Orthodox Chanting


BOB ABERNETHY, anchor:  This weekend of Easter Sunday (April 12) for Western Christians we have a profile coming up of an inspiring Christian musician.  We also have a “Belief and Practice” segment on chanting in Eastern Orthodox churches, where this is Palm Sunday.  Because of differing church calendars, Eastern Orthodox Easter — Pascha — is next week (April 19).

Our guide to Orthodox chanting was Emily Lowe, a member of the choir at the Holy Cross Antiochian Orthodox Church in Linthicum, Maryland.  She told us not only about chanting, but also about her personal experience as a singer of the Eastern Orthodox conviction that worship brings change.

EMILY LOWE (Choir, Holy Cross Antiochian Orthodox Church, singing):  Glory to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit.


The Orthodox Church is unique in modern times, having a completely sung liturgy. Everything is sung from the very beginning to the end.

In Orthodoxy, the music is not sacred.  The words are sacred.  The music is really meant to fit the text.  So when we talk about heaven, the voice goes up, and when you talk about hell or Hades or sin, it goes down.  For instance (singing), “The company of the angels was amazed when they beheld the number among the dead.”

During the time of the Ottoman Empire, the Greek chants took on sort of a very Middle Eastern character, and that’s when you hear this sort of dissonant, odd sounding things:  (singing) Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah, glory to thee oh God.”  It sounds very foreign to Western ears.

For instance (singing), “Rejoice O Bethany.”  Rejoice O Bethany — it’s a beautiful hymn, and it’s very dear to the heart of our Arabic parishioners — (singing) — “God came to thee; God came to thee.”  That little flourish at the end (singing “la la la la”), very unusual and very otherworldly sounding, and that’s kind of — that’s the impression that people get.  They might hear 20 things when they walk into an Orthodox church, but that’s what they’re going to take away.  They’re going to go, “Whoa, I remember that.  That was really unusual.”


I converted about 12 years ago.  I was 16, and my family converted together.  It was initially my father’s decision.  He said, “I think this is the place for us to be. This is where God’s calling us, and this is really the fullest expression of the Christian faith.”

One thing about Orthodoxy is that it really demands change — and expects change. It expects that you will grow spiritually, that you won’t just be the same person that you were the week before or the month before.

From a personal standpoint, I never had a very good voice before we became Orthodox.  I believe that I found my voice in Orthodox music — that I didn’t have it in Protestant music or in secular music.

When people say, “Oh, you did such a wonderful job,” I feel like telling them it wasn’t me, because it really wasn’t.  It doesn’t feel like me when I chant.  I’m thinking about God and expressing the words the best that I can.

  • G. Arthur Kapellas

    Briefly informative article on Ancient Byzantine Church Music active and alive in the 21st century: Chanting and choral are traditionally male but women, particularly in the diaspora Churches, are taking an increasing role in supporting the Divine Liturgies of the various Greek Orthodox jurisdictions, certainly a welcomed reality. Much thnaks again.

  • Bishop,+ Mark I. Miller.OSB,JCD

    We only have this to say, it is Easter and It is a Holy time, for all, but we feel that we all should work on loving each other matter not what Faith we have as long as it is not of hate. There is much to much hate in the world, love is what w shaould have. Christ told us to love each other as His Father in Heaven love us. That all We have to say at this time.Tahnk you.

  • George

    I’ve been an Orthodox all of my life and I still get goosebumps everytime I hear the Byzantine Chants.

  • Michael Spitters

    This is something you might like to watch. Blessings, Michael

  • Kimberly

    WOW! What a great clip!

  • Dr. Nicolae Roddy

    What a profound testament to the beauty and transformative power of the Orthodox faith in the life of her children! Thanks for this!

  • Frederica Mathewes-Green

    I got to sing at the chanters’ stand with Emily this morning at the Liturgy of the Pre-Sanctified Gifts! I don’t do everything right, but she is so patient. The thing I love about her voice is that it is so un-forced, and sounds effortless. Nothing self-conscious about it. Truly a gift from God.

  • Steven

    I loved the clip and I agree with Frederica, Emily’s voice sounds so un-forced. I can see why many have been attracted to the Orthodox faith, I most say I’m.

  • angela damianakis m.s.w

    the sublime chants of the byzantine weep and rejoice with the human voice Gods creation. i sometimes find english services lacking because the chants become monotonous. i too only sing in church and am a strong believer in congregational singing in conjunction with a psalter cantor who can sing the appropriate tones. i don’t like when teh service is dummied up.

  • Pani Christine Czumak

    I have known Emily for over 10 years now. Our family use to attend Holy Cross with Emily and I have been watching and listening to her grow into a beautiful women and chanter. When I saw this clip of her singing and I just wanted to weep with joy, her voice has truly become the sound of Orthodoxy. I miss all of you.

  • Fr.Elias Bitar

    I was so pleasantly delighted to hear Emily sing and talk about music. I love her as an an Orthodox person and chanter. I love her voice

  • Bradley Borch

    Emily, that’s a beautiful piece, and I appreciate your contribution.

    However, I must take issue with your statement “In Orthodoxy, the music is not sacred. The words are sacred. The music is really meant to fit the text.”

    I’m a convert to Orthodoxy and a media producer. I’ve heard this statement before, both in Orthodox circles and in Protestant. I believe this is a fallacy based on rationalism. What those who take this position are saying is that words are superior to music, because the rational mind is somehow superior to that part of the person affected by music.

    In the Orthodox tradition, there is no such dichotomy. We use words, images, smells, and music. They are all icons–symbols, in the ancient meaning of the word–of reality. They can be sacred or they can be profane, but one does not take precedence over the other.

    Each of these expressions affects us differently; words can be understood rationally, but they can also affect us emotionally. Music, on the other hand, affects us almost exclusively on an emotional level. However, that makes it no less important than words–in fact, as Plato, and many other since then, have noted, music is profoundly powerful and can affect us most directly. In fact, I believe what I would say is that music is SO powerful–so SACRED–in reaching out and touching our souls, that it needs to be carefully kept in check by the words–our reason. Otherwise it is subject to abuse (just look at much of popular music, or Western pietistic hymnology).

    There is a REASON why our liturgy is sung–I believe that a group of people singing the liturgy in harmony may be the most perfect icon of the kingdom we will realize on earth. I also believe it is high time Orthodox churches in the West adapt the hymns of the church to reflect our own sensibilities, but that is another discussion. Nevertheless, I hope we can agree that a form of liturgy that everyone can participate in by singing together is not only sacred, but a central aspect of Orthodox worship.

  • Iconographer Elias Damianakis

    Axios! Worthy! Axios!

    Emily, may God continue to bless you and your community.

    I too must emphatically say that the music is sacred. The tones bring us to a higher understanding of God’s Mysteries. If the music were “disco or flamenco” you would definitely get a different internal emotion. Everything in the church is sacred and nothing is by accident.

    Also to say that “During the time of the Ottoman Empire, the Greek chants took on sort of a very Middle Eastern character, and that’s when you hear this sort of dissonant, odd sounding things” is a bit in accurate. As you know Orthodox music existed at least a thousand years prior to the Ottomans and several centuries before even Islam. It was the Middle East and Islam who incorporated the Orthodox style, not the other way around. This is why the mosques look like Orthodox churches and the music sounds like ours…

    It is true to say that the music sounds foreign to western ears but it is the foundation of western music.

    I pray you have a blessed Pascha and would love to see you online proclaiming in your beautiful voice: Christ is Risen! Truly He is Risen!

  • Michael Irby

    Thank you for your insight, Bradley! I agree that the words and melodies are integrated, with neither have a greater prominence. To give undue importance to the words would also minimize the effect that Orthodox hymnology has on me when I DON’T understand the words (e.g., Slavonic, Greek, etc.) All of us have surely been touched by music when we have not understood the words. Thank you, also, to Emily. You gave a charming, vibrant, and shining portrayal of this wondrous Faith! Of course, when you have the Mathewes-Greens as part of your community, how could anyone not be inspired?!

  • angela damianakis m.s.w

    the presuppostion that language is the essnetial road to ‘understanding’ and knowledge of the mystical and divine implies that it is through human comprehension that it is acheived. it is through grace and the lifting up our spiritual hearts and mind which brings us to arriving at wisdom. The seeking our of God is one gift. Hearing the voice of our Good Shepard is another. Many great intellects know Biblical verse and Church history and Canon Law, belching repeatedly and publically their information to dispute the Faith of Christ. It is therefor a mystical understanding that we hear the Good Shepard who willingly laid down his life for his flock. To misapply the added benefit of using the vanacular of the people as the primary vehicle to the one true faith omits a very treasured and worthy population the mentally challenged. Sheep are relativley speaking quite dumb.

  • Fr. Ryan Mackey

    This was a wonderful segment! I find it a blessing when people “find their voice” in the life of the Church. Many blessings to Emily and Holy Cross AOC!

  • Rosemary

    Thank you for airing a piece on Orthodox Christianity. I was getting so tired of your liberal slant that I stopped watching. But when I got my issue of CERC, this was featured so I’d better hang onto this in case I miss the actual show. Thanks again – keep the conservative, Orthodox, TRADITIONAL Roman Catholicism news coming but minus the anti-conservative/Catholic bias.

  • Bob Glassmeyer

    It’s such a gift to encounter this holy music. My wife and I are both presently Roman Catholic Christians, and this is new to us, yet it seems familiar, too. Melissa and I both love Gregorian chant, yet more and more we’re listening to Orthodox music (it’s funny; my wife says, “Wow! I can understand it…it’s not in Latin!”)

    Of course, we’ve had to listen to plenty of stuff in church in English, much of which, sadly, is lacking not only theologically but also musically.

    We attended a local Orthodox parish for Vespers, and experienced something we hadn’t experienced in a long, long time – a sense of the presence of God, prayer, and our littleness before God.

  • R Wenner

    Sorry, Ms Damianakis I can’t understand when you wrote: “To misapply the added benefit of using the vanacular of the people as the primary vehicle to the one true faith omits a very treasured and worthy population the mentally challenged. Sheep are relativley speaking quite dumb.”
    –Your point is ???? Sheep are absolutely dumb; maybe relative to a chicken they are a little smarter, but are you comparing sheep to the mentally challenged? You don’t have to be a great intellect to study the Bible and Church History, or even Canon law (just a good memory, and a high tolerance for boredom:) but most people who do don’t “belch repeatedly and publically their information to dispute the Faith of Christ”
    I would ask that if you know of somebody like this, you pray for them that they become humble and use their knowlege to help others to a deeper understanding of the Faith.

  • Arseny Pavel Kovalenko

    Regarding Emily’s lovely and loving comments, I need to say that for me it was the MUSIC, not the Slavonic words, that penetrated my heart when I first heard Alexander Sedov’s marvelous male chorus “Chorovaya Akademia” just before Christmas 2006. That launched my determined search for my late father’s forgotten tradition, to which I converted last fall 2008. Being a trained singer, I now have weekly opportunity to sing the Divine Liturgy with the parish choir. I used to be a critic of St. Paul in my former religious upbringing, but when I now chant and sing his epistles I have an entirely difference experience. It is as if the Holy Spirit is singing those epistles through me–a most interesting and exciting experience!

  • Fr. Jerry Kramer

    This is just wonderful! So uplifting! Happy Pascha to all Orthodox friends.

  • Emily Lowe

    I just discovered these comments and have enjoyed reading them! You all have blessed me greatly. It’s an honor to sing in praise of Christ, our true God.

    I am not a theologian, and my musical training is largely limited to instrumental skill (I’m a piano teacher who just loves to sing!) I have read and studied a fair amount of other scholars’ words about chanting, so forgive me if I’ve misquoted them.

    What I meant about the music not being sacred was part of a much larger discussion about translation. (They took probably 8 hours of footage for those two minutes!) The problem I’ve seen in modern Orthodoxy is that many of the hymns were composed in Greek or Arabic, and the melodies have become so beloved by the people that they try to force English words on them, often with awkward and ugly results. The example I’ve heard is the famous Tone 5 Christos Anesti, “Christ is Risen.” In English, we sing, “O Christ is risen,” in order to preserve the melody in its original form. That seems odd to me, as we don’t sing those words to any other melodies, whether Arabic, Romanian, Serbian, etc.

    As a musician, of course, I believe strongly that the tones and melodies of the church are sacred. They have the power to transform hearts and to communicate on a level that is beyond words and rational thought. If it weren’t for melody, I couldn’t attend Matins on Patmos and sing along with the Evlogetaria in my heart!

    Really, the problem of translation (although a frustrating one) is a good problem to have. It means the word of Christ is being spread to many different cultures. I am honored and humbled to be a part of that ministry.

  • Andy Ghiz

    Christ is Risen!

    That is a wonderful article! Thank God for all those who labored in the Kazan project (and others) to convert the hymns into English/Western Notation, and for all those laboring to learn the Eight Tones in English.

    Two comments related to other comments:

    1. There is no longer a “diaspora”.
    2. Singing (chanting or intoning) was introduced for the Liturgy and other services not necessarily because of the “beauty”, but mostly because in the time prior to microphones and speakers, it was the best way to project the voice.

  • Dennis Menos

    Emily Lowe has a beutiful voice. Even greater is her faith, and that is what’s more important.

  • Nomilk

    Indeed He is risen!

    Very nice piece.

    One thought: the Orthodox Church is not unique in its sung liturgy. Many of the Eastern churches have sung liturgy, including the Byzantine rites within the Catholic Church.

  • John-Bob

    From what I understand, BYzantine Catholics are churches of the Orthodox that are politically tied to Rome.

  • Julia

    I have attended many Catholic Masses where everything is sung. I’m in my 60s and that was how all high Masses were done in older times. You can still see Mass with everything, including all the readings, sung in Latin and various modern languages at St Peter’s in Rome.

    There are a number of Eastern Catholic rites that are religiously in union with Rome, although otherwise autonimous; it is countries that recognize Vatican City and exchange ambassadors politically, not churches.

  • Minerva Sabbagh

    Truly, when one chants or sings in the choir it is God filling us with His beauty and His love and allowing us with His power to be able to chant with feeling and reverance. This is one way of worshipping our Lord and Jesus Christ–we are like the Cherubim praising His holy Name.

  • Fr. Michael Shanbour

    Hi ya’ll! Yes, a beautiful interview and most non-Orthodox will not notice any imprecisions in explanation.

    However, for us Orthodox, I think we need to be more precise in our understanding of our musical tradition since it relates to the very essence of Orthodoxy.

    I’m sure what Emily meant is that it is the THEOLOGY of the hymns that takes precedence. Unlike much western church music we are singing theological and dogmatic truths, even if poetical. It is true, we don’t fit words that are inadequate theologically into some music that we happen to like.

    On the other hand, the music that developed in the Church is indeed inspired and sacred – like all other facets of Holy Tradition. That music was monophonic with an e-son, even in the Slavic tradition (until Peter the Great and his western reforms). Our music is sacred not because it produces emotions, but because it targets the “nous”, the inner man, the place where God communicates and reveals himself to man. And most non-Orthodox music does not do that.

    Forgive me, but this is so crucial, and we Orthodox are often missing the mark in this regard. If we do not comprehend this and embrace it we will soon change our music (as we have already to some extent) and end up with something completely emotional. The same is true with iconography. The reason we should not have westernized iconography is not because it is “bad art,” but because our iconographic tradition is salvific inasmuch as it communicates to the nous (not merely to the rational mind OR emotions). It is deeper and it is transformative.

    And it is for this reason that new comers to Orthodoxy often are not attracted immediately to either the music or the iconography (although some are of course). It is alien not just because it is “eastern”, but because it is truly spiritual, other-worldly, noetic — meant to hit us in the nous (in this sense it is absolutely “universal” since we all have a nouse). If the nous is deadened or we have replaced it with something else, we will not be able to appreciate or absorb it.

    Hope I haven’t been a nous-ance!

    Fr. Michael Shanbour

  • Rdr Mo

    I agree entirely with what Fr. Michael has said above. In addition to being a wise Priest (and excellent chanter himself), Fr. Michael is one of only 2 or 3 people in the whole nation who can hold an ison without going flat.

  • dale

    It is a pity that this woman is not more aware of her own ancient traditions, i.e. Gregorian, and has spent her life running after a tradition that is not hers by heritage. Her ignorance of the ancient western traditions is flabbergasting. I suppose that to be Orthodox is to be culturally a Greek.. How pathetic.

  • Angelo

    Dale, what is more pathetic is your ignorance of history, theology, culture and the truth found within Orthodox Christianity.

    If you want to make this a cultural and geographical (“Western”) issue then maybe you should look EAST towards Greece, Antioch(Syria), Palestine and of course the Holy Land which is – if history serves me correctly – where Jesus and the Apostles were born, preached and started the ministry. Jesus didnt come from Rome, you know.

    If you ever get out of your coccoon and travel to that part of the world you will see the ancient presence of Orthodoxy and how it hands-down predates any latter Western presence you have come to know.

    And how ignorant to conclude the “culturally Greek” slur. Eastern Orthodox Christianity is Christianity itself, which is by definition for ALL humanity.

    Get back to your roots. In fact, get back to all Christians’ roots – look East, where Jesus started out.