Psalter Revision: Governing Principles (4) Music

Previous article in this series: April 15, 2017, p. 329.

In explaining the principles that govern the interdenominational Psalter revision committee in its work, I am treating the how of Psalter revision. In my three previous articles I have examined the principles regarding format and text (lyrics). Next up is to examine the principles that govern us in evaluating the music.

But before examining those principles, I will in this article explain why—not why Psalter revision in general, but why the committee would suggest changes to some music of the Psalter. In my next article, God willing, I will present data to support the “why” regarding music changes. So, stay tuned.

Why Change the Music?

The members of the revision committee have heard various concerns regarding the work of Psalter revision. Most of these concerns regard the changes to tunes.

I can appreciate why these concerns mostly regard tune changes. One reason, I am sure, is that more changes are being proposed to tunes than changes to lyrics.

Another reason is that words find their way into our hearts and souls through music. We who love the Psalter, love the Psalter tunes! By means of these tunes we have been singing God’s praises! The Psalter’s words are so intertwined with the tunes that, when the organist plays the tunes during a prelude or offertory, some in the congregation are singing along in our heads.

In 1905, when our 1912 Psalter was still being compiled, the United Presbyterian Church sponsored a convention in Pittsburgh and another in Chicago to promote Psalm singing and the Psalter that would be presented for use in those churches. At both conferences, this close association in our minds between the words and the tune to which they have always been sung was noted. At the Pittsburgh conference, one man wrote: “We take it for granted that the praise value of the Psalter is linked in a very real sense with their musical setting.”1 And another, at the Chicago conference:

Sometimes word and melody are so sacredly wedded that it is almost heartless to tear them asunder. A particular tune by reason of long association comes to interpret a Psalm for a large number of believers as nothing else can. One need not acknowledge relationship to the old lady of whom Dr. Guthrie tells, who vowed she ‘wad sing the Psalms o’ Daavit to the tunes o’ Daavit, an’ naething else,’ in order to sympathize with the protest…against a too rapid substitution of new tunes for old where the old have become fused with particular words.2

Why did they note this association? In part, to prepare the people to break this association in their minds, and to realize that melodies can be used with more than one set of lyrics. In the 1912 Psalter new words (recently developed lyrics) were set to existing tunes that had been set with other lyrics.

We recognize this association between tune and lyrics, and we appreciate it. This association enables one to sing in one’s heart while the organist is playing. It allows a family sitting at family devotions to join in song when they have no songbook before them.

So why change the tunes? I do understand the question.

The Tunes Serve the Lyrics

Although poetry finds its way into our souls through music, the essential part of our Psalter is the lyrics, not the tunes. Both are important, but the tunes must serve the lyrics, rather than the lyrics serving the tunes.

As evidence that the tunes serve the lyrics, note that our lyrics are based on the inspired Scriptures, while the tunes are not. There are no “tunes o’ Daavit.”

The men who compiled our current Psalter understood that the lyrics were primary. To provide a solid songbook for their churches to sing, they commissioned the writing of new lyrics, then paired those lyrics with existing tunes. They did not include hymn lyrics, but they did pair the new lyrics with the tunes of familiar hymns (Psalters 134, 187, 200, 204, 221, 241, 285, 381, 382, 387, and others), Christmas carols (Psalters 3, 57, 127, 238, 399, and perhaps others), and patriotic songs (Psalter 126). What distinguished their end product from the hymnals of the day was the lyrics, all Psalm based.

Because the tunes must serve the lyrics, it is within reason that the committee face the question: are the tunes serving the lyrics well? Or, in some instances are they not, and would a change of tune help the congregation to sing the lyrics better?

One only has to refer to Psalter 136 for an instance of sobering lyrics that set forth the reality of the death of the fool, paired with a tune which, from the amount of movement in it, can be interpreted as being more joyful and light-hearted. (I use the word “interpreted” intentionally, for that is what one does when pairing a certain tune to certain lyrics; he finds a tune that will interpret the lyrics best). The example of Psalter 136 is only one example but, because it is obvious to many, I use it as case in point.

Let’s take one more specific example to show that a tune might serve a psalm of praise better than one of lament. The hymn “Immortal, invisible, God only wise” is a hymn of praise to the one true God. Its tune (St. Denio) is lively; its movements help the singer sing with joy. In our current Psalter, that tune (Psalter 201, second tune) is paired with words that describe the oppressions that the righteous suffer at the hands of the wicked, at times causing the righteous to despair. The lyrics of Psalter 201 require the tune to be played and sung more somberly than its lively movements suggest. However, the tune is very suitable to the words of Psalter 57. The committee has not finished its proposals for Psalms 1-72, but it is considering propos proposing to use St. Denio in place of the Christmas tune “Adeste Fideles.” Even if we do not make this specific change, this example was intended to demonstrate that the tunes serve the lyrics.

The work of Psalter revision includes the work of evaluating whether the tunes fit the lyrics, and proposing different tunes when the tunes seem not to fit the lyrics well.

The Tunes Serve the Congregation

Not only must the tunes serve the lyrics but they must serve the congregation in her worship of God. Reformed churches emphasize congregational singing. If the congregation will sing, the songs must be singable, not only by a trained choir, but by believers trained in the praise of God, if not in music.

So, even though we associate certain tunes with certain Psalm versifications, we ought still face the question: has every tune served the congregation well?

Is the tune sung in the higher ranges for a long time? This can tire the voice.

Is the timing of the tune difficult for the organist to play accurately, with the congregation following? In the case of Psalters 22, 180, and a few others, that argument can be made.

Is the singer required to hold a note for too long, so that the singing is hindered? I will give a personal opinion (I note that, because in these articles I am consciously speaking for the committee, and not giving personal opinions): to hold a note for 15 eighth beats, as the chorus of Psalter 42 requires us to do, is too long.

Does the music have a soprano/alto/tenor/bass harmony throughout the entire music, or are parts of the music not completely harmonized? At times they are not—Psalters 190, 219 and 226 are examples, but not the only ones.

Do not conclude that changes are being proposed to every Psalter number tune that I have used as an example in this article. Rather, I have used them to show why the tunes must be examined with a view to whether or not they serve the congregation well.

A third reason for changing some of the music can be given. That reason is that some Psalter numbers are rarely sung. To demonstrate this third reason, I intend to provide you with extensive data. This can be best done in a separate article—next time, God willing.


1 Rev. Charles F. Wishart, “The Musical Interpretation of the Psalms,” The Psalms in Worship: A Series of Convention Papers Bearing Upon the Place of the Psalms in the Worship of the Church, ed. John McNaugher, (Pittsburgh, PA: The United Presbyterian Board of Publications, 1907), 439.

2 Rev. William Fulton, “The Musical Interpretation of the Psalms,” in The Psalms in Worship, 450.