What Is Byzantine Music?

During the Middle Ages, Byzantine music was primarily used to sing ritualistic and religious hymns for the Eastern Orthodox Church. Many scholars have dated its origins to the fourth century, with some manuscripts dating as far back as the ninth century. Although Byzantine music was almost certainly composed in Greek, many modern versions of songs have been translated into English for ease of use.

Byzantine music is named after the Greek city of Byzantium, which was later renamed Constantinople when it became the capital of Constantine’s Byzantine Empire. Constantine the Great, who instigated the construction of many churches, the employment of bishops and clergymen, and the reproduction of the Bible, was a huge supporter of Christianity at the time. Church services were held to further solidify the religion, with one of the rituals being the singing of hymns, which has since become a significant part of church services all over the world. Byzantine chant was heavily influenced Greek culture (as Byzantium was a Greek city) and Jewish traditions (Christianity was derived from Judaism).

The lyrics in Byzantine music are traditionally taken from Bible verses, which are rewritten and combined with other biblical passages to form stanzas. The lines had to follow a strict metrical system, which dictated the number of syllables spoken in each line. When the stanzas are given a melody so that they can be sung, they are referred to as the “heirmo.” The opening heirmo is usually used as a template for the subsequent stanzas, so the melodies are repeated throughout the hymn.

The “kontakion,” a lengthy hymn with many stanzas, sometimes as many as 24, is an example of Byzantine music. All lines in the kontakion have the same number of syllables, and all stanzas have the same number of lines. The same melody is used throughout the hymn, which makes it easy to remember but leaves little room for improvisation.

The second type of Byzantine music is called “kanon,” and it has fewer stanzas in each song, usually between six and nine. The kanon was made up of nine odes (songs). Unlike the kontakion, which uses the same melody for all songs, each of these odes has its own melody and metric system, providing much-needed variety.

These kanons are still sung in modern Orthodox churches during worship services. Although an organ is frequently used in Byzantine music, two Greek instruments were once used during the Byzantine Empire. The “kithara,” a type of lyre, and the “aulos,” a wind instrument that resembles a flute, are these instruments.