Sound returning sound

Katrina DowlingMusic1 Comment

You might have heard of the terms antiphon and antiphonal in relation to church music (as well as music generally). These terms are so nearly identical that it’s a surprise to find that they mean quite different things, even though they were derived from the same root words. Here’s a short definition of each:

antiphonal, antiphonally – a manner of making music in which the ensemble is divided into distinct groups, which perform alternately and together (this is a performance practice); or a description of the resulting musical effect

an antiphon – broadly, a liturgical chant sung in association with a psalm (this is a genre, or category of musical composition); ‘antiphon’ does not imply an antiphonal performance style, but it implies that it alternates with the psalm (either throughout or just at the beginning and end, framing the psalm)

I’d like to return to both the antiphonal style of music-making, which is great fun, and some lovely examples of antiphons, in separate posts, but for now let’s look at where the words came from.

When you look at the root words, you can find them rendered into English in ways that appear to have opposite meanings. Various authors seem to have come from different directions in order to show how we arrived at the terms as we now use them. Taking a quick run through the textbooks and reference books on my bookshelf, along with a couple of online reference works, I find these interpretations of the word origins:

Some give it as sounding against

  • “from the Greek ‘sounding against’”[1]
  • “literally, “‘sound-against-sound’”[2]

In contrast, others give it as sounding with

  • “a Latin loan word from the Greek ἀντιφωνή/antiphonē: ‘sounding with’”[3]
  • “derived from the classical Greek antiphōnos (‘resonating with’)”[4]

Others give it as sounding in answer

  • “Medieval Latin, from Greek: sounding in answer”[5]
  • “from Greek for ‘sound-returning’”[6]

See how the first two sets of etymologies bring out contrasting, not to say contradictory, shades of meaning?

“But who cares,” you might say, “how these people translate the words from which antiphon and antiphonal are derived – surely all we need to do is agree on what we mean by the terms themselves?” True! But also…

Every act of music-making is a political act and a theological act, an enacting of order, a demonstration of relationships. Even a little thing like your understanding of the full implications of ‘antiphonal’ will shape your music into a certain type of little world (either as a listener or a performer). Is your music full of people sounding against each other or sounding with each other? Questions and responses, or unthinking echoes? Do the askers or the responders have more power? Do the answers come from elsewhere, or do they grow out of the questions themselves? Can they surprise or must they only affirm?

As you can tell, I’m not looking for the most correct translation of a Greek or Latin word here – the point is that your world-view (including your theology) both influences how you experience music and results from how you experience music. Including what you think is going on in antiphonal music: sounding against, sounding with, sounding in answer.

Here’s where your experience of antiphonal music could influence your experience of the wider world: in allowing you to entertain the idea that something that “sounds against” you can simultaneously be something that “responds” to you. I think the key to reconciling those disparate concepts is in the translation that renders it as “resonating with” – you can see here that two sound-sources resonating with each other are replying to each other, so that “sound against sound” is a sort of “sound returning sound.”


[1] Andrew Wilson-Dickson, The Story of Christian Music: From Gregorian Chant to Black Gospel (Oxford: Lion Publishing, 2003), 35.

[2] Jennifer Breedlove and Paul Turner, Guide for Music Ministers (Chicago: Liturgy Training Publications, 2007), 39.

[3] W.T. Flynn, “Antiphon,” in Religion Past and Present, Brill Online, accessed November 4, 2015.

[4] Michel Huglo and Joan Halmo, “Antiphon,” in Grove Music Online, Oxford Music Online, Oxford University Press, accessed November 4, 2015.

[5] Macquarie Concise Dictionary, 6th ed., s.v. “antiphon.”

[6] J. Peter Burkholder, Donald Grout and Claude Palisca, A History of Western Music, 8th ed. (New York; London: W W Norton & Company, 2010), 52.

One Comment on “Sound returning sound”

  1. Dear Katrina, I find the concepts you outline fascinating. I have always wondered what the antiphons in advent mean. ( hope I got the right one).
    I have always loved the psalms that seem to be either an enlargement of statement before or a response. When reading such a Psalm at church I have liked to speak the the first part to the : then the congregation speak the second part.
    I will listen to church music with a different ear. Is it calling forth a response from me? Or is somehow my untuneful singing being turned into praise in a way that is beyond my understanding?
    Lots to think about.
    Thanks Judy
    Sent from my iPad

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