a musicological view of kogan’s “kaddish”

A musicological analysis of Kogan’s “Kaddish”; looking at the composition from a music historical and theoretical point of view.

In a prior post about musical cognition, I complained about how I don’t remember how I used to hear music. I only remember that it used to be different. At some point my musical training took over and my listening changed.

One of the great gifts to me in this project has been reading reactions from Mira and the members of our virtual minyan. Mira apologizes regularly for being a non-musician and not knowing enough about what she’s hearing, but where she worries about what she doesn’t know and how it disorients her in the music, I appreciate how she’s able to convey what she does hear.

Early on she struggled with feeling lost in the piece and asked me to give her some landmarks. I expressed a fear that teaching her how I hear it could colonize her brain. Isn’t it enough that my brain has been colonized?

Colonize my brain, please. (if you can)

We’ll see where that leads.

I have no training at all when it comes to music. However, I’m more comfortable with an analysis than with being left in the Sahara alone without even a compass (oh, and I really love the Sahara…)

So, taking a deep breath and reminding myself that it’s unlikely that anything I could write during the next year would approach the effect of forty years as a musician and student of music, I am going to attempt here to present an analysis of the piece.


I see Kogan’s writing as a wordless echo of a cantor’s prayer on horn; as Reb Deb has suggested, it is a niggun. It borrows characteristics, then, of Jewish chant: a modal tonality, a selection of melodic fragments assembled in different sequences, and rhythms and phrases either dictated by the text (if it’s a nusach) or freed from but loosely inspired by the text (if it’s a niggun).

Let’s break that down further.

But first, a disclaimer. I haven’t had much opportunity to study the forms and structures of this kind of music, so this isn’t a dissertation; it’s a decent music history student making observations from a fairly limited set of listening experiences.

I’m starting to wonder if I need to find a shul, or perhaps I should say I need to find a place in a shul, so that I can do more listening. Yes, I could just listen to recordings, and many are available from the comfort of my web browser, but this is functional music, and to listen to it outside the participative context of a service is to get only a fraction of its substance.


Those of us who are most accustomed to music in the Western European tradition are most comfortable with two modes: major and minor. Another way of naming the major and minor scales is the Ionian and Aeolian modes. Modes and scales are the same thing, just different sequential arrangements of half- and whole-steps in the compass of an octave.

Most scales or modes are seven steps plus an eighth that repeats the first, up an octave, but there are exceptions. A familiar exception is the blues scale, which has six plus the repeated note at the octave—they’re the notes you’ll hear the most in a blues melody, and the notes most chosen when a blues musician takes a solo. Or the pentatonic scale, recognized immediately as the sound of The Orient—which has five plus the repeat, and it’s all “the black keys.” Kids learn an all-black-keys duet on piano, and that’s pentatonic. So is “Peter peter pumpkin eater, had a wife…”

Major or ionian is whole step, whole step, half step, whole, whole, whole, half, as we go up the scale to repeat the first note at the octave. Natural minor or aeolian (let’s not worry about other kinds of minor here) is whole, half, whole, whole, half, whole, whole.

Another way to think of this is using solfege (movable do, for those who know what that means and care). “Do re mi fa sol la si do” is the major scale or ionian mode. If we instead start on la and go up to la, “la si do re mi fa sol la,” that’s aeolian. It’s the same sequence of pitches, but we choose a different place to get on and get off. Here is the whole set of modes:

  1. ionian: do re mi fa sol la si do
  2. dorian: re mi fa sol la si do re
  3. phyrgian: mi fa sol la si do re mi
  4. lydian: fa sol la si do re mi fa
  5. mixolydian: sol la si do re mi fa sol
  6. aeolian: la si do re mi fa sol la
  7. locrian: si do re mi fa sol la si

What we mean when we say something is in major or minor, or a certain mode, is that the notes in the tune are drawn from that mode, and the resting point of the tune (the note that feels comfortable as a last note) is the note at the beginning of the scale or mode—do in ionian, la in aeolian. Accidentals creep in all over the place according to various rules, the details of which are left as a research subject for the reader, but that’s basically the idea of it.

But here’s a catch—the modes as I’ve just defined them are from a few centuries later, the so-called “church modes” underlying the melodies of Gregorian chant. They are descended from the modes of Jewish and Eastern Christian chant, which are defined a little differently. The Hebrew modes are made up of different melodic fragments or motives taken from the notes of a certain scale (with scale here being the same idea as described above). Compositions in this era were a matter of stringing together those fragments or motives in different sequences to make melodies, along with embellishing the motives (adding extra notes and flourishes) and switching to other modes. It’s more complicated than that, and Jewish psalmody has been evolving over the millennia along with Judaism and music, but this is approximately the basis of what we still hear in temples today.

In Gregorian chant, Catholic monks blended the Judeo- into the -Christian of the Judeo-Christian tradition. All the Jewish modal harmony and phrase-building, mostly syllabic plus some melismatic wandering on Greek and Hebrew texts, morphs into the monks’ chants on Greek and Latin texts. For an illustration (or a test?) of how similar the forms are, see my next post on “Gregorian chant, and Jesus fulfilling prophecy,” coming soon to a blog near you.

I choose to use the church-mode terminology, because it lends itself better to my harmonic analysis of Kogan’s “Kaddish,” which uses Hebraic gestures within modern Western European compositional conventions. I see the piece as being written in E minor, mixolydian mode. It’s tonic is E but its implied key signature is A minor; the piece is based on the “sol la si… sol” scale of A melodic minor.

Rhythm and time

The rhythm of Jewish psalmody is the direct result of the rhythm of its text, plus variation for emphasis, emotive effect, and so forth. For example, the first line of Kaddish is (in transliteration) “Yit’gadal v’yit’kadash sh’mei raba, Amein.”

[This project has audio of the text coming soon, from my rebbe, but for now, see the text and audio links at]

Even if you’ve never read anything like this before in your life, you can probably get the approximate rhythm from sounding it out: .././././-/-/, where . is short and unaccented, / is longer and accented, and – is kind of in between. (I’m making this notation up and probably won’t ever use it again, so don’t waste much time on it.) A chant using this text would have approximately those rhythms, but it might linger a bit on important words in the middle, and it almost definitely would linger on the final “mein” in “Amein” (amen). At the very least, there’d be a pause for breath after “Amein” before the melody resumes for the next phrase.

That’s how psalmody works: you sing the text along some kind of melody or series of melodic fragments, and you let the natural pacing and rhythm of the words set the rhythm of the song. This kind of rhythm is irregular, unless the text is highly regular, and it is additive; that is, the smaller pieces (words and phrases) string together and form a larger whole that can’t really be broken down any way other than into those verbally-defined units.

Other familiar additive-rhythm forms of music include African drumming and Indian ragas.

Contrast this with typical Western European music, which is divisive, not additive. Western music has a meter and rhythmic subdivisions within the meter. For example, “Happy birthday,” has a 3/4 meter (three beats per bar, where so-called 1/4 or quarter notes define the basic beat). That is to say the bars (measures) divide into quarter notes and other subdivisions that are smaller or larger. From my earlier notation, the first line would be ..—/, and in musical terms that would be two eighth notes, three quarter notes, and one half note. That line is one pick-up beat, one full bar, and most of the next bar. The next line of the tune is the third beat of that second full bar, and it works as a pick-up note to the third full bar.

Just about everything an American kid learns in music lessons falls into this kind of rhythmic thinking. Unless that kid sings at a church or shul, or has access to a world drumming class, the notion of additive rhythm is probably completely unfamiliar. Layering additive rhythms from Africa over square meters from Europe is where early syncopated forms like ragtime came from.


Although the spirit of the music has free rhythm, it is nevertheless written in the usual metrical fashion, and it’s in 5/4 time.


I’ve been playing this piece for about twenty-five years now, off and on, and I don’t think I’ve ever paid any attention whatsoever to the fact that the piece is written in 5/4! A weird time signature, 5/4 has 5 quarter-note beats to the bar. It’s unbalanced. Music isn’t usually in five. Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five” is a famous exception, and the only reason it doesn’t sound weird to us anymore is that it’s so familiar to us now.

Why is 5/4 weird? Most (Western) music is in four or two. If you’re marching, there’s a strong beat for each left-footfall and a weak beat for each right-footfall. LEFT-right-LEFT-right is one bar of four beats. When music is in three, you need to make an accommodation for that in how you move. That’s why waltzing is hard for beginners; the strong beat keeps switching feet. (I’m going to assume we’re dancing lead here; follows should reverse left with right and forward with backward.) LEFT-right-left, RIGHT-left-right, etc. To make that work out, ballroom waltzing adds a “forward-out-together” geography


The phrases are seem like they’re even, coming in 2- and 4-bar phrases, but that’s deceptive. I started writing that “it’s in two- and four-bar phrases” before noticing that it’s not actually that simple. The phrasing is far more irregular, and the uneven lengths of phrases are what either build the drama in the piece for us or leave us unanchored, adrift.

The irregularity of the phrasing in this piece seems to be what either propels us through it or leaves us wandering, lost. Let’s look at a breakdown (b=beat, bb=beats, m=measure or bar, mm=measures or bars):

  1. 1b pickup, 1m, land—7bb total
  2. 3bb pickups, 1m, 2bb landing—10bb
  3. 1b pickup, 3mm, 3bb landing—19bb
  4. 2bb pickups, 4bb landing—6bb
  5. 1b pickup, 5mm, 2bb landing—28bb
  6. 3bb, 1mm, 4bb—22bb
  7. 1b, 1m, 2bb—8bb
  8. 3bb, 1m, 2bb—10bb
  9. 3bb, 4bb—7bb
  10. 1b, 1m, 2bb—8bb
  11. 3bb, 2bb—5bb
  12. 3bb, 2mm—13bb

Not exactly two- and four-bar phrases! I am now forced to admit that even though I think I know this piece inside and out and backwards, I can benefit from the discipline of doing formal analysis on it. For example, I have been struggling with a breathing problem in mm. 11–12, where I don’t want to breathe between bb. 1–2 of m. 12, but I need more air by then to be able to play through the phrase into m. 13. Ideally, I would play from m. 11 b. 3 to m. 14 b. 2 without a breath, or at least to m. 13 b. 3. Realizing now for the first time that this troublesome spot occurs in the 28bb phrase—the longest phrase in the piece—goes a long way to explaining to me why I’m having this problem: the phrases have been getting longer, and the intensity has been building, and we’ve finally reached the point where my conception of the pacing pushes my physical limits. I need to rethink how I make this long phrase hang together but still get the Luftpausen I need.

So let’s overlay onto the metrics above what’s happening dramatically, using the terminology that has been developing of its own accord in our discussions. I’ll also add the key areas.

  1. [intro, establish key (E written, A concert)] 1b pickup, 1m, land—7bb total
  2. [extend to dominant (B)] 3bb pickups, 1m, 2bb landing—10bb
  3. [“opening statement,” sub-dominant (A)] 1b pickup, 3mm, 3bb landing—19bb
  4. [question, dominant (B)] 2bb pickups, 4bb landing—6bb
  5. [exploration, turf war between dominant and subdominant (A and B), the breathing problem area] 1b pickup, 5mm, 2bb landing—28bb
  6. [turf war between subdominant and tonic (A and E), victory uncertain; depends on your harmonic imagination] 3bb, 1mm, 4bb—22bb
  7. [“that THING” (stopped horn) reassert tonic, then fake to subtonic] 1b, 1m, 2bb—8bb
  8. [“still questioning, and a tentative imperative” in subtonic] 3bb, 1m, 2bb—10bb
  9. [“but it doesn’t stick;” a final wandering back to tonic] 3bb, 4bb—7bb
  10. [“the affirmation”: reprise opening statement in subdominant, but this time resolve to tonic] 1b, 1m, 2bb—8bb
  11. [reassert tonic] 3bb, 2bb—5bb
  12. [“Ve-imru, a-mein” assertion, finalize tonic, diminuendo fermata a niente] 3bb, 2mm—13bb


Into that framework I will try to fit the text of the Kaddish. As discussed by several of us elsewhere in comments, it’s unlikely that the text of the Mourner’s Kaddish or any other version of the Kaddish will line up directly with the notes of Kogan’s “Kaddish,” but I suspect that the sections and ideas, at least, will fall into place.

For further commentary on the text, see the opening posts in this project:


At the beginning of this project, I dug my copy of the sheet music out of my files and, on a whim, decided to print a copy of it rather than work from my original. I had a hunch that I’d be writing all over the paper and would need to start fresh from time to time. That’s happening! My score is becoming more and more a palimpsest, with pencilled-in breath marks, fingerings, water-dumping reminders, bar numbers over the staves, harmonic analysis in roman numerals under the staves, phrase divisions and lengths, expressive and logistical notes, and the beginnings of text-fitting all over the page and filling the margins. The lower right corner has a dark coffee stain from the first afternoon I sat at the computer to begin this analysis.

By erin

Erin Vang, PMP, BMus, MMus, is Owner and Principal Pragmatist of the consultancy Global Pragmatica LLC®, offering custom JMP scripting, localization program management, and facilitative leadership services. She is also an orchestral horn player who freelances in the San Francisco Bay Area and plays assorted brass for the celebrated dance bands Midnight Smørgåsbord and contraPtion. More about Erin…

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