Byzantine Chant

History and Theory

written by Constantine Cavarnos, excerpted

It is the divinely bestowed privilege of the Saints to sing praises to the Holy Trinity, and to extol the Name of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Throughout Scripture and the history of Divine salvation, even to the present day, the people of God have expressed the inner reality of the Divine encounter by means of song. Where mere written words fail to portray fully the truth of the mystery of faith, the Church has employed sacred hymnology to be, as it were, an icon of song and verse, expressing clearly the truth in our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. The music of the Church, therefore, should not be considered as one might consider other forms of music, whether classical or contemporary. This music requires in us a longing to know God and to possess a desire to behold Him portrayed in our song. It requires that we be true to Christ, for in singing and chanting we become witnesses (martyrs) to the truth.

Likewise, we err if we approach Orthodox hymnology simply as a science, seeking only to know technique, formulae and method. If this is our outlook we will certainly miss the heart of what it has to offer. Let us rather approach it in faith and in love, as an outgrowth of our service for our Lord, knowing that it is the Holy Spirit who inspires these poems and songs of the Church, to the glory of Jesus Christ.

The fundamental inspiration for this recording is the thesis that the inner reality of Byzantine music is neither Greek nor oriental. Properly understood it is not a local ethnic musical style, but rather the living embodiment of a timeless and profoundly theological proclamation of the Orthodox faith. With its roots deep in Christian antiquity, it may be legitimately viewed as a part of Holy Tradition, uncorrupted by the Western captivity which has so often distorted other artistic expressions of Orthodoxy, both musical and iconographic. It poses a universality, which allow it to surmount any narrow boundaries of nationality or language.

The poet-musicians of the Church were people of exemplary faithfulness: St. Romanos, St. Ephraim, St. Kosmas, and St. John of Damascus are some notable examples. Their words were inextricably bound up with the music they were set to (and visa-versa), and were carefully chosen not only to be grammatically and aesthetically sound, but theologically precise as well.

Modern orthodox composers who would translate and transpose Orthodox hymnology must be part musician, part poet, and part theologian in order to do justice to the works of Orthodox hymnographers. Strictly academic translation of hymns is not sufficient for Orthodox worship.

Most of the standard translations we possess today of these hymns generally emerged out of a great need for expression of the Faith in English. Written by godly people, they filled a gaping void for the Orthodox Church in America. Musicians over the past 60+ years have been grappling with the translations and groping for a way to sufficiently express the Byzantine style in Western notation and singable music. One of their greatest stumbling-blocks has been that the translations available frequently do not lend themselves to adequate musical expression. It is for a new generation of Orthodox hymnographers to build upon the pioneering works already extant, and to study the traditional Byzantine notation and Orthodox melodies, bringing music and verse together in homogeneity. (Thank God for Bishop Basil and Father David Barr!!!)

The traditions and compositional processes of the past must be kept firmly before us, and yet, to ignore any further musical development in Orthodox hymnology into a fitting mode of spiritual expression is to consign it to become a museum piece, the conundrum of academia, in direct violation of the spirit and nature of Orthodoxy.

This lends a great deal of significance to Basil Kazan’s Byzantine Music Project, a monumental effort, nobly pursuing the advancement of Orthodox hymnology in English. There are some drawbacks to the project; for example, the translation is sometimes very stiff (a problem admitted by Kazan). But it is nevertheless a useful, valuable, and even an historic work. Besides its obvious use in Vespers and Orthros, its hymns can be utilized in many situations throughout the liturgical year. Its greatest asset is that it is an easy guide for almost any chanter. The books divide services into their parts and apply the proper music for each part. This alone makes the Project helpful; but the fact that the music is faithful to our Antiochian musical traditions is even more important. The Project can also be used as a teaching aide, assisting the new chanter in learning the modalities of each tone and melody.

In Byzantine music, as in all other music, we find a natural 7-note Diatonic scale. It is called au natural because the human voice naturally emits sounds according to the intervals described in the scale. In Byzantine music the names are based on the Greek alphabet, but they correspond exactly to the same scale in Western music. There are two other scales, the Enharmonic and the Chromatic. Each of the Byzantine tones is established upon one of these scales. Knowing the scale for each tone reveals the basic character of the tone.

The Octoechos are the Eight Tones. These are melodic lines, called hymns. They are derived from very ancient Greek and Eastern (Syrian/Anatolian) pre-Christian melodies, distilled over time to eight.

Each tone has dominating notes, which are heard more often than others. These dominating notes bring out the strong flavor of each melodic line. For example, the dominating notes for the First Tone are Pa, Dhi, and Ga. Each tone uses the dominating notes in definite patterns. The most recognizable form of this is the interval of the 4th as sung in the First Tone (Pa to Dhi) and the 7th Tone (Ga to Zo).

A brief word on the Ison and the Isocratima. The Ison is the base note (dominating) which guides the chanter in performance. It is used in the Apichima. The Isocratima literally means those who hold the Ison. Traditionally it is only a simple accompaniment to the melody. Relatively recent developments in the use of the Isocratima cause it to move along the dominating notes; as the melody moves from one tetrachord to another, the Ison moves as well, to the dominating note in that tetrachord.

The endings of melodic lines are very closely related to the character of each tone. There are three types of endings:

  • some endings of lines within the melody are on dominating notes
  • other endings of lines within the melody end on the base note or ison
  • final endings of lines which conclude the melody are the most distinctive endings

These last are employed rubrically to signal the priest or deacon that the chant section is finished.


Inspirational Quotes

Music is a divine act and science concerned with tones, which aids us in expressing the sentiments of the heart by means of voice and instruments.
— S.J. Savas
If you know what you are chanting, you acquire consciousness of what you know; from this consciousness you acquire understanding; and from understanding springs putting into practice what you have become conscious of.
— Abba Theoleptos (from the Philokalia)
Pray as is meet and undisturbed, and chant with understanding and the right rhythm.
If you have not yet received the gift of prayer or chanting, seek it vigilantly and you shall receive it.
— St. Neilos
God is peace, beyond all tumult and shouting. Our hymns, accordingly, ought to be angelic, without tumult.

Psalmody has been given us that we may rise from the sensory to the intelligible and true.
— St. Gregory of Sinai
Even the quantity in the chanting of prayers is excellent, when it is preceded by patient endurance and inner attention; but it is the quality that vivifies the soul and may produce spiritual fruit. Now the quality of psalmody and prayer depends on praying with the spirit and the mind; and one prays with the mind when, in praying and psalmodizing, one observes carefully the mind that is contained in the Divine Scripture and thence receives uplifting ideas into his heart from divine meanings.
— Niketas Stethatos
The aim of this music is not to display the fine voices of the chanters, or to entertain the congregation, or to evoke aesthetic experience…. The aim of Byzantine sacred music is spiritual. The music is, in the first place, a means of worship and veneration; and in the second place, a means of self-perfection, of eliciting and cultivating man’s higher thoughts and feelings and of opposing and eliminating his lower, undesirable ones.
— C. Cavernos
Among the things that awaken the mind from its sleep and help one become attached to God are the reading, in right measure, of the Holy Scriptures and the interpretations of them by Saints, and psalmody executed with the proper understanding.
— Callistos Telekoudis
When you psalmodize, watch lest you say one thing with your lips, while your mind is dreaming about others.

We ought, as the sacred writings teach, to guard our mind carefully and to psalmodize without distraction and with understanding.
— Abba Philemon
So he who sings well puts his soul in tune, correcting by degrees its faulty rhythm, so that at last, being truly natural and integrated, it has fear of nothing, but in peaceful freedom from all vain imaginings may apply itself with greater longing to the good things to come. For a soul rightly ordered by chanting the sacred word forgets its own afflictions and contemplates with joy the things of Christ alone.
— St. Athanasius


Tone 1
Called Dorian by the ancient Greeks, Tone I is used in some of the most familiar hymns of the Church year: O Lord, Save Thy People (Troparion of the Cross), O Christ our God, when thou didst raise Lazarus (Troparion of Palm Sunday), the Troparion for Theophany, the Troparion for the Meeting of the Lord, and the Troparion for the Dormition. Tone I is distinguished by a magnificent, happy, and earthy character.

Tone 2
Called Lydian by the ancient Greeks, Tone II comes from the city of Sardes in Lydia around 670 B.C. This tone plays a significant role in Orthros (the Glory after Psalm 50 and the Exaposteilaria). Tone II is distinguished by a languid, moving, and graceful character. It can inspire either majesty, gentleness and hope, or repentance and sadness.

Tone 3
Called Phrygian by the ancient Greeks, Marcian the Greek brought it from Phrygia in Asia Minor. At Bridegroom Matins, Tone III is used for the Exaposteilarion, I See Thy Bridal Chamber Adorned. Tone III has an almost arrogant, brave, and mature air.


Tone 4
Called Mixolydian by the ancient Greeks, this tone is attributed to the poet-musician Sappho. Tone IV is used in Orthros (the Anabathmoi From my youth for feast days, and the Hiermos of the Canon to the Theotokos, I shall open my mouth…), the well-known canon to the Theotokos used on Fridays in Lent with the Akathist Hymn, and in various troparia for feast and saints’ days (the Troparia of the Nativity, the Ascension, and the Annunciation). Tone IV possesses a festive, dancing flavor, is joyous and capable of expressing deep piety.

Tone 5
Called Hyperdorian by the ancient Greeks, Tone V is the Plagal of the First Tone since it is derived from Tone I. Plagal means to change or alter. The most well known example of Tone V is the Evlogetaria in Orthros. Also in Tone V are Christ is Risen and the Paschal Sticharia. This tone is stimulating, dancing, and rhythmical. It is often the first tone learned by students of Byzantine Music.

Tone 6
Called Hypolydian by the ancient Greeks, Tone VI is the Plagal of the Second Tone. It is one of the favorite tones of Mid-Eastern chanters, and one of the more difficult ones for students to learn. Tone VI is distinguished by its rich texture, funeralic character, and generally sorrowful tone.

Tone 7
Called Vareis, meaning grave in Greek, Tone VII was known as Hypophrygian by the ancient Greeks. The Troparion for the Transfiguration is in Tone VII. It is the Plagal of the Third Tone, and is distinguished by a manly character and strong melody.

Tone 8
Called Hypomixolydian by the ancient Greeks, this is the Plagal of the Fourth Tone. This also favorite tone of the Church is heard in the Canon of the Cross, the Troparion for the Holy Fathers, and the Troparion of Pentecost (Most Blessed Art Thou, O Christ Our God). This tone creates an air of humility, tranquility, and repose, expressing in many cases suffering and pleading.