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System- Notation- Music theory


Byzantine music is modal and dependent on the sound system. The sounds are based on ancient Greek models. The Byzantine sound system includes four primary and four plagal sounds that is, 8 sounds in total ("oktoichos") each differently based and spaced. Byzantine music uses the natural method of tuning (and not the tempered). It also uses three basic tones: the major (slightly longer than the tempered tone), the minor (slightly shorter than the tempered tone) and the minimal (slightly longer than the tempered half tone). Each sound consists of two identical tetrachords and a major tone.

The sounds are defined in each hymn, specifying the starting point, the sequence of intervals and basic melodic characteristics (motifs, melodic phrases, pauses, improvisation parts, endings). The sounds, like in ancient Greek models, are based on tetrachords and pentachords (an order of four or five successive sounds) instead of an octave.

The structure of primary sounds is usually in the form of tetrachord- tetrachord- major tone (conjunctive tetrachord), while the structure of plagal sounds is tetrachord - major tone- tetrachord (disjunctive tetrachord).




Corresponding european mode













πλάγιος α'



πλάγιος β'



Πλάγιος γ'



πλάγιος δ'



Notation was invented in order to assist the verbal transmission of music. There were vocal symbols in readings and prompts for gesticulation, which didn't represent specific tones but intervals instead, as well as rhythms or ways to perform. The interpretation of symbols introduced in the 9th century is particularly difficult. Contemporary notation is limited to a small number of notes (from Chrysanthos in 1821). Byzantine ecclesiastic music is based on the theory and manner (sounds) of ancient Greek music.


The concept of sound

In Byzantine ecclesiastic music, sound is not organized in scales like in Western music. It consists of melodic formulas (like the "apichima", a small characteristic introductory melody), intervals, pauses, and endings that define the song's melody. Each of the eight different sounds has a specific style, which also imposes a specific kind of psalmody.

Setting text to music

In Byzantine music, it meant the composition of both melody and lyrics. Therefore, composers of ecclesiastic music had to have excellent knowledge of music and poetry, as well as the church's liturgical life.


Music notation in Byzantium

The need to create a form of writing for ecclesiastic music became evident from the 4th-5th century. Records describe how in the reign of Justinian (482-565) 25 choristers sang psalms in the church of Agia Sofia in Constantinople and the "protos" (primary chorister) used gestures called "chironomia". Byzantine ecclesiastic music notation went through various stages before reaching its present form. Originally it consisted of letters of the alphabet just like in ancient Greek music. The notation was simply a reminder of the melody to be used with a specific text. From the 4th century, some symbols were also added. A more systematic notation exists from the 10th century.

  • Paleobyzantine writings (10th- 11th century) Marks of unspecified tonicity, called "simadophona", were written over each syllable. Neum notation, as it was called, appeared for the first time during the "Eikonomachia" period of 726-843. In neum notation (today called paleobyzantine as well) only certain inflections of the voice are noted, mainly in the beginning and ending of a line, as s reminder to the chorister.

  • Middle Byzantine writings (11th- 1814) The spaces between notes were not specified. Information was given only on the fluctuation of melody and not always in detail.

Later on, as the melodies became more complex, the Neumatic notation (1670- 1814), characterized by ornaments and elaborations, was established.

  • The parasemantic or New Method (since 1814) is a more simplified and detailed notation compared to the former two. For practicality reasons some of the symbols were removed while others were added. The symbols were named in correspondence to European music: Ni Pa Vou Ga Di Ke Zo Ni. This notation is still in use.

The difference between parasemantic and western notation is that while western notation displays the exact tone level of each note, parasemantic notation only specifies whether the sound is sang higher, lower or in the same tone. It also shows vocal quality, that is, the manner in which every note is to be sung. The exact size of spaces is determined by the corresponding sound of each song.

The basic symbols (marks) in Byzantine notation both in the middle period and the New Method are: