Psalter revision: Governing principles (5) music

Previous article in this series: September 1, 2017, p. 473.

I am explaining why the interdenominational Psalter revision committee proposes changing some of the music of the Psalter. In our previous article, we noted the two main reasons. One was that the tunes must serve the lyrics; certain tunes are more appropriate for the lyrics than others. Another was that the tunes must serve the congregation by enabling her to sing the lyrics well. A tune that the congregation cannot sing well, even if set to beautiful lyrics, does not serve well. The revision committee is evaluating the music (tunes) of the Psalter with these points in mind.

At the very end of that last article, I gave a third reason for proposing changes to some of the music of the Psalter. That third reason was that some Psalter numbers are rarely sung, begging the question whether a change of music would serve the congregations well. In this article, I will give support for this third reason.

Data gathered

Before the committee delved in earnest into the work of Psalter revision, Mr. Josh Hoekstra compiled data regarding how often individual Psalter numbers are sung in our churches.

With one exception (data gathered from the Grand Rapids Heritage Reformed Congregation [HRC], covering the years 2008-2015), the data is exclusively from the PRC. This means that the version of the Psalter from which this data is collected is the PRC version, which ends with Psalter number 434, so Psalters 435-450 are not included in it. By using this data, the committee makes an assumption—a reasonable assumption, even though without conclusive proof—that the frequency with which the HRC and Free Reformed Churches (FRC) sing any particular number is roughly the same as that with which the PRC sings it.

This data is a broad sample of the PRC’s use of the Psalter. For one thing, it includes every Psalter number sung in every church in the PRC in 2015. For another, it includes a sampling of data from individual PRCs over a longer period of time: Byron Center PRC from 1984- 1994, Hudsonville PRC from 1994-2003 and 2012-2014, and other PRCs from 2006-2015, whose bulletins were publicly available.

This data contains 77,189 “data points.” One “data point” refers to one Psalter number being sung one time by one congregation. If one congregation sang four Psalter numbers at a worship service, and had 110 worship services a year, it would produce 440 data points a year. So 77,189 data points could be gathered from 175 congregations over the course of a year, or from 30 congregations over the course of almost six years. I reiterate: this is a broad sample.

To ensure the accuracy of this sample and its usefulness for our purposes, the data does not include the doxologies that the various congregations sing at each service. This omission of the doxologies explains one curiosity. According to the data, Psalter numbers 196 and 197 make up 9 data points—that is, were sung a total of 9 times out of 77,189. In reality, they were sung over 1500 times in 2015 alone. But the data is not skewed by songs that are sung at every worship service.

I lack the space to present the complete data, and desire not to bore my readers with statistics. Rather, I cull from the data the points that I think are important.

Frequently and infrequently sung Psalter numbers

The data demonstrates that certain Psalter numbers are sung more frequently than others. Even if no data were collected, this point is obvious; you can be glad we did not spend millions of dollars to conduct this study!

The helpfulness of the data is that it identifies which numbers are sung more frequently, and which are seldom sung. I will present the top 22 Psalter numbers in each category. I picked the number 22, because it is 5% of 434, so represents 5% of our Psalter.

The 22 Psalter numbers that we sing most frequently make up 9,232 of the 77,189 data points. To restate: 5% of the Psalter accounts for 12% of the songs collected in this data. In order from most frequently sung to least (top down), these top 22 Psalter numbers are 83, 140, 381, 203, 71, 51, 403, 134, 241, 278, 360, 69, 426, 368, 29, 408, 27, 187, 349, 163, 251, and 217.

The 22 least frequently sung numbers, in order from least to most frequently sung (bottom up), are 167, 414, 410, 432, 433, 148, 19, 178, 219, 361, 93, 105, 412, 180, 155, 46, 119, 122, 118, 314, 189, and 296. Together, this 5% of our Psalter was sung 488 times—about .63%.

That 5% of our Psalter makes up 12% of our singing, while another 5% makes up less than 1%, begs the question: why? The answer does not come readily. One number might be picked often because it is the minister’s or congregation’s favorite. Or, perhaps a minister was preaching a sermon series that led him to pick certain numbers rather than others. Some numbers might be picked seldom because the minister does not like the tunes, or the congregation does not know them. But no one answer explains why particular Psalter numbers are sung frequently or infrequently.

Because no one answer can be given, the committee is not necessarily proposing a change to every tune of those numbers that are rarely sung. But the committee is ready to ask the question: does the congregation not sing the number because the tune is not singable? Or does the tune not serve the lyrics well? Can some improvement be made?

Frequently sung psalms

The data also indicates which psalms are frequently and infrequently sung.

Following is a list of the 20 most frequently sung psalms, with four more pieces of information: the number of times they have been sung in our data sample, the number of Psalter numbers based on that psalm, the percentage of the 77,189 data points that they represent, and the percentage of Psalter numbers based on that psalm. After presenting the data, I will help you understand it.

Psalm  # times sung  #Psalter #’s  % data points % Psalter numbers
119………..4,329………….23………….. 5.75………………5.3
103……….. 1,742…………. 8…………..2.26…………….1.84
51………….1,595…………. 5…………..2.07……………. 1.15
25………….1,529…………. 10………….. 1.98…………….2.30
22………….1,484…………. 5………….. 1.92……………. 1.15
116………..1,208…………. 5………….. 1.56……………. 1.15
16…………. 1,161…………. 4 ………….1.50…………….0.92
40………….1,135…………. 5………….. 1.47……………. 1.15
145………..1,134…………. 6………….. 1.47……………….38
73…………. 1,117…………. 4………….. 1.45…………….0.92
84…………. 1,111…………. 6…………..1.44…………….1.38
65………….1,104…………. 8………….. 1.43…………….1.84
118………..1,097…………. 5………….. 1.42……………. 1.15
89………….1,081…………. 4………….. 1.40…………….0.92
19………….1,046…………. 6…………..1.36…………….1.38
98…………….992…………. 5…………..1.29……………. 1.15
23…………….963…………. 5…………..1.23……………. 1.15
122…………..950…………. 3…………..1.23…………….0.69
48……………. 917…………. 4………….. 1.19…………….0.92
27…………….879…………. 4………….. 1.14…………….0.92

To evaluate this data, compare the last two columns. If the numbers in these columns are relatively close, one could conclude that a congregation is singing from a certain psalm an average number of times, considering how often a versification of that psalm appears in the Psalter. Psalms 119, 145, 84, 19, 98, 23 are sung about as often as one could expect, considering how many selections from these Psalms are included in our Psalter.

When the number in the first of these two columns is significantly greater (“significantly” can be as little as .5 of a %) than that in the second, we have indication of a “favorite” psalm, sung more frequently than others. Psalms 103, 51, 22, 116, 16, 40, 73, 89, 122, 48, and 27 are obviously favorites; on average, they are sung more often than the number of selections in our Psalter would lead one to expect.

When the number in the first of these two columns is less than in the second, we have evidence that a particular psalm, though popular, is not overused. Psalms 25 and 65, though sung frequently, are not sung as often as one might expect, considering how many selections they have.

The data presented in this section might appear to give no warrant for reviewing the music of the Psalter. But consider this: the first 13 psalms mentioned above (following the list from Psalms 119 through 118) account for 25% of the songs we have sung. About 9% of the psalms account for about 25% of our singing! At least one reason for this would be that some of the psalms are longer, and have more versifications. Another reason is that some are favorites. Neither of these reasons are bad. But they beg the question—what about the psalms that we do not sing often? Are we singing from some psalms at the expense of others?

Infrequently sung psalms

This data gives warrant to review the music of the Psalter, especially in the case of those psalms which are not frequently sung. Following is a list of the 25 least frequently sung psalms.

Psalm  # times sung #Psalter #’s % data points  %Psalter numbers
129…………….21……………1………. .027……………… .230
74………………32……………1………. .042……………… .230
123…………….39……………1………. .051……………… .230
114…………….43……………1………. .056……………… .230
120…………….45……………1………. .058……………… .230
60………………46……………1………. .060……………… .230
52………………52……………1………. .067……………… .230
10………………61……………2………. .079……………… .460
13………………61……………1………. .079……………… .230
58………………61……………1………. .079……………… .230
59………………66……………1………. .086……………… .230
57………………71……………2………. .092……………… .460
64………………72……………1………. .093……………… .230
6………………..78……………1………. .101……………… .230
83………………79……………1………. .102……………… .230
54………………82……………1………. .106……………… .230
134…………….82……………1………. .106……………… .230
28………………87……………1………. .113……………… .230
20………………90……………2………. .116……………… .460
53…………….103……………1………. .133……………… .230
14……………. 110……………1………. .143……………… .230
131………….. 117……………1………. .152……………… .230
3………………126……………2………. .163……………… .460
109…………..129……………2………. .167……………… .460
21…………….130……………2………. .168……………… .460

One thing this data underscores is that many psalms (37 in all) have only one versification in our Psalter; another 41 have only two versifications. Sometimes the second versification is a completely different rendition of the psalm (for example, Psalm 109 in Psalters 300 and 301); other times, the two Psalter numbers make one complete versification of the psalm (Psalm 57, in Psalters 154 and 155).

Also, this aspect of the data reveals that selections from these 25 psalms were sung a total of 1883 times; 17% of the psalms account for less than 3% of our singing! In fact, to give a broader statistic that is based on the data, 83 psalms (55% of the divine Psalter) account for the “bottom” 25% of the songs we sing. We sing from 67 psalms, or 45% of the divine Psalter, 75% of the time!

Why do we sing from some psalms less often than from others? Again, no one reason can be given. Some psalms are shorter—an understandable reason. But the question that must be faced is whether by singing from some psalms more than others, we are overlooking some of the experiences of the child of God in life. Are we focusing on the Christian’s joy more than on his suffering? Are we ready to sing the imprecatory psalms, which ask God to judge the wicked? (Psalms 6, 52, 58, 83, and 109, all found in the list above, are imprecatory psalms).

The questions do not have obvious answers, and neither the committee as a whole nor I individually are arguing for a certain answer. However, in evaluating the music of the Psalter, the Psalter revision committee is asking the question, To what degree does the music of the Psalter number contribute to its being seldom used? God has given us 150 psalms to use for singing in worship. As much as possible, we should sing them all—not that we must sing them all as frequently as the others, but that we should make a conscious effort not to ignore any.

I present this much of the data as further explanation as to why the committee would consider changes to the music. In some instances, the proposed changes will involve adding tunes and lyrics. In other instances, it will involve keeping the current lyrics but pairing them with different tunes.

Having explained more why we would consider changing some tunes, let us turn next time to the principles which guide the committee in evaluating them.