“In the nth Tone”: What Are the Tones in Orthodox Music?

I suppose that nothing is as mystifying – at least as regards the music — to the average attendee of Eastern Orthodox services as this whole bit about “the tones.” As a musician, while learning and utilizing the tones themselves isn’t especially easy, it does greatly help in organizing and performing the hymns for the various divine services. In fact, the system of tones under which we labor at St. Nicholas is simpler than it’s actually supposed to be. Thank God for small favors.

The tonal system of the Church does bring the music of the Church, to some degree, into the realm of things “canonical.” In the Church, when we describe this or that as “canonical,” it means that it is basically official. Some things are official in a big way. The “canon” of Scripture indicates what is accepted by the Church as part of Scripture: the canon accepts as scripture the Epistle to the Hebrews but not The Shepherd of Hermas, which was as edifying in the ancient church as The Ladder of Divine Ascent became later.

The “canons” of the various councils that are accepted as normative for the Church are collected in a book called The Rudder and are those rules and norms that indicate and even govern the physical life of the Church: who can be a priest, how bishops are to conduct their affairs, when do we observe Pascha, and so forth. The traditional rules governing the painting of icons are called “canons,” and the list of biblical canticles sung at Matins is called the “canon.”

When a hymn is sung in Church, it is prescribed to be sung according to a certain unique or pattern melody or scale. These melodies and scales are “canonical,” part of the “official” music of the Church. This canonicity is much, much less specific and more fluid than the canon of Scripture. To even compare them is to invite derision, yet we do use this term “canonical” to apply to both. And while the musical element is very broad indeed, it still exists and governs what and how we sing in Church.

In some parts of the Church, the music is more fixed than in other parts. Old Believers sing the hymns according to the melodies as they were printed in 17th century Russia. This practice is probably among the most fixed in the entire Church, east and west. And still among them, there are differences and changes that have occurred over time.

Those parts of the Church that use Byzantine chant have a relatively fixed body of melody and system of music. But even here there is considerable variety and flux. This music, while existing within a highly complex, sophisticated, and ancient system of musical composition and performance, nonetheless has been greatly influenced in some quarters by Arabic music; and there have been and still are individual composers of chant who compose new music within this tradition. So that canonical singing in Byzantine chant does not necessarily mean a note-for-note repetition, as it does in the Old Believer znammeny practice.

The music at St. Nicholas that is the most “traditional” is a body of chorally conceived harmonic pattern-chants developed in the 18th century around the imperial court in St. Petersburg, using znammeny melodies and motifs, as well as tunes and motifs from Kiev and other locales of southwestern Rus’. This body of chant lacks much of what canonical norms call for, and the music lacks many of those elements that enable hymns “in the same tone” to still be distinct from one another and carry a certain amount of expressiveness. Therefore, churches that use this body of chant have tended to emphasize choirs and original compositions more so than other churches.

To specifically now treat of “tones”: In the ancient Church, which inheritance has been preserved in the traditional chanting of the Greeks, the Syrians, the Copts, and the Latins (no doubt many others, too), a tone or mode (“glas” in Slavonic) implies a scale. A scale governs how notes relate to each other within a kind of hierarchy, and those relationships give the tone its character, its mood. (You can see how the word “mode” fits in here.) Also, these tones (The Greeks prefer “mode.” We’re used to hearing “tone,” though it’s less precise.) carry with them little melodic formulae and motifs (Slavonic, fity) that lend more specificity and expression.

In the ancient world, the tones carried with them rather specific moods, connotations, and uses. When the Lord quotes the proverb, “We piped a dirge, and you did not mourn,” it wasn’t so much that the children playing the pipes were playing a well-known song as that they were playing in a certain scale, a certain mode, a tone. One lamented because one’s feelings were excited by the mode being played. When one went to a wedding, one rejoiced because one responded to the mode of the music. The pipers are playing in a rejoicing manner, and one responded. Certain modes were associated with certain gods and rites, whether Bacchus or Athena. Certain modes accompanied the theater or the games. And so on.

As the Church developed her liturgical life, She appropriated the musical language of culture and then governed it so that appropriate modes were used in Church. Not to be crude, but if one is in church and the musicians sing in a mode that implies a bacchanalia, and one used to attend orgies… You get the idea. Not good. So modes were used to help discipline musicians and govern musical expression. There was to be expressiveness; music wasn’t to be dry and cerebral. There was to be a place for joyful and sorrowful modes.

As this music has been increasingly separated from its roots by time and space, these associations are less clear. Many converts, for example, find Byzantine chant mournful. The communicative power for these people has hit a cultural barrier. It can possibly be restored to some extent through experience and repetition. But the original language of the ancient music had innate cultural references which may be lost to time.

Certainly the modes of the Russian Church don’t carry nearly the breadth of expressive power of Byzantine chant. The znammeny chant is far, far more reserved in its range of notes and variety of scales. This music relies very heavily on little music motifs which form building blocks for the larger chant melodies. This is not to say that this chant is not expressive. But it is much more reserved. No doubt this is due in large part to the removal from literary poetry that translation inevitably brings. Byzantine chant is close to the Greek poetry that spawned it. The znammeny is not and cannot be.

Still further from its expressive poetic source is the formulaic harmonic chants and over-simple pattern melodies that form the bulk of the tonal system of the Court Chapel Chant as codified in the Obikhod tserkovnogo penya, the Book of Common Chants, that forms the foundational music of many of the Slavic churches. Those who grew up in Episcopal churches that chanted psalms using Anglican chant will recognize this form of choral chanting. It is suitable for memorizing, singing prose, and singing the huge body of changing texts that occur in Orthodox services on a daily basis. It relies on recit-style, speech-like delivery rather than expressive singing, per se.

So — at long last! — when the cantor chants, “In the nth tone: “Glory to the Father…,” he is indicating which tone/mode the received service books have assigned that text. Within the context of this community at this part of the service, that tells us which melody to sing. It’s not up for grabs. This gives a sense of order and doesn’t leave the musician wondering how this or that hymn should be sung. More than a formality, these announcements are necessary for keeping good order among the singers. (In recent years, we have restored many of these announcements that had fallen into disuse at St. Nicholas because we find them helpful.) An attendant layman over the years will also find it useful if he strives to sing the various refrains.

How tones are assigned is a good question. I don’t know. When a hymnographer writes a hymn, I assume that he is free to choose the tone he feels is most appropriate. Trying to ascertain why so many hymns to the martyrs are in tone 4 and why the troparion and kontakion for the Transfiguration are in tone 7, and so on and so forth, is probably interesting speculation but is, by all experience and reading I’ve done, unanswerable.

The biggest place that the system of tones comes into play in parish life is that all the Sundays after Pascha are assigned a tone, starting with 1 and going through to 8, then starting over again. In each tone are hymns for each day of the week and its theme/commemoration:

  • Sunday for the Resurrection
  • Monday for the holy angels
  • Tuesday for the Forerunner
  • Wednesday for the Cross
  • Thursday for the Apostles and St. Nicholas
  • Saturday for the dead

All classes of hymns for all services for every day have texts provided in each tone. The book containing these texts is called the Octoechos (Eight-Tone) or Parakletike. Tradition ascribes credit to St. John of Damascus for editing this volume.

To these hymns are added the hymns for the specific day of the month and its commemoration (saint or feast; the Menaion and Festal Menaion), as well as the hymns sung during Lent/Holy Week (Triodion) and Paschaltide (Pentecostarion). The tones these hymns are assigned follow no sequential order or even logical system. If there was one, it is lost to history.

This is why multiple tones are used in any given service; there are always at least two cycles being observed on any given day in the Church: the day of the week and the day of the month. One can see that there is also a tremendous built-in variety given here, quite unwieldy in its complexity but rich in its generosity.

So any week – except Holy and Bright Weeks – and each day of that week is “in a tone.” Church musicians begin at this point with their understanding and preparations.

In some traditions, the tone of the week governs more than just the hymns drawn from the Octoechos and those for the day of the month it is (collected in the Menaion). Other hymns and responses are also sung in this tone, such as the Great Doxology at the end of Matins or the Cherubikon in the Liturgy. In churches of the Common Chant tradition, the choice of music available and selected by the Choir Director for those responses and hymns not in the hymn books themselves is dependent upon the music available, the quality of the choir, the tastes of the community, and so forth.

Now, to summarize a complex topic:

  • The church tones, or modes, began as natural usage in the Church of musical values extant in society.
  • These modes carried with them various levels of expression.
  • The codification of these was a way of keeping music disciplined and appropriate.
  • Texts of the liturgical week were formulated, organized around the modes on an 8-week cycle.
  • As these modes manifested themselves in other music of other cultures, they lost some of their original expressive power.
  • The current primary “Common Chant” tradition, of which St. Nicholas is a inheritor, finds its primary expressive power in its choral textures and in the music written outside the tonal system (“Gladsome light,” the Trisagion, the Cherubikon, etc.).

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