On Tropes (Part I)

Beginning in the 9th century, a new Frankish musical practice took off. “Tropes” are a whole category of chants that were added, interpolated, and generally affixed to older chants. From a practical point of view, tropes helped to re-immerse Benedictine monks back into the sanctity of liturgical life after centuries of brutal Norse invasions by making liturgical observances longer. Textually, the content of the tropes served as commentary to the Biblical verses in the preexisting chant; they also functioned as confirmation and validation of the truth of the original passages. Thus, with tropes, new is blended with old, the narrative voice of the text becomes diffuse, and the musical continuity of the original troped chant is fragmented.

I thought we’d have to wait until the 20th century to be confronted with the postmodern, but here we are.

For many reasons, tropes – or the phenomenon of troping – seem much more modern than the other chant repertories we’ve been discussing up to now. There is a fluidity of meaning to them, a deliciously complex problematization (musicological buzz-word!) of authorship that most modern people can relate to. Contemplating tropes, a couple things come to mind immediately. Most of us who are at least half-way immersed in global popular culture hear a contemporary take on the concept of troping all the time, in our cars and in the dance clubs. Indeed, hip-hop music (at least the sampled variety) occupies much of the same technical and semiotic space as the Medieval tropes. Even some of the reasons for sampling are the same (I’ll explore this later). [In an alternate life as a rap producer, perhaps I would sample from recordings of tropes to create a delightful little musical hall of mirrors – troping the tropes. I would be known as DJ Tropesphere. But I digress..]

The phenomenon of troping also brings to mind another pervasive cultural practice of our modern age – blogging. Adding, commenting, amending, collaborating, confirming, changing meaning through context… all of these roles are familiar to the intrepid blogger. They must also have been familiar to the troping monk.

This is a fascinating development for many reasons, and I hope to explore the phenomenon beyond just this brief propaedeutic post. Expect more this week from DJ Tropesphere!


  1. Mark Samples says:

    Troping and sampling—a fascinating connection! I too will not be able to resist posting about tropes soon…

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