Nerding out with Torah trope

Nerding out with Torah trope

If you’ve ever chanted from the Torah, you have at least a passing familiarity with the trope — those notations indicating which musical phrases go to which words. You may have noticed that they fall into certain patterns — mercha, which looks like a quarter circle facing left, for example, is often followed by a tipcha, which looks like a quarter circle facing right.

But have you ever asked yourself — or even your local cantor — what is the percentage of merchas followed by tipchas?

Noah Liebman asked himself a question very much like that. Liebman is a doctoral student at Northwestern University’s joint Ph.D. program in in computer science and communication studies. A couple of years ago, around Simchat Torah, when Deuteronomy cycled back to Genesis, he thought he was noticing a high proportion of the telisha gedolah trope, where Deuteronomy had featured more telisha ketanah.

So he applied some computer science to a problem in Torah communication. He downloaded the text of the Torah, wrote a small computer program, and created a graph.

His suspicion proved correct.

But all good questions raise more good questions. By the time he was through, he had created an interactive website where you can ask these questions yourself. It lets you choose a sequence of trope, and find out how often it appears in the Torah. You can learn that mercha is followed by a tipcha 64.6 percent of the time, and by a sof pasuk, marking the end of the sentence, 26 percent of the time. You trace the trope from the most common (tipcha — 11,264 occurrences in the Torah) to the least (karnei para and yerach ben yomo each show up only once.)

So what are you waiting for, Torah nerds? Go to It’s the chants of a lifetime.


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