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What Is Byzantine Music?

By Karize Uy
Updated May 23, 2024
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Byzantine music is the musical genre largely used in singing ritualistic and religious hymns for the Eastern Orthodox Church during the Middle Ages. Many scholars have traced its beginnings back to the fourth century, with some discovered manuscripts dated from the 9th century. Byzantine music was most probably composed in Greek, but many modern versions of songs have been translated to the English language for accessibility.

As its name suggests, Byzantine music originated from a Greek city called Byzantium, later renamed Constantinople when it became the capital city of Constantine’s Byzantine Empire. During that time, Christianity was experiencing an immense support from Constantine the Great, who instigated construction of many churches, employment of bishops and clergymen, and the reproduction of the Bible. To further solidify the religion, church services were carried out, and one of the rituals was the singing of hymns that has since become a significant element of church services around the world. Byzantine chant was heavily influenced by the Greek culture — as Byzantium was a Greek city — and by Jewish traditions, from where Christianity was derived.

Traditionally, the lyrics in the Byzantine music are from Bible verses, rephrased and joined together with other biblical passages to make the stanzas. The lines also had to conform to a strict metrical system, or the number of syllables spoken in a line. When the stanzas are given a melody in order to be sung, they become what is called the “heirmo.” Typically, the opening heirmo becomes the template for the succeeding stanzas, thus the same pattern of melodies is used for the entire hymn.

One type of Byzantine music is the “kontakion,” a lengthy hymn that usually consisted of many stanzas, sometimes as many as 24. In the kontakion, all the lines have an equal number of syllables, and all stanzas contain an equal number of lines. The same melody is also repeated throughout the whole hymn, making the song easy to remember, but provides little room for improvisation.

The second type of Byzantine music is called the “kanon,” which has fewer stanzas in each song, usually ranging from six to nine stanzas. The kanon consisted of nine odes or songs. Unlike the kontakion that only has a single melody for all songs, each of these odes has different melodies and metric systems, providing much-sought variety.

Modern-day Orthodox churches still sing these kanons in their worship services. Byzantine music is often accompanied by an organ, but two Greek instruments were once used during the Byzantine Empire. These instruments are the “kithara” — a type of lyre — and the “aulos,” a wind instrument that resembles a flute.

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