Vedic chant dates back at least 3,000 years and is probably the world’s oldest continuous vocal tradition. The earliest collection, or Saṃhitā, of Vedic texts is the Rigveda, containing about 1,000 hymns. These are chanted in syllabic style—a type of heightened speech with one syllable to a tone. Three levels of pitch are employed: a basic reciting tone is embellished by neighbouring tones above and below, which are used to emphasize grammatical accents in the texts. The pitch accent of Vedic Sanskrit, or Vedic accent for brevity, is traditionally divided by Sanskrit grammarians into three qualities, udātta “raised” (acute accent, middle tone), anudātta “not raised” (grave accent, lower tone) and svarita “sounded” (circumflex, higher tone). These Rigveda hymns are the basis for a later collection, the Sāmaveda (“Veda of the Chants”), the hymns of which are sung in a style that is more florid, melodic, and melismatic (one word to two or more notes) rather than syllabic, and the range of tones is extended to six or more.
A simple, numerical system of notation—together with an oral tradition that stresses absolute precision in text, intonation, and bodily gestures—has served to perpetuate this stable tradition and to ensure its uniformity throughout all parts of India. The Vedas are chanted today exactly as they were centuries ago.