First published in June, 2010,
Last updated November, 2013
Note: this article kept growing
until it finally split into two parts.
Part two has Some Psalter Reviews
Three ways to sing the Psalms
and teach me thy judgments.
The book of Psalms (Tehillim in Hebrew) was the prayer book of the Israelites in their synagogue worship. There are recorded instances in the Bible where Jesus took His words directly from the Psalms -- He even used the Psalms when He cried out in agony on the cross. And later when Jesus appeared to John on the Island of Patmos and told him what to write to the Churches, He still quoted the Psalms!
Many of the Psalms are prayers which we can offer to God. Other Psalms tell us about God and His mighty acts. So we pray some Psalms and reflect on others. The Psalms are a conversation between God and His people. And when we read aloud those Psalms that talk about God, we join God in proclaiming His word to all who are around us, whether visible or invisible.
Martin Luther said this about the psalter, which is another name for the book of Psalms:
The psalter ought to be a precious and beloved book, if for no other reason than this: it promises Christ's death and Resurrection so clearly--and pictures His kingdom and the conditions and nature of all Christendom--that it might well be called a little Bible.
The preface to the Tehillim by the Kehot Publication Society has this quote from Tezmach Tzedek, the third Lubavitcher Rebbe:
If one would only know the power of the verses of Tehillim, and their effect on high, one would recite them continuously. The verses of Tehillim transcend all barriers and ascend higher and higher, imploring the Master of the Universe until they achieve results in kindness and mercy.
Pope Benedict XVI has said that the Book of Psalms can teach people how to pray and is the prayer book par excellence:
These inspired songs teach us how to speak to God, expressing ourselves and the whole range of our human experience with words that God himself has given us.
Praying the Psalms can bring amazing results within you and in the world around you. It can help you and your family in times of disaster (see Psalm 91: God's Umbrella of Protection and Psalm 91: God's Shield of Protection ).
Some psalters are arranged to be read through entirely once a week (and twice a week during Lent). Some monastics pray the entire psalter -- all 150 Psalms -- every day!
A daily dosage of Psalms -- even only one Psalm a day -- might sound a bit tedious. That is, unless you sing them. The Psalms were intended to be sung. You may have noticed little notes to the chief musician or choir director at the beginning of some Psalms. In 1 Chronicles 29:31 we read of King Hezekiah ordering the Levites to sing the Psalms, and apparently they already knew the tunes because they just jumped right in and started singing:
Moreover Hezekiah the king and the princes commanded the Levites to sing praise unto the Lord with the words of David, and of Asaph the seer. And they sang praises with gladness, and they bowed their heads and worshipped.
The book of Psalms is a song book. Try reading through a book of your favorite songs without singing them and see how dry they are, like cornflakes without milk.
Sing the Psalms, and you will find how gratifying it is, and you will look forward to doing it again.
There are very few clues, and no musical notes in our English Bibles to help us sing the Psalms, but today there are several ways to sing them. This page describes three good ways that I've discovered: Metrical Psalms, Plainsong, and Anglican Chants.
1. Metrical Psalms
In order to sing the Psalms, one has to either edit the words to fit tunes, or create tunes to fit the words.
Metrical Psalms are of the first type, words edited to fit tunes. A standard metrical Psalm is written in Common Meter which is 220.127.116.11. That means in a four line phrase, there will be eight syllables, then six syllables, then eight syllables, and then six syllables.
Here are some familiar tunes in Common Meter:
This is just a fraction of what is out there. Do you see any favorite tunes in this list? Amazing Grace is beloved by many, including myself, but it can seem a bit short if you've got a good harmony going and don't want to stop. With a metrical psalter you can belt out Amazing Grace with gusto until the cows come home and never repeat a single verse.
Actually, as one reader pointed out, Amazing Grace is the name of the poem written by John Newton in 1779, and that famous tune came fifty years later and was called New Britain. Several hymns in the list are probably the names of poems rather than tunes.
One of my favorite Common Meter tunes is St. Flavian. Here it is in the key of F. Notice the heavy bar in the middle of each line. That tells you where to divide the text. As you can see, eight notes are followed by six in each line of music.
Here are a few verses of Psalm 103 in Common Meter. Try singing these verses to St. Flavian or a few of the tunes listed above (note that "stirred" is two syllables instead of one, as in "stirr-ed" while "bestow'd (bestowed)" is pronounced with two syllables and not three):
If you had a psalter arranged in Common Meter, you could have a great time singing the Psalms to a variety of tunes. They are beautiful when sung well in rich four part harmony, a cappella (without instrumental accompaniment).
There are lots recordings of metrical Psalms on YouTube, many which came from actual worship services. Great fun! There are also some amazing professionally recorded collections of Metric Psalms out there, including this one called Psalms In Harmony which was performed by one person singing all the parts in very tight harmony with perfect blend, as one would expect when the same voice does all the parts.
Of the three ways to sing Psalms covered in this article, the sound of metrical Psalms is probably the most familiar to our ears.
The Psalm text above came from the Scottish Metrical Psalter of 1650 also called The Psalms of David in Metre. This work is considered to be a careful translation that is faithful to the original Hebrew text. Some parts are even a closer reflection of the original Hebrew than the prose Psalms found in the English Bible because subtle nuances of the Hebrew text were brought out where extra syllables were needed.
Whether or not the Hebrew is strong in this psalter, the English is clearly a bit strained. Imagine the incredible amount of work that had to go into this to fit the words to meter and also make them rhyme! Still, it communicates the meaning just fine, and you may come to love it. The slightly unnatural English text of Psalm 23 (and the tune that always goes with it) in this psalter is well known and beloved by many:
Some churches sing metrical Psalms exclusively (no other hymns) which I personally think is a great idea. Why sing hymns written by people when you can sing the powerful Word of God -- especially since you have so many great tunes to choose from, and are free to create more tunes in any musical style?
You can order a copy of The Psalms of David in Metre from the Trinitarian Bible Society. They also sell Bibles with these same metrical Psalms in the back (in addition to the regular Psalms in the Bible, of course). You can also order it through Amazon.
Here is another edition of the same metrical psalter plus a few other metrical psalters at Amazon:
Some of these have the older form of English which I love, being a fan of the Authorized King James Version of the Bible, but the majority of books listed on this page are in modern English.
The other way to sing Psalms is to keep the words in their original form, and create tunes to fit the words. Of course, this could result in 150 different tunes with complex and unpredictable melodies. Fortunately there is another option: chanting. Chanting is a combination of speaking and singing. This is the key to singing text without rearranging it; most of the words are spoken in a monotone on the same note, and a small part of the text is sung to specific notes and rhythms, giving the chant its musical quality.
One very old form of chanting is called plainsong, which has been around since the early centuries of the Christian Church, if not earlier. It is possible that parts of plainsong chants we have today came from the synagogue chants which were familiar to Jesus. Plainsong is also called Plainchant. Gregorian Chant is a form of plainsong.
Plainsong is especially suited to individual prayer since there are no harmonies or instrumental accompaniment, and the range of notes if relatively narrow and within the range of the average person. You can determine how high or low the chant will be sung, so no chant is ever outside your singing range.
The music for plainsong chant (also called plainchant) comes from nine different basic tunes called Psalm Tones, and there are variations within these nine Psalm tones.
In a plainsong psalter, the text is marked (pointed) to give the reader clues as to how to fit the words to the music. Each psalter has its own system of pointing, but they all follow the same basic principles.
Here is a Psalm tone (number 2 out of the nine, usually identified by a Roman numeral, so it is Psalm tone II) with pointed text from Psalm 103:8 (hint: in Do RE MI terms, the first note in this example is FA, but it has so few notes, you can consider it DO if that makes it easier):
In the text, the slashes separate the string of words that fit one long note (the long bar) from the words (or syllables) that take individual notes. The asterisk marks the division between the first and second section, and corresponds with the bar in the center of the music. In some psalters a colon is used instead of an asterisk for this.
Plainsong was originally written in a form of music notation known as neums, which are the ancestors of modern music notation. Some plainsong psalters still use neums while others use modern notation. Here is the same chant in neums (and in this example the first note really is DO on the DO RE Mi scale):
There are a few other elements of plainsong which aren't covered here, but if you have grasped this much, then you'll have no problem with the rest.
I have created a small card, basically 3X5 inches with 5 of the simplest, most versatile Psalm tones, so I can tuck it into my Bibles for quick reference to use with any of the Psalms. If you would like to try it, I also made a PDF with a sheet of 4 identical cards (since there was extra room on the sheet) and some extra instructions. Someday if I'm brave, I may even record them in order to cut through all the confusion caused by typed instructions.
If you use a plainsong psalter regularly, you will soon have a collection of Psalm chants in your head at your disposal so that even when you open the Psalms in your Bible, you will be able to sing them naturally because the chants will pop into your head.
The Plainsong Psalter of 1932 mentioned above is nearly impossible to find, but Lancelot Andrewes Press came to the rescue by producing Saint Dunstan's Plainsong Psalter, which is mainly based on the Plainsong Psalter of 1932 but expanded to include Canticles and all the elements you would need to chant Morning and Evening Prayer (Matins and Evensong) of the classic Book of Common Prayer. It uses the same Psalm tones from the 1932 Plainsong Psalter, even assigning the same tones to the same Psalms, and adds several more tones to the longer Psalms. While the 1932 Plainsong Psalter was written in modern musical notation, this psalter is done in the original square neum notation which is really much easier to sight read because it is less cluttered. This is an excellent work, and fills a great need. You can get a copy from Lancelot Andrewes Press or Amazon.
Here is a web site with recordings of various Psalms chanted from The Saint Dunstan's Plainsong Psalter, chanted by Brother Benedict, OSB of St. Augustine Orthodox Church in Denver. Also, recordings of The Compline Service at St. Mark's Cathedral usually include chanting of the Psalms in beautiful Plainsong by a men's choir.
Here are a few other plainsong related materials at Amazon:
A simple improvised plainsong type of chant
If you don't want to find a plainsong psalter, here is a very simple and versatile chant that will serve as a springboard for improvisation. The first note is written as C, but that is only to show how the other notes relate to it. Simply think of it as DO on the DO RE MI scale, and sing it as high or low as you want.
The long square bar is for singing the majority of the words on one note in a natural reading style. Then you change the note of the final syllable or syllables as indicated in the music: go up a note at the end of the first line and drop down two notes at the end of the second line.
Different words break at different places. For example in Psalm 93 (below) the word "majesty" would require an accent on the first syllable but not the final two syllables. If such a word occurs at the end of the first line, go up a note on "ma" and drop back down to the original note for "jesty" (I put this "dropping back down" in parentheses in the music score since sometimes it is needed and sometimes it is not). On the second line, you have a choice, depending on what sounds most natural to your ears. You could drop down a note in the middle of "girded" as I have done, or somewhere else.
Most Psalms are divided into groupings of two lines each. The chant is therefore divided into two sections. If there are three lines grouped together instead of two, just repeat the notes of second measure for the final line.
(This is a departure from traditional Plainsong which would have you modify the tune for the first line instead of the last line, but with this improvised method, there is no need to plan ahead or backtrack when you suddenly discover you still have an extra line.)
Note that the words "robed" and "moved" can also be split into two syllables if you are using the traditional way of pronounciation as in the word "wicked." This could result in a change in the melody:
There is no universal agreement on which words should be divided and where. Feel free to improvise and let the words divide naturally according to your own judgement. If you are singing by yourself to God, then there is no need to conform to established formulas.
An even simpler form of chant is called recto tono which is Latin for straight tone. You simply recite the entire Psalm on one note! I once heard a guy behind me in church chanting a Psalm this way and thought he was simply being rebellious or displaying some kind of misguided piety. Now I realize he was chanting in a very old and acceptable form. Try it some time and you might warm up to it. It's probably the easiest form of chant to use with straight text versions of the Psalms; because your chant is on "automatic pilot" you don't have to think about the delivery and can focus more on the content of the Psalms.
3. Anglican Chants
Another way of singing Psalms which conforms the music to the text is called Anglican Chant. This form of chant came from plainsong, and was created to allow Anglican church choirs to chant the Psalms in four part harmony. It first appeared around the same time as the first Book of Common Prayer in the 16th century, so apparently it was intended to be used with the psalter (produced by Miles Coverdale) in that prayer book. Plainsong at the time was in Latin while Anglican Chant was in English. By the way the Coverdale psalter is still widely used, and is printed in several prayer books as well as pointed psalters, both plainsong and Anglican Chant.
The original Anglican Chants were simple, and sounded like plainsong. But over the years, Anglican Chant has evolved into beautiful and complex pieces which are wonderful to hear when performed by a choir. If you search for "Anglican Chant" on You Tube you find some absolutely beautiful samples which will move you to tears.
A lot of Anglican chants were intended to be sung by choirs in four part harmony, and therefore do not hold up well when sung by an individual. However, there are many simple Anglican chants with solid melodies which are great for chanting alone during your personal prayer time.
Here is the melody (soprano) line of a classic Anglican chant that appears in many old psalters and hymn books. Below it are two lines from Psalm 103 of the Coverdale text with pointing as it appears in the Cathedral Psalter (in that particular psalter a different chant is used with this text). If you need help, the final note is DO on the DO RE MI scale:
Praise the Lord | O my | soul : and all that is within me | praise His | holy | Name.
The upright bars in the text correspond to the bars in the music and the colon corresponds to the heavy bar (it's a good place to pause and take a breath). Usually the whole notes will contain more than one word -- even a string of words, while the half notes are assigned to one syllable each. You may feel tempted to rush through the string of words to get past it and on to the musical part, but just take your time and read the words naturally with feeling. The same goes for plainsong.
Here I have colored the parts to show how they go together:
The great thing about Anglican Chants is that there is one standard pattern so any pointed Psalm will fit any Anglican chant. This makes a text-only point Anglican Chant Psalter like the one below very useful.
Here are a few other books of pointed Psalms for Anglican Chants at Amazon:
Anglican chants in their most basic form consist of ten notes in seven measures. It would be very easy for anyone to compose new chants based on this forumla, and sing the Psalm texts from one of these pointed psalters. With this form of chant you could add chords and play a guitar or other instrument while you chant the Psalms. David played a harp, you know. It could open up a whole new world of possibilities for you.
Which to choose
While all three forms can be used successfully in any setting, I personally think Metrical Psalms really shine when sung in harmony by a group of people, while Anglican chants are best when performed by choirs and Plainsong is perfect for private prayer time. If I am away from home, and have only a text version of the Psalms with me, I will use the simple improvised plainsong type of chant described above or even recto tono.
Other forms of chanting
Byzantine Chant is a form of chant used in The Orthodox Church. One way it differs from Plainsong and Anglican Chanting is that there is a lot more improvisation involved. The tone (or scale) of each chant is given, which determines the beginning, middle and end notes of each phrase (like a Plainsong Psalm tone)
I'm not familiar enough with it to say much more than this, but there is a Byzantine Chant workshop in podcast form on the web called Glory To Thee with a downloadable PDF text for you to start leaning this style. It can be found at Ancient Faith Radio.
When you cannot use your voice
In the 4th century Saint Augustine wrote about his mentor Bishop Ambrose of Milan and his amazing ability to read without using his voice. Apparently there was a time when nobody read silently or even considered it! But today, sometimes you have to share your devotional space with people who are doing other things, and vocal expression is not an option. You can still elevate your experience of the Psalms by saying them silently and deliberately. A lot of people move their lips when they read; it's not a big deal (unlike in Saint Augustine's time).
One method which I have found very helpful in such situations is to take a breath before every phrase and say that phrase silently while exhaling. It helps you to focus, prevents you from drifting absent mindedly through large sections, and can be very rewarding. By the way, in noisy crowded places, ear plugs can make a world of difference in your ability to concentrate; in noisy crowded Tokyo, I use earplugs a lot.
Having said all that, I still encourage you to sing or say the Psalms out loud when you can. If you are not getting much out of your devotional time, find a time and place where you can use your voice and see if it doesn't make a world of difference; it certainly does for me. If you pray a Psalm mentally, your mind can easily wander, but if you are using your voice, then the Psalm is entering your mind via your eyes and ears for double input. You might forget what you read but remember what you heard.
I often use my voice when I'm walking and praying or reciting scripture, and I usually sing rather than just speak (setting scripture to music helps you to memorize and retain better, by the way). Lots of people sing to themselves when they are walking in public. It's funny actually; people who talk to themselves are considered odd and to be avoided, while people who sing to themselves are considered perfectly normal, and possibly in a more healthy emotional state than others.
Great Fasting food
No, that's not a typing mistake. The Psalms will help you make it through times of fasting, substituting spiritual food for physical food. It is very appropriate, in light of Jesus' words in Matthew 4:4 (which was a quote from Deuteronomy 8:3):
Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God.
At the times when you would normally have a meal, or whenever you feel hunger pangs, just jump up and say "lunch time!" and sing a few Psalms. Having a psalter on hand is like sitting next to a salad bar; just pick it up whenever you like, open to the bookmark, and read the next Psalm or several Psalms, and then get on with your fast with new strength. The Psalms have everything you need, or (to drive the salad metaphor into the ground) all the basic food groups such as prayer, praise, confession, etc.
This is a great time for singing the metrical Psalms, which are a little more fun and musically gratifying than chanted Psalms. If the Psalms were food, the sung metrical Psalms would be the fun food (the level of fun depending on which tunes you use, I suppose). During a fast I will chant some Psalms and sing others. If you have the freedom to do so, belt out those Psalms and leave the hunger pangs behind.
Fasting is not some spooky or super spiritual practice for monastics. It's not supposed to be a sad or gloomy experience. It's simply a discipline which reminds the appetite who is really boss (or in more biblical words, keeps the flesh in submission to the spirit). I'm not skinny by anyone's definition, but I wonder about the role of fasting in the lives of some really obese members of the clergy I've seen. Maybe they need to go to Heaven's salad bar more often.
It was assumed in the Bible that all Christians fasted. Jesus said "when ye fast" rather than "if ye fast" in Matthew 6. Singing Psalms instead of eating a meal is a good way to introduce this practice into your life. Very simple and rewarding! It can be as little as a one or two meal fast, so most people should be able to work a little fasting into their schedules.
The dark side
Just a word concerning some of the "darker" Psalms that ask God to punish our enemies. Remember that no living human being is beyond the transforming power of God's salvation. The apostle Paul who was originally bent on destroying the Church is a good example. No human being in this world can be written off as an enemy of God, or of His people. Our true enemies are described in Ephesians 6:12:
For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.
These enemies assault the Church and its members every day through human agents or directly. You can keep these unseen enemies in mind as you call down God's judgement -- and pray for the salvation of their human agents. This should help with at least some of the dark Psalms.
Make it your own
One thing last thing: As you concentrate on singing the Psalms, it is easy to forget what is really important, namely to make the words of the Psalms your own.
In 2 Samuel 24, King David wanted to build an altar and make an offering to the LORD at the threshing floor of Araunah (also known as Ornan in 1 Chronicles 21). Araunah offered to give David the oxen and wood and everything he needed so he could make the sacrifice. But David insisted on paying for them and making them his own before offering them to the LORD. Otherwise he would be offering something that was not his. When you open the Psalms and make a sacrifice of praise to the LORD, make them your own words. Otherwise you will be offering up somebody else's sacrifice.
I struggle with this almost every day. I'll chant several verses, feel happy that I was successful in combining words with music, and then realize that the words went from the page to my mouth but somehow bypassed my mind. At those times I simply backtrack and chant the lost verses again. I like to think that this makes the devil really angry, who would rather not hear those Psalms chanted over again. Of course, some people don't let it bother them, and simply move on without doing it again, and that's fine, too, of course. As I've said before, the same Psalms will come around again in a few weeks anyway.
Chanting the Psalms brings great blessings. As you make the words of the Psalms your own, you will be forced to conform your attitudes and thinking patterns to God's Word; it will transform you. You'll discover a thrill that you never knew was hidden in the Psalms. In your spirit you will perceive that God has been there with you as you prayed His words back to Him. Even if you were sleepy or tired or uncomfortable as you sang the Psalms and felt you didn't get much out of it, afterwards you may feel like the two men on the road to Emmaus who later realized that their hearts were burning within them simply because they were with Jesus. Your spirit will crave that experience again and again. That alone should be more than enough reason to want to try this!
In part two of this article I describe some of the psalters that are available, in addition to the ones already mentioned above.
Links to some of the books mentioned above, plus related books
Chanting the Psalms A Practical Guide with Instructional CD
Scottish Metrical Psalter
A New Metrical Psalter
The Book of Psalms for Singing
Psalms Reader For Teaching Twenty-First Century Children to Read Fluently and Worship Their Creator
Anglican Chant Psalter
Anglican/Episcopal Book of Common Prayer
The 1928 Book of Common Prayer
The 1662 Book of Common Prayer Black French Morocco Leather
The Psalter-According to the Seventy
Orthodox Psalter - Pocket Edition
Liturgy of the Hours (4-Volume Set)
Christian Prayer : The Liturgy of the Hours (1-Volume Set)
Shorter Christian Prayer Four-Week Psalter of the Liturgy of the Hours: Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer
Morning and Evening Prayer
A Shorter Morning and Evening Prayer The Psalter of the Liturgy of the Hours
The Mundelein Psalter
The Divine Office Volume 1
The Divine Office Volume 2
The Divine Office Volume 3
The Perfect Prayer Book: My Daily Psalm Book
The Psalms, New Catholic Version, A St. Joseph Edition
The Divine Hours, Pocket Edition
The Revised Grail Psalms: A Liturgical Psalter
The Paraclete Psalter: A Four-Week Cycle for Daily Prayer (Ecumenical Psalter with NIV Psalms)
Book of Psalms Pocket Edition
The Artscroll Tehillim
Book of Psalms With an Interlinear Translation Schottenstein Edition, Artscroll (Hebrew Edition)
Tehillim: Transliterated Linear - Seif Edition
Pocket New Testament with Psalms
Pocket New Testament, Psalms and Proverbs: English Standard Version Black Leather
New American Standard New Testament, Psalms and Proverbs
NIV Pocket Thin New Testament, Psalms & Proverbs
Deluxe Pocket New Testament, Psalms and Proverbs: King James Version
Vest Pocket New Testament With Psalms
New Testament and Psalms-RSV-Catholic
Pocket Bibles containing both New and Old testaments
NASB Compact Reference Bible, Black w/Snap Flap
NASB Compact Bible with Snap Flap
NASB Pocket Bible with Zipper
NKJV Bible with Snap Flap
NKJV Pocket Bible, Designer Series
Ignatius Catholic Bible-RSV-Compact Zipper
Japanese Liturgy of the Hours: Kyoukai no Inori from Amazon Japan
Books about the Psalms
Psalms: The Prayer Book of the Bible
Psalm 91: God's Umbrella of Protection
Psalm 91: God's Shield of Protection
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