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.

Chanting seems to be a very effective means of embodying and sustaining group identity.  Many chants are little more than labels the group chooses to apply to itself.  The very common and multi-purpose chant of “U. S. A.” is a good example.

So the odd case of the Tottenham Hotspur chant merits attention.  The London football club has traditionally had strong ties to the local Jewish community.   Supporters refer to themselves as the “Yid Army”, and incorporate this term in many of their chants.  Cries of anti-semitism (“yid” is widely perceived as a pejorative term for jews) seem a little odd in this instance, as the supporters adopted the term themselves.   David Cameron has seen fit to opine that the use of  chants including the term “yid” should be tolerated, but there has been strong opposition from other quarters, and recently, occasional arrests for such chanting.

To add to the problem, opposition fans have taken to hissing loudly during matches, in apparent reference to the gas chambers of the holocaust.

A lighter view of the chant is provided in this video:

There is no current support for chant, or joint speaking, as a form of expression in the digital world.  In theory, it would not be too difficult to facilitate the creation, sharing, and enjoyment of joint speaking within a digital framework, say as part of a digital petition – where the recipient must hear the collective voice as well as receive the signatures – or as something to be passed around and added to for fun, say by football fans or devotees of this or that sect.

One example of what might be in store comes from Hans Zimmer, who did the score for a recent Batman movie, The Dark Knight Rises.  The movie memorably features scenes in which a large group of people chant “He rises” in a North African language. Is it Moroccan Arabic?  Berber?  Zimmer is coy on the issue.  The words are “deshi basara”.  Before the film’s release, Zimmer solicited and got recordings of thousands of fans, each on their own, chanting these words, and he married them together into a thoroughly convincing large-crowd chant that plays at an emotionally charged moment.  Fans were thus part of the chant they heard on the film’s release.

Zimmer discusses the chant here. You can hear the chant from about the 50 second mark in this trailer:

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.

A chant has emerged in major league soccer in the US.  The pithy phrase “You Suck, Asshole!” is recited, usually once only, and precisely then when the goalkeeper of the opposing team kicks the ball out as a goal kick.  Examples are easy to find.  In this example, you can also see that the chant is accompanied by hand signs that bear striking resemblance to those of the Occupy Wall Street demonstrators.

I know of no other example of a chant that is timed like this with respect to a discrete event, and that happens once only.  Food for thought.

Addendum: During the world cup, it became clear that this practice transcends language.  The term “puto” is used by many Spanish speaking supporters in exactly the same situation, called once only, when the goalkeeper kicks the ball out.

The people’s microphone is a no-tech solution to the problem of public speaking where amplification is not allowed or possible.  It came to widespread attention during the 2011 Occupy Wall Street protests, but has probably been used in earlier protests.  It involves a leader reading a text one short phrase at a time;  each phrase is then echoed by a  group of surrounding people.  In large crowds, there may be several concentric circles of repeaters, leading to widespread dispersion of the message.  Here is a good example:

This no-tech technology taps into an ancient ability that we take for granted: the ability to speak in unison.  A later post will illustrate another, and much older, use of chant-as-technology.  It employs a variant of the call-and-response format that is a frequent property of both prayer and protest chants.  In this case, call and response are identical.

In the above example, the joint speech is augmented by the use of hand signals that have formalized meanings related to the agreement or disagreement of the individual with respect to the message content.  This is a nuanced variant in which the collective and individual intention appear to find parallel expression.

There is much furore about a freshman chant used in an event during Saint Mary’s University Orientation Week in Halifax.  A similar chant has surfaced at the Sauder School of Business in the University of British Columbia.

The Sauder chanting seems to have taken place on a bus of students returning to campus from a hotel party (source).

The St Mary’s chant was more public and video of it is freely available.

The text of the St Mary’s chant is widely reported to be “Y is for your sister, O is for ‘oh so tight,’ U is for underage, N is for no consent, G is for grab that ass – Saint Mary’s boys we like them young.”, although a reader of the  Toronto Star claims that the N-line is clearly (sic) “N is for no regrets”.  I personally hear “N is for no respect”, but I am uncertain.

The Sauder chant is reported to be similar, with the difference that “G is for go-to-jail”.

There have been resignations and uproar, of course.

Texts used in chants are often very simple.  Think of the popular use of the call “U. S. A.” at American sporting and political events.  Longer texts are associated with formal rituals, such as prayers.  Where these are not memorized and over-practiced, chanting is usually done in call-and-response format, as seen, for example in the people’s microphone during the Occupy Wall Street protests of 2011  (about which more in a later post).  In the documentation we have of this chant, all participants know the text (no call and response) so we may take it that this particular chant has a degree of institutional embedding, and that this has happened often in the past.  Not pretty, but chanting is not always pretty.