The history of psalm-singing is as old as the Book of Psalms. The Anglican tradition goes back for several hundred years, starting with Thomas Tallis and his contemporaries and becoming standard in English churches by the 1800s. The psalms themselves are usually taken from the Book of Common Prayer, or the Oxford/London Psalter, which means that the language used can often feel antiquated in comparison with the more modern language versions.
The 150 psalms are sung on set dates in accordance with the church calendar, and are divided so that the entire set is repeated each month. This electronic version of the Book of Common Prayer has the psalms handily divided for each day, which is separated into morning and evening. There are anything from one to six psalms in one session, including the 15th day Evening psalm (78) which has a total of 73 verses1!
Taken from the tradition of 'Gregorian' Chant and plainchant, the singing of psalms these days resides mainly in High2 churches, with the occasional singing in some Low3 churches. Those wishing for a more general introduction to church singing may wish to read the article on Anglican Choral Tradition, which covers all aspects of the job of the choir.
Psalms are usually sung during the offices of Evensong, Matins and Eucharist. At Evensong you can also sing the Magnificat4 and Nunc Dimittis5 to a psalm chant, although many churches prefer to sing a more ornate setting.
What Does A Psalm Tune Look Like?
Singing a psalm is, in many ways, easier than singing a hymn. Everything is notated in a way which (should) make every person's version the same, using a system known as 'pointing'.
Each psalm can be sung to any psalm tune6, as they all follow the same format. They can be either 'single' or 'double' chants. The single chant is one verse (of a psalm) long, and the double two.
The chant looks much like a simple hymn tune. It is usually written in four-part harmony, one or two chords to the bar. A single (one verse) chant usually takes the form of:
- Bar 1: One semibreve (whole note)
- Bar 2: Two minims (half notes)
- Bar 3: One semibreve
- (double bar line)
- Bar 4: One semibreve
- Bar 5: Two minims
- Bar 6: Two minims
- Bar 7: One semibreve
An example of this in notation can be found on the Wikipedia page for Anglican Chant.
A double chant has this sequence twice. It usually also finishes the first half (bar 7) on a chord other than the tonic chord, so as to prevent finality and to enhance continuity. Another way of presenting a double chant is to double bar length, so there are only four bars for each verse (eight overall).
Of course there are variations, but the majority of tunes follow this pattern. There are often passing notes added to make the harmony more interesting.
How Do You Sing A Psalm?
There are several symbols in use in Anglican psalm-singing. This is known as the 'pointing', and explains how to sing a set of words.
The line (|) is the equivalent to a bar line. In other pointing an inverted comma (') is sometimes used. You move onto the next chord in the next bar. A colon (:) means the same thing, but is part of the original words and not inserted just for singing. When it does occur it marks the middle of the verse at the double bar, and the pointing will be arranged so that the colon always comes in between the two semibreves of the tune.
The dot (.) breaks up the text if there is a need to clarify which syllable needs to be sung to which note (explained in greater detail later in this Entry). In psalters it does not occur as a full stop but higher up, in the same way that a bullet point does not sit on the line but slightly above it.
The star (*) is there as a pause, usually used if there is a very long set of words on one chord. This allows the choir to break and breathe, and also allows for better shaping of long sentences. The comma (,) can also used but, like the colon, is already present in the text, not added to help singers.
This is the first two lines of the Nunc Dimittis, with its standard pointing.
- Lord, now lettest thou thy servant de|part in | peace: ac|cording| to thy|word.
- For mine eyes have | seen thy.sal | vation: which thou has prepared before the | face of | all | people.
|'Lord, now.... de'||will be sung to the note of the first bar.|
|'part in'||will take the two notes of the second bar.|
|'peace'||will take the first note of the third bar.|
|'ac'||will take the second note of the third bar.|
|'cording'||has two syllables, so will take the two notes of the fourth bar.|
|'to thy'||will take the two notes of the next bar.|
|'word'||will end the section with the final note.|
The second verse follows in the same manner. The only tricky part is 'seen thy.sal', which has three syllables but only two notes in the bar. Here the dot divides the syllables - 'seen thy' occurring on the first note and 'sal' on the second. If it is not clear there is usually a dot to clarify. If not, a choir will have its own method of dealing with the problem. The standard procedure is to remain on the first note until the final word, which takes the second note, but this can change from place to place so beware.
Other Notes for Effective Psalm-singing
When singing a psalm, the most important thing to remember is that you are, in essence, reciting the words. Although sung, in order to make clear the words they must be pronounced as if you were saying them out loud. This may mean that some bars are much longer than others, and some will be very short. Remember that it is not a hymn, and that there is no set rhythm. Also make sure that your organist has the same copy of the words that you do. If they do not there is no hope of you being able to sing together.
At the end of the set of psalms, the Gloria is always sung to the same tune as the psalm. The pointing is standard, and you will usually have to perform it from memory as it is not printed with the psalm.
Glory be to the Father, and ' to the ' Son: and ' to the ' Ho-ly ' Ghost.
As it was in the beginning, is now, and ' ever ' shall be: World without ' end ' A- ' men.
There are two ways to sing the Amen. The first is:
- ...world without ' end ' Amen. The word 'end' is slurred between both minims of the bar, and the Amen takes the last three notes.
The second is:
- ...word without ' end, A ' men. The word 'end' only takes one of the minims and is sung quickly, with a break before the Amen.
The Gloria (and possibly the final verse of the psalm) is the only place that is is appropriate to slow down.
What About Accompaniment?
Psalms can be sung unaccompanied or with an organist7. The organist has a key role in psalm-singing, and a skilled organist is essential to making psalm-singing worthwhile. If the choir is weak, the organist provides a foundation to support the harmony of the choir. If the choir is confident, that lets the organist loose to make the psalm more interesting. This usually involves changing registration8 to reflect the words of the psalms and the dynamic9 that the choirmaster has set. Many organists also like to compose (usually on the spot) descants10 to ornament the tune. They also help keep the chant moving, especially if the choir or congregation tend to slow down, usually at the end of the verse.
Some choirs, amateur and professional alike, have fallen into the trap of singing so slowly that the words cannot be understood. Even if the singing is of the highest quality, that does not matter if you cannot make out what they are singing about!
Another usual fault is elongating the vowel that occurs before a barline. It is very common, especially amongst parish choirs, who will have sung that way for decades.
The final fault is singing for too long. Even the staunchest supporters of psalm-singing will admit that twenty minutes will test the patience of any congregation. If you have three very long psalms set for your day, remember that you have to keep them interesting to keep the attention of those that are listening. You are there to make the Word more accessible, not send people to sleep! Some people do this by having several tunes for each psalm. Another method is to sing one or two of the psalms, and recite (ie, without music) the remaining psalms.
Collections of psalm chants and their words can be found in psalters, of which there are many different versions. If you have a knowledge of musical harmony, try writing a tune yourself! They are a good exercise in the rules of harmony and counterpoint, similar to Bach Chorales.
There is another, more modern but widespread method of singing psalms in Anglican churches. This is called the 'responsorial' psalm. As the title suggests, it takes the form of a call and response. One person (or the choir) sings one or two verses of the psalm. Everybody then sings the response, which is usually identical each time. It can be a short phrase from the psalm itself or another phrase which suits the tone of the psalm.