Archives for category: Prayer

The wisdom of crowds may be an over-used phrase, and the stupidity of the lynch mob springs to mind as testament to the simplistic expression of intention that typically accompanies joint speaking. However we might note that both religious prayer and protest demonstrations frequently make use of a call-and-response scaffolding that allows somewhat more elaborate and articulate expression of collective sentiment. In protest, call-and-response is usually limited to one or two eliciting questions (“What do we want? Free education! When do we want it? Now!”), but in religion, the call and response is typically integrated into liturgical ritual, supported by printed texts, allowing sequences of call and response that extend over many turns, and that include complex expression of finely tuned theological beliefs. Read the rest of this entry »


The term “chant” is delightfully ambiguous in English.  It can be employed for the robust shouts of protesters, and for the austere beauty of plainsong in a monastery.  Let us start with the avowedly musical forms of chant.  Most forms of song termed “chant” are not metered: that is, they do not have a regular n-beats-in-a bar structure.  Rather, the length of musical phrases tends to be dictated by the text being sung.  Similarly, melodies are sparse, harmonies often absent, and instrumental accompaniment is kept to a minimum, if present at all.  (Sung) chant is thus speech with a minimal musical ornamentation.

Listening to chanting at the other end of the extreme, we can see musical elements too.  In sports stadia and in street protest, many chants become regular successions of strongly accented syllables.  Think “U.S.A.”.  A contrasting chant among European football supporters is the Olé, Olé chant seen here (outside the football context):

Music again has insinuated itself.  There is some evidences that the simple repetition of a spoken phrase can cause the perception of that phrase to switch from speech to song.  Diana Deutsch has called this the “speech to song illusion”, and it is illustrated at this page.  Repetition of a short phrase is a feature of both protest and prayer, so it is unsurprising that we find this leaky blending of speech and song in both domains.

If you want to read more, here is a short paper on the topic by myself.

The Vedas are a group of Sanskrit texts revered in Hinduism, and going back some 3,500 years.  They represent possibly the oldest continuous textual tradition in the world.  Originating before the advent of writing, they were preserved, and indeed still are preserved, through a heavily formalized system of chanting.  There are several methods of chanting, but each serves to incorporate an error checking mechanism, by separating sound and sense.  For example, a sequence of words, ABCDE… will be chanted, in one pattern, as ABBAAB, BCCBBC, CDDCCD, etc.  Other patterns are more complex, but they all involve reversing word order, within sequences in which both forward and backward orders occur, thereby emphasising the sounds themselves.  Any error introduced by a novice will stand out like a sore thumb, as a sense-based slip will violate the sound pattern, and a sound-based slippage will destroy the sense.  Doing this collectively makes the whole process very robust indeed. To this date, the chanted version of the texts is considered authoritative.

The Wikipedia article on Vedic chant is quite thorough. YouTube has many examples for your listening pleasure.

In 2003, UNESCO proclaimed the tradition of Vedic chant a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.