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When listening to Gregorian Chant (in Latin), I find very hard to distinguish the words being sung, beyond some trivial regular words or phrases.

It might well be said that Gregorian Chant is actually not made for listening but for singing, and hence clarity of words has never been of importance. A more likely factor hindering my understanding could be that my Latin is just not good enough for distinguishing words.

Beside the evident advice on improving my Latin (including "pronunciation"), are there more general hints or techniques to improve the understanding of words from Gregorian Chant, perhaps based on your experience on this?

  • Is this something specific to Gregorian chants, or is it the same as trying to understand the lyrics when someone (especially a choir) sings in a foreign language? – Joonas Ilmavirta Dec 4 '18 at 12:16
  • @JoonasIlmavirta Mmmm, good point. It is definitely specific to Gregorian chant in the sense that I have no interest in a similar issue for another language. But I guess the nature of the issue is the same. Are you suggesting this could be better placed in the music SE? – luchonacho Dec 4 '18 at 12:57
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    The same question can be on-topic on a number of SE sites. You might get some insight from Music, but different kinds of insights here. And if a question is valid for all languages, it's still valid for Latin. The question seems on-topic to me, but I wonder how much people here can help. (Let's hope I'll be positively surprised as I have often been on this site!) – Joonas Ilmavirta Dec 4 '18 at 14:59
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I'm an experienced chant singer, so I do have some first-hand knowledge about what might be going on here.

1) The clarity of words in chant is important. But the problem for listeners is that the resonance of the spaces in which chant is usually sung/recorded is so great as to obscure even well-enunciated consonants, especially when you have multiple people singing.

2) Different linguistic cultures developed different pronunciations of ecclesiastical Latin, so you may be running into otherwise familiar words that are just being pronounced differently, e.g., "regem" in Spanish ecclesiastical pronunciation has a hard "g" as in English "get", whereas in Italian pronunciation it's a "j" sound like the English word "gem".

3) Furthermore, even if the Latin pronunciation is the same, you may also be dealing with a foreign substrate accent, e.g., choirs singing Latin with a modern French accent. We all know how difficult it can sometimes be to understand people who are speaking out native tongue correctly but in a foreign accent, so understanding a sung foreign language can similarly pose problems.

4) Finally, the act of deliberately singing words can alter the pronunciation significantly from what we are used to in speaking. For example, consider the English word "for" -- as an independently pronounced word it often has a long O sound like "fawr", but in common speech we usually hear "fer". The same thing might be going on with how you hear the chant versus how you are used to reading/saying Latin.

As a solution, I would recommend trying to learn the texts of the chants you are listening to, and then trying to pick out the words without referring to the written source. Maybe try that a few times, and then do a few trials without looking at the text beforehand to see what you can figure out.

I hope that helps!

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    Welcome to the site and thank you for sharing your expertise! – Joonas Ilmavirta Dec 4 '18 at 20:15
  • Very helpful indeed. Point 1 is very interesting! Point 3 is definitely true. I can sometimes tell that the monks are French :) I will start to practice with the lyrics and see how it goes. Thanks! – luchonacho Dec 5 '18 at 22:40

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