Psalms and Singing

April 15, 2020
Scrabble tiles spelling the word Pslam

Psalms are an important component of reading scripture in worship. There are many ways to use the psalms set to music. In Christine Gladu’s article “The Psalms: Jesus’ Prayer Book” (Gathering Lent/Easter 2020), she summarized much of the history of psalms, so please refer to that article for background. Here, we will focus on music.

The psalms are situated in the third section of the Hebrew Bible, in the Old Testament. The title psalm comes from the Hebrew word tehillim meaning “songs of praise” or the Greek psalmoi or psalmos meaning “instrumental music” or “the words accompanying the music.” Interesting to think that perhaps the music came first and the words were somewhat secondary!

The authorship of most of the psalm texts has been ascribed to King David, although modern scholars are unsure of this. But they do know that the psalms were written originally for singing, and more than a third of the psalms are addressed to the “Director of Music.” So it’s rather appropriate that we sing them, or a part of them, still today. In worship services around the world, you will hear them read alone or read with a refrain, sung in various genres, and even performed as instrumental versions. Since the ancient music is lost, the psalms have been a source of inspiration for composers worldwide.

The psalms are important in Jewish and Christian worship. In the synagogue, several psalms are used for daily worship and for festival days, and there’s often a Psalm of the Day for Sabbath worship. Similarly, Christians have organized the psalms into cycles for daily reading and worship or incorporated the psalms into various lectionaries used Sunday by Sunday over a period of three to four years. In the Orthodox church, the psalms are used in both corporate and personal prayers. Similarly, in the Catholic faith, the psalms have held an important place in the daily and Sunday liturgies. Interestingly, the psalms are also important to other faiths. Rastafarians have transformed the poetry of the psalms into music, and many psalms have been used as lamentation against colonialism (e.g., “Rivers of Babylon” by Boney M., based on Psalms 19 and 37). The Qur’an mentions God giving David the psalms, and a few of the psalms are mentioned several times.

Many psalms have been turned into metrical poetry and set to hymn tunes. This was especially popular from the time of the Reformation. The Reformed traditions accomplished this in many ways. The Calvinists primarily sang only psalms, not hymns, so the metrical Psalter was of central importance. The first Genevan Psalter was published in 1539. Various English Psalters, including the Scottish Psalter, came into existence right around the same time, about 1549. In the Anglican Church, the Coverdale Psalter of the 16th century still lies at the heart of daily worship in many cathedrals. The Anglicans also use a form of choral singing, called Anglican Chant, in which the choir, in their four parts together in harmony, recite the psalm to various simply harmonized melodies. In the Catholic tradition, although psalms have been chanted or sung in various ways, the most common method today is the responsorial psalm, which is led by a cantor and the congregation sings a response.

The psalms have continued to inspire musicians. Bach, Brahms, Stravinsky, Bernstein, Dvořák, and Reich have set psalms to music, and many contemporary popular composers have done the same. As a collection, they have such breadth and depth that it is no wonder that clergy, musicians, and worshippers have drawn strength and inspiration from them over the centuries.