Overview of Orthodox Church Music

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In most Orthodox Churches, there is often both chanting and a traditional choir. The chanting has its roots in the early days of the church, and from there the musical tradition has evolved. Byzantine Chant, however, is the most traditional and ancient form of music that the church has.   Here’s an overview of how church music has evolved. It has its beginnings with Byzantine chant.


How Byzantine Chant is Different

You don’t need to have a musical background to understand that Byzantine chant is very different than western music. Today’s church choirs do follow the western tradition. By incorporating chant into the church services churchgoers are able to experience a vital tradition from the early days of the church.

So, how is Byzantine chant different from the music that choirs sing? First of all, it’s
monophonic, which means that it is a basic system of music that is structured around eight tones. These tones form multiple patterns – a fact that makes the music sound rich and diverse. When there is more than one chanter, each voice compliments the other. One will sing the melody and the others may offer a single tone that blends with the melody. This device is called a “drone”.

Choirs, on the other hand, are polyphonic. Choirs are structured with soprano, alto, bass, and tenor voices and each of those sections sing a different part. Chant is also atonal, which means that it doesn’t follow an organized meter system in the same way that choral music does.

Has Its Roots in Early Christianity

Byzantine music has its roots in early Christianity and the type of music that was sung when the church was new. The monophonic system has its roots in these early days. Over time, the patterns based around the eight tones evolved until they developed into the rich chanting that is still alive today.

The Byzantine Empire was around from 330 AD, when Constantinople was established, to 1453, when the Empire fell to the Ottoman Turks. It was during this time that the system of chant was fully developed. Many Orthodox Christian churches and cathedrals were built, and the people experienced a thriving system of worship. In the early days of the church, Orthodox Christians struggled against the Roman Empire. After the empire fell to the Turks, Christians were persecuted once again. When Orthodox Christians were able to worship in public, the system of chanting really had a chance to develop.

Developing the Modern Choir

In many ways, the hymns that the choirs sing during church services, particularly during the Divine Liturgy, had its roots in Byzantine Chant. As the church became established through the empire, the music also evolved. Today, each church service incorporates both – chanting and choral music.

Orthodox Christians understand that music is an expression of our beliefs. It also offers a way to communicate with God. As the ultimate form of worship, the entire congregation is called to sing right along with the chanters and choir. In this way, music enables the service to come alive.


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This post was written by Greek Boston