Musical Notation

Musical notation is a way of "writing down" melodies and other musical information to assist a singer in performing them correctly. This page describes the musical notation used for plain chant in the publications of the Byzantine Catholic Church.

The staff

Chant is transcribed on a five line staff, with the lines and spaces corresponding to the notes of the major scale beginning on C:


The ornate letter G at the beginning of the staff is a treble clef or G clef. Clef comes from the Latin word for "key", and a musical clef is a key showing how the notes are related to the lines and spaces of the staff. In this case, the small curlicue of the G circles the second line from the bottom, showing that this line is G.

The sequence of notes repeats in both directions, and small ledger lines are used to extend the staff to notes outside its normal range:

Staff (extended)

The difference in pitch between adjacent notes is a whole step (major second), except that there is only a half step (minor second) between E and F (going from mi to fa in the C major scale) and B to C (ti to do). This arrangement of whole steps and half steps fixes do on the note labeled C:

Staff (solfege)

NOTE: Plain chant is sung using relative pitch rather than absolute pitch; in other words, it can be sung with different starting notes, as long as the intervals between adjacent notes in the melody are the same. So the use of a musical staff is really a convenience; it shows us the degrees of the scale to be sung, relative to the tonic pitch (do). You can pick out a plain chant melody on the piano, but don't expect that that is the exact pitch at which it will sung in church! As always, the cantor or choir director will select the tonic, based on the melody and the vocal range of the congregation.

In practice, it is often inconvenient to use C as the tonic pitch. Plain chant melodies tend to circle around do, and this means that the melody will tend to exceed the range of the staff, either at the top or bottom. So in practice we use a key signature consisting of accidental signs (see below) to show that some other note is to be treated as do.

Here are the key signatures commonly used in writing prostopinije (Carpathian plain chant):

Key of CKey of DKey of FKey of GKey of AbKey of Bb

Cantors should memorize all six of these key signatures. (You might want to print off this helpful chart for reference).

When looking at any piece of music, use the key signature to find do, then count up or down the scale (do re mi... or do ti la...) to find the scale degree of the first note to be sung. With practice, this will become automatic.


Notes are the marks on the staff that indicate a musical sound. The position of a note on the staff determines its pitch (how high or low it is); the shape of the note specifies how long it is sung.

Note lengths

The basic rhythmic unit is either a half note or a quarter note.  A whole note is equal in duration to two half notes, or four quarter notes; an eighth note is equal in duration to half a quarter note.

A dot immediately after a note increases its duration by half, so a dotted half note is equal to three quarter notes.  Notes can also be “tied” together to make up a single longer note.  And eighth notes can be “barred” together to show how they are grouped together, even if sung separately.

Dots and ties

In almost every case, however, the rhythmic values of the notes are only approximate guides.  They must be matched by the cantor to the natural flow of the text, in which each syllable may be slightly longer or shorter in duration than the syllables before and after.  It is this suppleness that lends both grace and intelligibility to chanting and singing.


The text being chanted is normally placed below the staff, divided into syllables to match the music.  In some cases, the division of words into syllables may be used to provide an aid to singing the text properly.

Text underlay

When more than three syllables are sung on a single pitch, they may be placed under a slashed note (whole note with bars on each side), which marks a recitative passage.   The rhythm of the recitative may be either free (that is, to the natural pace of the text as it would be spoken) or regular (that is, chanted to a regular pulse, as in a procession).

Slashed note

Avoid the temptation to speed up when singing text under a slashed note;  the purpose of the notation is simply to indicate to the cantor that a natural flowing rhythm should be used.

When a syllable is sung through more than one note, a slur is used to group these notes together visually:


Bar lines

Unlike most vocal and instrumental music, plain chant is divided into “measures” of varying length, corresponding to phrases of text being sung.  This division is indicated by vertical bar lines. A single bar line marks the end of a phrase:

Bar line

The bar line normally implies a brief pause, at which a breath may be taken. The length of the pause depends on the text being sung, but the music should never come to a complete stop except at the end of a particular chant.   (Rest marks are not normally used in our chant.)

A double bar line marks either the end of a particular chant, or the point at which the singing of the chant may go from one person or group to another: for example, from cantor to people, or from one side of the church to the other.

Double bar line

A final bar line may be used to mark the end of a longer chant, especially one that concludes a portion of a service.

Final bar line


Prostopinije makes use of the normal pitches of the major scale (do – re – mi – fa – so – la – ti – do), with only occasional exceptions.  Where a note must be raised or lowered a half step, a mark called an accidental  is placed before the note head, on the line or space whose pitch is being modified.  The accidental lasts until the next bar line, or until the end of the current stave (line of music), whichever comes first.

A sharp raises the pitch by a half step (listen):

Sharp example

A flat lowers the pitch by a half step (very rare in our chant):

Flat example

A natural cancels the effect of a previous sharp or flat (listen):

Natural example

The sharps or flats which define the current tonic (that is, the position of do for the chant being sung) may be grouped together at the start of each line of music to form the key signature.

Key signature example

Most accidentals occur in stylized phrases which will become familiar as you learn the chant repertoire.


A final bar with two dots marks a repeat – a point at which the cantor and people go back to the beginning of the section to be repeated and continue singing.  The beginning of the repeat is marked by a repeat bar facing the other way. 


The Italian phrase da capo (“from the top”) directs the singer to repeat the current chant from the beginning.  The phrase da capo al fine (“from the top, to the end”) tells the singers to return to the beginning and sing as far as the end (which is marked with the word fine, “the end”). In our chant, this usually occurs only at the singing of the Trisagion (and its replacement hymns) at the Divine Liturgy;  see pages 27-33 of the Divine Liturgies book.

Tempo and dynamics

Chant publications of the Byzantine Catholic Church seldom prescribe an explicit tempo, since the pace of the singing varies somewhat, with the slowest chants being used for processions.
In the same way, increases in volume (crescendos) and decreases (decrescendos) are not normally indicated;   the dynamic volume will often form an arc over the course of particular phrases, but must always match the sense of the text.