We know that the trop (cantillation) marks were added to our written Tanakh text by the ba'alei hamesorim (Masorites) around the 8-10th century CE. They were recording an oral tradition that, I assume, was passed from generation to generation from Sinai.

My question is about the musical rendering -- when, and how, did the particular melody for each trop symbol/family start getting recorded in a durable form? I've studied folk music; I know that minor variations in oral musical transmission are hard to avoid despite people's best efforts. (A memorized text has some more opportunities for reinforcement.) "When" will vary by community, of course -- there are at least a couple dozen different localized sets of trop melodies. I'm interested in a general answer and information on the musical history of any specific trop systems.

Musical notation (at least in Europe) goes back to at least the 6th century CE, though its form and versatility have varied over time. There might have also been some other system of writing it down that wasn't formal music notation; I remember, when I was learning my haftarah portion, writing dots above some of the phrases to show melodic shape (up/down, long/short) even though it wasn't a full musical notation. (It was a study aid.)


1 Answer 1


There is no one answer for this question. Because there seems to have been three distinct developments for the Cantillation: Ashkenazi, Old Mizrahi, and Modern Sepharadi.

The Ashkenazim are noted as being the first to develop musical motifs for all of the cantillation symbols. This makes the most sense since Europe was very focused on writing down music, and for adapting the music system based on the Greek tone system. So for the Ashkenazi communities of yore and today, they are more used to thinking of the te'amei miqra as a musical system, rather than a grammatical system that occasionally uses musical motifs to aid in grammatical emphasis. They were notating their system before the 15th century. In the 1500s we have Sephardic scholars mentioning that the Ashkenazim have already written down and put their cantillation to music. For written Ashkenazi sources, much has been discussed and brought down. Here is a snippet of information along with the source to find out more:

The most valuable of them all, for the Ashkenazic traditions, is to be found in Cantor Abraham Baer's "Ba'al Tefillah," 1877, pp. 30-42. The value of the earlier tables (e.g., those of Bartolocci, A. Kircher, P. Guarin, etc.) is detracted from by unnecessary elaboration, and especially by experiments in transcribing the notes backward, so as to go with the Hebrew from right to left, which have misled later students. Such, too, is the case with the transcription made by the monk Böschenstein for Reuchlin, and printed in his "De Accentibus" (Hagenau, 1518), at end of Book III., where the cantillation, reversed and given in the tenor as a canto fermo, is ludicrously accompanied by three other harmony parts. But Reuchlin's tenor cantillation, when retranscribed, is particularly valuable as showing that the tradition has not appreciably varied in four centuries, save possibly in the rarer jubilations, such as "Ḳarne Farah," where license is always taken.

Source: http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/3986-cantillation

Old Mizrahi communities, whether Yemenite, Iraqi, Egyptian, etc, had very few melodies for select symbols. Even into the modern times the Yemenites only have 8 musical motifs, with the Karaites having a similar system. The Karaites are considered a reliable source since it's also likely that Ben Asher (author of the masoretic text) was a Karaite and just as we can rely on his text, we can also rely on their musical system.

Sephardic and Mizrahi authors going back to the 1300s into the 1500s write that their cantillation system has very few musical motifs, with most of them sharing the same motif, or not having any musical value at all. They also note this is in stark contrast with the Ashkenazim who have music for all the symbols and have already written them down:

enter image description here Image from Idehlson's Thesaurus of Oriental Hebrew Melodies Vol II

By 1798 we start seeing shifts in the Mizrahi/Sephardi communities. In 1798 the French Musicologist Guillaume André Villoteau noted the Egyptian musical cantillation system. His notation shows musical motifs for 19 of the cantillation marks, but still lacks musical motifs for all the symbols. More than likely the expanding of music to cover most of the symbols was due to the mixing of various Jewish communities and their musical systems. Which brings us to Modern Sephardic.

The Modern Sephardic melodies are all very similar, culminating into something called the "Sephardi Yerushalmi" tradition. Even if you were to listen to the "Egyptian" or "Syrian" systems, you will see bits and pieces of it in the Yerushalmi and vice versa. Now nearly if not all of the cantillation symbols for the Sephardim have musical motifs, matching the Ashkenazi system in that now it's more of a musical system than a grammatical system. i have acquired sheet music from the Egyptian Alexandrian community before the 1950s expulsion that shows musical motifs for nearly all the symbols, but still lacks a tune for Qarneh Farah.

enter image description here

  • 4
    It seems highly unlikely that the Rambam would have relied on a Karaite text for Tanakh.
    – Double AA
    Commented Dec 7, 2015 at 19:17
  • 1
    "From documents found in the Cairo Geniza, it appears that this most famous masorete (and, possibly, his family for generations) were also, incidentally, Karaites. It should not be surprising to discover that many masoretes, so involved in the Masorah, held Karaite beliefs. After all, it was the Karaites who placed such absolute reliance on the Torah text. It would be natural that they would devote their lives to studying every aspect of it. The surprising element was that being a Karaite didn't disqualify Aaron [ben] Asher in the eyes of Rabbinic Jews (like RaMBaM) bit.ly/1NGgmTI
    – Aaron
    Commented Dec 7, 2015 at 19:21
  • 3
    Right. They have no evidence, but like to speculate controversially. WADR to those who can't imagine two people named Ben Asher in the world (GASP!) I'll stick to believing in Rambam's being consistent, thank you very much.
    – Double AA
    Commented Dec 7, 2015 at 19:24
  • 1
    Wow, thanks! One question: how do you know that Ashkenazim were notating their music system before the 14th century? Commented Dec 7, 2015 at 19:25
  • 1
    @MonicaCellio i've added more sources to more specifically answer your question of how do we know they were notating before the 14th century. i changed it to 15th century and have added sources regarding it
    – Aaron
    Commented Dec 7, 2015 at 19:37

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .