They read from the scroll of G-d's Torah clearly, and gave the sense, and caused them to understand the reading. (Nehemiah 8:8)
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.
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 plural).
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:
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. TropeTrainer software, discussed below, offers 27 different Ashkenazic systems of trop and 5 different Sephardict versions.
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 HERE. Shalshelet appears only four places in scripture, all in places expressing extreme hesitation, thoughtfulness or mixed emotions:
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!
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.
A very popular software for learning trop was Kinnor's Trope Trainer, but Thomas Buchler, the man responsible for that software died in June 2019 and the company and the software seem to have disappeared completely, a sad loss to the leyening community.
A friend of mine turned me on to Tricks of the Trope, a series of videos on YouTube, taught by a cantor who combines the melodies with pbysical gestures that emulate the way the trope symbols are written, an excellent way to help you remember them! It's not quite the same melodies that I'm learning, but I'm finding the memory tricks very helpful. There are three videos in the series: