Introduction to Chant Theory and Notation

A sophisticated form of chant and a very large body of liturgical material for all the services of the Church was developed during the first millenium. It is principally characterized by melody (versus harmony or polyphony) against an unmoving drone or “isokratima” or simply “ison”, to convey the meaning or intent of the prayer or text; antiphonal (responsive) singing; and the use of Byzantine modes. Byzantine music uses a unique notation, and has gone through several phases (ancient, medieval, and late) and refinements. Its origins are found in the work of Saint John Koukouzelos the Maistore. The most recent refinement was the simplification of notation in 1820. This notation has the capability to communicate the subtleties of rhythm, tuning, and ornamentation that the western staff is unable to reproduce.

The lessons in this section are intended to present the learner with the basics of psaltic “Byzantine” notation and with the basics of chant music theory. Being principally an oral master/student tradition, it is always best, and more traditional, that the learner should seek out a teacher steeped in the oral and written tradition. Because this is not always possible, these lessons are intended as a stop-gap to help a student understand the notation and musical tradition of the eight Ecclesiastical modes. After the basics of notation are mastered, a student should eventually seek the counsel of a credible teacher, who can help him understand the proper interpretation: both reading a musical page and “through-composing” hymns from liturgical books.

Well-trained chanters in our parishes and communities are a vital part of the liturgical ministry of the Church. One can hope that newcomers and parishioners alike can say of our services: “We knew not whether we were on heaven or on earth.”

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The following lessons comprise initial training in the "New Method" of the Three Teachers. Before attempting to learn the eight modes and music, the student should study these basic lessons and master the neumes. Later the student will become familiar with certain patterns, ornamentational neumes, and groups of neumes that are chanted ornamentally.

Each of the initial lessons have a corresponding exercise. The student is expected to learn the exercise using parallegi or sight-singing—chanting the note name along with the assigned pitch.

The student should dedicate a minimum of 30 minutes per day to studying and practicing the exercises.

  • Lesson 1
  • Lesson 1 Exercises
  • Lesson 2
  • Lesson 2 Exercises
  • Lesson 3
  • Lesson 3 Exercises
  • Lesson 4
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