The Parts of a Prostopinije Phrase

Prostopinije melodies for troparia, kontakia, and stichera share a common melodic structure consisting of musical phrases which follow each other in a stylized pattern. Each phrase, in turn, has a beginning, middle, and end. This article describes the common parts of these melodic phrases.

Here is a sticheron from Vespers on Saturday evening, written out in according to the Tone 1 samohlasen melody, which we will use as an example:

The Tone 1 sticheron melody consists of an A phrase ("Accept our evening prayers, O holy Lord"), a B phrase ("and grant us forgiveness of sins."), and a final of F phrase ("For you alone manifested resurrection to the world.") If the sticheron were longer, the A and B phrase melodies would have been repeated, one after the other, to accommodate the additional text. Here, we are interested in looking at the common structure of the phrases.

The Intonation

Most phrase melodies begin with an intonation: a pattern of notes (from one to as many as six) that establishes the melody being used. The intonation of the first phrase in the hymn also provides the congregation with the starting pitch and tempo to be used. As Ivan Gardner described prostopinije singing in Carpatho-Rus' between the World Wars:

The people sang from the Great Anthology [Velikij Sbornik], which contains all the necessary texts... The cantors - the more experienced chanters among the parishioners - who stood on the kleros, began the singing. As soon as those present recognized the melody, the whole church sang.

In the sample sticheron, the A phrase has an intonation of two notes:


The B phrase has an intonation of one note:


And the final phrase has a five note intonation:


Intonations can vary slightly, according to the rules of a particular phrase melody. For example, in the tone 1 melody used here, the phrase A intonation can be used to sing one, two or three syllables, depending on the pattern of accented syllables in the text:


The article on melodic patterns shows a number of these common intonations. In some phrase melodies, the intonation is omitted if the text of the phrase starts with an accented syllable. A few phrase melodies have no intonation at all, beginning immediately with the reciting tone.

The Reciting Tone

The individual phrases of the variable hymns in the Byzantine Liturgy, whether celebrated in Greek, Slavonic, English or any other language, can vary quite a bit in length. So each melody needs to provide the flexibility to sing both very short and very long phrases. In prostopinije, this flexibility is provided by a reciting tone - the part of each phrase in which a varying number of syllables are sung on a single pitch.

In most melodies (see below for exceptions), the "reciting tone" text is sung in free speech rhythm - that is, in a way that matches the rhythm that one would read the text aloud in a formal manner, with the accented syllables falling in a regular beat. Text sung in this way is easier to understand, and avoids monotony - but still allows an entire congregation to sing together in a natural way.

In musical notation, the reciting tone is indicated by regular notes marking the first and last notes of the reciting tone. If only a few syllables are sung on the reciting tone, they are usually indicated with quarter notes (even though the actual rhythm, as sung, may vary from a strict quarter note rhythm). But if more than three or four syllables are sung on the reciting tone, the singing between the first and last syllables is indicated with a feathered note, which looks like a half note bracketed on either side by two short vertical lines. This notation saves space, and also allows those singing to concentrate on the rhythm of the text.

In the A phrase of the sample sticheron, the reciting tone is used to sing five syllables of the text:


The B phrase only has two syllables on the reciting tone:


While the final (F) phrase uses the reciting tone for six syllables:


In most prostopinije phrase melodies, there is a slight musical accent on the beginning of the reciting tone. For this reason, the intonation may be structured so that it leads up to an accented text syllable on the first note of the reciting tone. Also, in some phrase melodies, the first reciting note is held slightly longer, for the length of a half note. These details are shown in the descriptions of the individual prostopinije melodies.

"Free" and "pulsed" reciting tones

Most prostopinije melodies use free speech rhythm for the singing on the reciting tone. But three prostopinije melodies - the troparion melodies in tone 2, tone 5, and tone 8 - are different. In these melodies, the text on the reciting tone is sung in a regular pulse rhythm, with vocal stress rather than duration marking the text accents.

These melodies are often used for processions, where the rhythm of the chant corresponds to a steady walking pace: for example, "The noble Joseph" since in the burial procession on Great and Holy Friday.

The Preparation for the Cadence

As we will see shortly, the cadence (final portion) of a prostopinije phrase usually begins with musical and text accents. Some prostopinije melodies include one or two notes immediately before the cadence, which prepare for the cadence and lead into it. Since they musically unaccented, they allow the congregation to "hear" that the cadence is coming, without causing a musical clash. We call these notes preparatory notes.

In the sample sticheron, the A and B phrases each have a single preparatory note; in the final phrase, the reciting one is followed immediately by the cadence, with no preparation.




When a phrase melody has a single preparatory note before the cadence, this note is almost always used to sing an unaccented syllable of the text. This is usually not a problem in English, since consecutive accented syllables are rare. When the syllable before the cadence is accented, it may be sung on two notes, slurred together (either the last two preparatory notes, or the last note of the reciting tone together with the single preparatory note) to support the text accent.

The Cadence

The cadence brings the phrase to a close; when another phrase will follow, the cadence also "sets up" the melodic transition to the next phrase.

In the sample sticheron, the A phrase cadence consists of three half descending half notes:


The B phrase has a cadence of the same overall length, but consisting of four descending notes:


The cadence of the final phrase, which bring the entire sticheron to a close, consists of eight notes - a four-note pattern, followed by the same sort of rhythmic pattern that ended the B phrase, but with more finality:


The article on melodic patterns shows the common cadence patterns used throughout the body of prostopinije melody, and how they are adjusted to fit various texts, while the explanations of individual prostopinije melodies provide the details for each.

Putting It All Together

Now that you are familiar with the Tone 1 samohlasen melody, you should be able more easily to sing through the sample sticheron:

For more practice, and to see how the A and B phrases lead into each other, try singing (or listening to) a longer sticheron using the same melody - the dogmatikon from Saturday evening vespers in tone 1. In each phrase, see if you can identify the intonation, reciting tone, preparatory note, and cadence.

See the Tone 1 samohlasen article for a more detailed explanation of how to sing this melody.

Notation for the parts of a phrase

On this website, we use the following shorthand notation for the parts of a prostopinije phrase:


See the main article on moden musical notation for other markings used our explanations of prostopinije melodies.