Recto tono

Recto tono (Latin for "straight" or "uniform" tone) is the simplest kind of church singing: the chanting or declamation of a text on a single pitch (called the "reciting pitch"), with merely the simplest ornamentation. In the prostopinije tradition, this kind of singing is only used for the Six Psalms at the beginning of Matins. But learning to chant properly in this fashion is an important building block for plain chant.

Chanting a text recto tono

Reading on a single pitch is a very ancient practice. Saint Augustine (354-410), for example, said that Saint Athanasius of Alexandria ordered his lectors "to recite the psalms with such slight modulation of the voice that they seemed to be speaking rather than chanting" (Confessions, X 33). This is much simpler than singing, and takes the words of a sacred text and chants them using a heightened, intense rhythm, like that of ordinary speech, but making it more formal and evocative - something to pay attention to and learn from.

Exercise: Try chanting Psalm 66 at a comfortable pitch, using only one note comfortably in your range. Choose an easy tempo and do not rush; use good diction but don't prolong any particular word. Just as you would normal speaking, leave a small gap between lines of the psalm that are closely connected, and larger one between complete sentences and unconnected thoughts. Hold the very last word for an extra beat.

There are two problems, though, with this form of chanting: unless the singer's breath control is very good, he will tend to go flat (that is, drop in pitch); and the chanting, especially if it is prolonged, can lack emphasis and become boring. To make it possible for a less experienced singer to chant a text on a single note, the prostopinije tradition adds two ornaments: an initial ascending perfect fourth, and a major second on accented words or syllables.

The initial perfect fourth

The interval of a perfect fourth (listen) emphasizes the higher note as the tonic or "home pitch", and makes it easier to stay on pitch and not go flat. By beginning a line of the chant with a perfect fourth, the singing stresses the tonic or "home pitch" as the reciting tone.

Normally, we make the ascending fourth on an accented syllable:

Have mercy on me, O God, in your kindness.

For the Lord knows the way of the just...

Of course, once you are chanting, you have to do DOWN from the tonic or home pitch to start any line that will begin with the perfect fourth. If you like, mark your text in advance – for example, by underling the part of the line that is sung at the lower note:

For the Lord knows the way of the just....

This ascending perfect fourth should not be used with every phrase of the text or line of the psalm; in fact, if you use it every time, it becomes repetitive and boring. Also, there is no need to use it on a phrase that begins with an accented syllable. Instead, employ it occasionally while chanting, to help you keep the pitch up.

Major second for emphasis

A second ornament we commonly use is to pick a word we wish to emphasize, and sing it a major second (or whole step – listen) higher than the reciting tone:

It is good to give thanks to the Lord....

If the word to be emphasized has more than one syllable, only the accented syllable is raised:

In your compassion, blot out my offence....

The reader has a certain amount of flexibility in which words to emphasize, and a particular text may be chanted differently by different readers, or even by the same reader on different occasions. As with the ascending perfect fourth, the ideal is to use the major second occasionally, rather than in a predictable way that becomes a boring "sing-song." If you like, you can put a small accent mark over the syllables you plan to emphasize with a major second.

Combining the two ornaments

You can use both ornaments together: some lines start with an ascending perfect fourth to an accent (particularly one you wish to emphasize), with an occasional major second on a word or syllable in the middle of a line that you wish to stress. Do not use the major second on the end of a line or sentence; the entire text should be "heard" as being on the tonic or reciting pitch.

Listen to an example.

Exercise: Try chanting Psalm 66 again, adding an occasional ascending perfect fourth at the beginning of a line, and raising the pitch on selected words (or their accented syllables) by a major second. As before, choose an easy tempo, use good diction and appropriate pauses, and hold the very last word for an extra beat.

Don't try to read dramatically, or with a large amount of emotion! Instead, concentrate on chanting the text simply and clearly, emphasizing the meaning of the words, and let the Holy Spirit do the rest.

Beyond recto tono

This kind of chanting only works well for a single voice, since it lacks the predictability that enables several people to sing together. On the other hand, it is too limited a kind of chant to have enough musical interest for most liturgical services. (The Six Psalms of Matins are intended to be read in an especially simple fashion, while everyone else listens "with compunction"; by tradition, these are the Psalms that will be sung during the Last Judgment).

In the prostopinije tradition, we used different kinds of melodies for texts that are chanted very simply by a single voice or by several voices together:

All of these melodies are intended to allow the liturgical texts and readings to be sung and heard with minimal effort, so that their meaning can be clearly conveyed.