Explained: Four Foreign Terms from Liturgical Music

All those foreign terms!

Most every year I have the opportunity to teach a class or two to inquirers or to the faithful regarding church music. I usually collect questions and topics which the folks have and weave them into a general-information class. 

Almost invariably, the questions that get asked include pleas for clarifications on various terms that are used in liturgical music — terms that actually are audibly announced in the flow of divine services. (If they were not, most folks would not hear these terms and not wonder about them.)

Also, folks always want to know about “the tones,” what they are, why they are, what role they play, and so forth. In this blog I’ll address a short list of terms that worshipers encounter in the course of Orthodox public worship, and in the next I’ll address the tonal system of the Church.

I’ll cover four terms that are used very often in the liturgical life. To those of us who do the liturgy, these terms become second nature. For the rank-and-file, they just add annoying mystery — not the good kind that our theological reverence demands, but rather more like barriers.

Let me start by remarking that we don’t use these terms for any theological reason. We use them because they came with the package and don’t lend themselves to translation very well. While in local parish life, we could find replacement terms and be within our rights, liturgical life is not local; it’s universal. 

All Orthodox liturgical ministers know and use these terms. It pervades our books and discussions. So, we are basically obliged to use them, and if we chose other terms, we’d then have to use two sets. That’s too much trouble. It’s easier just to teach them to the layfolk who will probably forget them and it won’t make a lick of difference. Our Christian life doesn’t reside here.


The first term that is probably most often heard because it is literally announced is prokeimenon. At all the major offices (Vespers, Matins and the Divine Liturgy), there is at least one prokeimenon. During Lent and Holy Week there are very many more. It must be frustrating for some to have such a sacred term go untranslated and feel that a prime piece of divine knowledge is withheld. But this is not so.

In Greek, it simply means “that which goes before.” (The ending “-on” implies a “thing”; ikon, archon, alleluiarion, etc. “Pro-“ is a prefix of precedence, as in order. The first psalm of vespers is the “pro-emial,” or introductory, psalm.)

The prokeimenon usually comes before a reading of scripture. I say ”usually” because at daily vespers and matins there is a prokeimenon with no prescribed reading. (This is a discussion for another time.) At St. Nicholas, we have chosen to always have an Old Testament lesson at vespers, though one is not prescribed in the service books, so the prokeimenon always comes before a lesson. Which is what a prokeimenon is: It is a short psalm-refrain with one or more psalm-verses intervening. In the western churches they have adopted the term “responsorial psalm.” (It used to be called, at Holy Mass, the “gradual.” This is another discussion, too, but probably not for this site.)

OK, so we have prokeimenon. Pretty simple, and the Greek term itself is shorter than anything we could use in English. (“Beforethingy” isn’t good English!)


Now a couple other terms which aren’t actually announced in the course of the service itself, but are found weekly in the bulletin: troparion and kontakion. I have yet to find a literal translation of “troparion,” but it is related to tropos which is “something repeated.” So, perhaps “refrain” is the closest English term. In a round-about way, our word “trope” is related. If you recall from a literature or poetry class, a trope is a motif, and recurring device in literature that serves as a kind of shorthand or abbreviation. In music, a trope was an addition to, a kind of elucidation on, a given text – an expansion.

In Orthodox liturgy, a troparion is derived from short refrains sung between verses of biblical psalms and canticles. These troparia give attention to the commemoration or saint of the day and serve to elucidate and expand on a fixed text.

Over time, some troparia (there are very many) got severed from that function and stand alone, or seem to stand alone. For example, after the Little Entrance of the Divine Liturgy, we sing the troparia of the day – several in a row. At Vespers they are sung at the end, and are known as “dismissal hymns,” or apolotykia. They are repeated at Matins and the Hours, too. Special services, like Unction, Funerals and Weddings have their own troparia. Hymn verses sung in the Matins kanon are called “troparia,” as are the hymns sung between verses of Psalm 119 on Holy Saturday and other like sections of Sunday Matins and Funerals.

In a way, “troparia” can refer to any hymn. It is a kind of catch-all term.


Following the troparia at the Liturgy we sing one or more of a hymn called a kontakion (pl. kontakia). This word means “rod” or “pole,” (indicating the rod the scroll was rolled onto) and originally referred to a rather long poetic sermon on a given theme, consisting of some 24 or more stanzas or poetry. St. Romanos the Melodist was especially known for this poetic form. The great Akathist to the Mother of God is a kind of kontakion.

This form has been mostly suppressed as other forms came into being (notably the kanon), and nowadays we typically sing only the opening stanza, with one or more of the following stanzas taken at Matins as well as other services like Funerals. To the average church-goer, there is no appreciable difference between a troparion and a kontakion, though the observant person might note the kontakia tend to have more theological and even typological content, whereas troparia are simpler in character and usually include an ascription or petition at the end: “glory to you” or “pray for us.”


Another term that is often used is antiphon. This term is simple but tricky. It is simple because its root is part of our language, from which we get “antiphonal” (anti-, in opposition and –phon, sound or voice: voices in opposition, or alternation). An antiphon is sung “by verse” between alternating choirs (right-left, men-women). Many of our hymns are really supposed to be done this way. In well-staffed monasteries, some parishes, and especially among the Old Believers, singing is done antiphonally throughout the services.

The first three parts of the Divine Liturgy are called “antiphons,” which means that opposing choirs should alternate singing the verse and refrain. At St. Nicholas, we often do this by alternating between men and women. But also, we often don’t do it because

  1. The music isn’t arranged to do so
  2. It’s a bit complicated to divide the choir into two, and we simply aren’t accustomed to it.

There is a class of hymns sung at Sunday and festal Matins called “antiphons” which, in current practice, are not done antiphonally. The set of psalm verses from psalms 1-3 at Great Vespers is called “the first antiphon,” when in reality it could be the second, if the opening psalm (104) is done antiphonally. And any psalm sung in a service can be, or even ought to be, taken antiphonally. At St. Nicholas, we usually do.

The reason that the term “antiphon” has become a permanent class of hymn in the Orthodox Church is because many centuries ago the Psalter was divided into sections called “antiphons,” and a certain number were always taken during the course of all services, regular or special. Vestiges of this ancient practice remain in the services even though they are organized differently now.

These terms are practical in nature, having to do with the execution rather than content of the services.

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