Singing the Psalms

by Frances Novillo
Posted at 13:39pm on 13th May 2014

Many churches claim not to sing psalms. I think they mean there’s no evensong with its rich tradition of chanted psalmody, or that a hymn is sung between readings, not a responsorial psalm. In fact, much church music finds its source in the psalms. In exploring the issue of how to sing psalms, the first step is simply recognizing when they’re being sung.

Psalms as Hymns

The canon of hymnody includes versified and Christianized psalms, and hymns which quote psalms or allude to their imagery. Note their diverse themes: There seems to be a psalm for every season of life and liturgy. Well known are hymn-psalms such as ‘All people that on earth do dwell’ (Psalm 100), ‘Praise, my soul, the King of heaven’ (Psalm 103), ‘Fling wide the gates’ (Psalm 24) and of course ‘The Lord’s my shepherd’ (Psalm 23). Less familiar are Martin Leckebusch’s ‘Extol the God of justice’ (Psalm 9), Graham Kendrick’s ‘Who can sound the depths of sorrow’ (Psalm 82), Rae E. Whitney’s ‘Take up the song’ (Psalm 8) and a little gem for Lent by David G. Preston, ‘Hear me, O Lord, in my distress’ (Psalm 143). All are available in Ancient & Modern (2013), a rich source of psalmody for all to sing.

The contemporary Christian music scene does not neglect the psalms. Examples include Third Day’s ‘Your love, O Lord’ (Psalm 36), Graham Kendrick’s ‘To you, O Lord’ (Psalm 25) and Matt Redman’s ‘Let everything that has breath’ (Psalm 150). Choose which ones suit your congregation and help them take these valuable words of faith to heart, rather than provoking resistance. For example, I imagine my congregation would rebel against singing Psalm 46 to the tune Dambusters March, but if yours is more adventurous, then enjoy it as one of many secular tunes appropriated for holy purposes!

Psalms for Choirs

If your church is fortunate enough to have a choir, the range of psalms for choral singing is vast and not limited to conventional Anglican chant. The more capable singing group may like Psalm 121 in Herbert Howells’s Requiem (Novello). O how amiable, a setting of Psalm 84 by Vaughan Williams (incorporating Psalm 90 in hymn form as ‘O God, our help in ages past’, OUP) is equally satisfying, as is Bairstow’s The King of love (Psalm 23), elaborating on a familiar melody. Choirs may enhance responsorial psalms, too. Paul Wellicome’s setting of Psalm 3, You are my resting-place, is published for SATB in Songs, Psalms & Spirituals (RSCM), with an alternative SAMen arrangement on the CD-ROM. Margaret Rizza’s O Lord, I am not proud sets a shorter Psalm (131) in fourpart harmony. Many refrains in the Psallite collection include simple vocal harmonies. This is a comprehensive collection of responsorial psalms, and antiphons with psalm verses. The verses are invariably sung by a cantor, sometimes superimposed on the ostinato refrain. This form is familiar from Taizé chants, including Bless the Lord, my soul (Psalm 103), published in Music for Common Worship I: Music for Sunday Services (RSCM). This book contains an anthology of psalms and canticles in a variety of styles including plainsong, Anglican chant, responsorial, lyrical, many newly-composed and some collected from around the world. The chapter introduction contains essential performance guidance. Each community develops its own rhythm and pace of chanting psalms, but basic recommendations generally apply. Vary any accompaniment to illuminate the text. Shape the phrases, leaning slightly on the penultimate syllable, and don’t dwell on the final word. Singing antiphonally, pick up quickly side to side, but pause at the half-verse to permit a moment’s reflection.

The Cantor's Role

The cantor plays a significant role in singing psalmody:

"The Psalter is sacred trust for the cantor … the cantor lifts up the Psalter to proclaim both its message and a life that is animated by this message. With the Psalter, the cantor accepts the responsibility to lead, teach and proclaim, to own and tell the truth about the prayer book of the church. "
(Quoted in Cantor Basics published by Pastoral Press, available from

In assuming this responsibility, the cantor shares the same ministry as the lector, so clarity of diction and comprehension of the text are essential. Read the psalm in prayer as preparation, and rehearse in church. Like the other Scripture readings, the responsorial psalm should be proclaimed from the lectern. This often has a microphone, so decide how best to use it (or if you choose not to, decide how you will switch it off or push it away inconspicuously). Especially in the absence of a choir, a cantor may sing psalm verses during Communion. Psalms 34 and 116 are particularly apt. Bob Hurd’s Our blessing cup extends the Agnus Dei with psalm verses for two cantors sung over an ostinato refrain. Anne Ward’s Taste and see is published in Cantate for SATB with optional descant. Both are available from

Consider the different occasions on which each psalm might prove relevant. For example, Psalm 34.8, ‘O taste and see’, is suitable for Petertide, while Psalm 91.11–12 is appropriate for the Gospel of the temptation of Christ: ‘His angel guards those who honour the Lord and rescues them from danger.’

Some psalms attract more composers than others, and each setting may emphasize a different aspect of the text. Psalm 139 is a hymn by Bernadette Farrell, ‘O God, you search me’ (The Light of God’s Glory, RSCM) which may be sung as a solo devotional song. Joel Payne has set it as a worship song, Lord, you have searched me (; its verses may be sung over the Taizé chant Lord Jesus Christ, your light shines. The best-known penitential psalm (51) appears in countless musical versions, inspiring ten hymns in Ancient & Modern. There’s a simple responsorial setting by Dom Gregory Murray in the back of New English Hymnal; choral arrangements include S.S. Wesley’s Wash me throughly (The Silver Collection Book One, RSCM) and Attwood’s Turn thy face from my sins (The Bronze Collection Book One, RSCM), and it is quoted by Ronald Corp in Take up your cross (The Way of the Cross and Sunday by Sunday Collection I: Anthems for the Church Year, RSCM).

Short Songs 

Psalm quotations also become short songs, responses to prayer, acclamations, and mantras. Alison Adam’s My eyes are dim with weeping (WGRG) derives from psalms of lament such as 6 and 31; a cantor (or musical clergy or a Reader) invites all to respond to petitions, particularly in services of healing or bereavement. John L. Bell has composed music for a familiar psalm prayer before preaching, May the words of my mouth. This is in his small collection Psalms of Protest, Patience and Praise (WGRG) in which Bell sets some psalms to folk melodies, unsurprising when you consider the linguistic root of the word ‘psalm’ is something like a song and a strum. This puts me in mind of a folk club and its intimacy within community, where stories are narrated, memories shared and oral histories transmitted.

Personal and Public

When singing the psalms, remain mindful of this collective dimension. At times you may be expressing psalm texts which apply to your personal circumstances, but you are not only singing for yourself, of your own relationship with God, but on behalf of others in both the present and the past, and planting seeds which will bear nourishing fruit in future. St John Chrysostom said:

"Do not chant the refrains out of habit, but take them up like a staff for the journey. Each verse is able to teach us much wisdom. Even if you are poor … or … have no time to read, at least remember the psalm refrains that you have sung … often, and you will gain great consolation from them. See what an immense treasure the psalm refrains open to us! … I exhort you not to leave here with empty hands but to gather up the refrains as though gathering pearls, to keep them always with you, to meditate on them, to sing them to all your friends."
(Quoted in Lucien Deiss, Visions of Liturgy and Music for a New Century, Liturgical Press)

Reproduced from issue 68 of Sunday by Sunday. Copyright © 2013 The Royal School of Church Music. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced without permission.



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