they thought chanting meant only one thing:  a string of words, repeated over and over, on one tone.

Maybe it is because I live in a football town.  Everyone knows the “chants” or “cheers” that are exclaimed game after game, year after year, in a football town.  I’m in Alabama.  “War Eagle;”  “Roll Tide,” and what have you.  There are longer ones, too…simple, rhythmic phrases – akin to Rap – that people utter and scream in order to affect some outcome of the game.  It is supposed to encourage the ball players.  And I think it does. 

This is what a lot of people think “chant” is.

Over the past year, I’ve been especially aware of people who say to me: “I can’t sing a note.  But I can sure chant.” 

Has it occurred to anyone else that we should start using the verb “sing” a lot more often?  Let’s “sing” the Missal chants, and not chant them.  Let’s “sing” Gregorian chant.  Let’s “sing” the Simple English Propers, or the Weber propers, or what have you. 

The chant, as we know it, IS in fact music.  We sing it.  It is not something less evolved than a more modern form of music or song that is “sung.” 

I am never going to use the word “chant” as a verb again.  Unless I am at a sporting event.