I know that there are trope applied to the Hebrew Bible to tell the chanter how to chant the text. However, what I'm wondering is that how does one know how to chant the Hebrew text when simply reciting prayers and blessings in Hebrew? Are there prescribed melodies composed for each prayer? Or is there a general tune to which one recites the prayers in Hebrew. Or are there actually trope assigned to the Hebrew prayer text. Also, when Psalms and other quotes from the Bible are in the prayers, do they keep the tune they have when the Bible is chanted or do they follow the pattern of the melody of the rest of the prayer? And lastly, does each Jewish tradition have their own melody for the prayers. Meaning, do Ashkenazim, Sephardim, Mizrahim and their subcategories have their own tunes for prayer?

I apologize for all of these questions but I really would like to know. And also, thank you for all of your answers, I greatly appreciate it.

  • 3
    Welcome to Mi Yodeya, Josh Gil!
    – ezra
    Commented Sep 26, 2017 at 14:09

4 Answers 4


Just like the trope, the tunes are traditional, and yes, each community has its own tunes and even its own system of chanting. A chazan (cantor) also has significant leeway in choosing tunes. Since the text is set but the tune is not, the chazan can simply compose a new tune or adapt someone else's tune. There are halachot regarding this, but not everyone observes them. Generally, there will be a specific mode (called nusach for Ashkenazim) for chanting prose text, similar to reading from the Tanach, and poetic text may be set to an actual melody.

The way Ashkenazic nusach works is that there are some very basic melodic motifs that the chanting should generally use, and the chazan is free to improvise within that framework. As synagogue services become more lay-led and less often led by professional chazanim, these motifs solidify into melodic snippets that essentially get rearranged. There are lots and lots and lots of examples at offtonic.com/nusach, including melodic snippets, freer mode-based improvisation, and composed melodies.

The Sephardic world is vast when it comes to diversity, and different communities have very different practices. Spanish and Portuguese communities do essentially the same as Ashkenazic communities; there are some melodic snippets that the chazan rearranges to fit prose text, and there are composed melodies for poetic texts. Some tunes actually straddle that line; the famous tune for Bendigamos, for example, gets quite stretched over the course of the song! Moroccan communities tend to add much more embellishment and improvisation while essentially keeping to the same format. Syrian communities have a much freer approach; there is a specific musical scale (the maqam) used for each service, which depends on the service, the week of the year, etc., and the text is chanted by improvising freely within that scale. The improvisation tends to follow certain characteristic patterns, but they don't even come close to being melodic snippets. For poetic texts, they sing some composed melody in the same maqam. You can listen to examples at Sephardic Hazzanut. Yemenites... Yemenites do their own thing. I can't pretend to understand Yemenite chanting.

To answer one of your other questions, generally speaking Biblical quotes (which are all over the liturgy for what should be obvious reasons) are not specially marked by melodies. There can be exceptions. At one Yom Kippur service I once attended, the sha"tz (stands for SHaliach TZibur, the prayer leader) decided to sing the Hashivenu line of Sh'ma Kolenu in Eichah trope. I've also heard, at Rosh Hashanah services, I heard the musaf paragraphs detailing the day's sacrifices chanted as it was done during maftir, in high holiday Torah trope. In many Sephardic communities, including Moroccan as well as Spanish and Portuguese, the Kabbalat Shabbat psalms are chanted with T'hilim trope, whether they know it or not! Also on Friday night, Moroccans (and only they, that I know of) read four lines from Song of Songs right after L'chah Dodi, and those four lines are read with Song of Songs trope.

I hope that answers some of your questions! NusachDB is a pretty great resource for melodies from around the world. I know the guy who runs it; I sleep next to his wife every night! (: NusachDB has a subcategory Nusach Resources, which links to over 400 sites (I don't remember my last count, but you can check) with recordings. You can even find some sheet music (other than my transcriptions, I mean), including the famous German compendium of nusach from the 1870's, Abraham Baer's Baal T'fillah. These chants and melodies are always a combination of the very old and very traditional, the very new and very traditional, and the simply new. I hope you can learn some of these melodies; Judaism, globally, is far the richer for having them.

  • Welcome to Mi Yodeya. I just browsed your site. Quite fascinating at first look. I'll have to look at it more intently. Offhand, does your site have audio files for various Sephardi Torah reading such as Persian reading? Is it divided by parsha? Shanah Tovah.
    – DanF
    Commented Sep 27, 2017 at 3:30
  • @DanF, I'm glad you like it! It does not (yet) have various Sephardic Torah readings. I haven't focused much on leyning, but something like that may happen in the future. However, try the Piyut website (web.nli.org.il/sites/NLIS/he/song/Pages/default.aspx), which features user-submitted recordings and that I think includes some Sephardic Torah readings. I don't know if Persian readings are included, though. Commented Sep 27, 2017 at 12:42

This is a great "beginner's" question! (though, it's for all levels.)

You are correct that the Bible has trope (cantillation) notes. Their main purpose, actually, is for grammar. However, it does indicate the music, as well. There are different "tune styles" or "modes" for Torah, Haftarah, and special modes for Ecclessiastes, Lamentations, Esther, etc. You can find the musical notation in the back of the Hertz Bible, as one example. There are other places that I'm sure you can find online that have both written music as well as audio files for the cantillation.

There is no "trope" notation for prayers. Instead, there are "modes" called "nusach", in Hebrew. The nusach dictates the musical "mood" and "style" that the cantor would use in the synagogue. The cantor, technically, is the congregations "representative". While, technically, it is fine if the cantor simply recited the prayers in a monotone, the musical quality absolutely adds much to the prayers and gets the congregation in a better mood and frame of mind to appreciate the prayers. (Imagine going to a lecture where the speaker spoke in a monotone for 4 hours. You would cry from boredom!)

There are different nuscha'ot (pl. of "nusach") for weekday, vs. Shabbat and the various holiday prayers. Even various parts of the prayers service during one day also have their own nusach. High Holidays have their own special nusach that generally convey the solemnity of the day. These nuscha'ot have been established standards for a few centuries. You can find some audio files online where you can hear various cantors singing various parts of the prayers. I'll see if I can edit in a source or two.

During the late 1800's into the mid 1900's, there was a huge emphasis in producing professional cantors in Europe as well as the U.S. You can probably locate recordings of some of the greats like Kussevetsky, Mosher Osher, Cantor Rosenblatt and Richard Tucker online. While they all stick to Nusach (for example, the tune for Kol Nidre is pretty much standard for everyone), they also developed their own tunes for certain prayers.

Lastly, there are various "standard" congregational tunes sung by almost everyone the same way such as En Kelokeinu (I understand this originated form a church tune) and Aleinu (I have no idea who designed that.)

Besides learning these tunes online, I think the best way is just to attend services regularly. I learned most of the High Holiday tunes (I lead part of the service, now, in my shul) from the chazzan in the shul I grew up in. The majority of his tunes were so unique and so beautiful, that hardly anyone else has even heard of them. I managed to get one impromptu recording of his doing these tunes. But, seriously, regular attendance, paying attention and much repetition, I think is the best way to etch these tunes into your head and soul.

  • Note that since the teamim system (trope) is essentially grammatical, one who has studied that grammar enough to synthesize it on his own can apply it without seeing the marks. Witness how the brachos after the haftara are recited as though they have those marks, even though they are clearly not from biblical times.
    – sq33G
    Commented Sep 26, 2017 at 22:58
  • @sq33G A person really needs to know both Hebrew as well as the grammatical usage of each trope note extremely (almost exceptionally!) well. I don't know anyone who has that expertise. However, having been a Torah reader for several decades, I can assert the "reverse" is true. When I'm uncertain about the trope, understanding the Hebrew while I'm reading helps me at least narrow down the possibilities. As for the Haftarah brachot, I think there is a M.Y. question that explains why the opening blessings have trope. However, there is some debate as to whether they are 2 blessings or 1.
    – DanF
    Commented Sep 27, 2017 at 3:21

The tunes and sing-song during prayers in the Synagogue is based on the way it was done back in the Old Country; you either pick it up by going to prayers or learning it from someone. The Ashkenazim lost most of their tunes, but Middle Eastern and Oriental Jews have a very rich "catalogue", for lack of a better word.

  • In my experience (especially on weekdays), Ashkenazim tend to just flatly recite the first and last sentence of each prayer. So yeah.
    – ezra
    Commented Sep 26, 2017 at 14:11
  • 1
    Although note that there are some traditional ashknenazic prayer modes (especially for parts of the High Holiday liturgy) that are characterized as missinai (i.e. received at Mt. Sinai - although not literally true). These date back in some form to at least the Middke Ages.
    – Joel K
    Commented Sep 26, 2017 at 15:35
  • Some examples of what @JoelK mentioned about "Misinnai" tunes include: Kol Nidre, Aleinu (in Musaph of High Holidays) and parts of the Avodah service in Yom Kippur Musaph.
    – DanF
    Commented Sep 26, 2017 at 16:49
  • 1
    @ezra What you said is generally true. But, technically, there is a weekday "nusach" also, and even the tune used for the Amidah repetition is different that what is used for Psukei Dezimra.
    – DanF
    Commented Sep 26, 2017 at 16:51
  • @ezra This tendency comes from the fact that in stark contrast with the "golden age" of chazanim in the first half of the 20th century, now there's not much interest in considering nusach and chazanut as a value. Non-professional seliach tziburim mix random melodies into the nusach and have no musical training at all in most of the cases. Most communities (including Ashkenazim) indeed have (had) nusach for weekdays, Shabbat, Regalim, Yamim Noraim. The only thing I can do is to learn mine. Commented Oct 17, 2017 at 11:13

The other answers are great; this answer just adds some Reform Judaism background:

For chanting from the Torah and the Prophets, we have trope to chant from. This is not completely standard across all communities, but is generally pretty similar. In the case of other, non-Torah prayers, we sing melodies people wrote; some centuries ago in a nusach as explained in DanF's answer such as the Amidah or the Aleinu, others in contemporary times by artists such as Dan Nichols or Debbie Friedman, and still others by secular artists whose songs can be applied to Judaism, such as Hallelujah by Leonard Cohen or Here Comes the Sun by the Beatles. There are very few prayers that we simply read, but they exist. (Ahavah Rabbah as an example, but I am sure that there are melodies for that too.)

Especially for the second and third categories of melodies, we enjoy changing the melodies we sing once in a while to add some variety to the service.

Although most of the songs in the second category are in Hebrew, many people (at least in my congregation) find it easier to remember the words if they have a melody or melodies to remember them by, rather than looking at it as having to remember both foreign lyrics and a melody.

Music is almost always congregationally sung, often with a guitarist and/or choir (or even piano) as accompaniment, rather than simply the chazzan (cantor) chanting.

I am a songleader with my Reform congregation and a teen Reform Jewish youth group (called NFTY).

Note that this answer is written with Reform Judaism in mind, as I do not have experience in other denominations. From the few conservative services I have been to, there are many more nusach melodies, few contemporary ones, and (as far as I know) no secular tunes.

  • Thanks for the answer, OldBunny2800. Don't worry - questions and answers about Reform Judaism are on-topic for this SE. judaism.meta.stackexchange.com/questions/292/…
    – ezra
    Commented Sep 26, 2017 at 21:45
  • I rarely attend Reform services. I do gather that many shuls use organ / piano accompaniment during services/ I'm curious if the player has any nusach sheet music that s/he follows for the accompaniment. If so, would you know if any of these are on-line?
    – DanF
    Commented Sep 27, 2017 at 3:33
  • It’s actually more often guitar, but piano is seen sometimes too. I have yet to see a synagogue with an organ, but I’m sure they exist. If the accompanist knows the songs well, they might play it from memory or use the sidur. Otherwise, they likely have a chord sheet (guitar) or sheet music (choir or piano). There are tons of these online. I would look on YouTube (search “Ochs Oseh Shalom” for example), an artist’s official site (example: alangoodis.com), or a general site like oysongs.com.
    – AAM111
    Commented Sep 27, 2017 at 3:38

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