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Collection Coptic Orthodox Liturgical Chant and Hymnody

Glossary of Terms

Al-Kāhin, Father Armia Toufiles.
St. George Coptic Orthodox
Church of Brooklyn, New York. Photograph by Carolyn M. Ramzy

Though the following terms can be found in a series of articles by Ragheb Moftah, Marian Robertson, Margit Tóth and Martha Roy, "Coptic Music," in The Coptic Encyclopedia, [1] they are also listed here for easy reference.

'Arīf: An 'arīf was an early 'school master' who taught in Coptic kuttāb or village schools. Traditionally, many of them were blind. In their transcriptions of Coptic music in the late nineteenth century, Fathers Blin and Badet refer to working with these schoolteachers to notate Saint Basil's Liturgy. Some of them were also cantors and teachers of Coptic chant, and were later called a mu'allim (pl. Mu'allmīn).

Daff: Though this is the Arabic term for a wide frame drum in other parts of the Middle East, this word is also used among the Copts to refer to the hand cymbals that accompany the Coptic hymnody. These hand cymbals are officially known as sanj,or sajjāt in the plural.

hazzāt: Literally meaning, "motion" or "movement" in Arabic, hazzāt is a form of Coptic music notation that is emerging from within the Coptic community. As a series of dashes and dots over Coptic texts, this notation does not supply cantors with pitch, intervallic motion, meter, or a specific rhythm but, rather, reminds singers of the length of melismas, placement of words, transitions, the motion of extended melodies, and the upward or downward direction of embellishments.

al-Kāhin: This is the Arabic term for the officiant, or priest, who leads liturgical and other formal church services. Typically, their singing is characterized as the most ornate and rhythmically free.

Khidmat al-Shammās: Translated as The Services of the Deacon, this book was first published in 1859. Outlining the order of the hymns to be sung throughout liturgical services, seasonal hymns, and other church rites, it became a canonical publication with frequent editions published to this day. It was also one of the first major works to be widely disseminated after Pope Cyril purchased an Arabic printing press from Austria.

al-Khūlājī: Best translated as "Euchologion" in English, al-khūlājī is considered the central Coptic Orthodox hymnbook. It lists the texts to most liturgical hymns, doxologies or hymns of praise, as well as prayers that are used throughout all Coptic services. As this is an entirely oral tradition, with the exception of mnemonic aids such as hazzāt used by deacons, there is no music notation in these books. Instead, there are only translations of the Coptic language into Arabic or, in immigrant communities, the language of their new homeland. In the case of the American diaspora, it is in English.

Lahn (pl. alhān): Best translated as "melody," "air," or "tune," this is the Arabic word for the Coptic hymnody that Moftah collected extensively, recorded, and preserved. Though it is not exactly synonymous with the notion of an Arabic mode otherwise known as maqām, it implies certain melody-types that are identified according to the seasons or contexts in which they are performed. Among others, this includes lahn al-huzn or the 'tune of grief,' lahn al-farah or the 'tune of joy,' lahn al-tajnīz or 'the tune of the dead.' For more on this, please refer to Moftah et al. in "Coptic Music." Alhān differ from other Coptic religious genres because they are generally transmitted in the antiquated Coptic language, predominantly performed by male clergy and deacons, and accompany formal church services.

Melisma (pl. melismata): Ragheb Moftah, Marian Robertson, Margit Tóth and Martha Roy have differentiated between two forms of these embellishments, one of which is the melisma or melismata. Unlike the vocalise, a melisma is the elongation of a vowel in free rhythm that allows singers to improvise and illustrate their personal virtuosity. Typically, a melisma lasts ten to twenty seconds, whereas a vocalise can last up to a minute.

Mu'allim (pl. Mu'allimūn): Best translated as "teacher," a mu'allim is a male church cantor who transmits Coptic hymns orally from one generation to another. They formally emerged as gatekeepers of the Coptic hymnody under the Patriarchy of Pope Cyril IV (1853-1861) due to the belief that their heightened memory and hearing compensated for their blindness and allowed them to memorize meticulously such a large repertoire of hymns.

Muthallath: Named after its shape, this metal triangle is one of the two percussion instruments that accompany Coptic hymns today. Along with the sajjāt or daff (cymbals), it not only keeps time, but also produces an intricate rhythm that embellishes the vocal lines it accompanies.

Psalmodia: Besides the Coptic liturgy, this is another formal worship service that involves a large repertoire of Coptic hymns, as well as Coptic and Arabic doxologies praising Coptic saints, the Mother of God, and important church figures. Known in Arabic as "al-tasbihah," this service is performed daily within Coptic monasteries, but only on Saturday evenings within lay communities.

quddās: This is the Arabic term for the "liturgy," the holy service where the majority of Coptic hymns are sung and chanted. This Divine Liturgy, the center of Coptic worship, is essentially the reenactment of the Last Supper, which culminates with the distribution of Holy Communion to congregation members.

Deacons at St. Mark's Coptic
Orthodox Church, Washington, D.C. Photograph by Carolyn M. Ramzy

al-Shammās (pl. al-shamāmisah): The shammās, or deacon, is responsible for leading congregational responses, as well singing responses to the priests’ solos during liturgical services. The singing of the shammās is typically characterized by an ornate style similar to that of the priest, but is generally not as rhythmically free as they are accompanied by the muthallath and the sajjāt.

al-Sha'b: The congregation, or the sha'b, is the third party that performs during the Coptic liturgy. Guided by a choir of deacons, their responses are generally declamatory, less ornate, and sung in simple duple meters.

taratīl or taranīm: Outside of alhān, this is the most widely performed genre of non-liturgical folk songs. Sung in the vernacular Arabic, these devotional songs draw upon indigenous folk metaphors, symbols, and contemporary popular music idioms, and are sung in informal contexts. Unlike alhān, this genre is predominantly performed by women and, at many times, also includes instrumental accompaniment.

Tasabīh and Madā'ih: Coptic religious music is comprised of three distinct genres.  Coptic and Arabic doxologies, otherwise known as tasabīh and madā'h, are usually performed in praise of Coptic saints, St. Mary the Mother of God, and Coptic Church forefathers. These genres are generally performed outside liturgical contexts but are still a part of formal church services such as the Psalmodia.

Vocalise: One of the two types of embellishment that Ragheb Moftah, Marian Robertson, Margit Tóth and Martha Roy identify, a vocalise is an elongation of a particular vowel within a rhythmic framework of a Coptic hymn. Unlike a melisma, a vocalise is usually transmitted and learned as part of the core melody of a Coptic chant, and a vocalise can last up to a minute, while a melisma lasts about ten to twenty seconds.


  1. The Coptic Encyclopedia, pp. 1715-1747, especially pp. 1719-1729. [return to text]
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