old sheet music

Medieval Plainchant – Lesson Plan

Students learn about the contributions of medieval composer Hildegard of Bingen and about the characteristics of plainchant.

  • Length: 1 class period
  • Grades: 7


  • Students will understand and appreciate medieval plainchant.

Resource Used:
“Hildegard of Bingen”
From: KET’s Humanities Through the Arts, Lesson 38
(or CDs with music by Hildegard)

Vocabulary, Materials, and Handouts

a cappella, Benediction, Gregorian chant, Introit, modes (modal), monophony (monophonic), Offertory, text settings (syllabic, neumatic, melismatic)

TV/VCR or DVD player, CDs of Gregorian chants and music by Hildegard


  • Multiple-Choice Questions
  • Answer Key

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Instructional Strategies and Activities

Characteristics of Plainchant
Plainchant has several characteristics which help to describe it and give it a unique character. Plainchant is

  • monophonic in texture (a single line)
  • sung a cappella
  • sung in Latin
  • non-metric
  • composed in modes, or modal

Each chant’s text, which often includes lines from scripture or single words (such as “Alleleuia”), is sung for special occasions or to accompany certain parts of the Mass, such as the Introit, Benediction, or Offertory. These text settings give plainchant the variations that can be heard when one listens carefully to the chanted melody. The three most often heard settings:

  • syllabic (each syllable of text set to a single note of music)
  • neumatic (from two to a dozen notes assigned to a single syllable)
  • melismatic (one syllable sung to many notes)

Hildegard of Bingen
Hildegard of Bingen was a remarkable woman, especially for the Middle Ages. She was a theologian, a writer, a dabbler in early medicine with extensive knowledge of herbs, and a composer of plainchant. She was the first woman to compose chants.
During the medieval period, another churchman became well known for his connections with plainchant. Pope Gregory is remembered for compiling the body of chants that retains his name: Gregorian chant.

Identifying Text Setting
Prepare a list of the text settings (above) with definitions in advance and introduce these terms to students. Using the video of “Hildegard of Bingen,” have students listen carefully to the chant that closes the segment. Then, using the descriptions of the text settings, pinpoint which style fits Hildegard’s chant. In addition, try to obtain an inexpensive collection of other Gregorian chants (many are available) and listen to identify the various styles. If you have the Kentucky Department of Education CD-ROM that is included in the Dance Arts Toolkit, you’ll find an example in the “Music Samples” section.

Remind students that instrumental music was not allowed in the church. Only unaccompanied vocal music was used at first, and later only vocal music with organ. It was thought that music without words (scripture) would cause the listener’s mind to wander and drift away from focusing on God and the holy nature of the service.

Exploring the Popularity of Plainchant
After this listening activity, discuss how the characteristics of plainchant have made it an essential musical form whose meditative qualities have attracted listeners throughout the ages. In the 1990s, a collection of chants found its way onto the Billboard top 100 chart! This smash hit was performed by monks from a monastery in Spain. The CD is still available.

At the end of this discussion, briefly assess students to check on their understanding of medieval plainchant and Hildegard of Bingen. Include characteristics of plainchant as well as a listening section on identifying text settings. Careful listening to chant will help students become used to listening to music critically.

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Writing To Communicate

  • Ask students to write feature articles, based on research, which relate how chanting is used in other major religions, especially Judaism, Tibetan Buddhism, and Native American religions. They should compare and contrast these chant structures and styles with medieval plainchant. End by looking at chanting or music similar to chanting in current popular music, such as music by Enigma, Enya, Bobby McFerrin, or other New Age musicians. Also check out scat singing in jazz (Ella Fitzgerald is an excellent example).

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Applications Across the Curriculum

Language Arts

  • After some research on Hildegard of Bingen, have students collaborate on writing a one-act play about Hildegard and her many accomplishments.


  • Have students look into the scientific work done by Hildegard of Bingen and prepare a poster highlighting the results of this research.

Social Studies

  • Have students check to see whether there were other women in medieval times who had accomplishments like Hildegard in various fields of endeavor. Discuss and compare them to Hildegard.

Practical Living

  • Discuss and test the uses of plainchant for relieving stress, meditating, studying, and calming babies and small children. Share the results.

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Open Response Assessment

Plainchant has retained its popularity and usefulness from medieval times to the present day.

Discuss some of the features of plainchant which may have accounted for its recent resurgence in popularity, resulting in its charting on the Billboard 100 list. Defend your choices.

Open Response Scoring Guide

4 3 2 1 0
Student completes assignment effectively, exhibiting extensive understanding of elements and/or design principles of the art form. Student demonstrates extensive critical thinking skills and creativity in completing the assignment. Student completes all aspects of the task in an incisive and thorough manner. Student completes assignment effectively, exhibiting broad understanding of elements and/or design principles of the art form. Student demonstrates broad critical thinking skills and creativity in completing the assignment. Student successfully completes all aspects of the task. Student completes assignment, exhibiting basic understanding of elements and/or design principles of the art form. Student demonstrates basic use of critical thinking skills and creativity in completing the assignment. Student partially completes the task and/or is unsuccessful in attempt to address some parts of the task. Student works on the assignment, exhibiting minimal understanding of elements and/or design principles of the art form. Student makes little or no use of critical thinking skills or creativity in completing the assignment. Student minimally completes the task, showing minimal interest or enthusiasm. Student shows little or no effort of having attempted to complete the task.

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Support - Connections - Resources - Author

  • Search for web sites on Hildegard of Bingen, plainchant, Pope Gregory and Gregorian chant, and chant used in the Mass. Like:
  • Suggested print sources: music history texts, almost all of which will have a chapter on plainchant and Mass.
  • Recordings. Many recordings of chants are available in music stores, can be ordered online, or can be found on chant web sites.

Kay Twaryonas

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K-12English Language Arts and LiteracyPractical LivingScienceThe Arts