The Reading Melody

Listen to an audio version of this tutorial

The reading melody is used to chant ("read") Scriptural lessons and longer prayers. It uses two alternating reciting tones (do and la), and can be employed to chant texts of any length.

Why use a special melody for longer readings?

When a prayer or reading is chanted recto tono or to a psalm tone, or using one of the clergy melodies, the chant melody returns to the tonic pitch, or do, quite regularly. Each time it does, the listeners have to wait and see whether the conclusion has just been reached, or if there is more to come. Also, because these melodies are very simple, they give little opportunity for the reader to use his or her voice to show how the different parts of the reading are related to one another.

Our customary reading melody solves these problems by ending each of the repeating phrases on the seventh tone of the scale, ti. Because ti is an unstable pitch, it signals to the listener that there is more to come, and creates a sense of expectation to see what will come next. Within this repeating melody, there are two different reciting tones, to add variety. Toward the end of the reading, a drop to so signals the "beginning of the end", and the entire reading ends on do, signaling the conclusion..

The repeating part of the reading melody

The reading melody starts out on do, and then descends to la. This signifies a "middle point" in this part of the reading:

reading melody, first part

Then the reading continues on la (that is, a new reciting tone) and comes to an end not on do, but on the "leading tone" ti.

reading melody, second part

Ti is called the leading tone because it "leads into" do, but it's an unstable pitch; it is clearly not the place we want to end. That will come later in the reading.

Here is the entire repeating part of the reading melody, which expresses a single idea, with a pause in the middle:

reading melody

This part of the melody is repeated as many times as necessary, each time highlighting a particular idea in the reading or prayer. Listen to an example.

Adding ornaments to the reading melody

The reading melody as we have presented it so far is very simple. To add interest, and match the music to the sense of the words, we can add the same sort of musical ornaments that we use when singing recto tono:

So the beginning of the epistle on Pascha (Acts 1:1-9) could go like this: (listen)

reading melody with ornaments

Listen to a long section of this epistle, with ornaments. Notice that I do not sing every phrase the same way; the ornaments are chosen to fix the text, and in fact every time an epistle is read, it may be chanted a little differently. Since the reader is a soloist this is not a problem!

The conclusion of the reading melody

The final part of the reading must do two things:

The reading melody does this by dropping all the way down to so - a note not used earlier in the reading - and working its way eventually back to do. Here are some examples of how this can be done: (listen)

reading melody conclusions

This is the place where a reader can display real artistry and skill in matching the chanting to the text being read. Listen to the second half of the epistle of Pascha, together with its conclusion.

You can also print off this summary sheet for the reading melody.

Preparing a text to be chanted to the reading melody

To sing a text properly to the reading melody, you must at the very least:

Here is how you might mark up the text of the epistle for Thursday in Bright Week (Acts 2:38-43). Here, I use a plus sign to mark the major divisions of the text (ending on ti), and a downward slash (\) to mark the "middle" of each phrase. A downward arrow (↓) marks the drop to so that signals "the beginning of the end." (Listen)

In those days, Peter addressed the people: "You must reform and be baptized, each one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ, so that your sins may be forgiven; \ then you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. + It was to you and your children that the promise was made, \ and to all those still far off whom the Lord our God calls." +

In support of this testimony he used many other arguments, and kept urging, "Save yourself from this generation which has gone astray." \ Those who accepted his message were baptized; some three thousand were added that day. +

They devoted themselves to the apostles' instruction and the communal life , \ to the breaking of bread and to the prayers. ↓ A reverent fear overtook them all, for many wonders and signs were performed by the apostles.

You can choose to make your phrases a bit longer or shorter than I did in this example, but the pauses in the reading should always be at sensible places, and lead logically to what comes next. Always try chanting the reading aloud several times in private before reading in church; you might also find it helpful to record several different versions and see which one sounds best.