Byzantine Music History


The author of this essay is a practitioner of Byzantine music and has been studying the art for over six years. This is an important fact to keep in mind when one reads the following essay, for there will be some occurrences where a known fact is stated but no necessary source for the fact is cited. This is so because there are limited resources in the archives of North America, where the small number of psaltes (singers of Byzantine music) are seldom scholars in the academic sense. Even those who are academic scholars are primarily Greek-speaking and consequently are not able to produce works concise and detailed enough to provide for an accurate representation of Byzantine music for the Western world. So the author is found in a situation where the knowledge has been passed down from a long line of teachers (called mastores (English: masters) or protopsaltes) but the necessary sources in the form of books are not necessarily available. The cited works will provide information on my primary source for this essay; namely my present teacher of Byzantine music.

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What is known today as Byzantine music has been developed and refined for over two millennia. With its earliest roots going back to Pythagoras' philosophy on the division of chords, its latest and final revision took place in 1881 in the city of Istanbul; the city still referred to by the practitioners of this complex art by its more ancient name of Constantinople. For the purposes of this essay, the name Constantinople will refer to the city up to and including the present day.

To provide for a clearer understanding of the theory of Byzantine music, the process of the development of Byzantine music as it is known today will be divided into two eras. We will call these two eras pre-Byzantine, and Byzantine periods of musical development. The pre-Byzantine part of the essay will cover developments made before the foundation of Constantinople. This period includes everything before c. 330 C.E. The Byzantine period will include all of the advancements made after the founding of Constantinople and the Byzantine Empire. Every refinement made up to the present day, the most important dates being the simplification of the notation in 1821 by John Koukouzeles and the great council of 1881, will be included in this period, but not, unfortunately in the essay.

Although there is a very significant part played by notational theory on the development of Byzantine music theory and Hymnography, the scope of this essay does not allow for us to delve into this connection too deeply. It is therefore necessary to attempt to separate these two arts as much as we can and focus on the strict Hymnographical and theoretical part of the development.

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The date of 330 is an important date to end this period because the adoption of a practice of toleration of Christianity by the Roman Empire, under Constantine the Great, encouraged the growth of Christianity as a religion. Thus, for the first time, Christians could worship as they chose. This ending of repression allowed for a great increase of musical and theological advancement by Christians, although original musical creativity in the Western sense was never practiced. Traditionally, Pythagoras' philosophy on musical chords is thought of as the predecessor of Byzantine music, but academically, the roots of the music are ascribed Hebraic origin. We will deal with the academic theory first.

Because Christianity sprung up from the roots of the Judaic tradition, it is obvious that there will be traces of Jewish tradition in Christian worship. It is less known (to the non-academically inclined at least), however, that early Christians did not think of themselves as Christians at all, but rather as Jews (Hexter, 1995, pp. 60-100). It is therefore natural that the earliest followers of Jesus, who were primarily Jewish, maintained the rituals and practices of the Synagogue, including the ways of its chanters and readers. It is also inferred that the converts who were chanters and readers in the Synagogue instructed their fellow Jesus-followers in the musical tradition of the Synagogue as it was taught to them: through oral tradition.

This tradition included practices that have been followed ever since in Byzantine music such as certain Jewish rules of cantillation, which allowed for small improvisations in the way a piece was sung but never to the extent where the traditional formula and cadence were altered (Wellesz, 1954, p. 1). There is evidence that exists to this very day that proves the relationship of Byzantine music to Jewish music through the common recitation formulas that exist in both.

"[C]ertain chants in use even today exhibit characteristics which may throw light on the subject [of the evolution of Byzantine music]. These include recitation formulas, melody-types, and standard phrases that are clearly evident in the folk music and other traditional music of various cultures of the East, including the music of the Jews."

So we see that a basic link exists between the music of the Synagogue and early Christian music. A further relationship exists between the two traditions in the form of similarities of Psalmody and Hymns. Briefly, Psalmody is the chanting of the Psalms of David by the Jewish congregation, which carried over to the Christian musical tradition and modelled the way other forms of Byzantine musical pieces were sung (Christian doxologies being the best example of preservation of Jewish Psalmody). Hymns on the other hand, are paraphrases of biblical text, which are written in such a way as to fit to conform to a traditional cantillational formula. This practice was firmly based in Jewish tradition and found in Jewish liturgies. Early Christian attempts at Hymnography (creation of hymns) were immediately condemned because they were not exclusively based on the words of the Scripture. But after only altering passages that were allowable by the Orthodox majority did Hymnography take hold within the Christian tradition (Wellesz, 1954, pp. 3-4).

So we can see that the transferal of the Jewish tradition was primarily practical in nature. This means that the origin of what is today Byzantine music was based on the established practices of converted Jews whose liturgy emulated that of the Synagogues from which they came: they simply kept the practices that they learnt from the many years they spent singing and worshipping in their Synagogues and applied these practices to the worship of, what was to them, a continuation of their religion.

Traditionally, Pythagoras is taught as the founder of what has evolved to become Byzantine music. This is true to a certain extent. Where the Jews contributed tradition and practice, Pythagoras contributed theory. He was the first to connect music to mathematics and pioneered the study of acoustics. Pythagoras was also the first to create modes of music and to ascribe ratios to several series of notes. This created scales which are the basis of the Oktoechos (English: "eight modes") which is the center of Byzantine music theory (Pythagoras' notes are still used in Western music as well). (Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1981, pp. 662-663, 704-705, v.12)

Ancient Greek musical modes are simply different arrangements of notes of varying pitch. These arrangements create scales that are related to one another but are characterized by different "feelings," much like a major scale compares to a minor scale in Western music. Thus, modes were classified by assigning different names to them according to the feeling which they imitated (Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1981, p. 740, v.12). The eight modes that are comprised from Byzantine music are separated into three genres of feelings. This is directly descendent of the ancient Greek practice, for in both systems, the number and names of the genres are the same.

The three classificational names used both in Byzantine and ancient Greek music are:

  1. Enharmonic: modes that are of this genre are heavy and/or powerful in nature. One may think of an ancient Byzantine army singing a war song when one hears music in this scale.

  2. Chromatic: these modes are sad but harmonious. Funeral and mourning hymns are usually sung in this scale.

  3. Diatonic: this scale is the one closest to the Western or European musical scale. Miracle hymns and Christ's spoken words are sung in this usually happy scale. However, this scale is almost universally used in Byzantine music as well, being the scale which possesses most modes (four Diatonic modes compared to two Enharmonic and two Chromatic).

There is often confusion when one speaks of modes, scales and such to a person who may not be accustomed to this subject, so we will take some time to explain the matter at this point. We will assume that the reader has had some exposure to Western/European music. As a visual queue we will use the keys of a piano to compare to the scales of Byzantine music. Now in European music, there are two basic variations of pitch that are possible: the tone, and the semi tone. A full tone separates do from re and re from mi, but only a semi-tone separates mi from fa (using the scale with notes do-re-mi-fa-sol-la-ti-do). If you look on a piano's keys, you will see that in between every full tone (the distance between do and re for example) there is a black key in between the white keys. These keys represent semi-tones which are equivalent to half the tonal distance between do and re. Therefore, every semi-tone could be played from do to do.

However, the natural scale of European music (also known as the major scale) is played exclusively on the white keys, hitting every natural note from do to do. This produces a scale with the following tonal intervals:

1 -- 1 -- ý --- 1 ---- 1 --- 1 -- ½
do - re - mi -- fa -- sol -- la - ti -- do

Now, since we know that there are two scales in European music, we will now explain how the minor scale is played with the use of the semi-tone keys. The first ý interval between mi and fa now moves between re and mi while the second ý tone interval between ti and do remains the same. Now a new ý tone interval is created between sol and la making la and ti 1ý tones away, making the scale like this:

1 -- ý -- 1 -- 1 - ý -- 1ý -- ½
do - re - mi - fa -- sol - la -- ti -- do

Note that although the scale is now played differently and although it definitely sounds differently, there are still 6 full tones separating the notes in the scales. Now a mode is simply a scale which may be the same scale as a different mode but is played with a different base note, changing the way a scale sounds slightly, but usually modes have scales that are unique and independent of any other mode.

There is a fundamental difference that exists between Byzantine music and European music which has not yet been discussed, however. This is the fact that Byzantine music has inherited micro-tonal intervals that separate its notes. Deriving these micro-tones from ancient Greek music, Byzantine music has been able to produce scales that could not possibly be played using European notes. A good example of such a scale is the second plagial mode of Byzantine music. This scale, like all Byzantine scales, separates its notes with the equivalent of six European tones, just like European scales. The fundamental difference is that in order to be able to play every Byzantine note, one European tone must be subdivided into 12 micro-tones. That is to say that instead of having 13 keys on a keyboard, you must have 73 keys spanning the same tonal distance. Using the scale with notes pa-bou-ga-di-ke-zo-ni-pa, the scale looks something like this:

6 -- 21 -- 3 -- 12 - 6 -- 21 - 3
pa - bou - ga - di - ke - zo - ni - pa

Any further comparison would take too much time at this point, so we will leave the pre-Byzantine era of musical development on this note (excuse the pun).

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From the time of Constantine the Great, the Orthodox Church was integrated into the Imperial office. With all the privileges that it endowed upon the new religion, the Roman Empire found itself unconditionally tied to its Christian subjects. Constantine began a habit of building churches, funding projects to copy bibles and scripture, adding bishops to the Imperial payroll, and exempting clergy members from civil duties on town councils. All but a very few Emperors from that time supported Christianity at great public expense. This shows that Christianity was now forever a part of the Imperial establishment. This meant that a unified empire meant a unified church, and the Emperor was the one responsible for both. The first major attempt at conquering every opposition to the Emperor's role as the head of both church and empire came 200 years after the reign of Constantine by Justinian I.

From the beginning of his reign, "Justinian made every possible effort to strengthen religious life throughout the Empire." (Wellesz, 1954, p. 15) One such effort that Justinian made was that he ordered all the monks of the Empire to perform three services a day in their monasteries. These three services were the Mesonyktikon, the Orthros, and the Hesperinos, (still practiced in Eastern Orthodox churches and monasteries) all of which were compulsorily sung daily in the churches and monasteries of the Empire. As a result of Justinian's efforts in strengthening the church, a certain degree of splendor was added to every aspect of religious life. It was in Justinian's time when Hagia Sophia was built. It was in Justinian's time when hymns were being increasingly produced to enrich the liturgical services of the church. Gradually, music and hymnography took a major part in the liturgy of the church and the singing and chanting of music became increasingly popular.

The controversy of Iconoclasm was a surprising boost to monastic hymnography. Although the persecution, torture, and death of monks was ordered by the Iconoclast Empire for over 100 years until 842 (Treadgold, 1997, pp. 346-447), the inhabitants of the monasteries found courage in the persecution and hymnography increased in activity within the Empire's persecuted inhabitants. Even after the controversy came to an end, hymnography enjoyed a prosperous period of renewed interest. It was in this period that two great forms of Byzantine hymnography, the kontakion and the kanon, emerged. The kontakion and the kanon are both examples of hymnography.

In order to understand a little bit about hymnography, certain words that are used in the study of it need to be understood. One such word is metrics. When we talk about metrics, we talk about the way in which a series of words are spoken. For example, when two sentences are metrically identical, they possess the same amount of syllables. When we say that two stanzas are metrically identical, both the sentences and the syllables of the stanzas pair up with one another, making a melody created for one of them fit the other perfectly.

In Byzantine music, stanzas are units of paraphrased biblical text that are grouped together, by both theme and similar metrical composition, under an heirmo. An heirmo is a stanza to which a melody is attached. Usually, the heirmos is a well-known hymn that could be used as a template through which to sing all stanzas of similar metrical composition. That is why most heirmoi are used in several places throughout the kontakion and the kanon.

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The Kontakion

The kontakion, according to Dimitri Conomos, is a "long and elaborate metrical sermon, reputedly of Syriac origin, which finds its acme in the work of St. Romanos the Melodos (sixth century)." (Conomos, 1998, online) These, as other hymnographical works, are paraphrases of biblical scripture and were sung during the Orthros, known as the service of the Laudes in Western English churches.

The way in which the kontakion was sung was in a straight syllabic style (meaning one note per syllable). There are eighteen to twenty-four stanzas contained in the kontakion, all of which follow traditional musical formulas. The first stanza in the set, the heirmos, sets the cantillational melody which every other stanza follows with extremely limited musical liberty, for all the stanzas have the same meter as the heirmos. Consequently, any but the most conservative musical alteration would result in a notable mispronunciation of a word in the text, or an error in the well-known melody of the heirmos.

Most scholars regard this period of hymnographical composition as the highest achievement of Byzantine hymnography. However, the advent of the kanon, often thought of as a notable decline in Byzantine musical and poetical quality, presents us with a shift in the focus of the period's hymnographers to an increasingly harmonious blending of metrical poetry and musical conformity, the apex of which is found in the works of John of Damascus.

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The Kanon

In the second half of the seventh century, the kontakion was suddenly replaced by a new type of hymn, the kanon, which is still used in the Orthodox Church to this very day. It comprises of nine odes that are musically and metrically independent of one another. Like the kontakion, each ode is comprised of stanzas, this time numbering six to nine, which are modelled after the first stanza, once again called the heirmos. The advent of the kanon was a great step in the advancement of musical composition. Compared to the kontakion, the kanon was melodically diverse. Instead of one melody repeated twenty-four to thirty times, the kanon included nine melodies sung up to nine times each.

It is therefore inferred that the kanon, introduced by St. Andrew of Crete (c.660-c.740) and refined by Saints John of Damascus and Kosmas of Jerusalem, was created primarily for liturgical purposes, not as a form of art. The fusion of words and music in the kanon are complete; so much so that the meaning of the stanzas are never missed by the congregation although a few words may be omitted. Therefore, the idea that hymnography declined in this period is erroneous. The fact is that more effort was made to join words and music rather than creating a poetically superior stanza. This effort cannot be understood comparing the simple literary art found within the kontakion to that found in the kanon (Wellesz, 1954, pp. 22-27).

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The Oktoechos

The last great achievement that we will discuss in this period is the introduction of the Oktoechos by John of Damascus. Although evidence has been found of the Oktoechos going back to the Jewish tradition, the advancement of the art by John of Damascus was immense. Adding great amounts of stanzas to the kanon, John is also credited with the creation of all of the heirmoi of the kanon.

The Oktoechos is the way that the Byzantine church collected hymns according to the mode in which they were composed. Thus, using one of the eight different modes in Byzantine music meant that there were eight divisions of hymns in the Octoechos. Literarily meaning "eight modes," the Oktoechos cycles through each of the divisions every week (Saturday night Hesperinos, vespers, being the exact office in which the mode switches) so that by the end of eight weeks every division is read and sung.

There is a matter which I purposely left out in my discussion of Byzantine chant in order to make this essay concise and on topic, but it is an error on my part which must be addressed. The theory that Byzantine music is descendant of ancient Greek music is a viewpoint that has been disputed by Egon Wellesz, probably the greatest Byzantine music theorist in the Western world. Far be it for me to attempt an argument against Wellesz's theory, but I do note a grave error in his thesis. He puts forward an argument that "the music of the Byzantine church ... was a legacy from the music of the Synagogue," and that Byzantine music theory was "treated by Hellenistic and Byzantine philosophers only in the course of their metaphysical speculations on numbers." (Wellesz, 1954, p. 43).

Throughout the course of my studies, Byzantine music theory (the theory of Byzantine scales in which notes are sometimes separated by micro-tonal intervals (sometimes as small as one sixth of a full European tone in practice and often one twelfth of a tone in theory) and sometimes separated by huge tones (up to twice the tonal interval of a European tone)) has been a mixture of philosophy and practice. Without knowing what distance lies between the note you are singing and the note you need to hit next, it would be impossible for you to advance further in the study of Byzantine music. Theory is not just that, however. Often in Byzantine music, a scale is required to be sung using a similar scale fitted to different notes. This causes a shift in the base note's interval compared with the scale. For instance, in the most common mode (almost exactly equivalent to European music's scale), the fourth plagal mode, the scale is such:

12 - 10 - 8 - 12 - 12 - 10 - 8
ni - pa - bou - ga - di - ke - zo - ni

However, you are often required to sing "ni os ga" meaning that the scale remains the same but the notes are shifted three intervals higher. Thus the note ni is sung at ga's spot, using the intervals that ga would normally use. This makes the base note of the mode, ni, use intervals that it doesn't normally use. The scale looks like this:

12 - 10 - 8 - 12 - 12 - 10 - 8
di - ke - zo - ni - pa - bou - ga - di

So instead of increasing your interval by 12, 10, 8 when advancing up the scale from your base note, you increase it by 12, 12, 10. This is a change of about half a tone (European) but only cumulatively. Without the theory of Byzantine music, this slight change of interval, and consequently "feel" of the modified mode, would be lost.

How could Wellesz miss such a point? By the way he presents his argument on pages 42 and 43 in his essay on the Music of the Eastern Churches he fails to point out that there are still two schooling methods that psaltes use to this day. That of praktiki and that of theoritika. By praktiki, a student will spend most of his time in the psalter with his teacher, learning 'by ear' how modes sound by learning the heirmoi and other well-known hymns sung in the church. This is the same as someone being able to sing a song that they've heard over and over again through their memory. Students schooled in this method cannot read music and do not usually sound too pleasant.

The second schooling method of theoritika, however, starts with study sessions between the student(s) and the teacher that include both philosophical theory of scales and modes as well as singing under the guiding of the teacher. Of course, the next stage is to learn the praktiki as well, since there are many services and countless variations on them. The only way to properly conduct such services is to have experience in deciphering the codes of the church that indicate precisely what is to be said during a liturgy according to what day of the week, what week of the Oktoechos, whether there is a feast day, what part of the year it is, and many other such small variables that are all accounted for by the church.

Therefore, although the Synagogue did provide us with the methods of praktiki that its chanters and reader followed for centuries, the ancient Greeks provided us with the philosophical divisions and modifications of the scales that are frequently used in the Byzantine Church to this day. Even the methods that the ancient Greeks used in creating scales were used in the last revision of Byzantine music in 1821. Although this revision is one of the most important ones in Byzantine music history, for it gave us the form that Byzantine music has today, it was nothing more than a definition of the scales and modes as well as the simplification of the notation.

Byzantine music is a living art, still studied and practiced by many of the Greek, Russian, and other Eastern Orthodox churches. As we find ourselves increasingly progressing towards a global community, we find that many young people born far from Greece are losing both their language and consequently, their religion. The mastores of the present age are exclusively from Greece or Constantinople, and therefore have an excellent grasp of Greek as a language, but often fail to understand the difficulties of the present day. The new Byzantine musical and religious community, however, sees this problem and is taking steps to solve it. The result is that a new age of hymnography is seeming to evolve to meet the new needs of the world. Ancient melodies are being fitted to English and French hymns created using metrically similar words and phrases. The mastores are slowly resurrecting an art that has been literally dead since the eleventh and twelfth centuries when there were so many hymns already present in the church that hymnography became outlawed.

My teacher is one such maestora who is bringing Byzantine music to the French language. Teaching a course in Byzantine music in Montreal, under the University de Sherbrooke, he is revising and re-creating hymns fitted to melodies without the proper metrical analysis needed. Also, new technology never before available is being used to study the scales accurately. We are now able to purchase equipment that can play tonal intervals of one thirty-sixth, more than accurate enough for our purposes.

With the new needs of our community expressing themselves the way they are, Byzantine music is an art that will see a new age of renewed interest and activity. Although the troubles that Byzantine music is facing in the face of a new generation of foreign speaking people is a serious and dangerous threat to its survival, it is not a threat that has had no equal. Byzantine music is known to have flourished in the face of threatening dangers. It has done so before in the eighth and ninth centuries during the Iconoclast controversy. Instead of losing faith and creativity, the hymnographers of the age were considered of the greatest in the history of Byzantine music. We are seeing something of this reaction today, proving that Byzantium is still alive and well, even after over five centuries from its historical end.

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This page is reproduced by permission of the author, Pavlos Papadakis, student of Byzantine Chant, Alumnus of Bishop's University and Project Director for Byzantine Links to his sites can be found on our Resource Page.

Cited Works

Conomos, Dimitri, Ph.D. Orthodox Byzantine Music (, April 13, 1998.

Wellesz, Egon, and Hughes, Anselm, The New Oxford History of Music, vols I and II, London: Oxford University Press: 1954.

Margaziotis, Ioan D., Theoritikon Byzantinis Mousikis, Athens: Zoi: 1942.

Encyclopaedia Britannica, Micropaedia and Macropaedia: 15th edition, Toronto: William Benton, 1981.

Treadgold, Warren, A History of the Byzantine State and Society, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1997.

Gonzalez, Justo L., The Story of Christianity, Volume I: The Early Church to the Dawn of the Reformation, New York: HarperSanFransisco, 1984.

Author's Note: My teacher, K. Costas Lagouros, is a source for many ideas in this essay. He is the protopsalti at the Church of the Evangelismo in Park Extension and a professor at the University of Sherbrooke in Byzantine and Theological Studies.

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