Biblical Cantillations

Russell Jay Hendel
Proceedings of Bridges 2010: Mathematics, Music, Art, Architecture, Culture (2010)
Pages 299–304 Regular Papers


This paper presents an expository account of the biblical cantillations, a hierarchical punctuation system used on biblical verses. Although the biblical cantillations developed over a 1000 years ago, the theory underlying them requires the use of three modern disparate fields: Phrase-structured grammars, music, and the grammar of punctuation. Much of the theory is well understood but is generally not accessible to modern English readers because of both language and notation barriers as well as the three technical fields needed to understand the theory. In addition to the expository account presented in this paper, 1) we introduce a simple notational system, immediately accessible to an English reader that mimics the cantillations but does not require prior knowledge of other languages or special symbols; 2) we show how cantillation theory can be succinctly formulated using phrase- structured grammars; and 3) we relate cantillations to the still-forming musical theory of cadences.