Thursday, January 26, 2017

How music works

1978 - Bob and Di touring England in Bertie
Come on, Bob. You can't explain that in a blog post.

Deep sigh

OK - here it is - this is how the music of the Old Testament embedded in the accents of the Hebrew Bible shapes and interprets the text.

Bob is in a little car driving up a big hill like the Glastonbury Tor in the south of England. Di is outside the car because only one person at a time can fit in it. (No, Bertie made it into the Cheddar Gorge, but we did not drive up the tor.)


You probably wouldn't disagree that music has shape. Have you listened to much in the way of traditional synagogue chanting? I heard a lecture last week by Daniel Biro. It was an informative and stunning lecture. His music is available here. What he has written is very demanding. At the peak of my career, I would have had great trouble being a tenor for him. In contrast, the music I speak of, based on the key from Haïk-Vantoura's inferences (Daniel is skeptical of it) is easily learned, and though somewhat tricky to sing, it is not a marathon, and it is easy to learn to sight read directly from the accents.

Daniel began his lecture with a multiplicity of examples of differing synagogue traditions from around the world that he had painstakingly recorded. These were all of Genesis 1. What I heard in his examples would be very difficult for me to imitate. They were clearly unclear in their shape. The shape was confined to individual words, and the verses were all monotonal - a single key, a single reciting note. They have lost the overall shape of the music. The melismatic ornaments, even well sung (and I have heard, live, both well and not so well sung examples in Sabbath liturgies), will not restore the shape. The distinction that comes from the variation in reciting note is well-defined by the accents and is not observed in traditional cantillation.

Barriers to understanding,
the Glastonbury Tor in the background
A hill has shape: Some hills are a smooth rise and fall, some have cliffs, some crevasses, some terraces, some regularity and some irregularity. So it is with the music of the accents.

Two hills are never exactly alike, but their similarities can be noted. So I have pointed out the similarity of the first verse of Genesis and the first verse of Job. Does it surprise you? It shouldn't. Job is all about creation and the problem of good and evil. We still can't tell the difference. I explore this relationship to begin my story of the Bible in my book, The Song in the Night.

Here's the music of these two verses:

Job 1.1 d f e g# B ^A // B B rev,c d f g# f e
Genesis.1.1 e g# B ^A // f g# f e

With this overly simplified musical notation you can easily see the similarity of shape, even if you are not a musician. Any musician will hear immediately triad followed by the rest on the subdominant and the return to the tonic via a traditional Middle-Eastern interval. A reader of music will also hear the rhythmic storied lilt of Job in comparison with the matter of fact brooding serenity of Genesis, a brooding that continues to this day.

Thesis 1: prove me wrong or prove me right: Verses with similar sequences of accents are related to other verses with similar shape. If you hear the music - it is obvious. The refrain of Genesis is beautifully repeatedly rendered, and it was evening and it was morning, the nth day. (n:1-6).

Mid-verse rest

The presence of the Atnah
I have often pointed out on this blog that the Atnah defines the major cadence point, with a caesura for a verse. A great proportion of the time, the cadence is on a significant word in the verse. This calls for a meditation on the first part of the verse. It reinforces drama, and reinforces parallelism if it is present. It may separate subject from verb though this is not common. If a translation ignores the atnah, the verse is incorrectly interpreted.

Example at random, Numbers 14.6 e B rev,qad,z-q,g# ^A // g# e
And Joshua child of Nun and Caleb child of Jepunah, from those that explored the land, //
ripped their garments.

This musical phrase occurs in one other verse, Genesis 25:2. Can you see any connection between the verses? Here even I might argue against the problem of reading too much into the text or the music. But does Abraham go off in a direction that has unexpected consequences when he takes another wife? Just as the Israelites were going to fail to enter the land at the time described in Numbers 14.6.

When the Atnah is missing
A missing rest often is the result of emotional turmoil in the music. In the Song of Songs (see chapter 1. verses 9-17) it is the insistence of love. In the Lamentations, it is the misery of destruction of the city and the exile from the land. Chapter 5 is entirely without rest. (See the link for additional analysis of the music of Lamentations).

First note
A first note that is not the default reciting note, the tonic, indicates a connection with what is earlier. Analysis of first notes can allow some passages to be connected as a whole through the music. Proverbs 2 is an example I use in the book. The three books of truth, Psalms, Proverbs, and Job, each begin on a note other than the tonic. The only other book to do this is Deuteronomy. These reveal the books of truth as keys to the rest of the Bible, and Deuteronomy as a commentary on Torah.

Many verses in various passages begin on something other than the first note. They show linkages to previous verses. Often the verse reinforces word similarities, or interprets a consequence or states a conclusion. 3669 verses, over 15%, begin on a note other than the tonic. 19482 begin on the tonic. Look for them. They are signaled by an accent on the first syllable of the verse.

Highest / lowest recitation notes
Raising and lowering the recitation note may indicate 'tone of voice'. The patterned sequence of highest notes is an indication of musical form. Psalm 96 is a particularly good example of this.


I mentioned the lilt of the opening of Job. Singers should first learn movement, the pattering of hands, the drum, the pulse of the heart, or dance or gymnastics. Rhythm is fundamental to music. There is a natural pulse even to plainsong though it is irregular in its subdivisions. Rhythm is a basis for drama and engagement with the text. A simple example is Psalm 117. One can hear in the part I set for wood-block, the potential for an almost regular 7/4 time signature.

The hill we are on is a grand one, more of a mountain range than a tor. I have scarcely begun the climb. But we won't get past the fearful beast and the thorny hedgerow if we only mutter isolated verses in monotonic syllables.

This is how music works. It interprets words. In all of my recent posts, I have noted the first, highest, and lowest notes to assist the non-musician in interpreting the shape of the music.

Are there other characteristics that you can think of? You really should do the exercise below. The discovery you will make yourself is enough.

Exercise: Here are the 22 verses where the notes of the refrain from Genesis 1 are used as the closing of a verse. Are they related?
Genesis 1.5 e pas,C qad,z-q,g# B ^A // e f e g# f e
Genesis 1.8 e c d e g# ^A // e f e g# f e
Genesis 1.13 e f e g# f e
Genesis 1.19 e f e g# f e
Genesis 1.23 e f e g# f e
Genesis 1.31 e C qad,B z-q,g# ^A // e f e g# f e
Genesis 2.7 e tal,pas,ger,e rev,qad,B z-q,f g# B ^A // e f e g# f e
Genesis 35.22 e rev,C qad,B z-q,B z-q,z-g,qad,g# qad,B ^A // z-q,g# ^A // e e f e g# f e
Deuteronomy 5.20 e e f e g# f e
Deuteronomy 15.1 e f e g# f e
Deuteronomy 29.4 e f d f g# ^A // e C e qad,z-q,e f e g# f e
Judges 17.1 e f e g# f e
1 Samuel 16.14 c d g# B ^A // e f e g# f e
2 Samuel 8.10 e B B e B e tal,pas,ger,e rev,tal,pas,C qad,qad,z-q,d f g# B ^A // rev,d e f e g# f e
2 Kings 17.40 e g# ^A // d e f e g# f e
Isaiah 63.9 e B B rev,C qad,e z-q,f g# B ^A // e f e g# f e
Jeremiah 15.10 e B z-q,B rev,f d f g# ^A // e f e g# f e
Hosea 13.13 e f e g# B ^A // qad,B z-q,e f e g# f e
Ezra 2.16 e e f e g# f e
Nehemiah 7.53 e f e g# f e
Nehemiah 7.54 e f e g# f e
2 Chronicles 18.28 e c e d e f e g# f e