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Monks Take Over Modern Music: Analysis and Commentary

- By Katie Rosenthal, Washington State University, Spring 2004

The Benedictine Monks of Santo Domingo de Silos' trilogy of recordings (from top left to bottom): Chant (1994), Chant II (1995) and Chant III (1998)

Play the Benedictine Monks of Santo Domingo de Silos

The success of the Benedictine Monks of Santo Domingo de Silos and other Gregorian chant musicians in the mid-1990s does not seem like such an oddity when compared to Snoop Doggy Dogg and Michael Bolton sharing chart space. Speculation is all that exists to figure out why the public embraced the monks with such fervor.

Gregorian chant, developed in the sixth century, is known as plainsong because of its monophonic nature (Wierzbicki 04.C). More narrowly defined, plainsong refers to "a single voice with unaccompanied vocal melody" (McComb). Chant’s move from the monasteries to the mainstream occurred when an Angel Records employee convinced executives at the parent label, EMI Records, to buy the rights to recordings of the Benedictine Monks that were owned by Catholic record label Hispavox (De Wilde). The chants, recorded in March 1973, were remastered into a two-CD set by EMI in 1992.

The album, Chant, was released in Spain, the Benedictine Monks' home country, in November 1993, and the album sold 230,000 copies in nearly a month (De Wilde). This earned the Benedictine Monks a double platinum award. On March 1, 1994, the album was released worldwide and eventually sold 3 million copies. In the United States, the Benedictine Monks had the #30 album in sales at the end of 1994 (Meichiku). The top 10 albums of 1994 were as follows:












Perhaps the diversity of that year-end chart should have been a good predictor of the Benedictine Monks' success, as they sold 1 million copies of Chant in the United States (De Wilde). Although Craig De Wilde suggested there may have been a buzz developing around Gregorian chant because of the impending millennial change and fears of what might happen when the calendars changed to 2000, that moment was still about five years away. Instead, the popularity of such music could be better attributed to the brisk sales of "gangsta" rap and grunge, and increased exposure of these genres on MTV and radio. People may have gotten burnt out on the constant rotation of such songs, so they could have purposely sought the antithesis to those genres. Chant was seen as far right of the norm, or what was popular at the time, and many people responded to the polarity of the Benedictine Monks in relation to the rest of the music scene.

Randy Davis, vice president of Streetside Records, said the publicity the Benedictine Monks got from the media was the only reason they sold records at all. "Articles in USA Today, ads on MTV, sports on the 'Today' show, lots of airplay - not to mention the huge promotional campaign that Angel put behind this disc. All that stuff adds up to a pop phenomenon. It's as simple as that" (Wierzbicki 04.C). This may certainly have contributed to word of mouth, but at the same time, there were probably other factors that spurred people to buy the record. The most popular theory for Gregorian chant's success in recent years is the mental and physical impact that the music has on listeners. "Our in-house research has shown that the music appeals to all age groups because of its calm effect," said EMI Spain managing director Rafael Gil. "It's the perfect antidote for stress and anguish and all the other problems of modern living (Llewellyn). After a long day of work, unwinding to chant could be an effective relaxation technique. Music of the New Age genre – which has often been known to encompass chant – may slow heart rates and breathing (Le Guin).

In addition, for some Gregorian chant buyers, the music may also serve as a means of spiritual connection when one does not exist. Perhaps the listener does not go to church or regularly study the Bible because of increasing time constraints. Therefore, chant seems like a less intrusive way for a busy person to stay in touch with their faith, or perhaps for any person to declare a faith. The 1990s became a time of reading self-help books and chatting with Oprah in hopes of cleansing the spirit. Gregorian chant was promoted to feed into that mindset.

Although the Benedictine Monks of Santo Domingo de Silos' music and style were clearly different from any trend at the time, they were still marketed like stereotypical pop stars. The monks participated in the filming of a video that received airplay on MTV and VH1, but EMI Records tried to capitalize in other ways. For instance: "A flier from the States, packaged with the CD set, urged the purchaser to 'Get Your Chant Monk-Habit Hooded Pullover, Long Sleeve 100% Cotton T-Shirt, for only $19.95'" (De Wilde). Such advertising is no different than what appeared in the Backstreet Boys' Millennium album liner notes in 1999. A foldout spread advertised Backstreet Boys posters, videos and clothing.

Record labels had no problem competing with the monks by rolling out their own repertoires of New Age and chant CDs. The situation is like many modern-day musical rivalries where an artist is signed to a label, and a similar artist get a contract with a rival label because record executives see how much money the first artist made. In 1994 a chant fan could have gone to the record store to purchase Sequentia's Chill to Chant or Beyond Chant: Mysteries of the Renaissance by Voices of Ascension (Dyer). These albums may have done just as well as Chant if they had been equally promoted. In addition, "Erato [a classical record label] has Tranquility, featuring the Choeur Gregorien de Paris; Teldec [another classical record label] has Quietude, featuring the Capella Antiqua of Munich, under the direction of Konrad Ruhland" (Dyer).

Much like their rapid rise to fame, the Benedictine Monks of Santo Domingo de Silos seemed to disappear just as quickly from public view. Like Britney Spears and other artists who talk about wanting out of the spotlight, the monks clamored to retreat to their monastery after the media hounded them for interviews and EMI wanted to sign them to a $7.5 million deal. The Benedictine Monks were on the Billboard year-end classical albums chart in 1997, having placed with two albums: Chant III at #11 and Chant at #15 ("Billboard"). However, the monks were no longer on the Billboard 200, as they had been replaced by a surge in pop acts like the Spice Girls and Hanson.

The music industry is sometimes slow to catch on to the "next big thing." The Benedictine Monks were a hot commodity for about two years. Their music continues to sell well on, so it does not appear to matter if they are no longer doing interviews or making music videos. The music business could learn a lesson from the Benedictine Monks' experience as they continue to overexpose the public to marginally talented singers who underperform on the charts. If musicians are heartfelt in what they say, and the record labels do their best to support these artists, racking up sales should never be a problem.


Works Cited

Benedictine Monks of Santo Domingo de Silos. "Alleluia, Beatus Vir Qui Suffert." Chant. CD. Angel, 1993.

"Billboard year-end hit list." Honolulu Star-Bulletin. 26 Dec. 1997. 18 Feb. 2004 [].

De Wilde, Craig J. "Canto Gregoriano and Frock Rock: EMI and the Popularisation of Gregorian Chant." Music Business Journal. June 2001. 18 Feb. 2004.


Dyer, Richard. "Chants with a song and a a marketing plan." Boston Globe. 15 June 1994: 79.

Le Guin, Elizabeth. "New Age music: It's so harmless and yet so scorned." St. Louis Post-Dispatch. 14 Aug. 1994: 12.C.

Llewellyn, Howell. "Meet the Monks: EMI's Next Hit." Billboard. 29 Jan. 1994: 1+.

McComb, Todd M. "What is monophony, polyphony, homophony, monody, etc." 1994. 10 Mar. 2004.


Meichiku. "Billboard 1990s Album Top 50 (Part 1)." 31 Dec. 2003. 18 Feb. 2004 [].

Whitburn, Joel. The Billboard Book of Top 40 Hits. New York: Billboard Books, 2000.

Wierzbicki, James. "Top of the charts: Gregorian chants." St. Louis Post-Dispatch. 8 May 1994: 04.C.


New Age and the Chant Conundrum

Chant has often been accompanied by soothing synthesizer sounds or hypnotic dance beats since its chart success in the mid-1990s, which has perhaps contributed to its popularity. The genre has essentially been rolled into the "New Age" category, which includes such artists as Enya and Enigma. New age is a genre that has roots in repetition, a prominent feature in chant music.

One of the artists mentioned earlier, Enya, was born May 17, 1961, in Ireland ("Enya Biography"). Enya was a member of the folk group Clannad from 1980 to 1982 ("Enya Biography"). For her first solo album, Enya, she recorded vocals in Latin, Welsh and Scottish Gaelic ("Enya Biography"). The second album, Watermark, featured heyr first successful crossover single, "Orinoco Flow (Sail Away)." The song peaked at #24 on the Billboard Hot 100 in March 1989 (Whitburn 215). Enya's next album, 1991's Shepherd Moons, was on the Billboard chart for 199 weeks ("Enya Biography"). Enya released three more albums before her album A Day Without Rain was released in 2000.

"Only Time," a single from the A Day Without Rain album, became an anthem of hope after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. A version with audio clips of survivors interspersed between the verses circulated among radio stations. The single quickly rose on the charts due to strong pop and adult contemporary radio airplay. The lyrics of "Only Time" are as follows:

Who can say

Where the road goes,

Where the day flows?

Only time

And who can say if your love grows

As your heart chose?

Only time

Who can say why your heart sighs

As your love flies?

Only time

And who can say

Why your heart cries when your love lies?

Only time

Who can say

When the roads meet

That love might be

In your heart?

And who can say

When the day sleeps

If the night keeps

All your heart?

Night keeps all your heart

Who can say if your love grows

As your heart chose?

Only time

And who can say where the road goes,

Where the day flows?

Only time

Who knows? Only time

Who knows? Only time

(Ni Bhraonain/Ryan/Ryan, 2000)

Play Enya

"Only Time" is secular in its lyrics. However, the soft, lengthy synthesizer notes, multiple vocal layers and sharp, perky strings create an atmospheric melody, which may symbolize spirituality for listeners because of the uplifting emotions it evokes. After the events of Sept. 11, 2001, church attendance rose, and people were beginning to display their faith more openly. Despite the worldly nature of its lyrics, "Only Time" held a strong connection with those seeking comfort in God, or those who wanted some kind of answer for what happened that day. "Only Time" shows a song can be bent to fit any mood, even when it is not meant to be interpreted that way.

Meanwhile, Enigma is not a band, but the stage name of producer Michael Cretu (Whitburn 214). Enigma has had two Top 5 singles: "Sadeness (Part I)," a #5 single in 1991, and "Return To Innocence," which reached #4 in 1994 (Whitburn 214). In fact, Enigma plays a large part in the Gregorian chant explosion. "Sadeness (Part I)" was the precursor of things to come because it was a hit song with Latin phrasing.

The lyrics are as follows:

Procedamus in pace in nomine christi, Amen (Let us proceed in peace. in the name of christ, Amen)

Cum angelis et pueris fideles inveniamur (We shall find the faithful in the company of angels and children)

Attollite portas principes vestras et elevamini portae aeternales) et introibit Rex gloriae (Lift up ye hands o' ye glorious gates and be ye lifted up ye everlasting doors, and the king of glory shall come in)

Qius est iste Rex gloriae? (Who is the king of glory?)

Sade dit moi (Sade tell me)

Sade donne moi (Sade give me)

Sade dit moi qu'est ce que tu vas chercher? (Sade tell me what is it that you seek?)

Le bien par le mal (The rightness of wrong)

La vertu par le vice (The virtue of vice)

Sade dit moi pourquoi l'evangile du mal? (Sade tell me why the gospel of evil?)

Quelle est ta religion (What is your religion?)

ou` sont tes fide`les? (Where are your faithful?)

Si tu es contre Dieu, tu es contre l'homme (If you are against God, you are against man)

Sade dit moi pourquoi le sang pour le plaisir? (Sade tell me why blood for pleasure?)

Le plaisir sans l'amour (Pleasure without love?)

N'y a t'il plus de sentiment dans le culte de l'homme (Is there no emotion in the cult of man?)

Sade es-tu diabolique ou divin? (Sade are you diabolical or divine?

Sade dit moi (Sade tell me)

Sade donne moi (Sade give me)

Sade dit moi (Sade tell me)

Sade donne moi (Sade give me)

Sade dit moi (Sade tell me)

Sade donne moi (Sade give me)

(Curly M.C./Gregorian/Fairstein, 1990)

Play Enigma


The Effects of Medieval Music on What's Popular

The Backstreet Boys (pictured) and other vocal groups use octaves for their harmonies. Howie Dorough (second from left) has a naturally higher vocal range, so he sings falsetto. Kevin Richardson (right) uses his bass register. Meanwhile, Brian Littrell (second from right) sings tenor. The Backstreet Boys also use the responsorial method, which means there is a soloist singing the verse, followed by the group chorus. In the clip from "The Call," part of the group sings in vox organalis (the upper part), and the other part sings in vox principalis (the lower part). The two vocal parts cross at one point.

Play BSB

The group also utilizes melisma, as is the case with singers like Christina Aguilera and Mariah Carey.

Aguilera and Carey are famous for singing multiple notes for one syllable. Aguilera’s “I Turn To You” and Carey’s “Vision Of Love” showcase examples of their melismatic tendencies.

Play X-Tina

Play Mariah

Duran Duran performed a motet on their 1982 song "New Religion," during which lead singer Simon LeBon simultaneously performed two choruses. The main chorus is:

Take another chance boy, carry the fight

You can take him if you're fast

Didn't I say if you're holding on

you'd be laughing at the last

I get along fine with them friends of mine

but you have to make a choice

You're singing out of tune but the beat's in time

and it's us who makes the noise

The backing chorus is:

Don't know why this evil bothers me

So why is he trying to follow me?

How many reasons do they need?

I might just believe this time

Together it goes:

(Don't know why this evil bothers me) Take another chance boy, carry the fight

You can take him if you're fast

(So why is he trying to follow me?) Didn't I say if you're holding on

you'd be laughing at the last

(How many reasons do they need?) I get along fine with them friends of mine

but you have to make a choice

(I might just believe this time)You're singing out of tune but the beat's in time

and it's us who makes the noise

(Taylor/Taylor/Taylor/Rhodes/LeBon, 1982)

Play Duran

It is not a traditional motet, as technology layered one chorus atop the other. However, in concert, it does become a standard motet when LeBon takes one chorus and guitarist Andy Taylor takes the other.

Madonna’s “Ray Of Light” album, released in 1998, is deeply rooted in New Age music. She hired William Orbit, known for his trance-style keyboard sounds, to co-produce the CD.

Play Madonna

The verses in Prince's "When Doves Cry" use monody (i.e., “Dig if you will/The picture/Of you and I engaged in a kiss…”). He sings by himself with a spare rhythmic accompaniment.

Play Prince


Works Cited (Last two sections)

Aguilera, Christina. "I Turn to You." Christina Aguilera. CD. RCA, 1999.

Backstreet Boys. "The Call." Black and Blue. CD. Jive, 2000.

Carey, Mariah. "Vision of Love." Mariah Carey. CD. Columbia, 1990.

Duran Duran. "New Religion." Rio. CD. Capitol, 1982.

Enigma. "Sadeness (Part I)." MCMXC A.D. CD. Atlantic, 1990.

Enya. "Only Time." A Day Without Rain. CD. Warner Bros., 2000.

"Enya Biography." 2002. 8 Mar. 2004. [].

Madonna. "Frozen." Ray of Light. CD. Maverick, 1998.

Prince. "When Doves Cry." Soundtrack to the Motion Picture Purple Rain. CD. Warner Bros., 1984.