What is a Cantor?

Mary McMahon

A cantor is a singer. When a singer is referred to as a cantor, it usually means that the singer leads other singers and takes some responsibility for directing musical performance. The position of cantor is often seen in a religious context as many religions incorporate singing into their services and the practice of religious faith and they rely upon cantors to lead the faithful through traditional songs and prayers. However, cantors can also appear in secular musical settings.

Many congregations know most prayers today and do not need a cantor to lead them.
Many congregations know most prayers today and do not need a cantor to lead them.

In Judaism, where the cantor is known as a hazzan, by tradition the cantor is a lay member of the congregation who is appointed to lead people in chanted prayer. Historically, congregations relied on cantors to help them through unfamiliar prayers, while today, many congregations know most prayers and do not need a leader. The position of cantor can still be seen in some synagogues and Jewish communities, and in some nations people have adopted it as a profession instead of a form of lay service to the faith.

In a church setting, cantors will lead choir practice and teach new members how to sing.
In a church setting, cantors will lead choir practice and teach new members how to sing.

The cantor is not equivalent to the rabbi, who has more extensive religious training, although historically cantors sometimes stood in for the rabbi or were viewed as deputy rabbis of sorts who could lead congregations through prayer when a rabbi was not available. Many traditional Jewish songs and chanted prayers have been preserved through oral history passed down through generations of cantors.

In Catholicism, the cantor is called a precentor, and leads the chorus in prayer. Other Christian faiths with songs and chanted liturgies may also utilize a cantor to lead the chorus. The cantor also takes on solo parts and brings the chorus back on track if it starts to stumble. This member of the church is usually a trained musician with extensive experience. Cantors usually lead choir practices and teach new choir members in addition to appearing in performance.

This term may be used in a secular sense to refer to a lead vocalist or a vocalist with a number of solos. Just as religious cantors do, secular cantors help keep singers on track, set the tone, style, and pace of the music they perform, and work with the singers to develop new music and to expand their skills. Some cantors also work as singing teachers, providing instruction in singing for various settings to students at many different ages and levels of ability. Working as a teacher usually requires training and extensive experience in the singing community.

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