The Language of the Chant

By Phoenix F

The inside of the palatial church is crowded. I have can scarcely move without brushing against another person. My candle is held close to my chest, its little flickering flame illuminating the bulletin I collected when I walked in. Although my knowledge of Modern Greek is negligible at best, I know what is happening in the service as soon as I hear the first chant. It is Great and Holy Friday: the most solemn service of the Greek Orthodox Church year. We are holding a vigil at the tomb of Christ. The chanters begin the first verse of the Lamentations, and I join in the chant—with the same tune I have sung every year since I was a child.

The Greek Orthodox, whether in Greece or abroad, find their ethnic identity through the traditions of the Church. Among these are traditions of the specific architecture of the church buildings, their icons and the imagery they present, as well as the wearing of crosses and the wrapping of prayer ropes around their wrists. One of the most unique and unifying elements of the Greek Orthodox Church is its music. Members know by heart the tunes of the eight ‘tones’ – the basic chants the Church cycles through every eight weeks. They know them in the same way that all Christians know the Lord’s Prayer and can recite it anywhere without effort.  The eight tones of Greek Orthodox music are a common liturgical “language” through which Orthodox Christians express their devotion in worship no matter where they are. They share the tones not only with members of their local churches but also with other Greek Orthodox Christians in almost every Greek Orthodox service across the world.

This phenomenon in Greek Orthodox music can easily be approached from a functionalist perspective. The liturgical church year cycles through multiple feast days which mark different seasons of the year: Advent, Christmas, Lent, Easter, Pentecost, and so forth. Within these seasons are also smaller feasts which celebrate individual saints. Each feast day has its own hymnology—its own approved liturgical text which is read and sung on the occasion—and each of these texts are set to the tunes of the familiar eight tones . So, instead of having a hymn book filled with hundreds of hymns as the Protestants do, the Orthodox simply apply one of the eight chants to the different liturgical feast day texts. This way, not only can the choir and chanters sing new text with relative ease, so can the members of the congregation who have heard these tunes all their lives. The tones meet a need for a simply way to set hundreds of texts to song.

The eight chants server a bigger purpose than limiting the musical repertoire.  In fact, an interpretive anthropologist would find a wealth of symbolic meaning within the music. The Byzantine chants are simple tunes, created so they are easy to apply to a text and also so they are easy for everyone to remember.

Byzantine chants of text were performed first and foremost because of the church’s deeply held belief that if a text is read aloud, the reader may impose his own interpretation of the text in the inflection he lends to the words and sentences as he reads them aloud.  This is avoided when the text is set to the tunes of the eight chants. The familiar cadences of the chant ensure that all readers read the text objectively, without personal inflection.

The chants also create a sense of unity for the Greek Orthodox which I little understood until I set foot in Greece myself. I was a foreigner, traveling alone in a country where I often understood little or none of what the people around me said, but these familiar chants were soothing to me. Being able to sing along with the music gave me a sense of unity with the people singing around me in the church. In America, in Greece, and in all other countries where the Greek Orthodox Church stands, Byzantine chants are the common worship language unifying the Greek Orthodox world: a language we all speak and understand.

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34 Responses to The Language of the Chant

  1. Andrew Sullivan says:

    Amazing how chants have been used throughout history. They’ve ranged from choruses in ancient Greek theater to the chants like you talk about in the blog.

  2. Phoenix says:

    Indeed. And if only we knew more about the music in ancient Greek tragedies, I’d love to compare the two. It’s an intriguing thought! Other ethnic Orthodox churches have their own sets of tones. The Russians have set theirs to four part harmony while the Byzantine ones remain in unison and sometimes with an ison sung underneath.

    Apologies for the typos by the way. I just glanced at it again and found a couple. 😦

  3. Maddi Kraft says:

    The first paragraph had such beautiful imagery! I really appreciate how you were able to take something personal and relate it to cultural anthropology and the theories . you clearly know what you’re talking about. I love how straight forward and understandable you’re theoretical arguments were especially the functionalism paragraph. This was a very compelling and personal essay. Kudos.

  4. Chelsea McGuire says:

    I really enjoyed reading your blog. When you were talking about being in the foreign church and how you became a part of the community when you heard the chants it reminded me of a very similar experience. I had gone to try out an Aikido class upon a friends request and as usual (for me) I regretted trying something new as soon as I arrived. A few minutes into the class the Sensei started leading an exercise while the class counted aloud in Japanese. It made me feel instantly “apart of” because I had gone a million times and watched my parents do Karate when I was younger and they also would count kind of like a chant in Japanese. I could remember all of the numbers even though I hadn’t heard them in over a decade. Thanks for your memories.

    • Carly Morrison says:

      Chelsea, I am going to follow your trend with a personal story of my own that was inspired by your post. I grew up in a large family rooted in traditional Italian catholic practices. However, my parents were less devoted catholics and I had not been raised with as much emphasis on faith that my grandparents had raised my mother with. Once when I was visiting my grandparents, they took me to church with them. Everyone around me was singing hymns that I did not know. They understood the proper etiquette of the service, but I did not. I was always left standing when everyone knew to sit and. Needless to say, I felt lost. Looking back I can see how these practices made everyone feel a part of something greater, feel like a unified group, and I saw this from the outside looking in.

  5. Ben Sardinsky says:

    A structuralist would investigate how these 8 melodies (melody being the word I am using to describe the tones of the chant without the words that are applied to them) reflect the cognitive structure of the human mind. For example, these melodies might reflect the way that binary opposites (structuralists love em) are similar presets for meaning. Although every culture has it’s own interpretations of different binary opposites, they act as structures of meaning that can be filled by applicable content at different times.

  6. Lexi Eagle says:

    First, I really enjoyed the personal nature of the essay. I think your analysis of Greek Orthodox chants is particularly valuable since it is coming from someone who has participated in the culture for a long time.

    However, I would like to problematize your functionalist reading of the chants as meeting a “need for a simple way to set hundreds of texts to song.” These tones certainly fulfill this purpose, but I believe this argument does not fully address the functionalist’s question: what universal human need is addressed by this cultural phenomenon? We need to examine the function of the tones/chants from a broader perspective. I would argue that perhaps these eight simple tones unify all the members of the church, fulfilling a need for relationships, or enriching the relationships between people at the church. The unity you mention in your last paragraph could have come in to a functionalist argument as well.

  7. Madeline says:

    First off, I really loved the imagery you used in this essay, it is absolutely beautiful and really paints a great picture for the reader. Secondly in your final paragraph you talk about how the chants provide unity for the greek orthodox church. I really agree with that idea. Music in general is one of the biggest unifiers we have in the modern world. It is a universal idea that breaks down barriers and connects people to one another.

  8. Charlotte Thompson says:

    I really enjoyed this blog.The compelling introduction and easy to ready narrative makes it a fun read. I do think,however, that a functionalist would go further to explain these hymns. Perhaps a functionalist might see these hymns as a way of uniting the Orthodox people?

  9. Jacqueline Joyal says:

    This is an interesting view. I like the whole “unity and understanding” aspect that you were getting at in the last paragraph. I also think it can be said for many other religions. Being raised Catholic, I was around all kinds of chants that, similar to your Greek Orthodox music, changed throughout the year. I am no longer a practicing Catholic or even consider myself to be a part of the religion, but I still find comfort in hearing these chants and other secular chants. They still remind me of the unity I felt when I went to church.

  10. Jenna Scott says:

    I thought this was an intriguing essay. It was an insiders point of view and you were able to give great detail about such rituals. Though I enjoyed it was in the last paragraph in which I felt held the most meaning for you had said that the music or hymns had given you and anyone else a sense of unity. I felt that this was the key word for in music it doesn’t matter what language the lyrics are used in because music itself is its own language which is not confined within cultural barriers.

  11. Logan Arlen says:

    I thought this was a really interesting topic. Learning about how Greek Orthodox prayers and chants differ with what I grew up with and these differences came to be makes me appreciate other cultures more. Its interesting how music can be interpreted in many ways in something so simple as a chant to read text too.

  12. cadv1956 says:

    Your blog post was well constructed because of its ability to give insight to how these tones can be understood through differing theories. The unification of Greek Orthodox tradition between the United States and Greece is very interesting and sheds light on how this tradition can become a part of a shared tradition between cultures. It seems that the tones are intentionally created to unify believers, no matter where they may be geographically. I had not known about this practice in the Greek Orthodox Church, so thank you for the insight!

  13. Kelsey Spalding says:

    Nice blog post incorporating a personal experience which makes the essay resound more with the reader. I had no idea about the different tones used in a Greek Orthodox traditions and how these chants have the ability to transcend multiple cultures and regions through a shared religion. Perhaps an expansion on the functionalist perspective would be useful in the analysis, it seemed a bit surface level at times but all in all a very insightful essay.

  14. Maddie Gross says:

    This essay is full of imagery and personal experience, that I really think its hits on the main theories of Anthropology, speaking from a place of experience. I think it completely appropriate to argue that they have a main set of “tones” across place and time, as a functionalist argument. This music is a static symbol of thousands of years devoted to the same religious code, that is accessible to many people and memorable out of simplicity and devoted repetition.

  15. Helen Najjar says:

    I think it was very interesting to learn about how Greek Orthodox gain some of their identity through tradition, especially music. Its easy to see how the Greek Orthodox music and the tones within the eight traditional songs can be looked at through a functionalist perspective how it creates unity. It also helps for the essay that you have personal experience with the subject.
    However, it would be interesting to hear about what other functionalist purposes the music serves in that society.

  16. Amy Knutson says:

    As many mentioned above, this essay was a pleasant read because it was so clearly written and it was easy to get pulled in from the start. I think having gone through the experience of being an observer and also a participator helps to strengthen your argument and give it more validity in a way. However, there will always be some sort of tainted projection on one’s understandings of another culture because of the values that we were brought up with. To make this an even stronger essay, getting perspectives from different angles (aka. different relations to the specific music culture) could make this essay really interesting. But of course, this was a pretty short and limited assignment– all in all, this was an awesome introduction to something I think could be researched further.

  17. Mackenzie Carson says:

    I like how you turned this paper into a personal anecdote and used experiences from your own life, I think it helped make the paper so interesting. It is so interesting to me that chants have been used in such a wide variety of cultures and in so many different situations.

  18. Carly Morrison says:

    I enjoyed reading your functionalist approach to Greek Orthodox chants. I found your point about inflection to be particularly interesting, “chant ensure that all readers read the text objectively, without personal inflection.” This laments that even the most basic linguistic elements of these chants represent practices that underscore the importance of objectivity in unity.

  19. The use of personal narrative in this blog post was really well done. It really helped connect the reader to how important this was to you. Additionally I think it was helpful that you included the comparison of these ‘tones’ to the Lord’s Prayer, it gave me a better understanding of what you were talking about. I really feel like you nailed the functionalist approach, that was the best use of that approach I’ve encountered. Overall I found this really educational and informative, but also unique and intriguing. Well done.

  20. Alexis Johnson says:

    i really enjoyed reading this essay. Your approach on the Functionalist is very interesting as well all the evidence that is provided for it. Reading this essay had me imagining it all in my head and I just love the way it’s written.

  21. Brian Clark says:

    Your essay is great! It’s full of good analysis and your personal anecdote really adds to your explanation of the functionalist theory. Bronislaw Malinowski argues that in order to really understand the intricacies of a community or society, one needs to immerse themselves in it. You having personal insight to the Greek Orthodox church really added to the analysis.

  22. James Cumming says:

    Your Functionalist approach takes on a solid stance when describing these Greek Orthodox rituals. The fact that these rituals don’t change and are specifically meaningful gives great insight into understanding the practices within this religion. As each aspect (hymns, chants, texts, and specific days) all come together to function as a whole by producing a unification within the culture and an equal expression of respect and honor. This was an excellent and intricate example to use to express the functionalists approach because it allows for detailed analysis to reveal great insights to an outside perspective.
    The interpretive approach shows that symbolism is not just surface level but that it can reach great depths of thought and understanding. The example explaining why tunes are used to reconfigure an individuals interpretation of text by aligning itself with the true meaning by means of chant does well to bring forth what this ritual is meant to symbolize. Great essay, it was very interesting while directing the reader through detailed analysis.

  23. Olivia Smith says:

    This is a very beautiful essay, I love the imagery. It takes me back to being inside churches in Rome. It’s interesting to see how the chants connect the Greek Orthodox Christians, no matter where they are and it’s also unique to see how they never drastically change. I’m not familiar with the Greek Orthodox church and so your essay helped me understand it more! I enjoyed how you included personal experiences in it as well.

  24. Joe Sulik says:

    Having spent the greater part of my childhood in a Catholic boys choir, with Gregorian chant being a staple of the repertoire, this essay both took me back to those solemn, resonating moments in cathedrals and abbeys around the world, as well as shed light on the origin and implications of the practice within the constructs of the Greek Orthodox church. I found the bit about ascribing eight “tones” to spoken texts as a means of avoiding imposed interpretation via an individual’s inflection particularly fascinating. Even from my own experiences in Catholic masses, when prayers are recited as a congregation in spoken word, it merely sounds like several hundred people reading a piece of text out loud; but when a prayer is put to a specific intonation in chant, a feeling of “tapping into” something ancient and universal is evoked, and the text seems to carry a life of its own.

  25. I really liked the personal touch of this essay. It was very well written. I also think that you did a good job analyzing the Greek Orthodox chants from a functionalist perspective. Given that these chants are personally important to you, I like that you were able to step back and examine them for their larger purpose in society. I think that the symbolic approach is also interesting, and I liked the mention of familiar cadences used to prevent individuals from imposing their own interpretation on the chants. However, I did think that you could examine the symbolic meaning of the chants more. You mention unity in particular, but what else do these chants symbolize? ( I know you only have so much space in the essay, but I’m honestly curious!)

  26. Laura Graham says:

    I really like this post! I don’t know very much about the Greek Orthodox tradition, so this was interesting to read about. I thought your imagery was beautiful but beyond that I liked how you touched on being able to feel at home when hearing the chants despite being in a foreign country. Its interesting how, as you mentioned, songs can hold such a deep and powerful meaning.

  27. Taylor Hill says:

    This is so interesting! I had very little knowledge on anything Greek Orthodox. The language you used to describe everything really made me feel like I was there. I thought it was interesting how you used language and song as a symbol. I have never thought of using it as a symbol but it definitely is, and in this case it seems like it is one of the main ones. I also really liked how you used the history of the chants as part of your paper. It really helped me to understand how it came to be and a little bit of background on everything.

  28. Josie Anderson says:

    I think you chose a really interesting topic to write about. You were able to tie your own experience and knowledge with some anthropological theories. When I think of music, I never really consider religious chants. I think it was great how you brought up how this type of music and chanting unifies a such a big group of people. You also provided interesting information about the function of the chanting. Maybe you could elaborate a little more on the symbolic meaning. I know the chants all have religious meaning, but maybe an example would help people like myself who know nothing about Greek Orthodoxy.

  29. Chris Manning says:

    Definitely the most interesting article for me because it is something you have actually experienced, not something that you just researched. It becomes much more personal and interesting to read than something anybody can just google.

  30. Derek P says:

    I found this whole essay to be beautifully written. The strong imagery used truly placed me in the church, listening to these chants. What I found particularly relative and interesting to me is the comparison between the melodies and songs of the Greek Orthodox and Protestant Christians. Being a Protestant, I enjoyed the fact that I could apply your description to previous sensations and sounds I am very familiar with and understand better the reason behind the eight chants. I can tell you, it certainly would be easier to sing along with the choir if there were only eight melodies to learn. Great post!

  31. This essay was great! I love how person it is to the author, and how much insight the author brings to this particular topic. When I think of music, I don’t necessarily think of religious chants and rituals, but this helped to open my eyes (or my ears, rather) to the beauty and structure of religious music. I think it was interesting to take a functionalist standpoint in the analysis, and this example actually helped me wrap my brain around what functionalism actually is. Functionalism is tricky; I first learned it in an English literature context, and so taking it to anthropology stretched my brain a bit, but like I said, this essay gave me a better idea of what to look for. Great job!

  32. Stephanie Scattergood says:

    I similarly wrote of music within the Church, though I was raised in a Catholic household. I particularly liked the point you mentioned of the chants being a way to connect the global community, as this hadn’t occurred to me for the Catholic hymns and such. Another aspect of functionalism that might be interesting to consider is that the chants, as you hear them throughout your childhood, will stick with you for the rest of your life (who doesn’t remember the phrases and songs sang to them as small children?) and this would keep the messages in the chants spreading even after these children left the church, because these phrases would continue to be passed down from generation to generation.

  33. Han Lee says:

    It was a very different article opening my eyes to a different custom in the Church, but a wonderful custom. Just by a tune, people are able to feel unity and togetherness, and that is wonderful. This is definitely a custom within a church unifying a single church, but also unifies people outside of the church into a single Church.

    Han Kyul (Joshua) Lee

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