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Choral Corner #5: What is a tone?

Orthodox liturgical music operates in a system of eight tones; most hymn texts are designated to be sung in one of them. The eight-tone system was first developed by St. John of Damascus, who we commemorate today. According to this system, we cycle through the eight tones, in order, at the rate of one per week, starting with tone 1 on the 2nd Sunday after Pentecost. The tone of this week is tone 8; next Sunday, we’ll start all over again with tone 1. This does not mean, however, that all the texts for a given day are sung in the tone of the week. Special hymns in honor of saints or events have their own tones, which take precedence over the tone of the week.


Painting with an extremely broad brush, in the modern usage of the Russian Orthodox Church and Churches (such as the OCA) influenced by her, a tone is a melody, usually harmonized simply for four-part choral singing. There are multiple collections of melodies, and within each group are separate 8-tone categories for different types of hymns (troparia/kontakia, prokeimena, canons, etc.). At St. Mark’s, as in many parishes, we draw from several of them — often in the same service! This is often happens on a great feast such as Christmas, when the choir repeats the festal troparion many times, each time with a different melody. For example, the Christmas troparion is sung in tone 4, and always in tone 4, but it can be tone 4 of any chant system. So, when we have to repeat a text more than twice, we can introduce variety by cycling through systems.


Question for next week: Why are there multiple tonal systems?

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