2 Chanting in Synagogues

In this chapter you will

  • explore how markings found in very old manuscripts of the Hebrew Bible may tell us how they were once sung
  • learn how musicologists and others have attempted to interpret and perform the music thus revealed
  • discover how Jews around the world chant their Scriptures today in synagogues

Musical Notation in Biblical Manuscripts?

We do not have anything like direct access to the music of the ancient temple in Jerusalem. We have the texts of psalms that are likely to have been used there. The headings at the start of many of the psalms, unlike headings you may see elsewhere in some Bibles, are in this case actually part of the Hebrew text.[1] A number of terms provide indications about the music that went with them, how they were used, and/or what inspired them. Some of them indicate that those specific psalms were sung in particular styles or to existing melodies. A number of articles will let you dig into the specific words, what they tell us, and what still remains mysterious or puzzling about them if you wish to explore that topic further.Cantillation denotes the ritual chanting of scripture readings and prayers.

Can we ever hope to even make a plausible guess at what the Psalms sounded like musically? We do have some very ancient clues about what was done musically with the Bible a very long time ago, most likely in the setting of synagogues. Whether any of that music was based on traditions that stemmed from the time when a temple stood in Jerusalem is impossible to know for certain. The clues I am referring to are markings found in manuscripts of the Hebrew Bible dating back more than a thousand years. They are sometimes referred to as “accents” but are more likely cantillation marks. In a printed Hebrew Bible, you can see these marks above and below the consonants (along with the other more frequent signs above and below consonants that indicate vowels). This practice goes back much earlier, to a time before the printing press, when scriptural texts were copied by hand. The photo that follows illustrates what it looks like. Do not worry if you do not know how to read Hebrew. The point is to show you what the thing described and discussed here looks like, not to teach you the system (although, by all means, learn that if you are interested!).

Hebrew manuscript from the 11th or 12th century

Song of Songs in the manuscript Halper 34 in the University of Pennsylvania Center for Advanced Judaic Studies Library. Halper 34 Song of Solomon 2:13-3:3; Song of Solomon 4:6-14, fol. 1r, from the Center for Advanced Judaic Studies Library, is in the public domain.

Those cantillation symbols are impressively old, found already in manuscripts from a millennium ago. That is also roughly a millennium after the destruction of the Second Temple.[2] Music, and words set to music, can persist across centuries. It doesn’t remain unchanged, but something can still be recognizable even after much time as a version of the same song. We cannot know whether later communities of Jews sang songs that had been handed down for a millennium or two or even three. We can only say that music and singing have the potential to do that.

So what do these markings indicate? That is something of a mystery—or rather a code to which we lack the key. This is not to say that there are not long-standing traditions in Judaism about what the markings mean and how to sing them. There certainly are—more than one of them, each quite different! There is thus no consensus that any of the current-day practices reflect the original significance of the cantillation marks. Indeed, the different traditions probably indicate that the original meaning of the markings was forgotten, although it is possible that one stream of tradition preserved something of their original meaning continuously. That is what I meant when I referred to them as akin to a “code.” The good news is that codes can sometimes be cracked, and there is a good chance that at least one investigator has done so in this case.

Let’s start from the beginning. We mentioned in the previous chapter that we have texts older than the Bible with musical notation in cuneiform. In fact, there we were referring to the earliest complete song. We have an even older fragment that may be as many as four thousand years old and represents our earliest example of written music. It comes from Mesopotamia, and you can see it in the Schoyen Collection. (Those interested in how this musical notation worked may wish to consult composer Dr. Pat Muchmore’s explanation on StackExchange and Sara de Rose’s explanation on her Music Circle website.) We also have ancient evidence (as well as a tradition of practice that has continued to the present day) that indicates the use of hand gestures by those leading communal singing.

There have been many attempts to figure out what the cantillation marks in the Hebrew Bible indicate. One of the most famous is that of Suzanne Haïk-Vantoura, a French musicologist who used music theory to guide her, coming up with a way of understanding the music of the Bible that may or may not be the “original” but is at the very least plausible. Here is an episode of NPR radio’s Morning Edition from 1986 with an audio overview of her work.

As you heard in the episode, Haïk-Vantoura was informed by music theory and a diverse Jewish upbringing that helped alert her to the fact that Jews in different places sang the text in different ways. This was an important clue that she needed to not simply follow these contradictory traditions but instead work inductively from the text itself.

An interesting piece of evidence is that there are places where this reconstruction seems to be very similar to some chanting traditions not only in Judaism but also in Christianity. Psalm 114 is a striking example when we compare the melody traditionally used in Gregorian chant (a form of liturgical singing in Roman Catholicism), the melody in North African Jewish tradition, and the melody that emerges using Haïk-Vantoura’s system. The Gregorian chant melody is known as tonus peregrinus, or “foreign melody,” perhaps suggesting that it was borrowed and adapted from elsewhere. Have a listen to it in this recording by the St. Thomas Choir.[3]

Now let’s listen to Haïk-Vantoura’s reconstruction of the melody for Psalm 114 in the Hebrew Bible. Bob MacDonald has written books and blog posts and created YouTube videos elaborating on Haïk-Vantoura’s system. He has also used the power of modern computing to automate the process, allowing much faster and more detailed progress to be made. Here is what the melody of Psalm 114 sounds like as rendered using this system.[4]

Hebrew Chanting through the Ages and around the World

Some of the psalms were probably used as part of the liturgy (i.e., the official order of service) in the temple in Jerusalem. The temple was above all else a place for animal sacrifice, and the conviction that this form of worship could only be appropriately offered in the Jerusalem temple led to the development of synagogues—places where the focus is the reading or chanting of Scripture and the offering of prayer. A cycle of readings developed to take those in attendance through the Torah and other parts of Scripture every year. Those who engage in the act of chanting Scripture in communal worship consistently describe it as an exhilarating privilege and a daunting responsibility. The combination of singing in a language that is not their own (even speakers of modern Hebrew can find biblical vocabulary and expressions a challenge) and remembering the way the cantillation marks (often referred to today as “trop” or “trope”) are to be interpreted can be challenging, even for those who do this professionally and regularly.[5] You will find some who think that complex forms of chanting distract from the meaning of the words, while others find that the musical aspect makes the impact more powerful, even if the words become less clear.

Listen to some examples of Hebrew chanting from the Jewish tradition from different parts of the world. Consider this one from Morocco, performed by Cantor Haim Louk.[6] It is heavily ornamented with flourishes, but the underlying melody is not as far from the previous less ornate examples as it might first appear.

Here is Deuteronomy 6:4 (a text known as the Shema) sung by Azi Schwartz, senior cantor at Park Avenue Synagogue in New York City.[7]

Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, and other branches of the Jewish tradition have different musical styles, as do the regional traditions of Sephardi Jews (those in and from Spain, North Africa, and the Middle East) and Ashkenazi Jews (historically located in most of Europe). The chanting style changes for certain occasions, such as the festivals known as the High Holy Days. We can only provide the briefest of introductions to these rich and diverse traditions. Here is Rabbi Angela Buchdahl singing Psalm 23 at Central Synagogue in New York City.[8]

Sometimes music brings people together across differences, as we see in the fact that the aforementioned two singers from Conservative and Reform synagogues in New York have joined forces to perform music. Here is Psalm 146, written by Cantor Benjie Ellen Schiller, performed by cantors Schwartz and Buchdahl together.[9]

On the ongoing contemporary practice within Judaism, Cantor Giora Sharon has this to say about the role of music in synagogue worship:

As a cantor in synagogues for forty-eight years, I witnessed the effect of song and music on the praying congregation. Music, as a universal language, speaks to everyone, and everyone understands it.

In Hebrew we call this Hidur Mitzvah; it means the beautification of the commandments. It includes the presentation of the prayers to God in the most beautiful way. This is my mission as a cantor, prayer leader, and the delegate of the congregation (in Hebrew, Shaliach Tzibur). This was my calling since my early childhood.[10]

There is no one way of chanting Scripture, even in the same religion. Culture and tradition vary, and that will be relevant to keep in mind as we explore this topic further in the next chapter. Before proceeding, however, we should emphasize that chanting in these liturgical styles was and is not the only form of Jewish musical expression when it comes to exploring biblical texts musically. You may wish to read about Salamone Rossi by jumping to chapter 24 now rather than waiting until later. It’s up to you!

For Further Reading

Adler, Cyrus, and Francis L. Cohen. “Cantillation.” Jewish Encyclopedia. Accessed September 30, 2022. https://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/3986-cantillation.

Friedmann, Jonathan L. “Humility, Prayer, and the Cantorial Ideal.” In Perspectives on Jewish Music: Secular and Sacred, edited by Jonathan L. Friedmann, 57–76. Lanham, MD: Lexington/Rowman & Littlefield, 2009.

———. Synagogue Song: An Introduction to Concepts, Theories and Customs. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2014.

Harrán, Don. Three Early Modern Hebrew Scholars on the Mysteries of Song. Leiden: E. J. Brill, 2014.

Heller, Charles. Shul Going: 2500 Years of Impressions and Reflections on Visits to the Synagogue. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2019.

Hoffman, Lawrence A., and Janet R. Walton, eds. Sacred Sound and Social Change: Liturgical Music in Jewish and Christian Experience. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1992.

Jacobson, Joshua. Chanting the Hebrew Bible: The Art of Cantillation. Second, expanded. A Jewish Publication Society Book. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2017.

Lundberg, Mattias. Tonus Peregrinus: The History of a Psalm-Tone and Its Use in Polyphonic Music. Farnham: Ashgate, 2011.

MacDonald, Bob. The Song in the Night: According to the Melody in the Accents of the Hebrew Text. Gonzalez, FL: Energion, 2016.

Marks, E. “Music, History, and Culture in Sephardi Jewish Prayer Chanting.” Religions 12, no. 9 (2021): 700.

Martin, Michael Wade. “Does Ancient Hebrew Poetry Have Meter?” Journal of Biblical Literature 140, no. 3 (2021): 503–29.

Mitchell, David C. “How Can We Sing the Lord’s Song? Deciphering the Masoretic Cantillation.” In Jewish and Christian Approaches to the Psalm, edited by S. Gillingham, 119–33. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.

———. “Resinging the Temple Psalmody.” JSOT 36, no. 3 (2012): 355–78.

Nemtsov, Jascha. “Music.” Encyclopedia of Jewish-Christian Relations Online. De Gruyter, 2019. https://www.degruyter.com/database/ejcro/html?lang=en.

Pretorius, Wynand. “Music in Ancient Israel/Palestine with Reference to Tonality and Development of the Psalms.” MA thesis, UNISA, 2018.

Summit, Jeffrey A. Singing God’s Words: The Performance of Biblical Chant in Contemporary Judaism. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016.

Uzan, Elad. “The Jewish Musical Pioneers: Salamone de Rossi and Rabbi Leon of Modena.” Journal of the History of Ideas Blog (blog), November 2, 2015. https://jhiblog.org/2015/11/02/the-jewish-musical-pioneers-salamone-de-rossi-and-rabbi-leon-of-modena/.

Werner, Eric. “Musical Aspects of the Dead Sea Scrolls: For Curt Sachs on His 75th Birthday.” Musical Quarterly 43, no. 1 (1957): 21–37.

Wyner, Yehudi. “The Book of Psalms and Its Musical Interpretations.” Milken Archive. Accessed September 7, 2022. https://www.milkenarchive.org/articles/view/the-book-of-psalms-and-its-musical-interpretations/.


  1. For example, the header in Psalm 3 reads, “A psalm of David. When he fled from his son Absalom.”
  2. The first temple in Jerusalem is supposed to have been built by Solomon and was destroyed by the Babylonians around 586 BC. The one that was built to replace it is known as the Second Temple. It is the one that existed in the time of Jesus, which was destroyed by the Romans in the year 70 AD.
  3. “In exitu Israel” is performed by men of the Choir of St. Thomas the Apostle, South Wigston, singing at Friday evensong in Durham Cathedral, July 2010. It is shared on YouTube by John Gull, who has worked with the choir.
  4. The video was created by the author with assistance from Alex McGrath, using Bob MacDonald’s music files.
  5. See some of the quotes from interviewees in Jeffrey A. Summit, Singing God’s Words: The Performance of Biblical Chant in Contemporary Judaism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016), 131–34, 140–42.
  6. Shared on YouTube by the channel תהלים באתר הפיוט והתפילה.
  7. Shared by Cantor Azi Schwartz on his YouTube channel. The recording is from the eve of Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year, 2015.
  8. Rabbi Angela Buchdahl sings a setting of Psalm 23 composed by Gerald Cohen at Central Synagogue. Shared by Central Synagogue on their YouTube channel.
  9. This setting of Psalm 146 is composed by Cantor Benjie Ellen Schiller. Piano accompaniment by Colin Fowler. Shared by Park Avenue Synagogue on their YouTube channel.
  10. Quote provided in personal correspondence with the author.


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The Bible and Music by James F. McGrath is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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