What is the Byzantine Chant?
by Grammenos Karanos, Assistant Professor of Byzantine Music and Director of Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology Byzantine Choir
What exactly is Byzantine chant? A very simple albeit limited definition is that it is the art of chanting. More broadly, it can be defined as the strictly vocal, strictly monophonic music used in the worship of the Greek Orthodox Church.
Byzantine Chant is strictly vocal. This means that it is a form of music always performed a capella. Instruments were excluded from worship since early Christian times because they were associated with pagan rites, but also because the voice was regarded as the most pure and perfect instrument.
Additionally, instrumental music was believed to excite the senses and was consequently considered unsuitable for worship. Byzantine chant is also strictly monophonic. In other words, it is performed by a single cantor or a choir singing one melody in unison.
It should also be noted that Byzantine melodies are frequently accompanied by a drone known as the ison, which is a constant humming of a single note (the root note of the main tetrachord in which the melody is moving). This centuries-old practice is sometimes considered a form of proto-polyphony. However, its primary function seems to be tonal stability rather than harmonic enrichment of the melody. Thus, even though it may enhance the aesthetic satisfaction of a performance, ison accompaniment is not an indispensable element of Byzantine composition.
In addition to vocal performance and monophony, Byzantine chant has the following fundamental characteristics:
Primacy of the word versus the music
Music is used as a means to express and illuminate the meaning of the text. Even though it is certainly meant to provide a degree of aesthetic pleasure to the listener, its primary role is to contribute to a prayerful atmosphere in worship. Therefore, excessive musical embellishment is seen as detrimental and distractive.
Intervals that are smaller than the western semitone are frequently used. The existence of microtones is closely related to the tendency of the structural notes of a scale to attract the non-structural ones, which consequently display a tonal instability.
Byzantine compositions do not conform to the western major and minor scales, but rather to the eight Byzantine authentic and plagal modes and their numerous variants.
All Byzantine compositions are built from pre-existing melodic formulae, called theseis, which are combined with short transitional bridges. Theseis can be short, long and even very elaborate and melismatic, depending on the particular compositional genre to which a hymn belongs.
Karanos, Grammenos, “A Brief Overview of the Psaltic Art,” Introduction to Garinis, Aristidis, and Kehagias, Demetrios, Byzantine Music Theory and Practice, Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, New York 2011, pp. iii-v. Edited and abridged.