Octoechos (liturgy)

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This article is about the book of liturgical texts set to the ancient Byzantine musical system of eight modes, and their use liturgically. For the musical system itself, see Octoechos.

The liturgical book called Octoechos (from the Greek: ἡ Ὀκτώηχος [okˈtoixos];[1] from ὀκτώ "eight" and ἦχος "sound, mode" called echos; Slavonic: Осмѡгласникъ, Osmoglasnik from о́смь "eight" and гласъ "voice, sound") contains a repertoire of hymns ordered in eight parts according to the eight echoi (tones or modes). Originally created as a hymn book with musical notation in the Stoudios monastery during the 9th century, it is used until nowadays in many rites of Eastern Christianity. The hymn book has something in common with the book tonary of the Western Church. Both contained the melodic models of the octoechos system, but the tonary served simply for a modal classification, while the book octoechos is as well organized as a certain temporal of several eight week periods and the word itself means the repertoire of hymns sung during the celebrations of the Sunday Office.

Byzantine history[edit]

Between the tropologion, the parakletike, and the octoechos of the sticherarion[edit]

During the 10th century the Great Octoechos (ὅκτώηχος ἡ μεγάλη) contained as well the proper of office hymns for each weekday, when it became part of the sticherarion.[2][note 1] The hymns of the books octoechos and heirmologion had been collected earlier in a book called "troparologion" or "tropologion". It already existed during the 5th century in the Patriarchate of Antiochia, before it became a main genre of the centers of an octoechos hymn reform in the monasteries of Saint Catherine on Mount Sinai and Mar Saba in Palestine, where St. John Damascene (c. 676–749) and Cosmas of Maiuma created the cycle of stichera anastasima as it is used until today. Probably for this reason John of Damascus is regarded as the creator the Hagiopolitan Octoechos and the treatise Hagiopolites itself claims his authorship right at the beginning. It has only survived in a 12th-century copy, but its origin dates probably back to the time of Joseph the Hymnographer (810-886), when the treatise could have introduced the book tropologion. The earliest papyrus sources of the tropologion can be dated to the 6th century:[3]

Choral singing saw its most brilliant development in the temple of Holy Wisdom in Constantinople during the reign of Emperor Justinian the Great. National Greek musical harmonies, or modes — the Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, and Mixolydian modes — were adapted to the needs of Christian hymnography. Then John of Damascus started a new, third period in the history of Church singing. He introduced what is known as the osmoglasie — a system of singing in eight tones, or melodies —, and compiled a liturgical singing book bearing the title "Ochtoechos," which literally signifies "the book of the eight tones."[4]

The tropologion was expanded upon by St. Cosmas of Maiuma († 773) and other prominent hymnographers including Saint Joseph the Hymnographer.[5] Saint Theophanes the Branded, Bishop of Nicaea (c. 775-845);[6] Paul of Amorium; Metrophanes of Smyrna (second half of the 9th century), who created the Trinity Canon for the Sunday night service (mesonyktikon); as well as numerous anonymous authors. The earliest state of an octoechos collection of the Sunday Canons, hymns for the canticles (biblical odes), is Ms. gr. 1593 of the Library at Saint Catherine's Monastery (about 800).

The temporal octoechos cycle within the sticherarion[edit]

The cycle of the eight tones is a part of the Paschal cycle (moveable cycle) of the church year, starting with the second Sunday of (the eighth day of) Easter, that week using the first tone, the next week using the second tone, and so, through all eight tones, thereafter repeating and continuing with the Friday preceding the subsequent Palm Sunday.[note 2] Each day of the week has a distinct theme for which hymns in each tone are found in the texts of the Octoechos.[2]

The book "Octoechos" is not used until the Sunday after Pentecost, the hymns for the cycle of the tones until then being found in the Pentecostarion, albeit including some text duplicated from the Sunday services in the Octoechos. Thereafter, the singing of the Octoechos on weekdays commences, finishing before Saturday of Meatfare Week. During the most of the period when the lenten Triodion is used[note 3] as well as the period from Pascha until Pentecost, the Octoechos is not sung on weekdays and it is furthermore not sung on Sundays from Palm Sunday through the Sunday of All Saints.[note 4]

The hymns of the Octoechos are combined with hymns from two other sources: On the fixed cycle, i.e., dates of the calendar year, the Menaion and on the movable cycle, according to season, the Lenten Triodion (in combination from the previous year's Paschal cycle). The texts from these volumes displace some of those from the Octoechos so that the less text from the Octoechos is used on days when more is used from the other books; on major feast days, hymns from the Menaion entirely displace those from the Octoechos except on Sundays, when only a few Great Feasts of the Lord eclipse the Octoechos. Note that the Octoechos contains sufficient texts so that none of these other books needs to be used — a holdover from before the invention of printing and the completion and wide distribution of the rather large 12-volume Menaion — but portions of the Octoechos (e.g., the last three stichera on "Lord, I have cried") are seldom used nowadays and often are omitted from printed volumes.

Slavic Orthodox[edit]

In Russia the Oktoich was the very first book printed (incunabulum) in Cyrillic typeface, which was published in Poland (Kraków) in 1491—by Schweipolt Fiol, a German native of Franconia. Only seven copies of this first publication are known to remain and the only complete one is in the collection of the Russian National Library.[7]

The Church Slavonic reception of the Greek Octoechos and its musical execution[edit]

The first four of the tones are the authentic modes, and the remaining four are plagal modes, the latter term coming from the Medieval Greek plagios, "oblique" (from plagos, "side"). The plagal modes have a range from the fourth below to the fifth above their final tone and in Byzantine music, there are further subtle differences.[8]

The Octoechos is not printed with musical notation and the determination of a hymn's melody — as is the melody of hymns from other liturgical books where a tone is specified — is based on several criteria:

Some stichera, kathismata, kondakia, etc., are written in strict meter — with a fixed rhythmic element where the number of lines in a verse, the number of syllables in each line, and the arrangement of those syllables as accented or unaccented — and are designated as having their own hymn tune or melody in a specified tone, called an automelon.[note 5] For example, the kondakion for Christmas is designated to be sung in tone 3 as an automelon: having its own distinct meter with each stanza having the same number of syllables with accents in the same places, it was composed with its own distinct melody that repeats for each stanza,

Ἡ Παρθένος σήμερον τὸν ὑπερούσιον τίκτει

καὶ ἡ γῆ τὸ σπήλαιον τῷ ἀπροσίτῳ προσάγει,
Ἄγγελοι μετά ποιμένων δοξολογούσι,
Μάγοι δὲ μετά ἀστέρος ὁδοιπορούσιν,
δι’ ἡμάς γὰρ ἐγεννήθη παιδίον νέον,

ὁ πρὸ αἰώνων Θεός.

A hymn may imitate an automelon both melodically and metrically, the text having the same number of syllables with the same accent placements as the corresponding automelon, and therefore can be, and is, sung to exactly the same melody as the pattern hymn. Such a hymn, called prosomoion, is designated by the tone and opening words of the hymn it imitates.[note 6] For example, the Octoechos' kondakion for Sunday matins for tone 3 is designated to be sung to the melody of the above kondakion for Christmas; both kondakia have the same number syllables with accents in the same places, so the exact melody of the former is simply used for the latter, the text of the latter being patterned on that of the former.[note 7]

Irmological melodies, which employ a slightly modified scale for each tone[9] are used primarily for canons; in canons, each troparion in an ode uses the meter and melody of the ode's irmos (analogous to prosomoia for sticheraric modes of a tone) and, therefore, even when a canon's irmos is never sung, its irmos is nonetheless specified so as to indicate the melody.

Texts with musical notation[edit]

A volume called an "Irmologion" contains the irmosi of all the canons of all eight tones as well as a few sundry other pieces of music[10]

Sundry abridged texts of the Octoechos that include musical notation are frequently published; most commonly, these contain the texts for vespers and matins for Saturday nights and Sunday mornings. For example, in 1905 Zographou published a set of music books in Slavonic, the first volume of which consists of Saturday night vespers and Sunday morning matins from the Octoechos.[11] A singer's Octoechos with musical notation developed commencing in the late fifteenth century in the Russian Church, the first printed edition of which, the Oktoikh notnago peniya, sirech' Osmoglasnik, using square notation, was published in 1772 containing hymns in Znamenny Chant, as well as generic "pattern melodies" for different types of hymns for each tone; a newer analogous volume, the "Sputnik Psalomshcika" ("The Chanter's Companion") was republished in 1959 by Holy Trinity Monastery in Jordanville, NY, USA. Also, "The Church Obihod of Notational Singing" contains, among other hymns, hymns from the Ochtoechos.[12]


Northern Slavs in modern times often do not use the eight-tone music system — although they always do use the book Octoechos — rather singing all hymns in the same scale but with different melodies for each tone for each of several types of classifications of hymns.

Oriental Orthodox[edit]

Syriac Usage[edit]

The Syriac Orthodox Church also makes use of a system of eight modes (makams). Each hymn (Syriac: qolo, plural: qole) is composed in one of these eight modes. Some modes have variants (shuhlophe) similar to the "special melodies" mentioned above. Only skilled chanters can master these variants.

The modal cycle consists of eight weeks. Each Sunday or Feast day is assigned one of the eight modes. During the weekday offices, known in Syriac by the name Shhimo, the 1st and 5th modes are paired together, so are the 2nd and 6th, the 3rd and 7th, and the 4th and 8th. If a particular Sunday makes use of the 1st mode, the following Monday is sung with the 5th mode, Tuesday with the 1st mode, etc., with the pair alternating every day of the week (see the table provided in Guide to the Eight Modes in the External Links below).

The ecclesiastical year starts with Qudosh `Idto (The Consecration of the Church), a feast observed on the eighth Sunday before Christmas (Yaldo). The 1st mode is sung on this day. The following Sunday makes use of the 2nd mode, and so on, repeating the cycle until it starts again the next year. The cycle is interrupted only by feasts which have their own tones assigned to them. Similar to the Byzantine usage, each day of Easter Week has its own mode, except the Syriacs do not skip the 7th mode. Thus, the Sunday after Easter, called New Sunday (Hadto) is in the 8th mode rather than the 1st.

In one type of hymn used by the Syriac Church, the Qole Shahroye (Vigils), each of the modes is dedicated to a theme: The 1st and 2nd modes are dedicated to the Virgin Mary, the 3rd and 4th to the saints, the 5th and 6th to penitence, and the 7th and 8th to the departed.

The primary collection of hymns in the eight modes is the Beth Gazo d-ne`motho, or "Treasury of Chants."

Armenian Usage[edit]

In the Armenian Apostolic Church, the system of eight modes is referred to as oot tzayn (eight voices). Although there is no structural relation between the Greek and Armenian modes, the division into "Authentic" and "Plagal" modes is parallel. In Armenian terminology, the "Authentic" modes are referred to as "Voice" (Tzayn) and the "Plagal" modes are called "Side" (Koghm), and are utilized in the following order:

Greek Armenian
First (ἦχος πρῶτος) First Voice (aradjin tzayn)
Plagal of the First (ἦχος πλάγιος τοῦ πρώτου) First Side (aradjin koghm)
Second (ἦχος δεύτερος) Second Voice (yerkrord tzayn)
Plagal of the Second (ἦχος πλάγιος τοῦ δευτέρου) Second, Principal Side (yerkrord, awag koghm)
Third (ἦχος τρίτος) Third Voice (yerrord tzayn)
Grave (ἦχος βαρύς) Third Side, low voice (yerrord koghm, vaṙ tzayn)
Fourth (ἦχος τέταρτος) Fourth Voice (tchorrord tzayn)
Plagal of the Fourth (ἦχος πλάγιος τοῦ τετάρτου) Fourth Side, Last Voice (tchorrord koghm, verdj tzayn)

This order is important, because it is the order in which the modes are used liturgically and different from the order of the Greek traditions. Instead of using one tone per week, the Armenians use one tone per day. Easter Sunday is always the First Voice, the next day is First Side, and so on throughout the year. However, the cycle does not actually begin on Easter day, but counts backwards from Easter Sunday to the First Sunday in Lent, which is always Forth Side, regardless of what mode the previous day was. Each mode of the oot tzayn has one or more tartzwadzk‘ (auxiliary) modes.

The Sharagnots is the book which contains the Sharakan, or Sharagan (Canons), hymns which constitute the substance of the musical system of Armenian liturgical chant in the eight modes. Originally, these were Psalms and Biblical Canticles that were chanted during the services. A Sharagan was composed of verses which were interspersed between the scriptural verses. Eventually, the Sharagan replaced the biblical text entirely. In addition, the eight modes are applied to the psalms of the Night office, called ganonaklookh (Canon head). the Armenian Church also makes use of other modes outside of the oot tzayn.


  1. ^ Sometimes the simple word "Octoechos" is used to describe a smaller volume that contains only the texts for the Sunday services. In order to distinguish the longer version from the short one, the term Paraklētikē (Greek: Παρακλητική) can be used as well for the Great Octoechos. The word Paraklētikē comes from the Greek parakalein (παρακαλεῖν), meaning, "to supplicate" (the more penitential texts are found on weekdays).
  2. ^ Each day of Bright Week (Easter Week) uses propers in a different tone, Sunday: Tone One, Monday: Tone Two, skipping the least festive of the tones, the grave (heavy) tone.
  3. ^ All of Great Lent, the periods of Cheesefare Week and Holy Week which are joined, respectively, to the beginning and end of Great Lent
  4. ^ Although many of the Sunday resurrection hymns are replicated in the Pentecostarion
  5. ^ The Three Classes of Melodic Forms for Stichera, II. Automela (Samopodobny, Model Melodies)
  6. ^ The Three Classes of Melodic Forms for Stichera, III. Prosomoia (Podobny, Special Melodies)
  7. ^ The Three Classes of Melodic Forms for Stichera, I. Idiomela (Samoglasny, Independent Melodies)

See also[edit]


  1. ^ The female form ἡ Ὀκτώηχος means the book (ἡ βίβλος) "octoechos" or "octaechos".
  2. ^ a b A later manuscript of a complete sticherarion dating back to the 14th century has also the book octoechos as the last part (Copenhagen, Royal Library, Ms. NkS 4960). "Archbishop Averky – Liturgics — The Ochtoechos, or Book of the Eight Tones", Retrieved 2012-01-19
  3. ^ See the Georgian and Greek papyrus studies by Stig Frøyshov (2012) and Christian Troelsgård (2009).
  4. ^ See Liturgics by Archbishop Averky, section "Church Singing", Retrieved 2012-01-19.
  5. ^ Vita of Joseph the Hymnographer
  6. ^ Vita of Theophanes the Branded
  7. ^ See Treasures of the National Library of Russia, Moscow.
  8. ^ "The Intonations of the Eight Modes," Retrieved 2012-01-19
  9. ^ "Byzantine Octoechos Chart for those trained in Western Music," Retrieved 2012-01-16
  10. ^ "Archbishop Averky – Liturgics — The Irmologion," Retrieved 2012-01-19
  11. ^ Восточно Церковно Пѣнiе – Часть 1 – Воскресникъ, Mount Athos, Ottoman Empire: Zographou Monastery, 1904 
  12. ^ "Archbishop Averky – Liturgics — On Music Books," Retrieved 2012-01-19


Papyri of tropologia in oktoechos οrder[edit]

Palaeo-Byzantine notation (10th–13th century)[edit]

Middle Byzantine notation (13th–19th century)[edit]

Oktoechoi and Parakletikai without musical notation[edit]


  • Archbishop Averky († 1976); Archbishop Laurus (2000). "Liturgics". Holy Trinity Orthodox School, Russian Orthodox Church Abroad, 466 Foothill Blvd, Box 397, La Canada, California 91011, USA. Retrieved 15 January 2012. 
  • Тvпико́нъ сiесть уста́въ (Title here transliterated into Russian; actually in Church Slavonic) (The Typicon which is the Order), Москва (Moscow, Russian Empire): Сvнодальная тvпографiя (The Synodal Printing House), 1907 


External links[edit]

Old Slavonic texts of the octoechos[edit]

English translation of octoechos hymns for orthros and hesperinos[edit]