The Gamut of Vocal Techniques
Used in the Pre-Nikonian Russian Orthodox Church

by Nikita Simmons - June, 2004


Communities of Russian Old Ritualists (particularly the Old Believers), i.e. those who preserve the church rituals from before the reforms of Patriarch Nikon in the mid-1600s, have preserved a number of oral traditions which have become almost completely forgotten in the contemporary Russian Orthodox Church. The fact that all groups of Old Believers from all over Russia (and beyond its borders) share such customs, despite their religious differences and lack of cultural contact between such groups, is fairly convincing testimony that such traditions did not evolve as a result of their separation from the dominant Russian Church, but rather are traditions that have survived from long before the schism in the Church. In part due to regional isolation, all groups have preserved oral traditions that exhibit not only a wide variety of vocal techniques and repertoire, but also an amazing degree of consistency.

The aim of this study is to identify and analyse all of the various known vocal techniques used by Old Believers. The author has a most unique position of being able to write about this subject both as an active member of a Russian Old Believer community in Oregon, USA, and as an ethnomusicologist. (Most musicologists have to study our traditions as outsiders, and thus do not have the same opportunities to experience the complete spectrum of the tradition, especially in the context of practical application throughout the cycle of the year.)


In trying to identify the common elements of pre-schism musical culture that have survived to this day in Old Ritualist oral traditions (which is in truth a continuation of medieval Russian culture), we can observe a number of musical traits:

1) The Russian Church before the schism had firmly rejected the use of harmony and choral singing in ecclesiastical worship. This issue was most notably discussed at the Stoglav Council in Moscow, 1551 during the reign of Tsar Ivan IV (the Terrible). At this council, not only was the tradition of monophonic chanting upheld, supported by excerpts from Canon Law (the "Kormchaia" or "Rudder"), but such a tradition was elevated to national ecclesiastical law. (The Stoglav Council was rejected at the Moscow Council of 1666-67, which also created the schism of the Old Believers.) While the modern Russian Church fully embraces part-singing, the Old Ritualists continue to reject it as "uncanonical."

2) While the practice of monophonic (unison) chanting is preserved in church services, there are moments in the church singing where various individuals might have learned a melodic line in a slightly different fashion, and thus moments of dissonance and harmony occur unintentionally. This phenomenon, which is usually associated with folk singing, is technically referred to as "heterophony" and is not true polyphony.

3) Outside of church worship, the folk music of Old Believers has a greater degree of harmonization, which is sometimes unintentional and sometimes deliberate. This type of harmony, however, is often quite rudimentary and exhibits elements of dissonance and vocal techniques not found in modern European cultures. Efforts at theoretical analysis of scales and modality often prove futile, as there are no strict rules or theory governing this oral tradition. To be more precise, it is better to refer to such harmony as "folk polyphony." (I have personally never encountered Old Believer folk music that is fully choral or has a vocal texture that uses the highly evolved western European harmonic structure which emerged in the Baroque era.)

4) Old Ritualists preserve a remarkably different ideological approach toward preserving the melodies by means of neumatic notation (the "kriuki" or "hooks"), which was derived from middle Byzantine Chant. While modern European musical notation is considered to be a fairly strict and rigid method of preserving music, Old Ritualists do not consider their musical notation to be an exact science. For the average Old Believer musician, the neumes are used primarily as reminders and suggestions, providing a slightly fluid and improvisatory manner of singing the traditional melodies, which is open to some small degree of personal or regional interpretation. While subtle vocal ornamentations are frequently used, the use of the musical notation continues to exert a stabilizing influence for the preservation of the repertoire, much like an "anchor". (The chant books are placed on tall stands or "analogia" on each cleros, and because of their sheer size the entire cleros is able to sing from a single book.)

5) There are several vocal characteristics which persist into modern times, particularly:

6) Except in the more melismatic chants of the church rituals (such as the "Alleluia" and Communion Hymns, etc.) and secular folk singing, Old Believers do not rely on metered rhythms (such as 2/4 or 4/4 time). Common elements of the services are almost entirely syllabic and derive their rhythms from the natural stresses of the words. Some of the more complex hymns which are sung from the chant books (such as the stichera) gravitate toward a steady duple (2/4 or 4/4) rhythm similar to walking or swinging one's arm (the "takt", based on the Latin term "tactus"), but are by no means locked into slavishly maintaining this rhythm for the duration of the chant. Some of the folk songs are syllabic (with "free rhythm") and some are metered; it is rare, however, to hear triple meter (3/4 or waltz-like rhythms) in such songs.

7) One of the most puzzling consistencies in Old Ritualist singing is the use of the "raised leading tone", a vocal practice common to most European cultures and first documented during the late medieval to early Renaissance eras (the "musica ficta"). While the European scales are based on an octave, medieval Russian music, however, is based upon four sequences of stacked thirds (or two hexachords) which are complete units. The principle of a raised leading tone can occur on the pitches "do" and "fa" of each half of the full range of 12 pitches (the "gamut"), and occurs primarily in cadential formulas and in some descending patterns. It is interesting to note that there is some similarity to how the raised leading tone occurs in Byzantine Chant, with its "Rule with many exceptions." (Of course, Russian liturgical chant was originally derived from middle Byzantine chant in the 10th-12th centuries, with a few more centuries of cultural exchange, but such cultural influence was minimal by the medieval era.) There is much more study to be done in this area. (It should be noted that some Old Believers in cultural centers, such as Moscow and Nizhny Novgorod, as a result of obtaining a musical education and attempting to acchieve a more refined and precise style of singing, have attempted to eliminate the raised leading tone. While this is commendable, I feel such musical purity is somewhat artificial and foreign to the traditional Russian ethos.)

8) Because Old Believers do not use any musical instruments in their religious or folk music, there has traditionally been no method of establishing musical pitches according to fixed pitches (such as A=440). Instead, a comfortable mid-range pitch is selected at random at the moment that the singing starts. (Unless a group of singers has a very good sense of maintaining an established pitch throughout a church service, the starting pitch, often refered to as "movable DO", tends to vary considerably throughout the service.)

9) Traditionally the church singing is started by a single leader, called the "Golovshchik" or "Starter". His responsibility is to select a starting pitch which the others must match. An experienced Starter with good musical pitch can maintain a great deal of consistency in pitches and tonality throughout the course of the service, which produces an orderly and pleasing effect. The members of the cleros (choir) should wait for a moment to hear the starting pitch before joining in, even if it is but a half second of time. In Litanies and ongoing liturgical dialogues, however, the singers generally should not wait for the Starter, in order to avoid an unpleasant effect of staggered vocal entries. In folk singing, Old Believers (and folk singers in general) generally start each verse of a song with a soloist singing the first few words or first line (called the "Zapevalo"), and the singers join in for the rest of the verse; this vocal technique can be observed in virtually all the various Slavic folk cultures, especially in the Balkans. (On some of the Great Feasts, the clergy traditionally will sing the first full phrase of text for the Heirmos of the 9th Ode of the Canon at Matins; this is especially noticable at Pascha, where the Typicon appoints this practice for all of the Heirmoi, at the introduction of each Ode of the Canon.)

10) Old Believers do not generally use a method of directing the singers by means of hand movements, such as are used by modern choral conducters. Occasionally a choir leader will move his hand up and down for several beats to correct a tempo which is too fast or slow, or signal for the volume to increase or decrease when the singers need to match the mood of the liturgical actions (such as at the Cherubic Hymn or the Great Doxology). In some regions the choir leader will use an "Ukazka", a very long narrow stick, to point to the neumes being sung, to tap out the rhythm and to indicate the shape of the melody (as well as to tap inattentive children on the head when their attention wanders).

11) Old Believers have a variety of opinions and practices regarding who is allowed to sing on the "kliros" or "krylos" (the place where the choir or chanters stand at the front of the church). The most traditional groups only allow men to sing on the kliros, but following the 1917 Revolution there have been many circumstances (especially during WWII) where women have had to fulfill this task, and once allowed to sing there is no turning back. In the most rural areas (including the communities that live in the Pacific Northwest region of North America), the traditional of only men singing on the kliros prevails, although some young girls are allowed to sing until they begin to reach puberty. (Women are allowed to sing from the congregation, of course, but they only sing what they have learned from listening to the men.) Some women are allowed to read Kathismata and Canons in the middle of the church, but not all Old Believer communities allow this. Men who stand on the kliros wear a "kaftan" (a black garment similar to a cassock, but only buttoned from the neck to the waist, and derived from the old peasant coat that was worn in medieval Russia), and they stand with their arms folded (derived from the monastic tradition of stand with arms crossed on one's chest). It is common for devout singers and readers to hold a "Lestovka" or "Ladder", which is a leather prayer rope used for counting prayers; it is especially useful in counting the repetitions of "Lord, have mercy."

12) The final common element, which will be discussed in more detail below, is the use of a more evolved manner of performing the readings in public worship. While the modern Russian Church has lost this part of its cultural heritage (preferring to use only a single monotone pattern), more elaborate systems of reading continue to flourish among the Old Ritualists. The various types of literature read in the service are classified according to several categories, and each category has its own stylized method of presentation (see section IV below). Such methods of reading may vary considerably from one community to another, but the principle is fairly consistent throughout the entire range of Old Rite communities.


The use of the word "gamut" (complete spectrum or range) is providential, in part because the Russian Znamenny Chant musical scale is called a "gamut". Coincidentally, while this "gamut" consists of 12 pitches arranged according to a particular theoretical structure, there happen to be 12 types of vocal techniques used in the Old Rite.

1) The Spoken Voice. While this is not officially used during the services, it is reserved for making announcements and for the sermons that are delivered by the priest (of his own composition). Although it varies according to place and individual preferences, it is not uncommon for a priest or "Nastavnik" (layman appointed to lead reader services) to say the Entrance and Departure Prayers with a spoken voice. In some communities the "Ustavshchik" (Ecclesiarch, person who interprets the Typicon and prepares the books and music for singing) or the "Golovshchik" (the Starter, choir leader) will give "soto voce" (stage whisper) prompts to the cleros (choir) and readers a few moments before the next liturgical action takes place; he may also announce the Tone of a hymn or the first few words of the Heirmos of the Canon in a full spoken voice, but this is properly done as ecphonesis. A notable exception to the use of the spoken voice is at Pascha when the priest enthusiastically exclaims "Christ is risen!" and and we respond "Truly He is risen!" In addition, the priest will use a whispered voice when reading or reciting many of the "secret" ("vtaine") prayers found in the Priest's Service Book (the "Sluzhebnik").

Ecphonesis is the most basic form of textual presentation in the performance of the services. In Russian, this technical term is called "Pogla'sitsa" (from the Slavonic verb "poglasi'ti"), which is hard to translate adequately into English with a single term; it can be variously defined as "declamation, exclamation, intonation, vocalization, reciting, recitation, recitative, simple reading, melodic reading and cantilation," although it stops short of being defined as "music", "singing" or "chanting." (The term "chanting", which is widely misunderstood and misinterpreted in the Orthodox Church, denotes a style of singing a musical melody, and is not technically appropriate in describing ecphonesis.)

Ecphonesis is primarily used for reading the common portions of the services that are intended to be read, such as the majority of psalms and prayers that make up the structure of the daily offices; it is also used used by the clergy in reciting portions of liturgical dialogue. I have chosen to use two terms to describe the simpler and more complex styles of ecphonesis: "Reading" and "Declamation." Ecphonesis can thus be broken down into 4 degrees of practice:

2) Solo Ecphonesis: Reading. Solo ecphonesis is generally performed by reading on a single pitch, which is technically called "recto tono"; the reader may start each sentence or phrase a minor third below his reciting pitch, but very little pitch movement is observed. The reader should not hurry through the reading, but should hestitate a bit at commas and come to a full stop at periods. The most common parts of the services that use this style are the Beginning prayers, psalms and prayers.

3) Solo Ecphonesis: Declamation. Solo declamation usually uses a range of 3 to 6 pitches and has an identifiable reciting pitch and a cadential pitch, sometimes alternating phrases with different pitches. It is used for the following parts of the services: Opening Blessings and Dismissals, the Beginning prayers, the Creed, various prayers, the Six Psalms, "Alleluia" after the stases of the Kathismata, readings, etc. (Anything performed as Declamation can also be "downgraded" to the simpler Recto tono.) The deacon and priest also use Declamation when reciting the Litanies and various liturgical dialogues and exclamations. (For a more compete presentation of the 9 categories of Declamation, see section IV below.) This style is now generally not approved of in the modern Slavic Churches, but does have a lengthy history, including scriptural lectionaries with ecphonetic notation (manuscripts from the early to middle Byzantine eras in several languages).

4) Communal Ecphonesis: Reading. This type of vocal technique is not very common, except for the thrice daily "Forgiveness" performed (in the Old Rite) at the end of Compline, Midnight Office and the Hours.

5) Communal Ecphonesis: Declamation. This style of vocal technique is used somewhat sparsely, but for the following common portions of the services: the Creed, "Alleluia" after the stases of the Kathismata, the responses on the Litany at the end of Compline and the Midnight Office, the prayers before and after meals (especially the Lord's Prayer), the Paschal Hours, etc.

Chanting (or Singing) is the full melodic use of the voice, in which we are creating music.

Before proceding further, we need to understand the technical distinctions between "chanting" and "singing", and establish a suitable nomenclature that meets most of our needs. Some dictionaries give a variety of definitions for "chanting", which contributes to the general confusion and misunderstanding of this word in today's world. In particular, I disagree with Webster's secondary definition of chanting as a "monotone", particularly because the monotone style is not really intended as a form of music. The origin of the word "chant" is the Latin "cantus", which is "song". But in its original cultural context, songs were not highly evolved choral pieces, but solo melodic presentations that one used to tell a story. Thus, "chanting" properly designates solo or unison singing of passages of text, and perhaps can be extended to systems of chordal recitative (block chords, such as "Kievan Chant", "Greek Chant", harmonized "Small Znamenny Chant", etc.) "Chant", which is a specialized type of singing, is an intermediate vocal style ranging somewhere between "reading" and "choral singing", which uses a somewhat free (or recitative) rhythmic structure. Fully harmonized choral singing which uses meter and counterpoint should not be called "chant".

Solo singing is rarely allowed in Orthodox church singing, except for a few specific occasions when it is appointed by the Typicon (when a priest, serving by himself, sings the first and last Velichanie/Magnification; when the priest sings the opening line of Heirmoi and other hymns; when the Canonarch sings the first phrase of most instances of Psalmody during the Vigil; etc.). Small vocal ensembles are never allowed, since this violates the principle of communal worship and promotes exclusivity. Singing can be broken down into:

6) Common Chant Melodies. Liturgical texts are sung communally in a manner quite similar to Declamation, but with melodic patterns or intonations that have entered the communal repertoire, such as the simpler sung versions of the Lord’s Prayer, the Creed, Litanies and Responses (liturgical dialogues), "More honourable than the cherubim...", "It is truly meet...", "O gentle light...", "O only-begotten Son...", etc.

7) The Small Znamenny (Samoglasen) Chant. This is formulaic singing where printed text is sung according to melodic formulas in each of the Eight Tones. This repertoire of melodies is intended for use with stichera, but occasionally troparia and kontakia are sung with these melodies. (The Russian New Rite and other national Orthodox Churches have a separate repertoire of melodies in the 8 Tones for Troparia and Kontakia.) The Small Znamenny Chant is commonly called "Samoglasen" (after the Greek "Idiomelon", meaning to have its own unique melody), but this is a misuse of the word caused by misunderstanding the Greek concept. (In the New Rite there are separate sets of formulaic repertoires for stichera and troparia/kontakia, as well as various "raspevy" or melodic repertoires, such as Small Znamenny, Kievan, "Greek", etc. The Carpatho-Russian and Galician regions also have a diverse repertoire of melodies that are more closely related to Znamenny Chant than the music of the modern Russian Church.)

8) The Podobny (Prosomoia) Melodies. These are a repertoire of formula melodies, similar to the Small Chant in structure and use. While these melodies are labeled according to the 8 Tones, in reality they are "Special Melodies" which do not always have noticable connections to the Tones.

9) Neumatic (Znamenny) Chant of the 8-tones. This repertoire, which makes use of sequences of melodic formulas in the 8 Tone system and requires a certain amount of training and skill, includes the Heirmological, Sticheraric and Prokeimenon genres. (Smaller parishes which lack training will usually fall back to using only Small Znamenny Chant melodies and singing the Heirmoi according to simplified melodies which have entered the oral tradition.)

10) Great Znamenny Chant. This highly melismatic repertoire, which also makes use of sequences of melodic formulas in the 8 Tone system, is similar to the Byzantine Papadic genre. In common practice such chants are not used at all in small parishes; in larger parishes that have the ability to use this repertoire, they are used selectively (often sparingly) to cover lengthy liturgical actions. (It is more common to use the Great Chant for singing the Dogmatica and for some of the stichera on Great Feasts.)

11) Festal Chants. This includes the Put' and Demestvenny repertoires, which are special melodies used for feasts and hierarchical Liturgies. Put' Chant is an expansion of the 8-Tone Great Znamenny Chant repertoire, while Demestvenny Chant is not based on the 8-Tone system. Both repertoires have their own neumatic notational systems, but most of these chants can also be found transcribed into standard "Znamenny" or "Stolp" notation. Due to the great amount of skill needed to learn and maintain these styles of singing, most smaller parishes do not usually know many of these types of melodies.

12) Canonarchical Style. This is a mixed (or hybrid) vocal style which combines Solo Declamation with Communal Singing. In the early Church the Canonarch was an office held by one of the leading chanters (doubling as a subdeacon and wearing the sticharon of that office); he would ascend the ambon in the middle of the church to perform his liturgical duties, while the chanters would sometimes come down from the choirs and stand in a semicircle around him. There are 4 types of Canonarchical Style:


Declamation, which is an intermediate style of vocalization between reading and singing, can be sub-divided into nine types. Examples are provided here with musical notation, but one should keep in mind that most of these styles were compiled from the traditions of only two groups of Old Believers: the Pomortsy of the Baltic Republics and the Chasovenny who are presently living in Oregon and Alaska; other groups have their own regional melodic styles.

The most important thing to focus upon is the underlying principles of textual emphasis (phrasing and lengthened pitches for accented vowels) and learning how to improvise melodic reading of texts that one has never seen before. One should not strive to memorize these examples precisely, but instead learn to develop the art of "improvisatory declamation" as a craft. For the sake of preserving tradition, however, it is recommended that one try to learn the tonalities (major, minor, etc.) of these styles, since this is often the distinguishing feature between similar reading styles. Ultimately, one will notice that one cannot manage to memorize and use all the formulas presented here and will end up using only a few styles for various types of texts, but it is nice to be able to use a variety of styles to add beauty, dignity and variety to the services. If all the readings were done in the same style, the services would seem a bit monotonous.


1) Exclamations ("Vo'zglasy"), Blessings and Litanies: the solo elements and brief responses to liturgical dialogue.

2) Psalmodic Declamation: the "Beginning Prayers" (O Heavenly King..., Trisagion), Alleluia between stases of the Kathismata, and the method of reading Canons. This type of declamation, when performed communally, is considered to be the intended manner of following liturgical rubrics that indicate "we/they say", as opposed to "we/they sing"; in the modern Russian this is interpreted as singing, but Old Ritualists interpret it as communal declamation.

3) Paremoeic Declamation: the Paremoia (Parable) readings on appointed feasts and during the Triodion season, which are mostly from the Old Testament.

4) Apostolic or Epistolary Declamation: the Epistle readings.

5) Evangelic Declamation: the Gospel readings.

6) The Declamation of the Hexapsalmos (Six Psalms).

7) The Declamation (Chanting) of the Psalter for the Departed. This is technically called "singing the psalms." It is used for four occasions: while keeping vigil with the body until it is buried; when chanting the "sorokoustie" (the 40 repetitions of the entire Psalter during the 40 days after repose); the "unceasing" ("neugasimye") repetitions of the Psalter beyond the 40 days; and for occasional memorial services (annual memorials, etc.). -- As one of the various methods for monastics to perform their daily cell rule, they may choose to "sing the Psalter" in their cells. The troparia and prayers after each Kathisma are also performed in a similar manner.

8) The Declamation of the Great Canon of St. Andrew of Crete, on the first and fifth weeks of Great Lent, which is traditionally performed by the priest. This style may also be used for the Canons of the Great Feasts, although with a more cheerful manner of reading.

9) The Declamation of Liturgical Homilies ("Pouchenii"): there are numerous styles of improvisatory readings that can be identified, varying from place to place, and these can be subdivided into three types of tonalities. The homilies are found in several books, entitled "Tolkovoe Evangelie" (Interpreted Gospel), "Evangelie Uchitel'noe (Instructional Gospel), "Blagovestnoe" (Gospel Commentary), Prolog (synopsis of the lives of the saints for each day), Mineia Chetiia (Reading Menion, Lives of the Saints), Sinaksar (Synaxarion), The Acts of the Apostles (read in monastic vigils and on the eve of Pascha), and several collections of patristic sermons: "Zlatoust" (the Golden Mouth), "Margarit (the Pearl), "Efrem" (St. Ephraim the Syrian), "Torzhestvennik" (sermons for the Great Feasts), Lestvitsa (The Ladder of St. John), etc.