Eastern Ashkenazic Cantillation: Mode, Prosody, and Meaning

Yonatan Malin, Wesleyan University


This paper is an analytical study of Jewish cantillation melodies of Eastern Ashkenazic origin, now commonly used in North America. The purpose of the analysis is not to delineate traditions or determine historical continuity or discontinuity, but rather to offer musical insights—ways of hearing and understanding. Musical features (melodic contour, phrase relations, focal pitches, pitch collections, and scales) are compared in the six standard “modes” of Ashkenazic cantillation. Musical features, furthermore, are considered in relation to liturgical occasions and the speech rhythm of biblical texts. For example, I explain the plaintive quality of Eicha (Lamentations) cantillation in terms of its high degree of repetition and unique use of half steps in the minor scale. Similarly, I explain the narrative quality of Esther cantillation in terms of tonal flux and melodically open verse endings. Following the work of B. Elan Dresher, I show that the te’amim (musically rendered accent marks) indicate a prosodic parsing of verses, and only secondarily reflect syntax and semantics. Background in music theory is provided for non-specialists. The six modes are presented first with a basic set of phrases—those that appear most frequently—and then with an expanded set. In the conclusion, I briefly review the history of Jewish music study in the United States and argue that the methodological orientation of this paper offers a new opening for the study of musical meaning in Jewish traditions.