The Universal Creation Song

Music is a fundamental part of worship, and was even more so anciently than it is today.  Before the printed word made the sacred word so accessible to the masses, it was passed on from generation to generation orally.  But this was not just the spoken word.  In order for the word to be remembered and said the same way over and over again, over decades and centuries, a mnemonic device was employed to facilitate the reciter.  This device was music.  The sacred word, every word, was put to music.

This can be seen in the way the Bible is written in Hebrew, one of the oldest languages in the world.  In Hebrew, particularly the Hebrew Bible, there are cantillation marks that specify how the text should be sung: 

Hebrew text, vowel points in red, cantillation in blue

Hebrew text, vowel points in red, cantillation in blue

Cantillation marks are described by Wikipedia:

Cantillation is the ritual chanting of readings from the Hebrew Bible in synagogue services. The chants are written and notated in accordance with the special signs or marks printed in the Masoretic text of the Hebrew Bible (or Tanakh) to complement the letters and vowel points…

A primary purpose of the cantillation signs is to guide the chanting of the sacred texts during public worship. Very roughly speaking, each word of text has a cantillation mark at its primary accent and associated with that mark is a musical phrase that tells how to sing that word…

Even the name of the symbols themselves, cantillation marks, gives us a sense of what they are and were used for, the cant- prefix meaning “to sing.”

Michael Ballam

Michael Ballam

A few weeks ago my wife heard some interesting commentary on this subject on a radio show on Classical 89 called “On Stage with Michael Ballam”1.  Michael Ballam is the general director of the Utah Festival Opera, a professor of music at Utah State University, and a very accomplished operatic singer.  He also does some acting.

In his commentary on that program, Br. Ballam said that back in the 1990s he took a sabbatical to go to Israel, and one of the things he wanted to study was the art of cantillation, the way the scriptures are sung in the Jewish synagogue.  This is an ancient tradition, one that Br. Ballam says the Jewish tradition dates back to Moses:

How did Moses, the author of the Torah or The Law, the first five books of the Bible, convey the message to the children of Israel?  He wrote it down on stone or metallic plates of copra, gold etc; he sang the law to them. He couldn’t pass around the law in those plates or in those stones. He would have to communicate orally and he did it by singing. The holy writings or scriptures were conveyed in an oral tradition from generation to generation by chanting. That tradition is called Hassan or hassanot in plural. That’s why I went to Israel. I wanted to understand that tradition. Not having been brought up in that tradition I wanted to understand its derivation. Moses, Aaron and ultimately the Rabbis in the synagogues and temples would convey God’s will through the means of singing his will. It is Jewish tradition that Moses was commanded of God to sing the scriptures to impress upon them their meanings, into their minds and into their hearts.

Br. Ballam wanted to be able to read, hear, and sing those scriptures the way they would have been sung by Moses, and the ancients, before they were written down:

Now, the tradition of chanting the Holy writings were passed down in an oral tradition per centuries until a group of Rabbis in Tiberius, on the Southern shore of the sea of Galilee, determined it was time to write it down, so that it could be more stable. There are a series of marking called Chantalatian markings, there is the prefix Chantalatian, are found in most credible Hebrew Bibles. They are written directly under the words and moved from right to left, remember Hebrew goes from right to left, English goes left to right. They indicate when the pitches go up, when the pitches go down, when they come to a stopping point and when they need to be embellished, given special emphasis. They are supposedly as close to what the children of Israel heard from Moses in the wilderness as possible. One of my goals in going to Israel was to find someone who could read those Chantalatian markings and tell me the authoritarian sound that went with them. I found such an expert, Israel Vault, in a Hebrew University. He began by chanting for me those first lines of the Torah, the Bible. “Bereshit bara Elohim et hashamayim ve’et ha’arets.” The pitch goes up on the word Eloh-im. Why? The name of the Supreme Deity. “ve’et ha’arets”. There is a punctuation there. It comes to a conclusion. That is we hear a cadence. It comes to an end, a period there.

To hear what those first lines of Genesis 1:1 sound like sung in Hebrew, press play in this audio clip:

Genesis 1:1 sung in Hebrew (click here)

This is where things got interesting for Br. Ballam.  The expert, Israel Vault, told Br. Ballam an amazing story, and asked him if he could explain it:

He came to America a number of years ago and was asked to speak in a university in New Mexico. He began to chant the Torah: “Bereshit bara Elohim et hashamayim ve’et ha’arets”. As he began to chant, he noticed a segment of the audience becoming very interested, even agitated by it. At the conclusion of the class was met by a group of students all of whom were Native Americans from a Tribe and they asked him a question. Where did you get that music? He said: well, I got it out of the Bible its right there; it has been there for centuries. Why do you ask? And the spokesperson for this group of Navajo students said: It’s fascinating to us that, though the words are in a different, it’s the same tune that our fathers used to explain the creation to our tradition. Then Israel said to me: I don’t understand this. How could this group in another continent, from another separation of time have this same melody to describe creation from the same perspective that ancient Israel did? He asked me if perhaps, those Navajos could be part of the lineage of the tribes of Israel. Would they in fact be one of the lost tribes? I didn’t have a definitive answer for him but it is very interesting that the same tune that described the creation of the world in ancient Israel is also the same tune that describes the same story in ancient and modern Navajo.

Hugh Nibley would probably explain the synchronicity by telling about the universality of the creation song:

The word for poetry, poiema, means “creation  of the world.”  The business of the Muses at the temple was to sing the creation song with the morning stars. Naturally, because they were dramatizing the story of the creation, too, the hymn was sung to music (some scholars derive the first writing from musical notation). The singing was performed in a sacred circle or chorus, so that poetry, music and dance go together. (Lucian’s famous essay on the ancient dance, among the earliest accounts, takes it back to the round dance in the temple, like the prayer circle that Jesus used to hold with the apostles and their wives — Jesus standing at the altar in the arms of Adam, and the apostles’ wives standing in the circle with them. Some have referred to this as a dance; it is definitely a chorus.). So poetry, music, and dance go out to the world from the temple — called by the Greeks the Mouseion, the shrine of the Muses.

The creation hymn was part of the great dramatic presentation that took place yearly at the temple; it dealt with the fall and redemption of man2

I don’t have a definitive answer either for why the sung Hebrew Bible would be familiar to Navajo Native Americans, but Nibley gives us a good candidate.  Music was used in the earliest of temples to convey the ritual to the initiates.  It was one of the only modes of transmission the people had to pass the story and rites on from one generation to another.  Might the music contained in the Hebrew Bible be the same music sung by the Native Americans to describe the creation story?  Might it be the same creation song that was heard in the temple anciently?  It’s possible.


In other more personal news, I resigned from my job today.  I am a designer by profession, and unfortunately I became overqualified for my position.  If anyone is aware of design work or open designer positions available, I would appreciate any leads.  I do all kinds of design – product design, graphic design, web design, etc.  You can contact me here.

Here’s a link to my design portfolio:

Thank you!

  1. On Stage with Michael Ballam: 2003-15 Judaic Religious Music, Broadcast Date: Sept 20, 2003, transcript. []
  2. H. W. Nibley, “The Meaning of the Temple,” Temple and Cosmos. []


  1. Posted March 23, 2010 at 11:14 am | Permalink

    This is very interesting. Certainly, almost as fascinating as this shared tune is the fact that music seems to be a universal language to begin with! It transcends borders, nationalities, and languages. I have a hunch that music may have existed even before God formed the World.

  2. Posted March 23, 2010 at 10:29 pm | Permalink


    Sorry to hear you are out of work right now. I’ll keep my eye open for listings! This post was quite exciting for me. I wonder how hard it would be to track down the actual Navajo song. Perhaps the song is a sacred one, only shared in ritual like many Hopi hymns.

  3. Posted March 24, 2010 at 4:33 am | Permalink


    This finding is absolutely fascinating. I wish it could be formalized and academically documented. Is there any chance that Br. Ballam would do that?

  4. Posted March 24, 2010 at 7:12 am | Permalink

    Syphax, music is definitely universal. What I’ve found in my readings is that science believes the universe exists upon vibrating energy. If this is the case, then all of God’s creations are literally singing.

  5. Posted March 24, 2010 at 7:24 am | Permalink

    Tod, thank you. That would be interesting to hear the Navajo songs. If anyone knows of where to hear the Navajo creation songs, I’d be very interested to study them. But you may be right about them being sacred.

  6. Posted March 24, 2010 at 7:25 am | Permalink

    S.Faux, that’s a great question. I’ll send an email to Br. ballam and ask.

  7. JL
    Posted March 24, 2010 at 11:16 am | Permalink

    Bryce, also sorry to hear about the employment situation and will pray for the respite to be a short one, but I am so glad to see new posts. How utterly fascinating. I had read Nibley, but the correlation between Hebrew and Navajo traditions is a wonderful footnote to Nibley’s work. It reminds me of the Yahi Indian man (see Ishi Last of his Tribe ( who used the word “Ishi” to refer to himself because his own name was sacred. Ishi is a Hebrew word ( and appears that way in the Book of Hosea in the Old Testament. What more can we discover about this Indian/Hebrew connection?

  8. Posted March 24, 2010 at 11:37 am | Permalink

    JL, thank you. I hope to write more, now that I have more time. It would be interesting to study the Indian/Hebrew connection more. I know there has been some work on this subject in recent years.

  9. Posted March 24, 2010 at 12:26 pm | Permalink

    There are truly serious problems with this whole thesis.

    1) There is not now, nor was there ever, one “authoritative” way to sing the Scriptures in the Synagogue (as opposed to the Temple, which *did* have one authoritative way inherited from the prophets).
    2) There are at least 14 different synagogue rites extant, and that’s not counting the two levels of these rites (the “primitive chant” that is ancient Hebrew folk song and the later “tropes” based on the Islamic Great Tradition).
    3) The reason why some Native American chants sound similar to some synagogal “primitive chants” has to do with the way that genre of folk music is constructed – not ruling out colonization by folk musicians of Hebrew descent in antiquity, however.
    4) All this tells us nothing of how the PROFESSIONAL AND PROPHETIC music of the Levites and prophets was sung. PROFESSIONAL song always has a wholly different construction in principle than FOLK song does. Ethnomusicologist Curt Sachs wrote about that a long time ago, yet he himself missed the mark with regard to the implications for ancient Middle Eastern music. Only in recent decades have we been learning just how far he missed.
    5) Some remnants of the professional liturgy were remembered by pilgrims to the Temple, and now that we know what the professional melodies were (see below), we can trace those remnants with certainty. One (a motif commonly used in Lamentations) even carried over to Gregorian chant via synagogue chant.
    6) As an aside, while the synagogal melodies are aide-memoires, the music of the Temple was not. The consistent testimony about that music, and the notation that preserves it in the Masoretic Text, is that it is an exegetical, not a memory aid: a vehicle by which God speaks to man, man to God and man to man. The Masoretes mention “memorization” not at all in any literature I have seen. Only the Talmudists, who knew only the folk melodies of the synagogue, speak of that.

    The example of synagogue chant for Genesis 1:1 is just one example of many among the “primitive” synagogue chants, all of which differ from each other. Rabbinic Judaism is being ingenuous when it claims any or all of them is the “original” dating back to Moses. It’s like saying every detergent on the market “gets clothes the cleanest”. The claim doesn’t wash (pardon the pun).

    It gets worse, much worse. NONE of the synagogue chants even remotely explains the layout, forms and interrelationships of the cantillation signs (te`amim) of the Masoretic Text or their relationships to the words, yet that is the *sine qua non* of any valid interpretation of those signs. The Masoretic interpretation of the signs as “disjunctive and conjunctives”, to which the synagogue chants have become attached, fares no better. Some since at least the Renaissance have realized that the signs have needed to be deciphered independently, yet all save one has imposed his or her own ideas on what music “should” be on the notation and have likewise failed to explain the notation’s features simply yet fully.

    Do you get the feeling that I’m passionate about this subject? :) I hope I may be forgiven for that. It’s because I was the student of the woman who deciphered the actual meaning of these signs, gave all the proof one could ask for that she actually did so, and started publishing her results back in 1976. She is the late Suzanne Haik-Vantoura, her book and recordings (originally in French) are known in English as THE MUSIC OF THE BIBLE REVEALED, and if you want to hear how Genesis 1:1–5 sound according to the truly Mosaic melody (as sung by Esther Lamandier), I recommend you go to my YouTube channel “teamim” and find this video:

    Unlike the “primitive” chant given above, and the equally “primitive” chant of Native American religions, this chant is actually based on universal musical principles. It takes high culture to discover those principles and actual inspiration to apply them as well as the biblical authors did. I’ve provided a link to my Website discussing Mme. Haik-Vantoura’s discovery at great length. I welcome feedback on this discovery, which has enormous implications for many fields.

  10. Posted March 24, 2010 at 1:26 pm | Permalink

    Thank you John for your comments. While I disagree with some of your conclusions, there obviously needs to be more research done in this area. What was expressed was an anecdote from an accomplished professional musician, and his interactions with an expert from a Hebrew university in reading and singing Hebrew Bible cantillation markings. A couple things I will say is that appears to me that there is no concrete way of knowing if there was ever one authoritative way of singing the scriptures in the synagogue, although it seems the Jewish tradition claims there was. We don’t have recordings prior to the 20th century, so all we are left with are the cantillation markings in the text. We believe the creation account as contained in the scriptures was part of the temple rite, and so it may have been sung in one authoritative way particular to that rite. The Navajos that spoke with Israel Vault said that while the words were different, the melody was the same. I would also contest that music in the temple was used as a memory aid. But I do need to study more on this topic.

  11. Jim White
    Posted March 24, 2010 at 5:29 pm | Permalink

    Isn’t what is referred to as “cantillation” is called “jots and tittles” in the scriptures and is the vowelling for how you correctly pronounce a word? Arabic has something similar to it, but it is not called the same thing. Also, the person who would do the singing of the scriptures in the synogogue wasn’t he called a cantor, for example Eddie Cantor, the actor/singer? The Arabs still do this when they call people to prayer.

  12. Posted March 24, 2010 at 6:32 pm | Permalink

    In New Testament Greek the wording is as the RSV translates it: “not an iota, not a dot”. In other words, not the smallest letter (the yod) nor the least penstroke (some count that as the smallest vowel-point, melodic sign and/or dagesh, a single dot; others claim it’s the penstroke in Torah Scroll Hebrew that distinguishes between certain letters, vowel-points and accents allegedly being unknown then contrary to later testimony and – it is said – some rare Dead Sea Scrolls fragments).

    In English a chanter of Hebrew Scriptures is a cantor, but in Hebrew he is a “chazzan”. Sometimes he is formally called “shaliach ha-Tsibbur”, as it were “the emissary of the congregation” (rough translation). It wouldn’t surprise me if the Arabic term were related to “chazzan”. Arabic does have a parallel to vowel-pointing and in some liturgical texts “ekphonetic notation” if memory serves, extensions of vocal accentuation, much as some other liturgical texts of the period in related languages have (as in Syriac). I have only had the privilege of seeing the Armenian notation of this genre, a true musical notation, written in manuscript facsimile. I would like to compare the earlier Syriac and other notations. I’ve seen tables of the Babylonian Jewish accents as well as the Samaritan accents: corrupt by comparison to the elegant and yet formal Masoretic Hebrew accents. I’ve also seen other tables. All of this fascinates me, naturally.

  13. Tony
    Posted April 2, 2010 at 1:33 am | Permalink

    Brother Haymond, I can’t say how much I got out of this post. It was awesome, as was your portfolio.

    I’ll keep you in my prayers. The only thing I know in relation to design is that my old young mens teacher is, i think, the Global Creative Director for Converse.

    Not much on the internet about him. His name is Paul Tew. Not sure if that really helps, but in any case, wish you the best!

  14. Posted April 3, 2010 at 5:07 pm | Permalink

    S.Faux, I asked Br. Ballam, and he is not aware of any academically documented account of the similarities between the cantillation of Genesis and the Navajo tradition, but believes it must be out there somewhere.

  15. Anna
    Posted March 12, 2013 at 10:44 pm | Permalink

    I just discovered your website today and I find it very enjoyable. When I first saw it I was afraid that I would find the sacred nature of temple mocked or violated as is often the case on the internet. I am very pleased that you have found a way to share all the things you have learned in such a tactful way. I have felt the spirit in some of your blog entries. I did a little search and found a link to the Navajo creation song, but played on flute. At the time I am writing this the link is no longer visible to the cantillation of Genesis that you posted but I found one on my own search and the tunes do sound strikingly similar.

  16. Posted March 13, 2013 at 9:06 am | Permalink

    Thank you Anna.

  17. Posted March 13, 2013 at 10:42 am | Permalink

    Anna, I have relinked the sung version of Genesis 1:1 in Hebrew. You should be able to click on it now to hear it.

  18. Posted March 13, 2013 at 12:30 pm | Permalink

    I’ve just heard the recording. As I suspected: there is 1) NO demonstrable relation to the form, position or layout of the accents, but only to their broad use as disjunctives and conjunctives in the Masoretic syntactic paradigm; 2) NO demonstrable relationship to Native American chant save in general principles which are found in ancient folk music all over the world and which have been documented thoroughly already, and most importantly at all, 3) NO exegetical connection to the real meaning of the words it supports. It merely ornaments the words rather than interprets them.

    This sounds like a series of ornamental “tropes” like a good many other such rites, but the Masoretes themselves knew nothing of this kind of chant, nor did anyone else in extant Judaic records before at least the 13th century. It was only after the rise (and deep influence) of the Islamic Great Tradition that we see music like this appearing in the synagogues and even then, outside of Europe such “tropes” in surviving rites are attached only to the disjunctive accents, or even to the major disjunctive accents only. So how can we argue with any logic that this chant or any other like it (let alone the much more primitive chant described in the Masorah and the early grammarians’ treatises on the accents and in Christian neumatic transcription by Abijah the Norman proselyte), represents anything near what the accents really mean? What’s on this recording would be foreign even to the transcribers of the notation, who if anyone ought to have known – unless, of course, what Occam’s Razor proposes holds true: they received a notation from antiquity (as they affirmed), the significance of which they understood but not the actual meaning (as they also affirmed despite themselves).

    It doesn’t matter whether an “expert” approaches this subject or not. Unless one is able to explain every feature of the notation and its relationship to the words, the theorist has no case – and neither does the historian or the musician. I realize that I’ve just relegated the near-entirety of scholarship on the Masoretic accents to the trash bin where it demonstrably belongs, but there you are. I mean in what relates to the key to the whole problem: what did the accents originally mean? All else has its own interest, but not in the way most people think it does.

    There’s only one way to solve the key problem at this point: use the Hebrew verbal syntax as the guide (as the Masoretes did), but from the correct premise (the notation is primarily musical, not primarily syntactic as the Masoretic paradigm puts forward – the synagogue chant given above, and all others too, are simply imposed on the results of that paradigm). By a combination of pure brilliance and sheer serendipity, Suzanne Haik-Vantoura demonstrably solved the problem, with only the slightest tweaking necessary later thanks to the input of some people (including one of the most notable Masoretic scholars). For one thing, she didn’t have to unlearn the thousand years’ worth of layers of misunderstanding concerning the notation first; she was able to start fresh. Only later, when writing her book, did she fully realize just how much her approach turns the whole world of scholarship concerning these accents upside down.

    SHV herself has had an impressive list of Chief Rabbis and scholars supporting her thesis. But when people started realizing what the implications really were, they started coming up with excuses to turn their backs on it. And that is really too bad, for it keeps archaeomusicology and ethnomusicology, to say nothing of many levels of biblical, Judaic and Hebraic studies, very much in the dark about a good many things. But I don’t have to uphold tradition, religious or academic, simply because it’s tradition. And I don’t care who comes up with the truth on a fundamental subject – I only care about following that truth when I encounter it.

    Now – here is a gem of an example of what results from the one and only explanation of all the features of the accentuation and its relationship to the words in the simplest and yet the most complete possible way. The vocal music is the work of an inspired genius, one who had to write the words and the melody together at the same time… and for the entirety of the Song of Creation (Genesis 1:1–2:3). Let people who can’t or won’t follow SHV’s logic say it’s “too good to be true” if they wish. They might take a look at certain comments by qualified people who find connections in such chant (and in her psalmody too) between Gregorian chant on the one hand and Vedic chant on the other – in a way that suggests in high antiquity, “world music” may have had a single Middle Eastern source and that this sort of biblical chant may descend directly from that source.

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