Trop (Cantillation): Chanting Hebrew Scripture
Trop is the melody of scriptural readings or its notation
There are different melodies to go with the notation for different purposes
Trop conveys meaning and emotion, helps you learn the reading, makes it easier to hear and makes the reading more enjoyable
Trop has existed from ancient times but was standardized in the 9th or 10th century
They read from the scroll of
G-d's Torah clearly,
and gave the sense, and caused them to understand the reading. -Nehemiah
Anyone who reads from the Torah without a pleasant melody...
about him the Scripture says: "Moreover I gave them decrees that were not
good..." (B. Megillah 32A)
If you have ever been to a synagogue and heard
a public reading from scripture, you may have noticed that the scriptural
reading is chanted to a melody that is not used elsewhere in the service. This
melody is referred to in Hebrew as ta'amim
(flavors) or ta'amei ha-miqra (the taste of the reading), but it is more
commonly known by its Yiddish name, trop (rhymes
with cup) or trope (rhymes with cope). I prefer the spelling "trop" to avoid
confusion with the English word "trope," which has come to have a meaning
similar to cliché. The process of publically reading scripture with this
melody is commonly referred to by the Yiddish term leyen (sounds like lay in),
which actually just means "read," but it tends to be used only in this context
outside of Yiddish.
What is Trop?
Trop is the melody of scriptural readings. Trop can refer to the musical
notation added to text to indicate the melody, to the musical phrase that goes
with that notation, or to the entire system of musical phrases for a particular
purpose (because there are different melodies for different circumstances,
discussed below). Trop is both a singular word and a collective noun: it can
refer to a single notation, phrase or system, or it can refer to more than one.
We do not generally speak of "trops." The Hebrew terms for trop are already
plural in form (-im is a plural ending, and the -ei ending can be singular or
Like vowels, trop it is written above and
below the letters in ways that do not change the length of the text. Also like
vowels, trop is not written in Torah scrolls and
is found only in pointed texts. If you have a Hebrew bible, you will probably
see trop written alongside the vowels.
Unlike Western musical notation, trop does not represent a single musical note.
It is more of a musical phrase made up of two, three or more notes -- the
lengthy shalshelet uses 15 notes! -- that are worked into the text that they go
with. In the illustration above, the word on the right has four syllables but
the trop for that word has only two notes; the first note is used for the first
three syllables and the last note is used for the last syllable, where the
notation is found. It is not unusual for a single notation to cover two or
three words. Sometimes a longer trop needs to be applied to a single syllable,
chanted as a slur (melisma).
There are about 30 different characters that are used for notating trop. They
have Unicode values for use in fonts, but a lot of fonts (even fonts designed
for Hebrew) do not support them (or do not support them well). In fonts that
support them, you can find them between Unicode x0590 and x05AE. Times New
Roman and Arial support them well. David, which I used to make the graphic
above, does not support them well and I had to tweak the graphic.
The word "trop" is also used to refer to a system of trop. These systems all
use the same notations, but they put different melodies to the same notations.
In Ashkenazic tradition, there are six
different sets of melodies:
- Torah trop, used to read from the first five
books on most days (see Torah Readings for more
information about these standard weekly and holiday readings);
- High Holiday Torah trop, used for Torah readings on
Rosh Hashanah and Yom
- Haftarah trop, used for readings from the
prophets that accompany the Torah readings (the same Haftarah trop is used on
holidays and on a regular Shabbat);
- Megillat Esther trop, used for reading the book of Esther from a scroll on
- Megillat Eicha trop, used for reading the book of Lamentations from a
scroll on Tisha B'Av and sometimes also for
Haftarot leading up to that awful day;
- Megillah trop, used for the remaining three scrolls that are read on the
major pilgrimage festivals: the book of Ecclesiastes during
Sukkot, the Song of Songs during
Pesach (Passover), and the book of Ruth during
There are also different systems of trop from different regions, although the
melodies most commonly used today, even in Israel, are the ones from Poland and
Lithuania. There are systems from Germany, Jerusalem, Spain/Portugal, Italy and
Yemen that you will hear in various places. You will also hear simplified
versions of the melodies sometimes. These versions are used to teach children, who
commonly learn trop as part of their bar or bat
mitzvah training, and that training tends to stick into adulthood.
Purpose of Trop
Why do we chant scripture to a melody? There are many reasons.
The most important reason, as indicated by the quotes above, is to convey the
meaning and emotion of the text. The use of different systems for different
purposes illustrates this point: the trop for Megillat Esther, read on the
joyous holiday of Purim, is mostly a light and
joyous melody, except in the places in the story that indicate foreboding. The
trop for Megillat Eicha (Lamentations) read on the mournful day of
Tisha B'Av is a mournful tune.
The point is also well-illustrated by the rarely-used trop shalshelet, a roller
coaster ride of 15 notes. Hear it
appears only four places in scripture, all in places expressing extreme
hesitation, thoughtfulness or mixed emotions:
- Genesis 19:16: Lot hesitates to leave his home in Sodom that is about to be
destroyed (it appears on the word "and he delayed");
- Genesis 24:12: Abraham's servant, sent to
find a wife for Isaac, is trying to figure out a
way to know which woman is the right one (it appears on the word "and he said,"
because he is about to tell G-d how he will identify
that woman and he's trying to figure out the right criteria);
- Genesis 39:8: Joseph is seduced by his master's wife (it appears on the
word "but he refused," perhaps because he was tempted or perhaps because he
feared the consequences of refusing such a powerful woman -- he ended up in
- Leviticus 8:23: Moses is making sacrifices to
initiate his brother as the new High Priest (it
appears on the word "and he slaughtered," perhaps because he is jealous of
Aaron's new importance, or perhaps like many
people approaching retirement he hesitates to move on to a new stage in his
Trop is also a helpful aid in learning. Like the "Schoolhouse Rock" of the
1970s and 80s that helped children learn their multiplication tables,
grammatical parts of speech and historical and scientific facts, so trop
helps people learn the text they will be reading. Trop helps people remember
how to pronounce the words correcctly, put the emphasis on the right words and
syllables and break in the right spots. Keep in mind: a Torah scroll has no
punctuation, not even vowels, and the letters themselves are written in ways
that are not always easy to read. And anybody who has ever tried to read text
without having seen it recently knows how difficult it is to put the emphasis
on the right words in the right way. A Torah reader is not supposed to recite
strictly from memory, and is supposed to follow the text with a yad (pointer),
but memorizing the text makes it easier to read well when the time comes. Trop
makes the Torah reading easier to memorize, like Schoolhouse Rock.
Trop also makes the reading easier to hear. Singing tends to amplify the voice,
and make it carry to the back of the synagogue. Microphones did not exist in
ancient times, and to this day they are still not used on Shabbat and holidays
in Orthodox synagogues.
It can also make the reading more interesting to listen to!
Origin of Trop
The practice of reading scripture with a melody is an ancient one. The
Talmud (Megillah 32a) suggests that a bad fate
will befall "anyone who reads from the Torah without a pleasant melody." It is
understood that in the Nehemiah 8:8 quote above, it was the melody of trop that
"gave the sense and caused [the people] to understand."
The Talmud (Nedarim 37b) indicates that trop was given to
Moses at Sinai, along with the written and
oral Torah. This refers to the meaning of the
melodies, not the specific musical notes, because different melodies have
developed over time in different areas: German, Polish,
Sephardic and so on. But the meaning that is
conveyed by the melody is common to all traditions. Consider the rarely-used
shalshelet notation discussed above, which conveys hesitation. There may be
different notes used, but it is always a long, drawn-out, rolling melody.
The markings that we currently use have existed since at least the 9th or 10th
century, to the Masoretes in Tiberias and Jerusalem, who worked to standardize
the text, making sure that everyone used the same vowels and cantillation
(marks that are not written in Torah scrolls, but are found in other texts).
But that time period is just the standardization of what had already existed
for a long time.
Of course, if you would like to learn to leyen (chant scripture), it is always
best to work with a teacher, but there are resources available to help people learn.
HaftarahAudio.com, a site associated
with SiddurAudio.com that is the source of
many great audio links on this site, teaches the readings and blessings for
Haftarah for both regular Shabbats and special ones, and their audio can be
downloaded to MP3. They also have a link to trop tutoring online, where you can
get one-on-one tutoring via Skype.
Pocket Torah has a free, downloadable
app for iOS or Android teaching specific notes or entire weekly Torah or
Haftarah portions. If you don't want to download the app, you can use it on
their website using a Safari browser. I have found that it also works with
Chrome on my Windows 10 computer and it does not work in Internet Explorer or
Edge; I don't know how well it works in other browsers.
The people at my synagogue prepare using
from Kinnor Software. I have never tried it myself (I don't leyen), but the
people who use it are very pleased with it. If you'd like to try it out, they
do have a free demo that you an download. It's also available from Amazon
(which I would get a commission for), but it comes through third parties there
and it's cheaper at the source, so I'm linking directly to the source. Note
that if you need it just to prepare for a single
bar/bat mitzvah, you can buy one parshah for
half the price, but if you can afford it the full version is probably a better deal.
© Copyright 5777 (2016), Tracey R Rich
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