Byzantine Chant


The Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium defines chant (“άσμα”) as the “general term for liturgical music.”1   The Byzantine chant performed by the cantors beneath the ambo of  Hagia Sophia in the sixth century is a key element of  the Diving Liturgy of Hagia Sophia. As Professor of Liturgical Studies, Dr. Paul Meyendorff explains in his translation of Patriarch Germanus I, “the entire liturgy is…perceived as an ascent from the material to the spiritual, from the multiplicity of lower existence to the unity of the divine.”2 Byzantine chant is meant to contribute to that ascent.  This webpage will discuss Byzantine chant in: ancient history, the church, and the procession.  It will also discuss the technical characteristics, symbolism and  unique qualities of Byzantine chant.

        The foundations of Byzantine chant are likely ancient. Byzantine chant has three ‘genera’: the diatonic, the chromatic, and the enharmonic.  It also has eight ‘modes’ or ‘tones.’ The eight tones were probably selected from a larger variety of tones used in ancient Greek music. Many Greek historians suggest that just as Christianity “took over the language of the Greeks… so also it took over the religious music of the Greeks and adapted it to its own needs.”3 Non-Greek historians tend to assert, “the basis of the Christian music during the early centuries was not simply Greek, but Graeco-Roman.” 4 Further, most historians trust that Byzantine chant “adopted certain Hebrew tunes, having taken them along with the Psalms and the Canticles of the Bible.” 5 Whether Greek and Hebrew or Graeco-Roman and Hebrew, it is widely agreed that Byzantine chant is not a new product of the middle ages, but ancient in roots.  

       Professor of Byzantine Musicology, Dr. Dimitri Conomos, explains that prior to the forth century entrance of “liturgical solemnity in new and vast cathedrals,” many church fathers opposed music in church altogether. 6  Chanting likely entered the church in the fourth century. 7 as a byproduct of the mass conversions of Constantine I. As Professor of Art and Art History Dr. Bissera Pentcheva suggests, even before its presence in the church, chant may have taken place outside.8  Patriach Germanus I explains that indoor liturgy was often accompanied by outdoor liturgical processions: “on many days, there would be a station. Clergy and laypersons would gather at some place in the city, a church or another site, for a service of prayer and intercession. Then all would process to an intermediate station or to the cathedral to the singing of antiphons”9

        In his book, Byzantine Chant, musicologist Constantine Cavarnos explains that Byzantine religious music has four key characteristics. To simplify, these aspects they are: 

     (1) Entirely vocal, no use of instruments 

     (2) Monophonic, using only melodies in one part

     (3) Antiphonic, executed by two alternately chanting choirs 

     (4) Isocratma and canonarchema, the holding-note, and leading the chant. 

        Unfortunately, some western historians have undervalued chant, likely because they do not have a complete understanding of it. Dr. Conomos points out a western perception of Byzantine music that suggests Byzantium as “the most unmusical place in the world.” 10 The early Twentieth Century British Organist, Sir R. R. Terry, perpetuates this stereotype by criticizing the “Easterners” as nasally singers and justifying his opinion by saying “they think it in their own minds very beautiful.”11 Further, Dr. Egon Wellesz, a Twentieth Century Austrian born composer  points out that part of this prejudice toward Byzantine chant may be “the fact that the vast number of Byzantine melodies can be reduced to a limited number of archetypes.”12 However, as an expert musicologist he points out this is not a bad thing and that in fact “Byzantine musical notation is an instrument far superior to Western neumatic notation.” 13 These western misconceptions can be paralleled to the western misjudgments of Byzantine art.  Many times Westerners make the mistake of looking for “lifelikeness” in icons rather than “liveliness,” which was perhaps the true intention of Byzantine icons. Similarly, Westerners at times overlook the underlying symbolism of Byzantine chant. For a long period of time musicologists treated Byzantine “texts and melodies of the hymns in isolation without reference to their place in the liturgy,” which Wellesz points out is a major error that caused musicologists to overlook the symbolism in Byzantine chant. 14

        After rooting itself in Byzantium, Byzantine chant exploded in popularity.   As Welesz says, “the wealth of melodies possessed by the Byzantine Church is overwhelming.” 15 Today, Byzantine chant tradition still survives in the Eastern Orthodox Church. 

1 Kazhdan, Alexander P. "Chant." The Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium. Vol. 1. (Oxford New York: Oxford UP, (1991)): 409

2 Germanus, translated by Paul Meyendorff, On the Divine Liturgy.  (Crestwood, N.Y.: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, (1984)): 27

3 Cavarnos, Constantine. Byzantine Chant. (Belmont, MA: Institute of Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies, (1998)): 17

4 Ibid.: 19

5 Ibid.: 19

6 Conomos, Dimitri. Byzantine Hymnography and Byzantine Chant. (Brookline, MA: Hellenic College, (1984)): 38

7 Ibid.: 38

8 Pentcheva, Bissera. Lecture on  2/22/2011. (Stanford, Ca: Stanford University)

9 Germanus, translated by Paul Meyendorff, On the Divine Liturgy.  (Crestwood, N.Y.: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, (1984)): 18

10 Conomos, Dimitri. Byzantine Hymnography and Byzantine Chant. (Brookline, MA: Hellenic College, (1984)): 29

11 Terry, R. R. "The Music of the Byzantine Liturgy." Proceedings of the Musical Association 35th Session (1908 - 1909): 53-67. (JSTOR. Web. <>): 61

12 Wellesz, Egon. "Words and Music in Byzantine Liturgy." The Musical Quarterly Vol. 33.No. 3 (Jul., 1947): 297-310. (JSTOR. Web. <>.): 307

13 Ibid.: 310

14 Ibid.: 298

15 Ibid. 306


“The wealth of melodies possessed by the Byzantine Church is overwhelming”

~ Egon Wellesz

Byzantine Chant


This webpage was created by Konstantine Buhler  a student at Stanford University in Stanford, CA for a project in

Art History 208