Song of the Month:

December 2016


Debbie Friedman, the Composer

Deborah Lynn Friedman (1951-2011) was an American Jewish singer-songwriter, whose compositions played an important role in dramatically shifting the aesthetics of liturgical music in the liberal Jewish movements of North America. Friedman’s compositional career began in the 1960s, developing out of the folk music and communal singing tradition of Jewish summer camps. Jewish youth first brought her music into the mainstream of Jewish life and into their synagogues, where many worshippers were seeking more accessible, communal modes of prayer. Friedman’s early compositions were designed to be accompanied by simple guitar accompaniment, but as her career developed, she collaborated with other professional musicians and performed with various ensembles. Friedman’s compositional corpus includes music for the Hebrew liturgy, English translations and interpretations of liturgical and religious Jewish themes, educational songs for children, community and identity-building songs for youth, and introspective songs meant for spiritual healing.[1]


The Text

The text of “Shema' Koleinu” is the sixteenth paragraph of the central prayer of Judaism, the Amidah. It also appears in the Ta’anit Hatzibbur (“Congregational fast” prayer) and in the evening and morning services of Yom Kippur. The full text reads:

אָב הָרַחֲמָן, שְׁמַע קולֵנוּ, ה' אֱלהֵינוּ, חוּס וְרַחֵם עָלֵינו, וְקַבֵּל בְּרַחֲמִים וּבְרָצון אֶת תְּפִלָּתֵנוּ, כִּי אֵל שׁומֵעַ תְּפִלּות וְתַחֲנוּנִים אָתָּה, וּמִלְּפָנֶיךָ מַלְכֵּנוּ. רֵיקָם אַל תְּשִׁיבֵנוּ. חָנֵּנוּ וַעֲנֵנוּ וּשְׁמַע תְּפִלָּתֵנוּ, כִּי אַתָּה שׁומֵעַ תְּפִלַּת כָּל פֶּה. בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה ה'. שׁומֵעַ תפילה.

Listen to our voice, Lord our God. Spare us and have compassion on us, and in compassion and favor accept our prayer, for You, God, listen to prayers and pleas. Do not turn us away, O our King, empty-handed from Your presence, for You listen with compassion to the prayer of Your people Israel. Blessed are You, Lord, who listens to prayer.[2]

This prayer opens with a reference to God who hears the voice of the worshipper, who has mercy on the worshipper, and who receives the worshipper’s prayer. The justification for the worshipper’s request is that God hears prayers and supplications, and then the prayer concludes with a blessing for God.

Friedman set the first line of the prayer (divided into two parts) that encapsulates its main theme:


Part one:

שְׁמַע קולֵנוּ, ה' אֱלהֵינוּ, חוּס וְרַחֵם עָלֵינו

Shema’ koleinu, Adonai Eloheinu, hus ve-rakhem ‘aleinu

Hear our voice, Adonai our God, have compassion upon us


Part two:      

וְקַבֵּל בְּרַחֲמִים וּבְרָצון אֶת תְּפִלָּתֵנוּ, כִּי אֵל שׁומֵעַ תְּפִלּות וְתַחֲנוּנִים אָתָּה

Ve-qabel be-rahamim uve-ratzon et tefilateinu, ki El shomea’ tefilot ve-tahanunim atah.

and accept our prayer with favor and mercy, for You are a God who hears prayer and supplication.[3]


Settings of Shema’ Koleinu by other composers

The combination of the moving words and the inclusion of this prayer in High Holy Day services has inspired many contemporary composers to write melodies set to this text. A number of melodies for "Shema' Koleinu" written by Ashkenazi composers in the twentieth century are in the minor key and its modal derivatives, such as those by Cantor Moishe Oysher,[4] Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach,[5] Eli Gerstner and Dovid Nachman (2001) from the Neo-Hasidic ensemble, The Chevra,[6] Abie Rotenberg (whose melody appears on the fourth album of the band, Dveykus), [7] Max Helfman,[8] Udi and Varda Speilman,[9] and many others.

In contrast to the aforementioned composers, Debbie Friedman chose to take a different compositional route and set the melody in the major scale. In Ashkenazi cantorial music, the major scale and its derivatives are generally perceived as being more joyful, celebratory, and majestic in nature. Yet, Friedman nevertheless succeeded in creating a moving melody that suggests a new way of interpreting Shema’ Koleinu. Her melody not only expresses the fear of the worshipper calling out to the Creator and praying for mercy, but also expresses the optimism of the worshipper who believes in the good and merciful attributes of God. We will see how these ideas are expressed in Friedman’s composition.

The following musical analysis of “Shema’ Koleinu” is based on the score in C major published in the complete anthology of Debbie Friedman’s compositions.[10] The setting consists of three sections, two carrying the text and a third one, without text, functioning as a sort of coda. Each section is repeated, with each repetition ending on a different cadence. The structural notes and the melodic progressions of the song reveal the following features:

Part A: There are two similar moments of calling out to God that are expressed by an octave leap followed by a stepwise descent. The first occurrence begins on the dominant below the finalis to the dominant above and walks down to the tonic. The second time, the octave leap occurs on the tonic, and then the melody walks down to the dominant. The first half of the musical section concludes on the second scale degree on a half cadence. After a repeat of the opening phrase, the entire first section ends on the tonic. The Bb appears as a lower neighbor of the final tonic. Overall, we see a descent on the notes G-F-E-D-C.

Figure 1.

The direction of movement begins with a cry from below to above—the octave leap—and from there, the melody moves from above to below, first from the dominant to the tonic and after the second octave leap, from the tonic to the dominant. A poetic interpretation would suggest that by this gesture, the believer calls to the Creator and the Creator in turn answers the prayer and sends down abundance and blessing.

Part B: The second part of the song begins in the high tessitura and descends on the notes C-B-A-G, from there leaping back up to the tonic. This melodic leap is compensated for in the second half of the phrase, in which the melody descends F-E-D, after which there is a surprise: The phrase does not end, but rather leaps up to the dominant. This leap emphasizes the open circularity inherent in the relationship between the believer and God: The believer prays to God and God returns to answer the believer’s prayers, and then the cycle begins again.

The harmony in the first half of the phrase is in the relative minor (Am) and the second half returns to the original major scale with the lowered seventh and bVII harmony. At the end of the phrase, the transition from bVII to V (the major dominant, not the minor chord with lowered seventh degree) appears, as it did in part A.

Figure 2.

Part C: After repeating parts A and B twice, a coda closes the piece. The coda is sung on the syllables “ya la la” and is centered on the fifth degree (G). It is structured in a classic ouvert-clos cadential pattern. Although both cadences are on I, the feeling of “openness” and “closeness” is created by the melodic line ending on the dominant, G (ouvert), and on the first C (clos). The use of the Bb in both cadences reinforces the tonal ambiguity of this coda.

Figure 3.

The Melody and its Ambiguous Tonality

The song opens, as we have seen, with the dominant below the tonic that then jumps up an octave on the first word, “shema,” and then moves down stepwise to the tonic on the word “koleinu.” This emotional octave leap can be interpreted as a cry of the worshipper, who stands below the Creator who is imagined as being “above.” This “musical cry”—an octave leap at the opening of a melody—appears in modern Hebrew compositions in which the singing subject appeals directly to God. Examples of this dramatic melodic gesture are David Zehavi’s setting of Hannah Szenes’ poem, “Halikhah Le-Kaesaria” (Eli Eli shelo yigamer le’olam—My God, my God, I pray that these things never end), and Yair Rosenblum’s setting of the High Holy Day piyyut, “UnetanehTokef” (Unetaneh tokef kedushat hayom—Let us now relate the power of this day’s holiness).

Figure 4.

Immediately after the opening gesture, there is another octave leap on the word “A-do-nai” (God), this time on the tonic C, which then descends to the dominant on the word “Eloheinu.” The syllable “-nai” in “A-donai” that reaches the high C appears late on the second eighth of the strong beat, perhaps hinting at the flexible rhythm characteristic of the traditional Ashkenazi prayer.

In the descent to the tonic, the flat seventh appears (Bb), a note suggesting a Mixolydian modality.

Figure 5.

This kind of modality is also a characteristic of the Ashkenazi prayer mode (shteyger) called Adonai Malakh. This shteyger is often used in the Kabbalat Shabbat service on the eve of the Sabbath, but we cannot ascertain whether Friedman had this traditional Ashkenazi modality in her mind when she composed "Shema’ Koleinu." Yet, this modality frames the song in a special mood that avoids the major/minor duality. One of the characteristics of the Adonai Malakh shteyger is its major third in the lower tetrachord, and because of its festive character, is used to express ideas and texts related to glory, kingdom, and lordship. However,the lowering of the third pitch (E) in the second octave challenges the major flavor of this shteyger. Moreover, the use of the leading tone (B) below the tonic as opposed to the lowering of the seventh degree above further emphasizes the tonal ambiguity of this mode. See the following figure:

Figure 6.

As we shall see, Friedman does not explore the full range of modal potential of this shteyger but rather hints at it due to the harmonic choices that underlie the melody. In addition, a full development of such a modal framework would demand a piece that is larger than the popular song format of Friedman’s setting of "Shema’ Koleinu."



Debbie Friedman's harmonization of the song does not relate to the traditional shteyger hinted by the melody, but rather uses the Mixolydian mode as the framework. The lowered seventh in the melody leads Friedman to alter three harmonic degrees, as compared to the major scale: the V becomes minor (v), the root of vii° is lowered, creating a major triad (bVII), and the iii becomes diminished (iii°).

Figure 7.

In terms of the use of Bb throughout the song, we find that the seventh is lowered throughout part A. In part B, there is a modulation to the natural relative minor of C major, Am, in which the note Bb disappears momentarily, returning after four bars. In part C of the song the Bb remains, influencing the harmonies bVII and the minor dominant.

In part A, on the words “usve-raem” ("have compassion"), we hear the minor ii chord, which expresses a feeling of mercy according to the affects’ conventions of Western music. Yet immediately afterwards, instead of the dominant (which generally follows the ii), Friedman harmonizes the word “aleinu” (upon us) with the lowered bVII. The major quality of this triad expresses the worshipper’s belief that God does indeed answer prayers. Following the bVII, the major dominant (V) appears, again cancelling the Bb. The contrast between these two major chords is very strong, like a burst of light. The bVII delays the arrival of the dominant after the supertonic ii, resulting in the progression ii – bVII – V.

Figure 8.


Shema’ Koleinu as an Anglo-American popular song

Debbie Friedman’s “Shema’ Koleinu” appeared on the album, The World of Your Dreams, which was released in 1993.

Right around that time, two animated films from the Disney Studios were also released: Aladdin (1992) and The Lion King (1994). These films were milestones in the history of popular music in feature animated films. Alan Menken composed the music for Aladdin and was supposed to compose the music for The Lion King as well. However, as he was not available, Elton John was selected instead. What is interesting to note is that the chord progression bVII – V that we have seen in Friedman’s "Shema’ Koleinu" appears in Menken’s “A Whole New World” from Aladdin (in the last sentence, “A whole new world with you”), and in John’s “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” from The Lion King (at the end of the verse, on the words “Just to be with you”). From a semiotic perspective it seems that this harmonic progression appears in popular music of the early 1990s as a signifier of hope and optimism. Moreover, recent research, such as that of De Clerc and Temperley, points out that the bVII chord is frequent in rock music, as opposed to its relatively rare usage in classical music.[11]

We do not claim that Friedman’s song is a rock song. However, it is clear that the harmonic conventions of popular music during the period in which she wrote “Shema’ Koleinu” had an impact on her choices of chordal progressions. In this sense, the song recalls the pop ballads of the early 1990s and signals the entrance of this globalized musical language into liberal American synagogues. By bringing this widespread melodic and harmonic language into the High Holiday liturgy, Debbie Friedman succeeds in illuminating the text of “Shema’ Koleinu” in a unique way. The tonal ambiguity of the song (major scale, Mixolydian mode, hints to the Adonai malakh shteyger) enabled her to combine a sense of dramatic renewal in synagogue music, while maintaining a fine thread of allegiance to the Ashkenazi liturgical tradition.

[1]For further reading on the development of liberal liturgical music in the United States and the repertoire and career of Debbie Friedman, see: Judah M. Cohen, “Singing Out for Judaism: A History of Song Leaders and Song Leading at Olin-Sang-Ruby Union Institute,” in A Place of Our Own: The Rise of Reform Jewish Camping, eds. Michael M. Lorge and Gary P. Zola (Tuscaloosa, AL: The University of Alabama Press, 2006), 173-208; Mark Kligman, “Contemporary Jewish Music in America,” American Jewish Yearbook 101 (2001): 88-141; Benjie-Ellen Schiller, “The Hymnal as an Index of Musical Change in Reform Synagogues,” in Sacred Sound and Social Change, eds. Lawrence A. Hoffman and Janet R. Walton (Notre Dame and London: University of Notre Dame Press, 1992), 187-212; Tanya Sermer, “Jewish Spiritual Healing, Mi Shebeirach, and the Legacy of Debbie Friedman,” in Soundscapes of Wellbeing in Popular Music, eds. Gavin J. Andrews, Paul Kingsbury, and Robin Kearns, ‘Geographies of Health’ Series (Farnham, Surrey, UK: Ashgate, 2014), 77-88.

[2]Translation from The Koren Siddur, NusaḥAshkenaz: First Hebrew/English Edition (Jerusalem: Koren Publishers Jerusalem: 2009): 268.

[3]Transliteration and translation from Debbie Friedman, “Shema Koleinu,” In Sing Unto God: The Debbie Friedman Anthology, editor Joel N. Eglash, ed. (Transcontinental Music Publications, 2013): 275-76.

[10]Debbie Friedman, “Shema Koleinu,” In Sing Unto God: The Debbie Friedman Anthology, editor Joel N. Eglash, ed. (Transcontinental Music Publications, 2013): 275-76.

[11]Trevor de Clercq and David Temperley, “A Corpus Analysis of Rock Harmony,”Popular Music 30 (2011): 47-70. This article includes a statistical table of transitions between chords. They show that the tonic chord is the most frequently appearing, after which follows the IV, V, bVII, VI, and II.