Czech scientists tracing origins of medieval Gregorian chants 

Czech scientists, in cooperation with their colleagues from Great Britain, are carrying out research aimed at tracing the origins of medieval Gregorian chants. They are doing so with the help of computational algorithms, that are commonly used in biology.

The Gregorian chant is a form of unaccompanied sacred song in Latin, which originated in Europe in Medieval times. The chants could be heard in cathedrals and small churches and served to pass  sacred texts onto the next generation.

Photo: Masarykův ústav a Archiv AV ČR

That’s why strict care was taken to ensure that they didn’t differ in any way, says Jan Hajič from the Masaryk Institute and the Archives, who is heading the research team:

“In practice, however, it turns out that it wasn’t so uniform. That’s what makes it interesting in terms of cultural evolution.”

To trace the origins of the famous melodies that are hundreds of years old, Jan Hajič and his colleagues will draw on a digital database of more than 15,000 Gregorian chants.

They will subsequently place them in a unique system, called ChantLab, which can compare individual Gregorian chants, for example according to the colours of the individual notes, explains Mr. Hajič:

“This is a tool based on the pitch of the tone. All C2s are green and all A1s are purple. The basic advantage of computational methods in this research is that you can process a lot of melodies in the same way.

“You can also do it quickly, in volumes that are impossible to hold in your head. It is simply beyond human power to analyse tens of thousands of tunes.”

The research method is based on so-called bioinformatics, the science of storing lots of complex biological data and analysing it to find new insights, which we use in many different ways.

Computational algorithms can reveal that a Gregorian chant from the eleventh and sixteenth centuries or from France and Germany might actually have more in common than it would seem at first sight, explains Mr Hajič:

“At first glance, a fish and a bug do not have that much in common, but we have a model or a theory that tells us how they evolved.”

While this is the first research to link musicology with the science of bioinformatics, the experts are essentially building on experiments carried out in the second half of the last century.

However, the political situation in Czechoslovakia at the time prevented scientists from doing so, explains Klára Hedvika Muhlová of the Institute of Musicology at Masaryk University in Brno, who is involved in the research:

“This research was carried out long before 1989. Although these methods could not be fully developed in the area of sacred chants or liturgical repertoire for obvious reasons, there were very sophisticated attempts to apply developing computer technology and various mathematical and statistical methods in the field of music.”

Authors: Ruth Fraňková , zuzana machálková
run audio