Melodies in the Eight Tones

In the Byzantine liturgical tradition, certain hymns are assigned a "tone" or musical group, from 1 to 8:

The hymns that use the eight-one system as troparia, kontakia, prokeimena, stichera, and the irmosy of canons. Whenever one of these hymns appears in the liturgical books, it will have the tone clearly marked:

Troparion, Tone 1. Save your people, O Lord, and bless your inheritance....

This tells the cantor what melody to use when singing the troparion. (In the Octoechos, of "book of the eight tones", the one may be given once at the start of each section, instead of at the heart of each hymn. Also, if several consecutive hymns are sung in the same tone, it is customary to mark the tone for the first hymn only.)

The eight tones in prostopinije

The prostopinije tradition provides the following melodies in the eight tones:

Even when these melodies are written out in musical notation, cantors need to learn them by heart in order to lead them properly. In parishes with a strong singing tradition, the melodies are widely known and congregations will sing them with only a small amount of direction.

Some tones have additional melodies (podobny) for troparia and stichera that are used on special occasions, as indicated in the liturgical books:

Troparion, Tone 2 podoben Jehda ot dreva. When the Arimathean took you lifeless from the cross, O Life of All...

Some of these melodies are well-known, while others are not. In general, if a very obscure melody is appointed, the cantor may choose to use the "ordinary" troparion or sticheron melody in the same tone.

Eight tone singing in practice

With the exception of irmosy (each one of which as its own melody), the eight tone melodies in prostopinije are built out of phrases which follow one another in regular order, sometimes ending with a different concluding phrase. Each phrase has a "reciting tone", a pitch on which a variable number of syllables can be sung.

In books without music, it is customary to mark the divisions between the phrases with a vertical bar or asterisk (*), so that an experienced cantor knows when to move from one phrase to the next. Bar lines serve the same function when hymns are written out with music. In either case, members of the congregation who are familiar with the melody can sing along, phrase by phrase, without requiring any real knowledge of musical notation.

Because eight-tone singing makes use of each singer's internal "knowledge" of the melody, the cantor's leadership is most important:

  1. at the beginning of the hymn;
  2. at the start of each phrase, particularly the last one
  3. at the conclusion of the final phrase

When several troparia or kontakia in a row are sung in the same tone, the singing itself is quite easy. The cantor needs step in precisely when the tone changes, to show the faithful which melody is to be used next.

Learning the eight tone melodies

Each of the following articles has a reference table of melodies, with links to tutorials for each tone, and collections of notated examples.

For a particular melody, read the tutorial article, then sing through the examples (many of which have recordings) until you have internalized the sequence of phrases, and how certain phrases may be sung in shorter or longer variants. Record your singing in each tone, then compare it with the notated music for that melody to ensure you are singing it correctly.

To review your knowledge of the eight tone melodies, sing through the Sunday hymns on pages 123-162 in our service book, The Divine Liturgies of our holy fathers John Chrysostom and Basil the Great.

How tones are assigned to hymns

The Byzantine liturgical tradition uses the eight tones in three ways:

A hymn or group of related hymns are assigned a tone when they are written, and this tone does not change. (There are a small number of texts which can be sung to any tone, but this occurs only at the Hours.) The tone is indicated at the start of each hymn or group of related hymns, together with the special melody if there is one.

Learning the ins and out of the eight tone system can take a lifetime, but this system of words and music adds both beauty and spiritual depth to our worship.