The music of the Bible revelead

en français

After many years of research, Suzanne Haïk Vantoura has discovered the true musical value of the te'amim, i.e. the musical signs accompanying thebiblical text. She explains how and why this discovery is extraordinary.

Alliance - What brought you to your research on the musical meaning of the te'amim of the Biblical text ?
S.Haïk-Vantoura: I had noticed them in the version of the Hebrew Bible
I used to read. I had also read in a musical encyclopaedia that these
signs of cantillation dated back to antiquity and that their real
musical meaning was lost. This triggered my curiosity. I had a vague
hope that this account might contain true and beautiful musical
phrases hidden, which used to set off the Hebrew text.
A- Still the synagogue interpretation of this cantillation exists.
Aren't you satisfied with it?
S-H-V: The synagogue cantillation technique does not really constitute
music. It is composed of successive vocal formulae, without even a
single note corresponding to a pronounced stressed syllable, the other
notes constituting mere ornamentation. These vocal formulae only mark
stresses in the text without any musical logic. Moreover, these
formulae vary from one community to the other, from a book to another!
There is nothing in common between those formulas which are totally
misfit to the text and the te'amim once correctly interpreted and
established according to a determined order. Knowing that the musical
meaning of the te'amim was lost, I could not feel satisfied with this
lack of music.
A- Could you explain what the te'amim are and where they are found?
S. H.V.-: The te'amim are signs found in the text of the Bible and
placed below or above the Hebrew words among the vowel-points and the
other auxiliary signs. Here is a passage of the Decalogue : Exodus 20
in which you may find the te'amim marked in a different colour.
Here is the same passage with the te'amim but without all the other
A- How can we recognise the te'amim?
S.H.V.: Here are the te'amim in random order: 19 supralinear and
sublinear signs. These signs appear in all the Hebrew texts of the
A- In the prose texts as well as in the psalms?
SHV.: That's correct. There are two sign systems : the prose system
and the psalm system. The prose system comprises 8 sublinear signs.
The psalm system only comprises 7, the six first being similar to
those of the prose system. The prose system comprises 8 supralinear
signs (the psalm system comprises much less)
A- How did you manage to identify the te'amim?
S.H.V. : I worked step by step. I first observed that the sublinear
signs were never absent from the text, while entire verses are totally
deprived of supralinear signs. I deduced from that fact that the
sublinear signs had to be more important than the supralinear ones.
For instance, here is a passage of Psalm 122 where only sublinear
signs can be read. Still those signs constitute wonderful music (of
course I could not guess it at that time!)
This conclusion was crucial and greatly helped my research later. Then
I focused on the prose te'amim system only.
That system comprises 8 sublinear signs as mentioned. I quickly
thought that it could correspond to the eight degrees of a musical
scale, of a tonal scale. (The diatonic scale - C,D, E, etc,- is the
This hypothesis seemed to me to be supported by the nearly systematic
writing of a vertical sign at the end of each verse. This sign, I
thought, could work like an ending note, and could be used to indicate
the main note of a tune... It seemed plausible, and I turned to be
A- Still, it's only one sign out of 8!
S.H.V. : On the basis of this deduction and on the basis of the verbal
sentence, I tried to determine if certain sublinear signs would
reappear at the hemistich more often than others. I had in mind the
two main degrees founding the tonality, the 4th and the 5th, known
already for this function in the Antiquity, and upon which a
well-structured tonality is based while still being opened. I found
with surprise that there were two sublinear signs often mentioned at
the hemistich which seemed to fulfil this function. Difficulties
really started when I tried to find out which was the 4th degree of
the tonality and which one was the 5th. I had to work on hundreds of
verses. I finally identified the 4th degree sign and the 5th degree. I
had apparently identified three signs at that point, but nothing was
certain yet!
A- How did you find out the 5 other signs?
S.H.V. : I had to write endless tables of concording sequences, trying
out an impressive number of verse-pieces ; comparing even the shapes
of signs
I could finally discover the meaning of the 8 sublinear signs of the
prose system.
It took me more than six months of hard work! but it was not in vain!
bits and pieces of meaningful melodies emerged, sometimes
expressive... As a definite demonstration I managed to decipher the
outline of the Song of the Red Sea which lasts approximately five
minutes. The 8 sublinear signs were identified : they are the 8 notes
of a scale. What was most interesting was the fact that the key-note
is a central note of the musical scale, which is common in Antiquity.
A- Why isn't there a sign under each syllable?
SHV : Because the musicians who created and wrote the text and the
accompanying music were using an abbreviating system : any note
represented as a bottom sign is to be taken into account as long as
another bottom sign does not appear.
Let's consider again the beginning of the Song of the Red Sea : the
dashes I placed here, set off when heard, the sounds prolonged over
the syllables originally deprived of signs.
A- Yet I notice that in the Song of the Red Sea, the first note of the verse has no corresponding sign. Why is it so?
SHV: because it is precisely the key-note which usually starts a
melody. Moreover this note, marked by the sign " ", always appears at
the end of the preceding verse.
A- But here is a supralinear sign above the first syllable of the
verse. What does it correspond to?
SHV: The signs also symbolise the pitch of the notes. They do not
stand for fixed pitch (part of a given scale), but for the relative
pitch of the note in relationship to the current basic degree
represented by the preceding sublinear sign (like an ornamentation in
our present system of musical notation). I then discovered the second
principle of such a precise yet abbreviated system of notation : any
supralinear sign has an effect only over the syllable over which it is
As soon as the next syllable appears, the basic degree reappears,
while the sublinear corresponding sign does not necessarily reappear.
On the basis of this definition, a supralinear sign can be set at the
beginning of the verse. Still the degree it stands for is in relation
to the key-note which is implicit at the beginning of the verse.
We may observe it in this example. Note that the exact position of a
supralinear sign at the beginning or at the end of a syllable is not
haphazard. On the contrary, it is highly important. Once the key
principle of the deciphering code is applied, the melody unveiled is
always more harmonious and expressive than if one had not taken into
account this delayed principle of notation. No one had ever before
taken into consideration this specificity of the notation.
The readers interested in the details linked to the code-key should
refer to the book : "Clé de Déchiffrement des Signes
Musicaux de la Bible"
A- I understand. Still I wish to ask you : are there any accidentals?
SHV: No, since accidentals did not appear in ancient notation systems.
One must mention that the modes used in the Bible were not very
numerous . One of them in particular was characteristic of Middle
Eastern music.
It is like an E minor scale with a chromatic (augmented) interval
between the second and third degrees, and is still used in Israel
A- What about the rhythm?
SHV- The rhythm of the retrieved Biblical music hardly needs specific
marks. In prose, it is connected to the natural speech rhythm of
words, to the words carried by the melody, which is itself
rhythmically stressed by the very expressive accents of the words. The
length of the notes cannot be determined, and in that case it's
untranslatable. In psalmody it's the opposite case, because all the
syllables have the same length, whether this length be one or several
notes long. This is also the principle of Eastern poetry.
A - Nevertheless, what was the system used to tell the cantors that one syllable rather than another was sung for several notes?
SHV: You are right to mention this point, in particular since in the
time of David and Solomon , no less than 288 musicians-cantors would
sing the holy services. Of course the chief cantors would beat the
time with the help of percussion, like our present conductors do. Yet
one must add that the chief cantors would also direct according to
David's musical gestures, indicating as such that one syllable, more
than another, was to be continued for several notes (other more
ancient gestural system existed at that time)
That gestural system was a living replica of the notational system
called for centuries "according to David's hands".
David and Solomon's times were the Golden Age of the music of the
A- Do you think that this very specific technique may have lasted for centuries after the upheavals and hardships endured by the Hebrews?
SHV: Yes, because the Levites were musicians from fathers to sons
until the very beginning of this era. Historical documents show that
the Hebrews' sacred music was of great quality until the first century
of our era, although the number of musician Levites in the holy
services had greatly diminished (we find only 12 instrumentalists and
12 cantors in the holy services at the time of Jesus).
A- Then how do you explain the synagogal cantillation?
SHV : Since the ancestral cantilation of the psalms could not be
practised outside the Temple of Jerusalem, during the exile of Babylon
and after it, worshippers became accustomed to singing in synagogues
and to reading the holy texts according to standard formulae which
would be shortened or lengthened according to the length of verses.
The te'amim disappeared progressively. They reappeared in the Biblical
texts only at the 8th century. But the value of the signs seems to
have been lost completely by then. The Massorets of Tiberias and
Babylon used them again in manuscripts, the political context of the
9th century being more favourable. (see Music of the Bible Revealed
and Complementary Data).
Although it was quite allusive, Aaron Ben Asher, who was the last
master of the Biblical reading School of Tiberias, gave an
interpretation which imposed itself for lack of any other. It is still
being used today. Yet one must admit that it is only for texts written
in prose, since the te'amim of the psalms could never be interpreted
before. And one continues to hear psalms sung in synagogues with the
help of repetitive formulae which I mentioned before. Moreover, in
most of the ritual books of synagogues, the signs of psalmody have
been taken out of the text for lack of understanding them, while the
music of palms has such a powerful expression that the whole world
should sing it to join David's faith, whose message is universal.
A- How long did you need to experiment on your music and on various texts before you were sure of the correctness of your discovery?
SHV: I first applied it to over several hundred texts, but it was
mostly the work accomplished since I published my discovery in 1976,
which makes it indubitable. More than 5000 verses are now "musically
realised" and can be performed with their music. My deciphering key
has never proved wrong. Here it is, with E as key-note.
A- After all these years of work and exciting discoveries, what is your conclusion?
SHV: For all the reasons I mentioned before, it is very sad that the
interpretation of te'amim should be ignored, denied by the Synagogue
in general.
On the other hand, I feel convinced of having relived the most
ancient musical notation ever known, which, apart from the musical
value it conveys to our modern world, gives precision on the biblical
punctuation. The Biblical authors were poet-composers who created
themselves the music of their texts. Consequently, this music
perfectly fits the meaning of the words and enhances it. I was very
sad to think that all this heritage of humanity had been lost forever.
The situation is different now with Internet and thanks to the
interest you show in my discovery, this music will finally become
integrated in our human patrimony. My wish is that it will be so, for
the good and happiness of everyone until the end of Time !