Oral Tradition: “Thus Have I Heard”

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Oral Tradition: “Thus Have I Heard”

Ingredients of Culture

human-developmentHuman culture has always relied on three elements: “information learned within a lifetime, its intergenerational transmission (oral tradition), and the imitation that enables this transmission. (Tomlinson p. 37)” In other words, our ability to remember, teach, learn, and duplicate information. Of these ingredients, our ability to transmit data intergenerationally is arguably the most singular. Certain primates can use and train others in the use of tools; however, oral traditions go further, allowing humans to accumulate, systematize, and customize information to meet changing environmental and social conditions.

Reconstructing Memory: Remembering the “Gist” of Things

Dali – Persistence of Memory

Memory is elastic. As with all other aspects of our lives, our memories are in a constant state of flux and decay. While humans are fairly good at remembering the “gist” of events, some of the details always remain fuzzy. Even when we experience an emotionally intense episode, our brains are only capable of recording incomplete impressions. As such, memories are reconstructions from fragments; pieces stored in different locations throughout the brain. Just as our brains assist our eyes by anticipating and filling in holes in our visual field (esp. the periphery vision), our minds fill in memory holes with composite data, drawn from memories of similar events.

Try this! In your mind’s eye, picture yourself as a child playing in the snow. Do all the images you recall come from the same snow-filled romp? If not, can you confidently say which memory goes with which winter day? Might these mental pictures represent a composite impression of the general activity: “playing in the snow?” Are you sure all of these recollections occurred as remembered? Unfortunately, research suggests that even vivid memories, even ones we are confident in, are as likely to contain false data as any other recollections. These “gist” reconstructions get us through the day; however, as witnesses, we are only partially reliable.


Gutenberg Printing Press

Before the development of writing, there was no external way to store and “fix” information (i.e. render it unchanging). Our brains were the “beginning, middle, and end” of data storage solutions. Without readily available written records, it was impossible to ensure the accuracy of orally transmitted information. Indeed, it was only after the development of printing (not writing) that humanity became obsessed with literary precision. Document printing allowed the same text to be reviewed by multiple sets of eyes simultaneously, making post-facto fact-checking possible. As it turns out, literary accuracy is a relatively modern concern. For pre-literate cultures, the verbatim repetition of messages was not as important as the truths contained therein (i.e. the “gist” of it).

Oral Tradition & Transmission


The expression “oral tradition” implies both a product and a process. Vancina explains that oral messages are products transmitted intergenerationally through a “word of mouth” process. As with our individual memories, oral transmissions are reconstructions; composite utterances pulled from a group’s collective experience. Each iteration of a “product” represents one version of that message; a single point on a continuum that stretches back to the original transmission. As such, each communication reflects not just the performance immediately previous but all prior performances.

Any human interaction can potentially produce a message worth recounting to future generations, but most interactions are boring. Vancina in his book Oral Tradition as History suggests that information worth repeating contains two ingredients: news and interpretation. These ingredients are not separate genres but elements of the same communication. Some messages emphasize news events while others might be more interpretative in nature; regardless, both components are present to some degree.

News stories narrate past events to audiences who unfamiliar with them. Told with an eye toward the sensational, news stories are often entertaining, dramatic, and memorable. News stories can be drawn from eyewitness testimony, hearsay or even from visions, dreams, and hallucinations.

Interpretative messages are “reflexive” transmissions, focusing on a performer’s feelings, thoughts, memories, and opinions. These messages come in a variety of forms including interpretations of current events, explanations of the symbolic meaning of objects and events, folk literary genres (e.g. poetry, speech, or song), and expositions on a group’s cultural, religious, and tribal identity. When any message is no longer culturally relevant, it disappears.

“How it is possible for a mind to remember and out of nothing to spin complex ideas, messages, and instructions for living, which manifest continuity over time, is one of the greatest wonders one can study, comparable only to human intelligence and thought itself.”
Vancina, p. xi

Collective Memory

Each society’s oral traditions evolved to support their specific needs in their specific context. As such, “how” groups decide to remember an episode is as significant than its historical reality. For instance, Bart Ehrman in his book Jesus Before the Gospels describes how Jesus was remembered differently by each new Christian generation. From its collective memory, each group will draw conclusions and make ideological choices; interpretations that change and evolve to meet new sociological pressures. When historical certainties are limited, a society’s collective memories often provide historians important windows into the past.

imgresLet’s try another thought experiment. Close your eyes and picture the American Civil War. I have no direct memories of the historical event in question; however, thanks to school trips, movies, TV, and books, my brain can nonetheless generate colorful mental images. If I am honest, some of these memories are pretty vivid and “feel,” for lack of a better word “real.” As a white male born the suburbs of Philadelphia, I guarantee that my constructed Civil War memories are different than those of a white man born in rural Georgia, or those of an elderly African American woman.

A groups’ collective memories, whether transmitted through news stories or as interpretive messages, are “true” within the context of that community.

Universal Cultural Trait

oral_traditionHumanity’s ability to intergenerationally pass cultural/tribal information using our voices and memories has proven to be remarkably effective; allowing humans to transmit an incredible variety of information, sometimes for millenia. So effective in fact that anthropologists have found evidence of oral transmissions in almost every culture studied. Like ritual, moral codes, burial practices, language, and music, oral tradition is a universal cultural trait.

For example, according to Rabbinic tradition, the Oral Torah was given to Moses on Mount Sinai in 1312 BCE. Hundreds of years later, during a period of Jewish diaspora called the Babylonian captivity, these teachings were finally written down (c. 600-400 BCE). However, even after the completion of the Written Torah, Jewish groups continued to transmit the Oral Torah until it was transcribed by Rabbi Judah HaNasi (c. 189 CE). The resultant text called the Mishnah is considered by Rabbinic scholars and teachers to be the full expression of Jewish law, containing traditional elements and practices not included in the Written Torah. All-in-all, versions of this message were passed for over 1500 years. Upping the cool factor, the Hebrew word Mishnah means “study by repetition.”

Other notable works initially transmitted orally include Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, Beowulf, the Epic of Gilgamesh, the sayings of Jesus, and the words of the Buddha.

Performance and Memory

Ritualizing a performances helps to set the stage for a successful transmissions. Oral cultures viewed performances as “special” speech, presented in “special” contexts. As such, heightening the solemnity of a presentation facilitated transmission by focusing the groups’ attention on the storyteller. Ritualized storytelling also helped build tribal identity and reinforce group cohesion.

Each telling of a story carries a performer’s distinctive stamp. When passing oral messages, storytellers faced a considerable cognitive challenge; a simultaneous feat of individual memory, collective memory, oration, and creation. As such, it was not uncommon for elements to be added, dropped, and altered to meet the needs/expectations of a given assembly. The audience also faced a daunting task. Spectators who misheard or failed to understand a passage were out of luck. Once spoken, all words disappear into the darkness.

Over the centuries, strategies have been developed to aid the memory of performers and audiences. The following discussion will examine some of the techniques oral cultures developed to support memory. Please notate that these methods rarely appear in isolation. An epic poem may simultaneously contain dramatic visual imagery, make use of familiar narrative tropes, employing rhyme, repetition, and vocal melody. In David Rubin’s groundbreaking book Memory in Oral Traditions, he describes the aspects of oral transmission which aid memory; features that also happen to make stories entertaining and artistically significant.

Memory Aids: Genre

Folklorists routinely organize a culture’s oral transmissions into genres. Despite a multiplicity of local variation, differences slowly wore away leaving each culture with a handful of distinct and recognizable genres. This process has been likened to the rock whose distinctive features are slow worn away by passing water. Elements that support memory persist and those that do not decay. As Rubin states, … “genres that survive the test of time come to be good figures for memory in the gestalt sense (they are well suited for their niche)Many different genres can exist, each providing a solution to survival under different conditions.” 

Thurle songlines of Indigenous Australians are my favorite example of a culturally specific message type; a technique that’s profound usefulness has enabled it to survived the test of time. Songlines follow the paths’ of creator beings who walked upon and shaped creation’s landscapes (terrestrial and heavenly). A knowledgeable storyteller will use a songline to navigate Australia’s barren landscapes, often for hundreds of miles. The plot of the songline dictates each navigational choice; as such, descriptive imagery and engaging narrative plot points are critical.

chantBuddhist lists (matikas) are another example of a culturally specific oral tradition. Approximately 500 years passed between the death of the Buddha and the codification of his words into written discourses. Buddhism has endless numbers of lists which act as effective mnemonic devices, supporting the memory of monastics. As Rupert Gethin points out, Buddhist matikas reflected a tendency in early Indian education to break concepts into discrete categories and lists. This trend helped listeners conceptually follow Dharma talks and subsequently remember what was said. “With a list, one has a certain safeguard against losing one’s way in a talk or forgetting sections of it.” Beyond this, Gethin suggests matikas illuminate Buddhisms interior structures.


Rupert Gethin

“The lists help one to learn the Dhamma with a view to its inner structure and dynamic. For the lists essentially are not just lists to be listed one after another, but fit together to form a pattern. Thus to learn and know the lists is to learn and know how they fit together, how they interconnect to form the structure and pattern of the Dhamma that is ‘beautiful in the beginning, beautiful in the middle, beautiful in the end.'” (Gethin p. 155)

Memory Aids: Imagery and Narrative Clichés

Distinctive imagery and narrative clichés support the memories of performers and audiences. Common elements that appear in many cultures’ stories include heroes with extraordinary power and stature, supernatural deeds/events, and vast settings. Sex, war, treasure, and drink, added liberally to “spice up” a tale, also make it more memorable.

imagesMany of these narrative clichés still play prominent roles in contemporary culture. For instance, many tales see the son of a great (but unavailable) warrior go on his first adventure. These novice adventurers are usually noble born, but outcasts; unable to enjoy the benefits of their station. Traditionally, these youngsters are recognized by mentors, trained, and befriended by companions who protect and entertain him on the journey. In perhaps the first notable examples of this narrative cliché, Telemachus‘s goes on an adventure in search of his absent father Odysseus (Homer’s Odyssey). The story of King Arthur, as told in the Once and Future King, and Luke Skywalker’s narrative arc are also examples of this story convention.

Let’s look at an example from within the oral tradition; a narrative trope that has been recycled and altered to fit within a new cultural context. The Epic of GilgameshGilgamesh visits Utnapishtim, a wise man who has gained immortality. Gilgamesh, desperate to defeat death, asks Utnapishtim for his story.

imgresUtnapishtim learns from the Sumerian god Enki that the “great gods,” headed by god Enlil, plan to destroy all living beings in a mighty flood. Enki instructs Utnapishtim to build a boat, even providing him with a construction plan. Utnapishtim is instructed to spare no expense, as this ship will save living beings. He hires workers to build a huge square boat, provisions the vessel for a long journey, loads his possessions, family, and animals, and seals the door. A great rain begins, quickly becoming a violent storm. So powerful that the even gods are forced to flee its wrath. After seven days and nights of intense wind and rain, the storm abates, leaving Utnapishtim’s vessel stranded on Mt. Nimush. Unsure if it is safe to disembark, Utnapishtim releases a series of birds. At first, the birds return, finding no place to land. Eventually, one of the birds (a crow) finds food and does not return. The waters have abated.


Gilgamesh Flood Tablet – British Museum

After Utnapishtim and his passengers leave the boat, they offer sacrifices to each of the great gods. This sweet smell draws the attention of the gods, who are confused by Utnaposhtim’s survival. Enlil is enraged that any life remained. Enki however, reminds Enlil of the need for compassion and restraint. Ultimately Enlil relents, granting Utnapishtim and his wife immortality. However, Enlil moves the pair to a remote location, lest they become like the gods.

Sound familiar? Scholars agree that the story of Noah (Genesis chapter 6) is a retelling of the Gilgamesh flood myth. Some details differ between these tales, but the overall narrative is the same. The largest changes are culturally specific, with the Genesis story centering on the Hebrew God instead of the Sumerian pantheon of gods. Remember that stories in the oral tradition often deliver a moral or tribal lesson, adding cosmological significance to historical events. For the Jews, the message delivered is that God will judge the wicked and protect the upright.

smith_2676994bGeorge Smith deciphered the Gilgamesh Flood tablet in 1872. An enthusiastic amateur, Smith managed to get a translator job at the British Museum without a formal education. In a famous story, upon realizing the full import of this translation, a stunned Smith forgetting how to speak, removed his clothing instead. Despite the differences between these narratives, both are points on a continuum stretching back to an original deluge story. Interestingly, researchers have identified an even earlier deluge story in the Atra-Hasis Epic, a Gilgamesh precursor.

Memory Aids: Poetics & Song

Thus far we have discussed macro level memory aids. Genres, imagery, and narrative tropes represent the structure of a message; organizational refinements that allow performers to recall story details reliably. Micro level memory aids also exist that help reciters remember individual words and phonetic combinations, techniques we now refer to as poetics and song. As mentioned previously, distinctions allow us to discuss particular techniques in isolation; however, these divisions are artificial. In performance, many or all of these aids would be present simultaneously.

Poetics: Sound Patterns

When asked to memorize sequences of words or phrases, study subjects are significantly more likely to recall word combinations when they are presented as sound patterns. Sound patterns include rhymes, alliteration, assonance and repetition. Rubin suggests that “counting rhymes,” so ubiquitous in childhood, contain these characteristics in spades. For instance, the following Calvin & Hobbes comic makes use alliteration (e.g. meenie, miney, moe), assonance (e.g. eenie, meenie, miney), and line ending rhymes (e.g. moe & toe).


The recall is further enhanced if phrases contain distinctive rhythmic devices and segments of equal length. The first two lines of our Clavin and Hobbes counting rhyme uses a trochee poetic “foot”; a stressed followed by an unstressed syllable (“ee-nie, mee-nie, mi-ney, moe! / cat-cha, ti-ger, by the toe!”). Additionally, both segments contain the same number of syllables.

Poetics: Repetition

What is better than saying something once? Saying it multiple times. Repeating passages and phrases provide listeners with information redundancy.

Bhikkhu Anālayo provides the following example of redundancy from the Udāna discourse

Not long after venerable Ānanda had left, Māra the Evil One approached the Blessed One;
having approached he stood on one side;
standing on one side, Māra the Evil One said this to the Blessed One … (UD:6)

In this case,  the final action of each line is repeated at the beginning of the next. This particular type of reinforcement is called a periscope variation.

Pāli Cano

The Pāli Canon

During oral transmission redundancy was essential, but when written out it’s not always considered desirable. As such, during the process of transcription repetitions are often removed.

Poetics: Synonyms

Lastly, synonyms are used heavily in some traditions. Synonyms act as a safeguard against memory loss by providing audiences with a series of words of similar meaning. In the Pāli Canon, waxing syllables, orderings of synonyms by syllable count, are employed. Typically, each set starts with the shortest term, moving onto synonyms with ever increasing numbers of syllables. For instance, the Maha Govinda Sutta (DN 19:25) contains a series of three synonyms for fear: bhito samviggo lomahatthajato (2, 3, and 6 syllables respectively).


Jesus riding a donkey and her colt simultaneously.

In another example from the gospel of Matthew, Jesus sends his disciples into town to fetch an ass. “Go into the village opposite you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied there and a colt with her; untie them, and bring them to Me (Matthew 21:2).” This story is present in three of the four gospel narratives, though only Matthew has Jesus requesting two animals: a donkey and her colt. Jesus is then depicted as riding both animals simultaneously.

Why was this story important to the gospel authors? Why did Matthew claim mention two animals?

Early Christians saw Zechariah 9:9 as a prophetic passage pointing to the identity of the Jewish Messiah. “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout in triumph, O daughter of Jerusalem! Behold, your King, is coming to you; he is just and endowed with salvation, humble, and mounted on a donkey, even on a colt, the foal of a donkey (Zachariah 9:9).” The author of Matthew read Zechariah in a Greek translation. Being Greek himself, he didn’t realize that synonyms were as memory aids in Hebrew oral tradition. Matthew, wanting Jesus to fulfill this prophecy and reading Zachariah literally, includes both animals.


Baa, Baa, Black Sheep

Singing is a common component in almost all oral traditions. Performances of oral messages, whether they be epic poems (e.g. Beowulf) or memorized speeches (e.g. Buddhist Pāli Canon), are usually sung. As with poetics, there is a substantial body of research demonstrating correlations between word retention and music.

Typically, study subjects can remember word combinations significantly more accurately when they are attached to a melody. Removing an associated song, or substituting an unexpected tune, negates the benefits. Similarly, changing the lyric of a familiar song will obstruct recall. By way of demonstration, ask yourself the following questions. Are Twink, Twinkle, Little Star and Baa, Baa, Black Sheep both sung to the same tune? Was this answer a surprise? Off the top of your head, can you name another famous song that also uses this melody (Answer)? Now are you surprised?

By the way, this flexible folk melody began life as the French folk song Ah vous dirai-je, Maman, or Whatever you say, Mama.

Well-constructed melodies are especially useful. When a lyric does not fit a familiar melody, either the lyric or the tune will need to change. The alteration of a well-known song is jarring; as such, accidental or hamfisted lyric modifications are often unsuccessful. A good melody self-corrects by limiting the number of potential lyric options.

The following limerick demonstrates this limiting effect. Here, a combination of textual context and sound patterning makes the missing word pop out. As you proceed through the Limerick, notice how the number of possible concluding words shrink steadily.

What is final rhyme of this Limerick?

wwdtm“My scalp is now totally bare, and, yes, I’m aware of the glare. So here’s what I’ll do. I’ll use black ink, not blue, and get a tattoo of short…”

~Limerack, September 24, 2016 episode of NPR’s “Wait, Wait … Don’t Tell Me!”

A Personal Example: Be Though My Vision

Out of curiosity, I’ve tried to remember the first stanza of a favorite childhood hymn; a song I’ve not regularly sung in 20 years. I found that I was able to remember the hymn’s melody, its first few lines, and fragments from other lines. My recall corresponds with the findings mentioned above. My memory was stronger where there were sound patterns (line-ending rhyme).

Stanza 1: English version by Eleanor Hull, 1912 Stanza 1: My Memory
Line 1. Be thou my vision, O Lord of my heart;
Line 2. Naught be all else to me, save that thou art;
Line 3. Thou my best thought, by day or by night,
Line 4. Waking or sleeping, thy presence my light.
Line 1. Be thou my vision, O Lord of my heart;
Line 2. Not be all else to me, save that thou art;
Line 3 (stanza 3). … only, first in my heart,
Line 4 (stanza 3). … thou art.

The 1912 version of this hymn contains 5 stanzas of text; 5 sets of lyrics to be sung sequentially to the same tune. Interestingly, the line fragments I recalled (line 3 & 4) came not from Stanza 1, but from Stanza 3. As mentioned, multiple sets of lyrics may impair memory. The alternate sets of words bouncing around my brain may help to explain why my fragments came from different stanzas. On the plus side, these fragments correspond to the right segments of the melody (i.e. my line pieces are in the correct musical location, even if they are from the wrong stanza).

The hymn Be Though My Vision (Irish: Rop Tú Mo Baile) is attributed to a 6th-century Irish saint, Dallán Forgaill. The original old Irish lyric was first translated into English in 1905 as a poem, before being transformed into the familiar English-language hymn in 1912. It’s rare to witness an iterative translation process; as such, it may be worth examining this hymn in the future.

The Boring Stuff


Pre-Cuneiform Writing – A Beer Recipe

Not every message is memorable. Sumerians (ca. 3200 B.C.E), finding “gist” memory inadequate for certain tasks, started writing things down. These first scribblings only captured boring stuff: worker pay measured in beer units and recipes for making beer. Today, Earth has 7050+ “living” languages, more than half of which have developed writing systems. Most of these languages presumably still contain words for beer.

The introduction of writing did not lead to the immediate abandonment of oral transmission. Far from it! Oral traditions continued to be humanities’ primary means for transmitting information until the invention of printing; only slowing receding into the background. In fact, despite the development of writing, printing and the internet, oral tradition continues to play a significant role in the human story. Every time we gossip, we’re engaging in the transmission of news stories with associated interpretative messages. Nothing is as memorable as a juicy rumor.

Why Does This Matter?

Audibility: A Critical Point

Refined by millennia of oral tradition, messages became optimized for memory and comprehension; however, this is only half of the process. For audiences to repeat transmissions, they need to be audible. If an audience cannot hear and understand a message, the process of transmission ends. Importantly, most oral traditions were sung; as such, techniques for singing intelligibly also developed.

Written Communication: Poetry & Proselistening490

Written forms of communications evolved directly from the memory techniques discussed thus far. Poetry employs sound patterning, repetition, synonyms, and self-reflexive/interpretive messaging. Conversely, prose genres make extensive use of dramatic imagery and narrative tropes. In the next post, we’ll examine written forms of communication; probing the porous boundary between poetry and prose. An attempt will also be made to differentiate between poetry and song lyric, a controversial topic of late.

The division of written forms of communication into poetry and prose didn’t happen as all at once; in fact, it represents a major decoupling. In the oral tradition, any number of the above characteristics are present simultaneously. For example, it would be possible to hear a hero’s epic tale through rhyme, repetition, and moving imagery. Over time poetry and prose have come to be characterized by distinctly different characteristics. For instance, while most oral messages employed song, singing is now mostly associated with poetry, not prose.

Indic Languages

Indic Texts

As the words of the Buddha were transmitted, the meaning of his teachings persevered, even if the specific words didn’t. This group used repetition, synonyms, and list to support the memory of Sangha members. Innovations that rendered these words imminently singable and clearly audible. Early Buddhism relied on a variety of Indic languages (e.g. Prakrit). Like Greek, Prakrit and Sanskrit are polysyllabic languages, using light and heavy syllables to create syllabic emphasis. A syllable’s “weight” is determined by its duration measured in moras (or mātrā). Light syllables are short, held for the duration one mora, while heavy syllables are longer, held for two moras. When performed, early Buddhist singing supporting these natural inflections, making it very simple and easy to follow. This practice is probably very similar to Buddhist reciting practiced in Sri Lanka, where the Pāli canon is recited. By contrast, in Thailand, an attempt was made to perform these frugal recitations in more musically interesting ways. While Pāli chanting in the Thai tradition is certainly more aesthetically pleasing, its musical alterations stretch and shrink syllables (moras), making it harder to understand the lyrics.


imagesIn India, Buddhism passed from teacher to student; however, in China, Buddism was a literary, not an oral tradition. China was already a highly literate culture by the time Indic Buddhist texts arrived. During this period, the ability to render concepts into beautiful poetry and prose was a sign of intelligence and sophistication. Scholars saw exceptional value in the teaching of the Buddha but found the orally refined Indic texts clunky and repetitive. To remedy these perceived deficiencies, many texts were reorganized into passages of elegant four-character prose.

Chinese Buddhist texts were never filtered through a period of oral transmission. As such, Chinese texts lack features that support oral transmission, audibility, and memorization. Indeed, some of its characteristic hallmarks, like the four-character patterns described, arguably make the teachings harder to understand.

Generally speaking, Western music is built on rhymic patterns of accented and unaccented beats; beat patterns called meters. When setting a syllabic language to music (e.g. Prakrit or English), syllables that need emphasis must align with the underlying musical stresses. When literary and musical accents do not align, a sung text is hard to understand. On the other hand, Chinese is a monosyllabic language without a system of syllabic emphasis. As such, Chinese song can theoretically ignore musical stresses without a loss of audibility. Indeed, in practice, Chinese liturgical texts often provide no breaks between sentences and paragraphs. As a further complication, when spoken, the meaning of a character can change depending on the tone applied. Unfortunately, these oral infections are almost impossible to hear when sung.

During ceremonies, it is possible to intone long and complicated series of syllables without actively following their meaning. This observation is not meant to imply that singers don’t know the meaning behind a ceremony, only that they meaning often lost on a moment by moment basis. For instance, there are often no or only subtle musical breaks between sentences in the lyric. In the prose section of the Lotus Flower SutraUniversal Door Chapter, a 16 character (syllable) melodic pattern is established and repeated. The Universal Door Chapter’s substantial body of prose text is chanted to this pattern.

To maintain melodic consistency, deviations in the length of prose lines are ignored. In fact, sentences are allowed to end and begin in random locations along the pattern. Curiously, this particular text contains not only descriptions of events but a dialogue between characters. Under these linguistic and musical conditions, a listener can be forgiven for losing the narrative thread.

China’s monosyllabic language makes the singing of poetry and prose texts, equally possible. Additionally, it allows practitioners to sing incredibly large amounts of text very quickly. Generally speaking, in Western languages, it takes significantly more time to sing a text than to speak it.

These observations should not be seen as a value judgment. Chinese liturgical practice is wonderfully beautiful, just not easy to actively follow when sung. As a Westerner, this lack of textual audibility “feels” problematic, but for Chinese practitioners, the intelligibility of a sung text is not the central concern.


The ability to comfortably sing both poetry and prose in Chinese is a feature not shared by Western languages. Westerners almost exclusively sing poems, poetic texts with fixed line lengths and rhymes. More specifically, they sing song lyrics: simplified forms of poetry that lack the subtle linguistic complexity of poems by Shakespeare or Milton. Most poems are organized into balanced lines, providing readers with predictable line breaks. These breaks allow poetic texts to be set and sung to predictable musical lines. All of this works together to create songs that are extremely audible.

In the early Renaissance, an attempt was made to recapture the emotional power attributed to the music of Ancient Greece. At the time, both the growing humanist movements and the Catholic church arrived at the same conclusion. For a message to speak directly to an audience, the words must be clear. The following statement is typical, emphasizing simplicity and intelligibility.


Council of Trent

 … Everything should indeed be regulated so that the Masses, whether they be celebrated with the plain voice or in song, with everything clearly and quickly executed, may reach the ears of the hearers and quietly penetrate their hearts. … If something from the divine service is sung with the organ while the service proceeds, let it first be recited in a simple, clear voice, lest the reading of the sacred words be imperceptible. But the entire manner of singing in musical modes should be calculated, not to afford vain delight to the ear, but so that the words may be comprehensible to all; and thus may the hearts of the listeners be caught up into the desire for celestial harmonies and contemplation of the joys of the blessed.
~ Gabriele Paleotti: Draft of Mass Reforms (Canon 8), September 10, 1562

This period set the trajectory of Western vocal music from that point onward. Within the next 40 years, the newly invented genre of Opera adopted, elaborated, and artistically elevated these ideas. Renaissance rules for setting text to music (i.e. text declamation), are still used to this day.

When singing, Westerners focus on the characteristics of oral tradition that support audibility (e.g. sound patterning, fixed line length, and repetition). The creation of a native English liturgy will require the transformation of some Chinese texts from prose to poetry. Further, it takes significantly longer to sing a text in English than to speak it (3 to 4 times as long). As such, it may be necessary to reduce the amount of text sung in each ceremony, effectively changing its content. These observations focus on textual characteristics required for English liturgical texts.

Asking what types of texts English speakers will sing, is not the same asking what they will sing about.
I would be surprised if English and Chinese practitioners felt comfortable singing about the same things. 


  • Bhikshu Analayo, A Comparative Study of the Majjhima-nikaya
  • Ehrman, B., Jesus Before the Gospels
  • Gafni, I., Beginnings of Judiasm, The Great Courses
  • Gethin, R., The Foundations of Buddhism
  • A Guide to the Earliest Chinese Buddhist Translations, Kanno, H., editor
  • In the Mirror of Memory: Reflections on Mindfulness and Remembrance in Indian and Tibetan Buddhism, Gyatso, J., editor
  • Porter, J. & Sorrel, N., A History of Singing
  • Roswell, L., Music and Musical Thought in Early India
  • Rubin, D., Memory in Oral Tradition: The Cognitive Psychology of Epic Ballads, and Counting-out Rhymes
  • Vansina, J., Oral Tradition as History
By |2016-10-30T12:42:37+00:00October 28th, 2016|Adapt, Expand & Create, Words & Music|0 Comments

About the Author:

I am currently living and studying Buddhist music and liturgical development at Dharma Drum Institute of Liberal Arts. I received a B.M. in instrumental performance (tuba) and a B.M. in music theory from West Chester University, a M.M. in Composition at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, an M.Ed in Instructional Design from San Francisco State, as well as a Ph.D. in Composition at the University of Pennsylvania. Most recently, he has been creating online music theory courses for Rutgers University, working as an instructional designer at UC Berkeley, and blogging at about music and technology. (http://musictoolbox.org)

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Stephen Wilcox

Stephen Wilcox

Currently living and studying Buddhist Music at Dharma Drum Institute of Liberal Arts, I am doing my best to learn all I can about this amazing liturgy. I received a B.M. in instrumental performance (tuba) and a B.M. in music theory from West Chester University, a M.M. in Composition at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, an M.Ed in Instructional Design, as well as a Ph.D. in Composition at the University of Pennsylvania. Most recently, he has been creating online music theory courses for Rutgers University, working as an instructional designer at UC Berkeley, and blogging at about music and technology (http://musictoolbox.org) His dissertation, Cho-Han, was performed by Osmo Vänska and the Minnesota Orchestra as part of the 2007 Minnesota Orchestra Composer’s Institute. A BMI award winner and MacDowell Fellow, he attended the Summer Composition Workshop in Hoy, Scotland, where he worked with Sir Peter Maxwell Davies. His other honors include awards from the Arts Fund, NACUSA, New Music Delaware, “Friends and Enemies of New Music”, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, and the Prism Saxophone quartet.

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This Sliding Bar can be switched on or off in theme options, and can take any widget you throw at it or even fill it with your custom HTML Code. Its perfect for grabbing the attention of your viewers. Choose between 1, 2, 3 or 4 columns, set the background color, widget divider color, activate transparency, a top border or fully disable it on desktop and mobile.
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