You might not know it from the contemporary practice of church music, but God’s people have chanted the Psalms for centuries. Some Psalm tones (the melodic patterns  used for every verse of the Psalm) trace back to first-century synagogues.

There is even evidence to suggest that particular Psalm Tones have long been associated with particular Psalms since their use in first-century Jewish liturgy. In theory, then, the same Psalm tone the Western Church typically uses to chant Psalm 113 (Tonus Peregrinus), for example, might very well be strikingly similar to the melody Jesus would have used to sing Psalm 113 in the synagogues of His day.

In this first installment on the practice of plainsong Psalm chanting (in unison on a single melodic line), we will get familiar with the anatomy of plainsong Psalm Tones and the practical realities of how to read and understand any given Psalm Tone.

Choosing a Psalter

However, if you’re going to chant the Psalms in plainsong, you will need a physical copy of a plainsong psalter. I recommend considering two plainsong psalters in particular:

  1. the Nashotah House Plainsong Psalter (to the best of my knowledge, only available by contacting Nashotah House Theological Seminary) and
  2. Saint Dunstan’s Plainsong Psalter (available at Amazon).

Each has pros and cons, and I’ve found that using both has given me a more balanced perspective than I might otherwise have if I’d continued to use only one of them.

The following table gives a comparison of some of the primary characteristics of each psalter:

Nashotah House Plainsong Psalter

Saint Dunstan’s Plainsong Psalter

  • Uses modern chant notation (more user-friendly to anyone who reads music)
  • Uses medieval square notation (more user-friendly to anyone who cannot read music)
  • Takes its language from the 1979 BCP
  • Takes its language from the “Coverdale Psalter” and the Authorized Versions of 1611
  • Prefers practicality over historicity
  • Historically attentive
  • Uses only sixteen Psalm Tone variants
  • Uses fifty-four Psalm Tone variants
  • Includes the Psalter only
  • Includes canticles and chants for the ordinary

I have found Saint Dunstan’s Plainsong Psalter very helpful as I’ve learned how to chant. It is a comprehensive guide to the historical practice of chanting the Psalms using Sarum Tones (the tones originating from the usage of Salisbury, England in the 11th century).

Generally speaking, there are nine Psalm tones, numbered I–VIII with the addition of a ninth, Tonus Peregrinus (my personal favorite). Altogether, Saint Dunstan’s lists seventy-four variations of these nine Psalm Tones, but it only uses fifty-four of those in the Psalter itself. Some of these Psalm tone have numerous variants, and some only a few.

With so many possibilities, it can seem daunting to even know where to begin. For this reason, if you are new to chanting, the Nashotah House Plainsong Psalter might be a better choice for getting started; its simple virtue is that it exclusively uses the sixteen most approachable variants of the nine Psalm Tones.

The Psalm Tones put forth in Nashotah are the ones I use in the corporate worship of my parish because they tend to be easier for everyone. However, in private use, I prefer Saint Dunstan’s because it brings my Psalm singing into closer alignment with historical practice and the same rich language we find the in 1928 BCP.

The Anatomy of a Psalm Tone

The first step to singing a Psalm with any fluency is to understand the different parts of the Psalm Tone. Learning the terminology for each of these parts is not as important thing as understanding how each one works, but I’ll use the terminology so that you know which part of the Psalm Tone to which I’m referring.

The Psalm Tone opens with the intonation (sometimes called an incipit). This portion is only sung on the first verse of the Psalm, usually by the cantor. If the same tone is used for a canticle from the Gospels—yes, you can use these to sing the canticles as well!—the intonation is sung on every verse.

The intonation is followed by a reciting note. This is the pitch were the bulk of the words are chanted. Another reciting note begins the second half of each Psalm verse, which again handles most of the words.

Then as we near the end of the first half of the verse, usually marked by an asterisk, the mediation begins. The mediation is a melodic pattern that closes the first half of the Psalm verse and usually has a certain amount of flexibility built-in to accommodate the number of syllables and where the stressed syllables happen to fall.

In this example, you can see that the first note of the mediation is accompanied by a horizontal line; this indicates that a stressed syllable should, if at all possible, fall on this note. Some psalters do not include indications of stress placement (like the Nashotah House Plainsong Psalter) or use a different kind of mark (like Saint Dunstan’s Plainsong Psalter). There is also a note in parentheses. This note is only sung when the text contains an extra unstressed syllable after the stress. (For poetry nerds, this would be the difference between a trochaic versus a dactylic ending to the half verse.)

The termination is another melodic pattern that completes the Psalm verse in a manner similar to that of the mediation.

Tone VIII 1 with highlighted intonation, reciting notes, mediation, and termination

Tone VIII 1 with highlighted intonation, reciting notes, mediation, and termination

Psalm Tones are remarkably versatile. We might typically associate them with singing in Latin, but they work just as well in English. You can see in the following comparison of Psalm 114 that even among different translations of the same Psalm, the same Psalm Tone can be used. This is true even when there are differences such as the addition of “Hallelujah” in the first verse (on the left), or whether verse 6 is to sung with “skipped like rams” versus “skip-ped” like rams. Or whether the Gloria Patri will use “Holy Spirit” or “Holy Ghost.” Regardless of differences in the number of syllables to be sung, or how different the stress patterns of each are, the same Psalm Tone can be used.

comparison of Psalm 114 in both psalters

Comparison of Psalm 114 in both psalters

One other difference worth noting is how the two pslaters indicate when to move in the mediation or termination. In the Nashotah House Plainsong Psalter, bold text should align with the vertical marks in the music. These do not indicate stressed syllables, but rather when the voice should move off the reciting note. Saint Dunstan’s Plainsong Psalter indicates when to move off the reciting note with a dot that breaks the text, but it’s left up to the singer to figure out which syllables are stressed and how to match them up to the stress marks in the music.

In the following video, I demonstrate how the first two verses of Psalm 4 compare when using the newer and older translations

[vimeo 307880559 w=640 h=480]

Reading Medieval Notation

One of the beautiful aspects of Saint Dunstan’s Plainsong Psalter is its use of Medieval notation (sometimes called “black-note” or “square” notation).  For some it may be as intelligible as hieroglyphics, but this kind of musical notation can prove more intuitive for anyone who doesn’t already read music. With a little bit of training and practice, both music and non-music readers can chant together using this system.

Unlike modern notation, which uses a five-line staff, medieval music is written on a four-line staff, like this one.

Four-line staff

Whether or not you read music, you’ve probably seen modern clefs like the ones below. Medieval clefs tended to be much more simple and were not ties to any particular pitch. Thus they can be very flexible to an individual or congregation who may not be able to sing beyond a certain vocal range.

Modern clefs vs. Medieval clef

The line enclosed by the clef sign merely tells you which line is to be regarded as do. So channel your inner Maria von Trapp and sing down from do to find the first pitch of the chant.

Solfège pitch assignment to the four-line staff

Medieval notation contains a variety of unfamiliar square- and diamond-shaped notes called neumes. Unlike modern musical notation, the shape of the note has nothing to do with how long the note should be held. Rather, the note shapes tell how many notes occur on one syllable of the text.

  • Single neumes indicate one note per syllable.
  • Single hollow neumes for extra syllables. (When working with people in my parish, I often refer to these as “ghost notes” because you can see through them and they aren’t always there.)
  • Neumes bound together (ligatures) are used when multiple notes are sung to a single syllable of text.
  • Perpendicular ligatures are sung ascending, that is, beginning on the lower note and rising to the upper note.
  • Diagonal ligatures are sung descending.

Examples of various neumes

(In the following video there is a little cross or dagger interrupting the text of the Gloria Patri. This is called a flex, a decoration of the chant melody that was inserted at certain points where a brief pause was appropriate. For the sake of simplifying this introduction, I observe the pause, but not the decoration typical of the flex. However, it is visually highlighted when it arrives; Saint Dunstan’s psalter includes instructions on how to perform the flex for those who are interested.)

[vimeo 307881020 w=640 h=480]

If this isn’t your cup of tea, in a future post, I’ll give some tools and demonstrate how you can adapt Psalms for your parish or yourself. This is what I do for my home parish, but doing so trades in time for customization.

(If you’re interested, we’ve also got guides on how to chant the Venite, Te Deum, Benedictus, Magnificat, and Nunc Dimittis from the hymnal.)