the Impromptu Mode of Melody Making in Syriac

Joseph J. Palackal, CMI
Copyright © 2020 Joseph J. Palackal


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One of the Syriac musical repertory's unique features is the mode of making melodies referred to as kyānāyā, which means "natural." Kyānāyā is not a fixed melody, but one that comes naturally to a singer. It is a way of applying musical pitches in articulating mostly prose texts. In a way, the singer composes/gives shape to the melody while singing. The goal of the singer is to express the sound and meaning of the text correctly.
In the kyānāyā mode of melody making, the singer must be aware only of three things: the relative length of the syllables, the semantic units, and the cadences to indicate phrase endings.
Kyānāyā serves the purpose of chanting the entire liturgy, moving smoothly from prose texts to poetic texts, making the entire service sound like a single cantata. The best example is the solemn Qurbana of the Syro Malabar Church from the Syriac era. Here, one can hear a smooth and seamless transition from prose texts to poetic texts (see one example in Aramaic Project-157)
In the process, individual variations are inevitable, depending on the singer's musical acumen and vocal capacity. Albeit individual freedom in the performance practice of kyānāyā, the melody stays within a limited range, from a third to a perfect fifth, often in the middle register. We rarely hear a performance that employs the full range of an octave. More often than not, the third degree in the scale is minor. The approach to the final note may be either from above or below.

According to Fr. Mathew Uppani, who translated the Bible from the Syriac Psita version to Malayalam, the melody of the solemn form of the Lord's Prayer in the Rāzā (the most solemn form of Qurbana in the Syro Malabar Church; see Aramaic Project-70D) and the reading of the Epistle are examples of kyānāyā melody (

The melody in kyānāyā is not bound by rhythmic periodization. The rhythm is free-flowing. The singer determines the caesura locations and the manner of cadences at the end of a sentence or semantic units. Sometimes, the kyānāyā rendering of a particular prayer by an accomplished musician may become popular enough for other singers to emulate. Even in that case, an individual singer has the freedom to lengthen or shorten a syllable or add neumes to mark boundaries of semantic units. We have not come across a performance that employs melisma.

During the Syriac era, the most frequent use of kyānāyā was for the recitation of the slōthā (prayer), which is in prose. See Aramaic Project-70T : and Aramaic Project - 165-38 See Aramaic Project-70T: and Aramaic Project - 165-38 Similar to other Syriac chants, the kyānāyā melodies existed in oral transmission. The use of any kind of notation is not popular. There has been only limited attempts to notate individual performances of kyanaya melodies for the purpose of propagation, learning, or standardization. Heinrich Husmann made a staff notation of three slotha-s from the evening prayer, in his Die Melodien des Chaldaischen Breviers Commune (Husmann 1967: 109,111, and 116). There is no evidence, however, to using this notation for the purpose of learning by anyone in the Syro Malabar Church.

In the early 1960s, the Syro Malabar Church translated the Syriac liturgy into Malayalam. Fr. Abel made the first edition of the Hours in three volumes. In them, Fr. Abel used nineteen model melodies from the Syriac repertory. In a letter dated 15 December 1997 (, Fr. Abel made a hint to the rationale for his selection of the model melodies; he chose melodies that have relatively more rhythmic flow and more feasible for community singing. There is an element of unpredictability in the articulation of the text in the kyānāyā mode of melody making. For that reason, kyānāyā may not be suitable for community singing. That may be why Fr. Abel ignored it in the Malayalam version of Qurbana or the Hours. Fortunately, the Syro Malabar Church did not lose the kyānāyā tradition yet. There are a few young priests who have mastered the music of Solemn Qurbana in Syriac and preserve the slōthā tradition. Our library contains several videos and audio recordings of those priests.


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