Hints for Psalm Singing Using The Comprehensive Psalter
By Tim Baker
(From The Blue Banner, v. 10 #2, April/June 2001)


One of the more encouraging developments in Reformed worship has been the restoration of the Psalter to its proper place in worship in an increasing number of churches across the country. God’s songs are meant to be sung, and after years of neglect, some churches are starting to sing them again. There is power in these songs, because they are God’s Word.

After experiencing the joy that comes from singing God’s Word in corporate worship, some Christians are also beginning to desire to sing God’s Word as part of their daily worship. But unless they are familiar with the Psalter, many Psalms will be neglected, because they are unfamiliar with the tunes.

Now there is an answer to these problems with the publication of The Comprehensive Psalter. In addition to the Psalter itself, Blue Banner Publications makes available a schedule which allows the entire Psalter to be sung through in one year. This may be downloaded from their web site. They have also made MIDI files of all the tunes used in the Psalter available at their web site. With these, you may play them on your computer to accompany your singing.

Having printed music and words before you with the tunes playing in the background helps greatly, but there still may be some awkwardness for those of us who are not used to the Psalter. In this article, I would like to give a few hints, which should help you in getting started.
Singing the Psalms

Like any song book, The Comprehensive Psalter contains both words and musical notation. Generally, one line of words will match up with one line of music. Some exceptions do exist, and examples will be noted below.

In going through the Psalms I have noticed that it’s generally better to ignore commas. They may or may not come at the point in the music where you think they should. In other words, to complete a musical phrase, you may go well beyond a comma in the text. Also you occasionally may find that a word is accented differently when singing it compared to speaking it.

One of the major differences you will find in singing the metrical Psalms is that for words that end in “ed,” you usually pronounce the “ed” as a separate syllable. When speaking, we don’t always do that. We often tie the “ed” to the last syllable in the word. However, there are plenty of exceptions where we do normally pronounce the “ed” as a separate syllable.

As a rule of thumb though, you will almost always pronounce the “ed” as a separate syllable when using this Psalter. If the text calls for combining the “ed” with the previous syllable, it will use an apostrophe.

For example, if we speak of God sustaining us in the past tense, we usually pronounce it as two syllables. God sus-tained us. But usually in the Psalter, this would be pronounced sus-tain-ed. This is seen in Psalm 3, verse 5:

I laid me down and slept; I wak’d; for God sus-tain-ed me.

Notice also the use of an apostrophe in wak’d, which is pronounced in one syllable instead of saying wak-ed. The apostrophe is also used to run syllables together that we would normally speak as separate syllables. Sometimes you’ll see heav’n instead of hea-ven.

Psalm 25:1-7 gives an example of the same word used both ways. In verse three, you’ll see “ashamed” pronounced as a-sham-ed. In the previous verse, you’ll see it the way we normally pronounce it, a-shamed.

Another situation is found with words that end in “tion.” Sometimes each syllable has a corresponding note to sing with it. But occasionally there are more notes to sing in a phrase than there are syllables to pronounce. Often in these cases, you will sing two notes for the syllable preceding the “tion.”

An example is found in Psalm 3, verse 8. The first line would be sung:

Sal-va-a-tion doth ap-per-tain un-to the Lord a-lone.

It also helps to watch the musical score for notation which indicates that two notes are to be tied together and sung without breathing. This is indicated by a curved line above or below the two notes. These marks are not used in every Psalm, but where they do occur, they can help to determine how the words will match with the notes.

An example of this is found in Psalm 78:66-72. In the melody (top notes) you will see these marks in the 3rd, 4th, and 6th full measure. In the example below, I’ve underlined the syllables which correspond to the two notes that are tied together. Using these marks as a guide, the first line would be sung:

Up-on his en’-mies hi-in-der pa-arts he made his stro-oke to fall.

The above suggestions are not to make Psalm singing sound hard. It really isn’t. You’ll find after singing for a while, that most of this will become intuitive.
Special Cases

Occasionally, you will come across a Psalm that doesn’t seem to follow the general rule of one line of words matching up with one line of music. One example is found in Psalm 49:12-20. The first thing to notice is in the top staff, on the end to the right. You will notice that the 2nd measure from the end is divided by two parallel lines. The two lines indicate that you are now to be singing the second line of text. That will become apparent when singing the Psalm.

The other thing you will notice about this Psalm is that you run out of words before the music stops. You will also notice a sign above the two staffs on the bottom line of the score, just before the end. What this means is that the last part of the phrase is to be repeated. Thus, the first two verses would be sung as:

But yet in honour shall not man abide continually;

But passing hence, may be compar’d unto the beasts that die, unto the beasts that die.

Thus brutish folly plainly is their wisdom and their way;

Yet their posterity approve what they do fondly say, what they do fondly say.

Psalm 68:18-26 provides a similar example. In this case there are no parallel lines, and thus one line of music per line of text. But the last phrase of the second line is repeated:

Thou hast, O Lord, most glorious, ascended up on high;

And in triumph victorious led captive captivity, led captive captivity:

Thou hast received gifts for men, for such as did rebel;

Yea, ev’n for them, that God the Lord in midst of them might dwell, in midst of them might dwell.

For Practice

If you own a computer with a sound card and speakers, you can download MIDI files of these Psalm tunes at the Blue Banner web site. <<Click Here>>

Download the file: Comprehensive Tunes.zip. This downloads more than 300 Psalm tunes in MIDI format. These tunes must be unzipped using a program such as PKunzip. Once unzipped, you will be able to use them with any program capable of playing MIDI files. The files are named by the Psalm tune name that appears in the Psalter. The file may have an abbreviated name, but it will be close enough that you can figure out what the tune name is. In some instances there are several versions of a tune, so you may have to figure out which one is the version used in the Psalter. There are also many other tunes included that are not used in this Psalter. You will be able to play these tunes on your computer to practice your Psalm singing, if desired. This is especially good if you want to learn a part to sing other than the melody.

You can take this learning process a bit further if you own sequencing software. You can import the MIDI file into your sequencer, and then mute all parts except the one that you want to learn. Once you have your part down, add the other parts back in for four part harmony. For the ultimate “test” on how well you have learned your part, mute out the part that you just learned and play the other parts. This approximates a capella singing where you are on your own to come up with your part, since no instrument is playing your part. This is an excellent way to learn and train your musical ear.

Closing Comments

If you have not bought a copy of The Comprehensive Psalter, it may be purchased from Blue Banner Books. See their web site: http://www.fpcr.org/catalog/books-online.htm

I am greatly appreciative of the entire staff of Blue Banner Books and the First Presbyterian Church of Rowlett, Texas for publishing this Psalter, providing the MIDI files, the schedule of daily Psalm singings, and for several suggestions, which have been incorporated above.

Soli Deo Gloria

[Tim Baker is a Horticulture Specialist with the University of Missouri Extension system. He is a member of First Presbyterian Church (PCA), Osceola, Arkansas, where he serves as a Ruling Elder.]