Book Description
A-Z Entries List
Religion & Society Encyclopedias
Order Information
Contact Us
Routledge Library Reference Home

(Note: Sample material is taken from uncorrected proofs. Changes may be made prior to publication.)


Chanting is a type of sung speech that is used to quiet the mind and body or to aid in memorization. The book-focused religions of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam include chanting as part of worship, but the practice is more heavily used in animistic and Eastern religions, especially Buddhism.

Chanting is the repetitive use of names, words, and syllables, including nonsensical ones. However, employing the name of a god or gods is almost universally considered to make the strongest chants. Chanting is typically done in accompaniment to drumming, hand clapping, rattling, and other musical noises that are believed to enhance emotional excitation. When chanting is used in meditation, it is frequently accompanied by the use of rosary beads. Material learned by chanting is cognitively processed as songs are and recalled in the same easy manner. For this reason, chanting is preferred by many religions as the best method for rote memorization.

Early Uses
Chanting may have been one of the first types of religious communication. Prehistoric peoples relied upon shamans to mediate between the visible and spirit worlds. Shamans, who could be male or female, chanted to enter a mystical state. The first record of chanting for religious purposes comes from ancient Greece, where women shamans howled chants in an effort to use strong vibrations to increase their magical powers. Neopagans and Wiccans continue this ancient tradition by chanting names of deities. The objective of these chants is to achieve an altered state of consciousness and create psychic energy. Like the ancient pagans, modern-day pagans occasionally use chants for magical purposes.

Native American Chanting
Contemporary religions that rely upon shamans, such as Native American belief systems, use chanting for the same purposes as the ancients. Chants are an integral part of such activities and ceremonies as healing, hunting, battles, controlling weather, rites of initiation, and funerals. The Navajos put great emphasis on curative chants, which are interwoven with myths telling how supernatural beings first performed the chants. The chanters must chant the prescribed texts correctly, in the original manner, or else they will be stricken with the disease that the chant was to nullify. Navajo chants can continue for many days. If a chanter of great esteem makes no mistakes but fails to cure the diseased person or persons, then witchcraft is usually blamed.

Use by Eastern Religions
Buddhism, reflecting its ancient roots, has incorporated chanting into everyday religious practice more so than modern religions. Worshippers may sit on the floor barefoot while facing an image of Buddha and chanting. They will listen to monks chanting from religious texts, perhaps accompanied by instruments, and take part in prayers. Buddhists typically repeat the word Om, which represents the Buddha. To Buddhists, chanting is the expression of the harmony of the community within the community. The sound is more important than any intellectual meaning because sound unites voices from many mouths, thereby joining the community in one voice. Chanting is as much speech as it is an encouragement to listen closely to other Buddhists.

Followers of Islam also use chanting, typically as a method of learning the Koran or as a way to become infused with religious spirit. Followers of Islam chant the ninety-nine names of Allah, called "the Beautiful Names." Sufis or Rifa'im, a fraternity of Muslim mystics from Egypt, Syria, and Turkey who are commonly known as Howling or Whirling Dervishes in the West, chant as a main technique for approaching melboos, a mystical state of ecstasy. Using rhythmical timing, they chant "Al-lab" until each of the participants begins to chant the name of Allah. This ritual prayer, known as dhikr, is followed with a frantic dance, during which the Sufis howl in a unison rhythm while using hot implements to engage in self-mortification.

Hindus also employ the practice of chanting. According to the Vedic scriptures, the chanting of the name of the Lord is the one way to increase spiritual progress in the Kali Yuga age of quarrel and hypocrisy that began five thousand years ago and that is supposed to continue for thousands of years into the future. Evangelical Hindus, commonly known as Hare Krishnas, believe that chanting will awaken the soul. To supplant the material consciousness with an awareness of God, they believe that a person needs only to prayerfully and frequently chant the name of Krishna. Devotees perform sixteen rounds of sankirtana (the chanting of "Hare Krishna") on a 108-bead rosary that is given to each member upon initiation.

Chanting in the West
The most familiar Christian chant is the Gregorian chant. The traditional music of the Catholic Church, it has its roots in the medieval Frankish kingdom of Charlemagne. This plainsong repertory is known as "Old Roman," and it is believed to be related to the Roman tradition from which cantors in the Frankish kingdom learned the Roman chant. This "Old Roman" version continued to be used in Rome for some centuries before being replaced by the "Frankish-Roman" or "Gregorian" version. The Frankish chant is thought to have received the name "Gregorian" after Pope Gregory, in order to give it greater authority and to ease its reception in the Frankish Kingdom. In Gregorian chants, the individual note and the individual word are of little importance. Only the whole sentence with its cadence makes a musical unit.

Protestants have also developed plainsong chants. Like the Protestant Church, Protestant chant has its roots in Rome. Over the long period of its development from the fifteenth century, Anglican chant changed from the Latin rite into its present form. The evangelical wing of the Church of England supported congregational chanting as part of a program to encourage a greater congregational role in a liturgy made more accessible, both technically and musically, to the ordinary layperson. Many of the Episcopal chants are now sung by trained choirs, who harmonize several texts of the liturgy in four vocal parts with or without organ accompaniment.

Chanting is universally revered as a method of religious communication. It encourages devotion by bringing people closer to one another and to their god or gods of choice.

— Caryn E. Neumann

Further Reading
Gade, A. M. (2004). Perfection makes practice: Learning, emotion, and the recited Qur'an in Indonesia<. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press.

The Gregorian Association. Retrieved December 22, 2004, from

Kelly, C. (2003). Gregorian chant intonations and the role of rhetoric. Lewiston, NY: The Edwin Mellen Press.

Staal, J. F. (1961). Nambudir Veda recitation. The Hague, Netherlands: Mouton de Gruyter.

Strauss, C. (1984). Beyond "formal" and "informal" education: Uses of psychoanalytic theory in anthropological research. Ethos, 2(3), 195-222.

Wilson, R. M. (1996). Anglican chant and chanting in England, Scotland, and America 1660 to 1820. Oxford, UK: Clarendon Press.

Sample Entries

Description | Introduction | A-Z Entries List | Contributors | Reviews
Order Information
| Order Online | Contact Us | Routledge Library Reference Home