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CHANTING . Many scholars trace chanting to the earliest stages of human development, a time when speech was presumably not differentiated from chant. Even today Saami (Lapp) women in Finland, Jewish women in Morocco, and Santali women in Bihar, India, unconsciously replace sobbing with chanting while lamenting their dead. Australian Aborigines, when excited, break into a torrent of words governed by rhythms and cadences resembling chant. Hungarian dirges and some Khanty (Ostiak) and Mansi (Vogul) tribal melodies of Siberia consist of sung declamations, while the Zulu, Yoruba, Igbo, and Bantu-speaking peoples possess real "melody languages." Contemporary shamans and medicine men on several continents are known to chant sacred rites in a secret language, often invented by themselves. Furthermore, not only American Indian Navajos, African Khoi, and Liberian Jabos use tone levels in their speech: contemporary Burmese, Siamese, Annamese (Vietnam), and Chinese recognize two to nine different tone levels in their languages. The ancient Chinese even distinguished whole families and clans by musical signs conferred upon them by tradition.

Close observation of ordinary conversation in any culture shows that musical intervals recur in the simplest of sentences. A middle pitch is usually maintained, and emphatic words, clauses, and conclusions are indicated by change of pitch. When a speaker addresses an audience, the pitches become more pronounced, and a "melody of speech" emerges. It is reported that the Greek orator Demosthenes (fourth to third century bce) employed an assistant to blow a whistle (tonorion ) during his speeches to remind him of certain pitch levels. Cicero and Gellius (author of Noctes Atticae ) wrote that some classical authors memorized and performed their speeches with the aid of a flute player to insure the right intonation of the melodic line. Isocrates (436338 bce), the Athenian orator and teacher, insisted that the perfect oration was really a musical composition. It is therefore entirely possible that formalized chanting and cantillation of holy scriptures were derived from "singing to speech."

The modern definitions of chant (from Latin cantare, "to sing, to intone") and cantillation (from Latin cantillare, "to sing low, to hum") apply to the recitation of sacred writings with musical tones, usually improvised, as in synagogues, churches, mosques, and Asian temples. Chant in all these liturgies is usually monophonic, unaccompanied, and in so-called free rhythm, which results from the recitation of prose texts. The term chant applies in particular to the liturgical melodies of the Jewish and Samaritan synagogues, and to the Byzantine, Russian, Armenian, Syrian, Ambrosian, Gallican, Mozarabic, and Roman churches. The latter is better known as Gregorian chant and plainsong. Chant also refers to the traditional method of singing psalms and canticles in the daily offices of the Roman and Anglican churches. Chanted also are the Islamic Qurʾān, the Indian Vedas, and Buddhist scriptures.

Hebrew Chant

The term cantillation applies primarily to the recitation of the Hebrew Bible by Jews and Samaritans. Cantillation of the Bible on special occasions is already attested to in Deuteronomy 31:12, 2 Kings 22:113, and Nehemiah 8:18. But regular biblical readings were established only in the fifth century bce, when Ezra the Scribe chanted from the Law in the Jerusalem Temple twice a week on market days to all the people assembled there. This is the earliest evidence of regular biblical recitation in public. Since the reader had to amplify his voice in order to be heard, his unconscious chanting established the first biblical cantillation.

Cantillation gave particular expression to word meaning (accent) and phrasing (syntax). The importance of melody was prescribed in no uncertain terms by the Talmud (Meg. 32a), where Yoanan (second century) says, "He who reads [the Bible] without a melody and studies without a tune is referred to by the verse 'Wherefore I gave him statutes that are not good ' (Ez. 20:35)." The melody was logogenic, or word-bound; in other words, the interpolation of extraneous syllables or words into the text was forbidden. Cantillation was not a prominent practice in the Jerusalem Temple but in the course of time became the most important part of the synagogue service. The Jews preserved biblical cantillation in oral tradition for at least one thousand years (fifth century bce to fifth century ce).

Melodic patterns or motifs were indicated by a system of finger and hand movements called cheironomy (from Greek cheir, "hand"), a practice depicted by Sumerians and Egyptians on bas-reliefs and in tombs in the fourth and third millennium bce. These gestures were intended to refresh the memory of those who had previously learned the melodies by ear. Cheironomy remained in use until the seventeenth century in Greek monasteries, although modern musical notation was available. Hindus and Jews employ cheironomic signs even today, and various systems have been developed by different groups.

The first cheironomic signs were simple: the rise of the melody was signaled by an upward stroke of the hand (/), the fall by a downward stroke of the hand (\), and the rise and the fall on a single syllable by the junction of the two signs (/\). Various combinations of these basic symbols followed. It was musical notation written on the air.

When Hebrew ceased to be a living language, the Masoretes, transmitters of the biblical tradition, devised written symbols to safeguard the proper pronunciation, phrasing, and melodies of biblical Hebrew. The task took five centuries to complete (fifth to tenth century ce). The Masoretes transferred the cheironomic signs from the air to parchment and paper. It must be noted that other cultures employed similar symbols for similar purposes; indeed, scholars disagree as to which culture was the first to transfer hand movements form the air to parchment. Greece, India, the Middle East, and Europe have all been suggested. But the symbols are so elementary that any culture could have invented them independently without outside influence.

These first ekphonetic signs (from Greek ekphōnēsis, "pronunciation") were later refined, became more complicated, and gave way to neumes (from Greek neuma, "nod, sign"). By combining and recombining ekphonetic signs a variety of melodic motifs were created and became neumes. The major difference between ekphonetic signs and neumes is that ekphonetic signs indicate not a freely invented melody but a succession of fixed melodic formulas. Sometimes ekphonetic signs occurred only in the beginning and end of a phrase, as in Samaritan biblical changing or psalmtones of Gregorian chant.

The aʿamei ha-miqraʾ, the Hebrew accents, were invented by grammarians, and many scholars believed in the past that their sole purpose was grammatical. Jews call the oral renditions, the vocal utterances of the biblical text, "cantillation," while the written symbols are called "accentuation." Three different systems of accentuation were developed by the Masoretes. The Palestinian system consisted almost entirely of dots and numbered only ten basic accents. The Babylonian system consisted predominantly of letters positioned above the word (supralinear). Each letter represented the initial of a musical term, such as z for zarqaʾ or t for tibra (yetib ). This system became very popular in the Middle East and was employed, for example, by the Yemenite Jews until they emigrated to Israel in 1948. The Tiberian system of twenty-eight accents, universally in use today, consists of a combination of dots and other symbols.

The accents were provided for the books of the Bible that were read in public, namely: the Pentateuch, the Prophets, Esther, Lamentations, Ruth, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, Psalms, and in some communities Job and Proverbs. While the Hebrew accents are identical in all the Jewish Bibles of the world, their musical interpretation differs from place to place. The reason for this phenomenon is the indefinite nature of nondiastematic ekphonetic signs, which do not indicate musical intervals or pitches. Hebrew accents never developed an exact pitch notation, unlike the neumes of medieval European churches, which employed signs for single notes as well as for groups of notes.

Four accents in the oral traditions of Babylonian and Yemenite Jews can be compared. Neither interval structures nor directions of the melodies agree. This extreme divergence in cantillation motifs was caused by the total isolation of Yemenite Jews. Whereas written communication with Babylonia or Egypt existed, personal encounters were extremely rare. Thus an exchange or transmission of oral musical tradition was curtailed. By contrast, large areas of North Africa, northern Arabia, Persia, and Central Asia (Bukhara) as well as the Mediterranean show similarities in biblical cantillation. Furthermore, these cantillations seem closely related to the Babylonian type discussed previously.

The eastern European types of cantillation practiced by Polish, Lithuanian, Hungarian, and Russian Jews are related. These are, however, unrelated to German, Italian, French, or Sephardic (Spanish-Portuguese) cantillations: the latter four are also not related to one another. How is it, then, that Hebrew cantillation is instantly recognizable anywhere in the world? The reasons are unvarying text (Hebrew) and the ekphonetic symbols that are prescribed for every word of the sentence and have a syntactical as well as a musical function. They provide a solid structural basis for cantillation.

In addition to biblical cantillation, Jews recognize formalized chanting without ekphonetic symbols, namely that employed in blessings, certain prayers in the synagogue and at home, the study of Mishnah, the study of the gemaraʾ, and the study of the Zohar. In addition, Yemenite Jews recite from the Aramaic translation of the Bible on the Sabbath and on holidays in the synagogue. It is worth nothing that the Yemenite Jews are the only ones to perpetuate this Second Temple tradition and translate every Hebrew sentence into the Aramaic vernacular of the time.

Chanting in all these cases is based on a melody that consists of an opening motif (initium ), followed by an undifferentiated two-tone motif (tenor ) and a final cadence (finalis ). The melody varies in length according to the number of words in the sentence, but the melodic motifs do not vary.

A. Z. Idelsohn (19211922) demonstrates the similarity of Yemenite Jewish cantillation and Gregorian chant, showing their common origins, perhaps from Temple times. In Eastern melodies the formulas are less rigid than those of Gregorian psalmody. In Byzantine melodies the same formulas can be used at the beginning, the middle, or the end of a chant.

The Samaritans cantillate the Hebrew Bible according to sidraʾ miqrataʾ (the Aramaic form of the Hebrew seder ha-miqraʾ ), nondiastematic ekphonetic symbols. There are ten in number, but only three basic ones are remembered (see Spector, 1965, pp. 146147): arkenu-enged (has the function of a colon), afsaq (full stop), and anau (pause, with the function of a semicolon). The Samaritan high priest Amran ben Ishaq still practiced the dynamic interpretations of shayalaʾ (question), zʿiqa (shouting), and baʿu (suppliation) and sang them into a tape recorder for posterity (recorded 19511953).

Of ten extant cantillation styles, two are most prominent. The logogenic, or word-bound style, does not permit the inclusion of extraneous syllables or words. It was originally practiced by priests only and forbidden to the laity. It was intervallically stepwise, syllabic, and without ornamentation of the melody. The pathogenic-melogenic style, derived from passionate emotion and melody, permits the interpolation of extraneous nonsense syllables into the text if the text is shorter than the melody. It is particularly effective in the public reading of the Decalogue on the Festival of Shavuʿot. In this recitation the melody often overshadows the text. The nonsense syllables are "ee-no-a."


Scholars apply the term Byzantine music to Eastern ecclesiastical chant sung in Greek. In spite of the language it is maintained that this music was not a continuation of ancient Greek music but contained Near Eastern musical elements. (The Hellenized Near East was part of the Byzantine empire.)

Byzantine ecclesiastical music, like Near Eastern music, was entirely vocal, monophonic, unaccompanied, and devoid of meter. The use of organs and other musical instruments was forbidden inside the churches, similar to the prohibition in synagogues and (later) mosques. The liturgical books intended for chanting of lessons were performed in ekphonetic style, midway between recitation and singing. On solemn occasions actual singing replaced the cantillation. For training Christian congregations in singing, Jewish readers and precentors from synagogues were chosen who had previously converted to Christianity. Especially trained for the office, they made it possible to introduce into Christian worship not only chanting but also antiphonal singing, particularly psalms for solo voice with congregational responses. Performances varied from simple recitation to elaborate cantillation. The musical structure of the psalm melody consisted of (1) an initial clausula (initium ), leading to the note on which the verse is chanted, (2) a repeated or slightly changed note of the recitation (tenor ), (3) an occasional mediant, or half clause, and (4) the finalis, a cadence marking the end of the verse. In Eastern melodies the formulas are less rigid than those of Gregorian psalmody. In Byzantine melodies the same formulas can be used at the beginning, the middle, or the end of a chant.

The rise of the Kontakion is closely associated with the name of Romanus, who was a Jew by birth (d. 555 ce). Born in Syria, he became deacon of the Christian church in Phoenicia and went to Constantinople. He was culturally a Near Eastern musician-priest. It is reported that Romanus composed more than one thousand Kontakia. The first part of a monostrophic hymn in his honor has been preserved; it was sung on the first day of October, when the Byzantine church celebrates the Feast of Saint Romanus.

Gregorian Chant

Gregorian chant is the traditional music of the Roman Catholic Church. Scholars maintain that it is rooted, like the music of the Byzantine church, in the pre-Christian service of the Jews. It acquired distinctive characteristics in the third and fourth centuries and was fully developed by the seventh century. It deteriorated in the sixteenth century and was revived in the nineteenth.

Many Gregorian practices were taken from the synagogue. The hours of the daily office are modeled after the prayers of the Jews, beginning with the evening prayer after sunset. The Book of Psalms, already used in the Jerusalem Temple, was made even more prominent by the church. The terms Alleluya and Amen are Hebrew. The Sanctus of the Mass was derived from the Qiddush of the Jews, as demonstrated by Eric Werner (1946, p. 292). The melodies show stepwise movement. Melodic rises or falls of the intervals of a second and a third are common, but those of a fifth are rare. The melodies can be classified as syllabic (one note to a syllable), neumatic (two to five notes to a syllable), and melismatic (long, highly ornamented phrases). The chant consists of one melodic line with neither harmony nor polyphony to support it.

Similarities between Yemenite Jewish psalmody and the first Gregorian psalmtone can be shown. A. Z. Idelsohn (19211922) shows parallels between Babylonian, Persian, Yemenite, and Oriental Sephardic melodies of the Jews and Gregorian chant. Not only are the same motifs employed but similar modes as well. The mode, the Greek Dorian, an E-mode, is the Pentateuch mode of the Jews, and is in widespread use in Middle Eastern and Mediterranean countries.


The Armenian ekphonetic signs and neumes called khaz have never been deciphered, although rich source materials from the ninth to the twelfth centuries exist in Armenian, European, and Israeli libraries and museums. Contemporary scholars (e.g., Robert Atajan, 1978) believe in an independent origin of the khaz and reject an earlier theory (see, for example, Fleischer, 18951904) that the Armenian khaz were derived from Greek neumes. The Armenian khaz consist of two independent systems, a prosodic system for recitation and a musical system for singing according to khaz. The Hebrew and Samaritan ekphonetic signs discussed previously have no such division: one system governs both prosody and melody.

The Armenian khaz numbers ten symbols, five prosodic (thaw, sosk, aibatatz, entamna, and storat ) and five musical (erkar, ssuch, shesht, olorak, and buth ). According to Robert Atajan, the prosodic khaz relate to the peculiarities of Armenian phonetic pronunciation and have no bearing on the music. Syntactic symbols in the prosodic system, however, are of particular significance in the musical structure of the sentence: storaket ("deep point") is a comma, mitshaket ("middle point") is a semicolon or colon, and vertchaket ("final point") is a period. The musical signs erkar and ssuch indicate a lengthening or shortening of tone duration. The other three, shesht, olorak, and buth, represent tone pitches or rather melodic formulas based on Armenian folk tunes.

Armenian musical notation was already mentioned in the fifth century ce by Kasar Parbezi in his History of Armenia, but no musical symbols were preserved. From the tenth to the twelfth centuries art and music flourished, and twenty-five neumes were developed to indicate pitch, volume, duration, tone color, ornamentation, syntax, and prosody. From 1400 to 1600, khaz notation went into decline; it was revived only in the nineteenth century by the music theorist Baba ("father") Hamparzum (born Hamparzum Limonjian) in Constantinople. In this new and simplified khaz notation a great number of liturgical chants and folksongs were written down by the musicologist Komitas and are thus preserved for future generations.

The Qurʾān

The chanting of the Qurʾān is regulated not by ekphonetic signs or neumes but by oral tradition, which varies from place to place. The word is paramount, and no ornamentation is permitted. Sudden stops within the Qurʾānic sentence are a special feature. The call to prayer varies from country to country. Syllabic, elaborate melismas are often incorporated.


The Vedas (from Sanskrit vid, "to know, to understand"), the sacred texts of the Hindus, were probably composed by Aryan tribes who invaded India from the northwest around 1500 bce. The sacred texts had been handed down in oral tradition with accents at least since the fourth century bce, as reported by the grammarian Pāini, who presumably knew the living practice. The interpretation of the accents is by no means uniform. Pāini wrote: "A vowel pronounced in a high register is called udātta, a vowel pronounced in a low register is called anudātta, and the connection of both is called svarita." Some modern scholars maintain that udātta is a middle tone, higher than anudātta, and that svarita is higher than udātta. Only male members of the priestly brahman caste are eligible to recite the Vedas.

The Vedas were for hundreds of years handed down orally and not committed to writing, unlike the sacred books of the Jews, Christians, and Muslims. The Hindus relied on the spoken word for three thousand years, and even today the Vedas are recited from memory; every precaution is observed to avoid the smallest error, which, it is believed, may produce disaster. This belief is similar to the one held by the Jews of Yemen, who maintain that a mistake in the public reading of the Bible in the synagogue can cause the death of little children. To avoid catastrophe the precentor who commits an error has to repeat the entire verse in the synagogue.

As the Vedic language evolved into classical Sanskrit, the priests feared that the archaic language of the Vedas might become corrupt and the meaning of the texts forgotten. Consequently the Vedas were written down. The earliest surviving manuscripts date from the eleventh century.

Four compilations of the Vedas exist: (1) the gveda, the Veda of verses, contains more than 1,000 hymns; (2) the Yajurveda, the Veda of sacrificial sayings (yajus ), contains verses and formulas dealing with sacrifices; (3) the Sāmaveda, the Veda of songs (sāman ), contains verses of the gveda set to notated melodies for singer-priests; (4) the Atharvaveda is a collection of magical formulas and spells, little known today. The Vedas occur in two forms: the form in which they are recited for the purpose of preservation and transmission to students, and the form in which they are recited at sacrifice. Since large-scale sacrifices are infrequent today, little is known about the sacrificial form.

The gveda is recited to three tones: the "raised" (udātta ), the not raised (anudātta ), and the "sounded" (svarita ). The svarita is marked with a perpendicular line over the syllable, the anudātta with a horizontal line beneath; the udātta and pracaya ("accumulated tone" following svarita ) are unmarked. The Yajurveda is recited on the notes D, E, F or F.

The Sāmaveda is the most musical of all. It alters and expands the words of the gveda to make them suitable for chanting. The original text was often distorted by the insertion of meaningless words and syllables. The grammatical and prosodic specifications of the gveda have been given a musical meaning. The practitioners of the Sāmaveda believe that the sāman is a melody to which words were found, not the other way around. The three-tone nucleus (CE) of the gveda and Yajurveda was extended both upward and downward by approximately semitone in each direction (BF). The Atharvaveda does not seem to be recited according to set rules.


Tibetan Buddhist chants are divided into 'don, recitation chants; rta, melodic chants; and dbya s, tone contour chants. The general designation for the monastic chant repertoire is 'don cha. The recitation chants are stylized recitations that employ reiterating pitch and rhythmic patterns according to the words in the sentences.

Rta are melodic chants with distinctly patterned melodies. Unlike 'don, they are relatively independent of their texts; unlike 'don they are considered melodic and musical. However, their performance is called "speaking." They are similar to melodies in Western and non-Tibetan performance traditions.

Dbya s are tone contour chants and are considered the most beautiful chants used in Tibetan music. They are very slow, low-pitched, and most complex. In contradistinction to 'don and rta, which are "spoken," the dbya s are "intoned." They include changes in intonation, pitch, loudness, and (most remarkably) overtone mixtures, which are perceived as two or more pitches produced simultaneously by one singer. Unlike the simpler 'don and rta, they are notated. The melodic contour is defined by thickening lines that indicate increasing loudness; rising lines indicate rising pitch, falling lines falling pitch; sharp angles indicate interruptions, breath pauses, and so forth. (All Western notations are by Ter Ellingson.)

Secular Chant

Secular chanting is prominent in the epic poetry of many countries; thus it is used for the most dignified and elaborate form of narrative poetry dealing with heroic, legendary, and historical events as well as with the drama and romance of love. Epics are usually chanted by a single performer, but in some Asian countries contests between two rival performers are customary and may last several days. In ancient times the narrator of epics chanted without instrumental accompaniment. This custom survives in certain areas, for example Tibet and Kurdistan. (The Jews of Kurdistan have epics of their own, such as David and Goliath and the Crossing of the Red Sea, whose narratives are distinct from the biblical texts.) Contemporary performers, however, accompany themselves on a stringed instrument, preferably a violin (Persian, kemanje ; Turkmen, ghyjjak ) or a lute (Kirghiz, kobuz ; Turkmen, dutar ; Tajik and Uzbek, dumbura ). Melodies are word-bound (logogenic), and the musical structure admits of little improvisation. The melodies tend to be predictable and repetitious.

Chant is usually defined as an intermediate stage between speaking and singing. Some writers call chant "elevated speech." Chant, however, can take many formsfrom speaking on one tone (Sprechgesang ) to singing in full voice, as in some churches. The melody is always word-bound and moves usually stepwise within intervals of fourths or fifths. Notation for chant developed from hand movements (cheironomy) to ekphonetic notation and neumes. Today, chant is written in contemporary musical notation.

See Also

Music, article on Music and Religion in Japan; Tilawah.


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Nelson, Angela M. S. This Is How We Flow: Rhythm in Black Culture. Columbia, 1999.

Perera, G. Ariyapala. Buddhist Paritta Chanting Ritual: A Comparative Study of the Buddhist Benedictory Ritual. Dehiwela, 2000.

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Johanna Spector (1987)

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