Byzantine music notation has been the traditional medium for writing liturgical melodies of the Greek Orthodox Church for more than a millennium.  Over the centuries, this notation was refined as it went through various stages of development and reformation. Its contemporary form (the "New Method" devised in 1814 by the "Three Teachers": Bishop Chrysanthos of Madytos, Gregory the Protopsaltis, and George Hourmouzios "Hartophylax") has proved to be the most practical and effective way to write melodies of Byzantine chant. [1]

In recent times however (primarily since the late nineteenth century), many Byzantine melodies have been transcribed into Western staff notation. Although this has made Byzantine melodies more accessible to the Western world, such transcriptions have the following drawbacks:

(Note: For the sake of brevity, the remainder of this essay will use the term "Byzantine notation" to denote the aforementioned post-Byzantine notation of the three teachers. Likewise, the term "Western notation" will be used hereafter to refer to the contemporary Western staff notation that has been used as the standard for compositions in the West since the seventeenth century.)

1) Byzantine notation contains several qualitative symbols that describe how a particular note or group of notes should be chanted. Western notation also possesses many qualitative symbols, but most of them are inapplicable to Byzantine chant. 

2) Byzantine melodies are, for the most part, an amalgamation of specific melodic formulae. These melodic formulae can be easily recognized by a chanter when they are written as a particular combination of neumes. When they are written in Western notation, however, they cannot be so readily recognized. As a result, they will tend to be executed in a dry manner, note-by-note, rather than as a flowing musical phrase. Furthermore, these melodic formulae consist of nuances that are not expressly written even in Byzantine notation. Nevertheless, when an experienced chanter recognizes the melodic formula, he will add these nuances in accordance with the tradition. On the other hand, in Western notation this is less likely to occur, since the chanter will not recognize the melodic formula. 

3) Because Byzantine notation is descriptive, it grants an experienced chanter the freedom to add to a melody the embellishments he has learned through oral tradition. The same score may also be executed slightly differently by another experienced chanter who hails from a different "school" of Byzantine music. Furthermore, the same score may also be used by a beginner to chant in a simple manner. On the other hand, Western notation is usually assumed to be determinative, and as such it eliminates all such freedom of interpretation. [2] A more serious drawback resulting from this determinative aspect is that Byzantine melodies written in Western notation are necessarily either too analytical or too simplified. 

4) Western notation describes a melody in terms of absolute pitches, whereas Byzantine notation describes a melody as relative pitches within a particular predefined scale. This kind of notation makes vocal music easier and more intuitive to execute, especially if the melody consists predominantly of small jumps, as does Byzantine music. A small advantage of this relativity of Byzantine notation is that it grants chanters the flexibility to transpose easily a music text to an appropriate key, depending on their vocal range or on the pitch of the priests' petitions. This is only a small advantage, since music in Western notation can also be transposed without too much difficulty, especially if it is based on a solfa (Do-Re-Mi) system. However, a greater advantage of this relativity becomes evident when modulations come into play, especially when they are introduced on notes that are not their natural tonics. The score in Byzantine notation remains the same notationally, and is thus easily recognizable as a phrase, whereas the same music written in Western staff notation may result in nonstandard key signatures or numerous accidentals, and as such will not be easily recognized as a phrase. As a result, such music becomes extremely difficult to sight-read. To see an example of this difficulty, compare our transcriptions of part of the five-mode "Kyrie Eleison" by Nileus Kamarados at the bottom of this page.  

5) Standard Western notation is incapable of accurately expressing the proper intervals of Byzantine music. Although it can approximate most Byzantine scales such that the error is never greater than 2 μόρια (33 cents), it cannot approximate the scale of the soft chromatic modal genre without producing an error of less than 4 μόρια (67 cents). This large error considerably alters the ὕφος (the "hue") of troparia in this modal genre. (This problem is discussed at greater length in Appendix I

6) Many people familiar with Western music have learned to associate music written in Western notation with a certain style of singing that is foreign to the traditional style of Byzantine chant. For example, some of them might tend to sing music in Western notation with excessive vibrato, with a subtle crescendo on every note, or in a disjunctive manner (i.e., by silencing their voice for a fraction of a second before beginning the next note). Although Byzantine notation in and of itself will not hinder such people from applying this same Western style of singing to it, it will nevertheless serve as a visual reminder that Byzantine chant is quite different from Western singing. 

     Although the words "sing" and "chant" in English can both be used in reference to executing liturgical music, we prefer to use the word "chant" instead of "sing" in order to preserve the same distinction that exists between the corresponding words in Greek. Photios Kontoglou of blessed memory (1895-1965) explained that the distinction between these two terms in Greek lies in the spiritual differences between secular and ecclesiastical music. In particular, he wrote: "Spiritual feelings are expressed only by ecclesiastical music. Only ecclesiastical music can express the secret movements of the heart, which are completely different than what worldly music expresses. For this reason, the two kinds of music [European and Byzantine] are totally different, just as shown by the words 'sing' (τραγουδῶ) and 'chant' (ψάλλω)." [3]

7) The rules of standard Western notation dictate that a new time signature be inserted within a melody every time the rhythm changes. But since Byzantine melodies are characterized by syllabic rhythm (i.e., the rhythm is derived from the pattern of accentuated syllables), such melodies transcribed into Western notation would be burdened by dozens of time signatures, thus rendering the score awkward. Moreover, melodies written in Byzantine notation can easily be annotated with "abridged rhythm" (συνεπτυγμένος ρυθμός), which, in the words of Demetrios Sourlantzis, lends the melodies "grandeur, solemnity, modesty, sacredness, and nobility." [4] 

8) Standard Western notation has key signatures for music only in the major and minor keys. Byzantine music, however, consists of many modes that are neither major nor minor (e.g., the hard chromatic modal genre, the diatonic grave mode, etc.). Therefore, in order to write such melodies in Western notation, one must either devise a non-standard key signature or burden the score with repeated accidentals. 

9) Byzantine notation can be used as a rapid stenographic transcriptional method to write down a melody faster than one could do so using Western notation. This is particularly helpful when trying to record live music on paper.

10) There are more than 100 orthographical rules for Byzantine music notation (which we have compiled in English at: ByzOrthography.pdf) that determine when, for example, a petastē must be used instead of a psēfistón. There are also hundreds of unwritten formulaic rules for Byzantine music that dictate which melodies are permissible for a given syllabic pattern. (We have codified the formulae of sticheraric and heirmologic melodies of all eight modes at: Formula.html.) Combined, these rules help to ensure that new compositions (in any language) remain within the bounds of traditional Byzantine music, while still allowing for creativity. New compositions, however, can stray from these traditional bounds more easily when written in Western notation, since composers can write an untraditional musical line without readily realizing that they have deviated from the traditional musical formulae. 

11) A person who knows Byzantine music notation has access to the vast repertoire of the traditional music of the Greek Orthodox Church in its purest form, whereas one who knows only Western notation must either rely on the few existing transcriptions of Byzantine music (with all their aforementioned drawbacks) or, even worse, resort to singing modernistic compositions, most of which have strayed far from the style of traditional Byzantine music.

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The only significant drawback to Byzantine notation is that it is harder to learn than Western notation. There are only about twenty symbols in Western notation that one needs to know in order to read simple vocal music (such as the transcriptions in our website). Since a large number of people in contemporary Western society have been introduced to this notation early in their lives, many can become proficient at sight-reading such music with relatively little effort. Byzantine notation, on the other hand, has about one hundred symbols and combinations of symbols that need to be learned, and few people in the West have ever even seen this notation before in their lives. Nevertheless, the task of learning it is by no means insurmountable. Proof of this is the many people throughout the Western world who have managed to learn it merely through books and recordings of traditional chanters, with little or no help of a teacher. Experience has shown that one can learn Byzantine notation in less than a week. [5]

If you are interested in learning Byzantine notation well (i.e., not just figuring out the mechanics of Byzantine chant, but achieving a certain degree of proficiency in this sacred art form), the best way to do so is to find a teacher who can give you private lessons. But since teachers can be difficult to find, the next best way to begin learning is with the audio-visual resources available online. These resources are listed in our Byzantine music links page. We suggest beginning with Teach Yourself Byzantine Notation: exercises with recordings, by Margaziotis (41 Mb).

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For a PDF version of this essay on Byzantine vs. Western Notation, click here. (1.4 Mb)

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Since many people prefer Byzantine notation for the above reasons, we have written all the music in our website in Byzantine notation. It may be accessed by using the drop-down menus on any page with "View" and "Hear" links. In order to write this music as elegantly and efficiently as possible, we have designed our own Byzantine music fonts and created macros to automate the writing process. To read about this new font package and to download it for free, please go to: ByzMusicFonts.html



[1] The "New Method" proved to be more practical than the older notation for the reasons mentioned in our History page (although it did have a few drawbacks, explained in an online article in Greek by Demetrios Nerantzis). The new method also prevailed over several other attempts in the nineteenth century to create a new notation for Byzantine music. In particular, the following nine attempts to write Byzantine melodies in a different notation failed:

1) Ieronymos Tragodistis ("the singer") of Cyprus attempted in the mid-sixteenth century to simplify Byzantine melodies by writing them in staff notation.

2) In the early eighteenth century, an anonymous hand wrote Byzantine music in staff notation, known today as Sinai manuscript 1477. This manuscript has considerable musicological importance, because the melodies were transcribed analytically, thus proving that the "theseis" of the old method implied an elaborate musical phrase.

3) From 1797 to 1815, Agapios Paliermos wrote Byzantine melodies initially in staff notation and then in an alphabetical notation. The Patriarch of Constantinople allowed him to teach Byzantine melodies in staff notation, but Iakovos the Protopsaltis thwarted his efforts by demonstrating its drawbacks.

4) Around 1835 in Bucharest, an anthology of Byzantine hymns was published in an alphabetical notation invented probably by Petros Ephesios. However, this method failed to spread and fell into disuse.

5) In about 1842, another alphabetical system, devised by Monk Paisios of Xeropotamou, met with failure.

6) In the 1840s, George Lesvios published books of Byzantine music in a notation he concocted, which used Byzantine neumes to express absolute pitches instead of relative pitches. Although his notation met with temporary success in Athens (due to the support of the Greek government), it was harshly criticized by great chanters of his time (including Theodore Phokaeus and Constantine Byzantios the Protopsaltis), who persuaded the Ecumenical Patriarch Anthimos to condemn it with an encyclical. Thereafter, this notation was quickly abandoned.

7) In 1844, John Haviaras in Vienna began publishing liturgical hymns in Western staff notation. His music not only altered the notation but also the character of the Byzantine melodies by introducing four-part harmonies accompanied by a piano. Realizing the spiritual dangers this break from tradition entailed, the Patriarchate of Constantinople officially condemned the liturgical use of such music. (Click here to read its encyclical in English or in Greek). In 1886, John Sakellaridis would also begin publishing many harmonized liturgical hymns in Western staff notation, defying the patriarchal encyclical.

8) In 1870, Stavrakis Anagnostou published some paraliturgical songs in his own notation. It was essentially identical to the notation of George Lesvios, except that instead of neumes he used letters of the alphabet. Apparently, no attempt was made to transcribe liturgical hymns into this notation.

9) In 1933, I. D. Panagiotopoulos attempted to reform the notation of the Three Teachers by creating a system in which neumes were associated with particular notes.

For more details, see: Παπαδόπουλος, Γεώργιος, Ἱστορικὴ Ἐπισκόπησις τῆς Βυζαντινῆς Ἐκκλησιαστικῆς ΜουσικῆςἈθῆναι, 1904, σελ. 228-230, 351-354. See also: Στάθης, Γρηγόριος Θ.,  Παλαιὰ Βυζαντινὴ Σημειογραφία καὶ τὸ Πρόβλημα Μεταγραφῆς της εἰς τὸ ΠεντάγραμμονΒυζαντινά - Τόμος 7ος, Θεσσαλονίκη, 1975, σελ. 218-219 and Στάθης, Γρηγόριος Θ.,  Βυζαντινὴ Σημειογραφία καὶ αἱ γενόμεναι Μεταγραφαί της in the book: 183 Ἐκκλησιαστικοὶ Ὕμνοι εἰς Βυζαντινὴν καὶ Εὐρωπαϊκὴν ΠαρασημαντικήνἈθήνα, 2004, σελ. ρμʹ-ρνʹ.

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 [2] To repeat the words of Professor Demetrios Giannelos quoted in footnote #43 of our Introduction: “A descriptive notation, such as that of Byzantine music, describes the essentials of the piece, leaving to oral tradition the task of completing with precision whatever is not described. On the contrary, a determinative form of writing, such as Western notation with staves, determines with great precision the manner of execution, to the point that the interpretation of the person executing it is delineated by factors that depend directly on the definitive indications of the music symbols. These indications can be so absolutely restricting that they preclude all room for interpretation.” Back to reference

[3] Translated from radio broadcast available online at: See also: Cavarnos, Constantine, Byzantine Sacred Art. Institute of Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies, Belmont, Massachusetts, second editon, 1992, p. 148. Back to reference

[4] Σουρλαντζῆ, Δημητρίου Γ., Βυζαντιν Θεία Λειτουργα, Θεσσαλονίκη, 1992, σελ. στʹ. Back to reference

[5] Gregorios Stathis, a professor of music in Athens, once visited the Republic of Georgia and attempted to teach Byzantine notation to forty men and women who had never seen it before in their lives. After spending six hours with him every day for six days, without difficulty they learned to chant not only simple troparia but even elaborate compositions written in Byzantine notation. Back to reference


The music sample below displays the same melody in Byzantine and Western notation.

Notice how burdened with accidentals the version in Western notation is. Back to reference


For the complete PDF versions of these scores click here for Western notation or here for Byzantine notation.

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