During the Middle Ages, music in the churches and monasteries consisted primarily of the singing of songs whose words were taken from the Scriptures that dealt with religious feasts or celebrations throughout the year. These feasts and celebrations constituted what is known as the liturgical year. The songs that were sung were known as Gregorian chants. The melodies of these songs were derived from the Greek, Hebrew, and Syrian music that formed the basis of the music for the new Christian or Roman Catholic church. For about 590 years, the melodies and their words were passed down from generation to generation Pope Gregory 1 orally.
In the year A.D. 590, a new pope was selected whose name was Pope Gregory the Great. He reigned from 590 to 604. During Pope Gregory’s 14-year reign, he was instrumental in organizing and having these chants written down. In written form they could be taken to churches throughout Europe, and all of the same chants could be sung in every church.
The traditional myth is that Pope Gregory dictated or sang all of these melodies to a scribe after they had been sung to him by a dove that was sitting on his shoulder. In paintings from the Middle Ages, Pope Gregory is depicted sitting on his throne with a dove perched on his shoulder and whispering into his ear while a scribe takes down the words from the pope’s mouth. The dove is a representation of the Spirit of God.
While this is a lovely story, in reality Pope Gregory had nothing to do with the actual writing down or transcription of the chants; however, he did have a great deal to do with their organization. These same chants have continued to be passed down in written and oral form since that time and are part of the Catholic liturgy today.