Thursday, 13 September 2012

The process of learning the te'amim

I have now transcribed seven psalms. It is too early to say what the patterns are but some stand out (see below). The tunes are ear-worms. Once in your head, they repeat - I found myself singing them as I planted  kale this morning.

These are the pdf's available so far from me - in Hebrew Psalm 123, 4120150. In English 1, 4.

These are in an evolving state - each one manually constructed as I decide how they might be best designed. I sang Psalm 1 at lunch for a former choirmaster of mine (now aged 95). He was polite - a bit intrigued I expect.

This is my process:
1. compare the Letteris edition of the Hebrew text to available text in other online editions.
2. create an edition with corrections - convert to extended html and insert / delete / correct the text to conform to Letteris (or whatever other source might be uncovered?).
3. transcribe (see cheat sheet here).
4. copy corrected text from database to music program (Musescore - free).
5. check this against an existing performance if available - otherwise check by hand and by sight and by sound. (I have Vantoura's book on inter-library-loan-request - Amazon refused my order! If anyone has a copy they don't want, leave me a comment - maybe we can come to a deal.)

I would also like to put together a program that would produce XML from the text so that standards for musical presentation could be established and the scores produced with automation as changes and corrections accumulate.

I hope to become able to sing the Hebrew at sight. It is possible, but it will take quite a bit more memorization and practice --- maybe after 20 or 30 transcriptions.

The default mode is E minor. The mid verse resting point (atnach) an A, sub-dominant.  One frequently finds a rising fifth and a dominant to tonic full close at the end of each verse. 2525 full closes, verse by verse... this would not make for very interesting music.  But the music I have heard performed (Esther Lamandier, Chanticler, and from colleagues of Suzanne Haik Vantoura - lots on u-tube - see The Music of the Bible Revealed) has been uniformly of a very high quality - and definitely interesting / striking / and beautiful.  Nevertheless, performance is a personal and subjective process, and textual criticism is a detailed work -to 'prove' that the score we have is ... um ... accurate (maybe). (The te'amim of the Aleppo codex are readable - e.g. here.)

I have marked some of the common patterns I have seen so far on this image of Psalm 3.
1 the rest mid-verse on the sub dominant A - atnach
2 an unusual cadence, effectively c-major after an a-minor motif
3 a common combination of two ornaments - geresh+revia. How often does this occur in the image? Look for it.
4 a full close (cadence) in E.

I do not see all the 'rules' clearly. Eventually, placement of an ornament over a syllable or to its left or right may be more evident to me. There is no control on the copying process once the music is lost. There is no redundancy in the system.  So how does one judge the result? Also this does not mean that David 'composed' the Psalter - what it testifies to is a liturgical practice with many potential contributors. As I have written from my close reading of the Psalter, it seems likely that the choir got to write the final liturgical history. That deserves a smiley.

Anyone interested in this project? My aim is to produce a singable text in English for the ordinary choir and congregation -  Musicians - accompaniment? Orchestration? Musicology? Textual criticism? Automation? Lots of skills required. Imagining an ancient practice - and learning the Psalms at the same time. (You can link to an intro from NPR as noted from the Oxford Psalms conference here.)

I have annotated a possible theology of a psalm given the music of Psalm 4 here.

Online resources, Wheeler, John. The Accentuation of Psalm 2:7: A Comparative Study.
Esther Lamandier, Genesis 1,


These works are directly relevant
1.       Vantoura, Suzanne Haik-. 1976. The Music of the Bible Revealed: The Deciphering of a Millenary
2.       Wheeler, John. Paper 2005. The “Tiberian Accents” as Analyzed by the Masoretes and by Suzanne Haik-Vantoura. 
Online articles ignoring or supporting Haik-Vantoura:
3.       The Music of the Bible Revealed,, interpretation of the te’amim.
4.       Emanuel Rubin, Rhythmic and Structural Aspects of the Masoretic Cantillation of the Pentateuch[1] (no mention)
Resinging the Temple Psalmody, David C. Mitchell[2] (brief summary)


  1. I spotted this while looking for photos of the Aleppo Codex, for use on my LightScribe drive as label backgrounds. I see you have been busy!

  2. Yes Jon - I have been busy - I have coded SHV's deciphering key into a computer program so that I can look at 100s of examples. The questions I am working on at the moment are related to Deuteronomy 20 and the significantly different use of the te'amim in this passage. If you have time, recognizing that there are a few differences in my notation, please have a look at I am also in touch with David Mitchell on his interpretations.

  3. David Michell? The name seems familiar but what has he done and where?

    In Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5, the accents are not only significantly different, they constitute the chief examples of "double accentuation" (there are one or two other brief examples). Two sequences are superimposed. And here the second Letteris Edition is actually someone inferior to the first (a simple reprint, but with more marginal notes, of the van der Hooght edition, rather than a further and extensively edited text). Deuteronomy 5 should have some accents in the second Letteris Edition which the first LE has if memory serves. Other editions have their weaknesses and undoubtedly the same is true of manuscripts. You must bear in mind the "scribal habit" of pointers and editors - there have been so many disputes about what the accents "should be" that in some cases one must reconstruct what the accents actually *were. Even Aleppo Codex leaves out or moves many accents because of Aharon ben Asher's opinion, however studied, of what the accents "should be". Leningrad B19a is worse in this.

  4. Oh, now I remember! He asked me for help in publishing that prior paper. I need to write one myself and submit it to the same journal. There are issues for which I need to give a proper rejoinder.

  5. A brief glance at the score of Exodus 20 showed me very quickly that there are quite a few defects in whatever base text is being used. There are considerable differences between sources - again, even the BFBS Letteris Edition (the second which Letteris edited) isn't self-consistent between Exodus 20 and Deuteronony 5, but the first Letteris Edition is more so. While I had that edition (fool that I am, I sent it off to Internet Archive in hopes it would be scanned sometime this millennium and put online, but it either hasn't been yet or else has perished in a fire), I photocopied some comparative examples and I believe the two texts of the Decalogue were included.

    This is one matter where a rejoinder by me is required. In the absence of the second LE Suzanne would've had to compare multiple texts and do her decipherment based on where the texts concord - which thankfully is most of the time. But she would've found anomalies in many verses and phrases, especially in Psalms, just as she did eventually in looking at BHS. The second LE is not perfect in all respects but it's better overall than anything else out there, in terms of accentuation which is both complete and correct (if sometimes a tad conservative). But Deuteronomy 5 is one place where some other editions, including the first LE, are better. I ought to check the Jerusalem Crown (which I own), based on Aleppo and related MSS., and see how it handles that problem. If the text is extant in Aleppo I need to look there too (online).

    I'll have to look at that page you set up more at a later time.