Chant, from the French word chanter, refers to the rhythmic singing or speaking of sounds or words, often using two or less pitches, known as reciting tones. From a simplistic melody with reciting tones, to a complex musical structure, such as those of Gregorian chant, chanting music can be viewed as music, speech, or a heightened style of speech. From chant-along songs to background noise, chanting music offers respite from the mind’s meandering as it channels thoughts into a meditative state through repetition. Native American, African, and Hawaiian cultures have all included chanting music in spiritual practice dating back to their earliest ancestors. The world’s major religions also utilize chanting music as a form of religious practice, such as in the reading of the Qur’an or the chanting of psalms and prayers in Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Anglican, and Lutheran churches. Tibetan Buddhists use throat singing in religious practice, a unique style of chanting music where each performer produces multiple pitches.
Chanting music is an imperative part of Hindu rituals. Dating back thousands of years, Vedic chanting music offers a look into one of the world’s oldest continual vocal traditions. It is this unshaken and unbroken tradition that led to UNESCO proclaiming the practice of Vedic chants a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity. Chanting adds melody to hymns from the Vedas, the ancient religious texts of Hinduism, which German philosopher Arthus Schopenhauer once described as “the production of the highest human wisdom,”going on to state that Vedas is the “most satisfying and elevated reading which is possible in the world; it has been solace in life and will be the solace of my death.” Vedic chanting is a form of vocal worship that brings song to scriptures. The Rigveda, the earliest collection of Vedic texts, contains nearly 1,000 hymns, which are chanted syllabically, with each syllable receiving emphasis through unique vocal tones. Employing three levels of pitch, these basic recitations emphasize grammatical accents and provide the basis for later collections of Vedic texts. The Samaveda, or Veda of the Chants, shares hymns to be sung in a more melodic form, rather than syllabically, with multiple words sharing the same notes, and upwards of six or more notes forming the melody of the chants.
Ensuring uniformity throughout India and beyond, a numerical system and oral tradition emphasizes the importance of absolute precision in text, intonation, and body language and gestures, creating a stable practice that almost perfectly mirrors the chants from centuries ago. It is through this exact tone, pronunciation, and emphasis that divine power is said to be attained, gaining maximum power through precision as practitioners invoke the Gods. The shakhas, Hindu theological schools specializing in learning Vedic texts, have worked to preserve the time-honored pronunciations and accents throughout history, with the belief that their power lies in the perfect sound created through pronunciation.
From ritual to recreational, chanting music finds counterparts in a variety of settings. Today, aggressive forms of music, including hardcore punk and grindcore, have incorporated chanting into songs. Often times, during a breakdown–the part of a song where the time signature is cut in hald or dramatically slowed down–the singer engages the audience through chants, invoking a passion in the crowd and an overall reaction to the music and unified feeling throughout the room. Reggae and rap music, both of which are primarily spoken, deliver many elements of chants, often in the choruses, and depend heavily on rhythmic delivery. The inclusion of chants in genres from around the world and throughout time periods proves the powerful impact and equalizing effect of chanting music.