Notes on Learning Trop (Cantillation)

Notes on Learning Trop (Cantillation)

Markings written alongside the words of the text called טעמי המקרא, also known as ta’amim or trop, are notations that indicate musical notes.  They are designed to aid the reader in pronunciation and emphasis. While we have no way of knowing with any certainty how they were originally sung, communities through the ages have developed melodies that have become the accepted practice.

The טעמים are bound to specific melodies, and their appearance in the text indicates the musical nature of the words. As you become more proficient in recognizing and chanting the symbols, you will become adept at applying them to the words and phrases they accompany. And the task of learning to read with trop is made easier because the number of trop symbols is limited and certain patterns recur frequently.

But more than just cantillation markers, the trop symbols provide additional information. By noting the placement of a symbol over or under a specific letter, a careful reader can often see where in a word to place the emphasis. This can be crucial, as these differences in accents can sometimes change the meaning of a word. Pay attention to how a word is sung—the accent should be on the syllable where the trop appears. However, certain symbols are always drawn on the last letter of a word (פשטא, זרקא, סגול, תלישא קטנה)  or on the first letter of a word (תלישא גדולה) and do not mark the accent. In those cases, the trop symbol in many editions will be printed twice, once to indicate the accent and once at the beginning or end, whatever is standard for that symbol.

While trop placement in a given word helps us to pronounce that specific word correctly, the trop also divides verses into their component phrases. Understanding how the טעמים create phrases will enable you to preserve and accentuate the intended meaning of the verse. 

טעמים are divided into helper te'amim and pause te'amim. The helpers do not appear alone; they exist to lead into other notes, creating pairs or phrsaes. For example, a מרכא will often introduce a טפחא, a מהפך a פשטא, a קדמא an אזלא, a דרגא a תביר, as they are shown above. Helpers also precede other helpers: a תלישא-קטנה always precedes a קדמא, and מנח can lead into many other helpers as well as several pauses. Recognizing these oft-repeated combinations will facilitate your learning the leyning [reading].

The following טעמים are considered pauses, though they vary in the degree of emphasis applied to them.

• סוף פסוק is the sign at the end of every verse, the equivalent of a period.

• אתנחתא  is a hard pause, comparable to a semi colon or comma separating clauses in a sentence.

• Other signs, like זקף קטן, טפחא and סגול, also create pauses to a lesser degree, but still should be noted.

Other symbols are pauses, but are of lesser duration than the ones mentioned above. A reader could choose to take a breath after one of these signs, or merely pause to clearly differentiate the word from the one following it.

A helpful way to use the טעמים to learn the text of the megillah is by learning to sing the most common combinations of ta’amim together. The text above groups many of these phrases, but we have given examples of some of the most common ones below:

• מהפך פשטא זקף קטן  Chapter 7, verse 2:  ביום השני במשתה היין 

• מרכא טפחה מנח אתנחתא  Chapter 1, verse 6:   על-גלילי כסף ועמודי שש

• מנח מנח רביעי  Chapter 1, verse 6:  חור כרפס ותכלת 

• זרקא מנח סגול Chapter 9, verse 19:  הישבים בערי הפרזות 

• תלישא-קטנה קדמא ואזלא מנח רביעי  Chapter 3, verse 12:  ויקראו ספרי המלך בחדש הראשון 

Once you are comfortable with these combinations, try applying them to text with similar trop that you have not yet tried to sing. You may find yourself going back and forth between the text you are comfortable with and the new, unfamiliar text, but perseverance will be rewarding. Repetition and reinforcement are paramount.

Because the טעמים are a function of grammar and syntax, correct application of them will always help readers and listeners understand the meaning of the verse. Additionally, some believe that the טעמים mark certain words with a particular emphasis to set a mood or call attention to a phrase. For example: 

• In Chapter 2, verse 15, the megillah builds anticipation of Esther’s reception by the King with a unique combination of four consecutive מנח sounds, followed by the joyous פזר. 
 ובהגיע תר-אסתר בת-אביחיל דד מרדכי  

• When Haman is forced to call out in the street before Mordechai: “Thus is how the man who the king favors will be treated!” (Chapter 6, verse 11), the megillah starts with an exclamation, a יתיב on the first word.
ככה יעשה לאיש אשר המלך חפץ ביקרו

• In Chapter 7, verse 9, at the precise moment of Haman’s reversal of fortune, the words are adorned with a קרני-פרה, its only occurrence in the megillah.
 אשר-עשה המן למרדכי