The Song of the Levite

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Notational Systems

The Music Notation of the Psalms

In our present system of music notation, a very concise and complex system of symbols representing notes, accidentals, staves, time signatures, etc. was developed. In the Hebrew Scriptures (like the early Greek system of notation mentioned earlier) a very simplistic, yet effective system of music notation was also developed. A system we find preserved in the Masorite editions of the Hebrew texts. In these texts, there are two types of symbols written in conjunction with the basic letters of the Hebrew alephbet: the vowel points and the accents (aka te'amim, cantillation marks, or trope). Using Psalm 136:2 as an example, we find that the Hebrew texts of the Masorites consist of three primary parts:

     Each of these three components are essential in being able to decipher and transcribe the Psalm manuscripts into contemporary music notation.

Psalm 136:2
Hebrew texts read right-to-left
WITHOUT the vowel pointings and cantillation marks
Psalm 136:2 without vowel pointing and te'amim Psalm 136:2 without vowel pointing and te'amim
WITH the vowel pointings
Psalm 136:2 WITH vowel pointing but without te'amim Psalm 136:2 WITH vowel pointing but without te'amim
WITH the vowel pointings AND cantillation marks
Psalm 136:2 WITH vowel pointing but without te'amim Psalm 136:2 WITH vowel pointing but without te'amim
WITH only the cantillation marks and basic Hebrew letters
Psalm 136:2 WITH vowel pointing but without te'amim Psalm 136:2 WITH vowel pointing but without te'amim
English Transliteration - read left-to-right
ho-du' la-lo-ha' hä-ë-lo-hem' ke la-o-läm' chäs-do'
English Translation
Give thanks to God [of] the gods: For His loving kindness is everlasting

Vowel Pointings
     In the above example, the set of symbols that are most widely recognized are the series of symbols referred to as the vowel points. This series of dots and dashes add missing vowels and aid in the pronunciation, syllabication and in turn the subsequent meaning and understanding of the associated words. As the original Hebrew was written without these vowel pointings, the meaning of the same written word could drastically change depending on how it was pronounced. For example, without the inclusion of the vowel points it would be very difficult to determine whether the word shown below was referring to a group of princes or a group of singers. It is only with the inclusion of the vowel points that the correct meaning and pronunciation is approachable. Many Hebrew editions of the Bible display these symbols as an integral part of their texts.

plain Hebrew script Psalm 119:161 Psalm 68:25 (68:26 JPS)
singers or princes princes singers
sä-rem' shä-rem'
princes singers

te'amim (cantillation marks)
     The second set of symbols associated with the Hebrew texts are the cantillation marks or as they will be referred to in this book, the te'amim. These visually different set of symbols have a multipurpose function in relation to the Hebrew words. The first function is simply to in some instances provide the appropriate syllabic accents. The secondary function traditionally is to provide a guide to the chanting or intoning of the texts. A system of intoning the Hebrew texts that has developed throughout the years into the unique art form heard in Jewish synagogues throughout the world today. You may have to search around to find a Hebrew Bible with these symbols included (see Bibliography for a listing of readily available editions). You will not however, find any editions that I am aware of that only display the te'amim without the vowel pointings. In order to make these symbols more visually accessible, the Hebrew texts we will be reviewing will be nontraditionally displayed (as in the example of Psalm 136:2 above) with only the te'amim.
     As mentioned, in relation to music, the symbols of the te'amim are traditionally considered to be guides to the vocalization and intoning of specific texts. This very complicated system of vocalization primarily consists of a varying collection of vocal articulations, ornaments and embellishments utilized in conjunction with a traditional melodies or modes. The combination of the vocal articulations and modes enable a cantor to chant appropriate sections of the Hebrew texts in the traditional manner you may be familiar with. As there is a great deal of latitude in their interpretation and execution, the resulting intoning of the texts can vary greatly from cantor-to-cantor and from community-to-community.
     We additionally find, that there are actually two sets of symbols associated with the te'amim. The first set of symbols is associated with twenty-one books of the Hebrew texts and the second set with Psalms, Proverbs and Job. It is the symbols of the te'amim associated with the Psalm manuscripts that are of most interest to us. Even though both systems are treated traditionally as vocal articulations and accents, there is also a second school of thought that the te'amim originally represented specific, fixed tones, the exact pitches of which presumably lost in antiquity. Unlike the accents of the non-Psalm texts, the te'amim associated with the Psalm manuscripts can be directly associated with defined pitches derived from the Davidic cipher.

Symbols of the Psalm te'amim
     Within the Psalm manuscripts there are ten individual symbols utilized and one vocal articulation, a vocal shake (shown to the far right below).


     The first tip-off to a correlation of the te'amim to the Davidic cipher was the atnah. Resembling both the Greek letter for L (i.e., lambda) and the Pythagorean tetractys, it was a logical assumption that there was some association with the Hebrew letter L (lamed). By associating the Greek letter L (lambda) and the Hebrew letter L (lamed) with the atnah, we find that the atnah not only falls directly in the center Hebrew alephbet, the Davidic cipher, but also the cycle of 5ths.
     Once having established the center of the notation as the lamed (G#) and the atnah, the next two symbols became evident. The symbol \ [referred to as: pashta, azia or qadma], written like a backward slash, and the opposite / [referred to as: tifha, majela or tarha], written like a forward slash correspond to the tones associated with the tritone B \ and F / that fall on either side of the atnah. An easy mnemonic (memory tool) to remember these two symbols is: \ Backward slash = B and / Forward slash = F. In relation to the cycle of 5ths, we also can see that these two symbols form the East-to-West axis of the cycle. The fourth symbol (referred to as: galgal or jerah) is basically a flipped atnah and corresponds to the tone D; directly opposite the G# on the vertical axis. We now have four of the te'amim symbols assigned to the four quadrants of the cycle-of-5ths.

cycle of 5ths

     What is interesting about these initial four symbols is that they can be related to what is called in contemporary Judaism, the priestly blessing (Numbers 6:22-27). The shape of the hands and fingers in relation to the symbols of the te'amim is very evident and is an easy mnemonic to these four symbols.
     Once these four symbols were associated with the cipher, the remaining relationships eventually became evident throughout the months. For example, it is a very easy stretch to see the relationship between the Hebrew scripts for the vav (shown in ancient and modern forms) and the \ (the tone B). Some of the symbols, like those associated with the A, Bb and C, can be directly linked to the lyre, its construction and the manner in which these tones are played. The remaining symbols were ascertained from the consistent voice leadings that became evident when transcribing the Psalm manuscripts themselves (e.g., F resolving normally to E and F# to G, etc). All of this being said, the following is the completed cross-reference between all the symbols of the te'amim and the Davidic cipher.

Cross reference of Hebrew alephbet, te'amim and quartertone scale

teamim alephbet and Davidic cipher

     We now have our completed key that can be used to transcribe the music in the Psalm Manuscripts.

The ten symbols of the Psalm te'amim and their pitches
ten tones

     Using the Psalm 136:2 example we started with, we can use this key to translate the te'amim into actual notes and implied chords. From the vowel pointings we can derive our English transliteration, translation and even the meter of the lyrics.

Psalm 136:2 as it appears in the Hebrew texts

Psalm 136:2 WITH vowel pointing but without te'amim Psalm 136:2 WITH vowel pointing but without te'amim

Psalm 136:2 as transcribed into contemporary sheet music format

Psalm 136:2 example

Music Theory of the Psalm Manuscripts

The Song of the Levite

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Notational Systems

Copyright © 2007 by Dennis F. McCorkle
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