The Music of The Psalms

THE BIBLE’S BOOK of Psalms contains some of the most sublime poetry ever written. But it’s not just poetry—each of the 150 Psalms was originally intended to be sung. When words are set to music their power to touch the emotions is enhanced, and they’re also easier to learn.

Many of the Psalms contain invitations to sing, for example:

Shout for joy in the Lord, O you righteous!

Praise befits the upright.

Give thanks to the Lord with the lyre; make melody to him with the harp of ten strings!

Sing to him a new song;

play skilfully on the strings, with loud shouts.

(Psalm 33:1–3)

Some Psalms have a structure that indicates how they may have been sung by different voices, for example:

Let Israel say,

“His steadfast love endures for ever.” Let the house of Aaron say,

“His steadfast love endures for ever.” Let those who fear the Lord say,

“His steadfast love endures for ever.”

(Psalm 118:2–4)

Many of them have headings which are musical directions, for example Psalm 6:

‘To the choirmaster: with stringed instru- ments; according to The Sheminith.’ (Sheminith is the Hebrew word that means ‘eighth’, and probably refers to the key in which the Psalm was to be sung.)

The Original Music

Jewish communities throughout the world have preserved different traditions of singing the Psalms and other parts of the Bible. But is it possible to know what the Psalms originally sounded like? There have been a number of attempts to reconstruct the ancient music. Perhaps the most celebrated has been the work of the French Jewish musicologist Suzanne Haïk- Vantoura, which was completed in the last decades of the 20th Century.

Sample of Bible text with the cantillation marks shown in red

Many of the oldest manuscripts of the Psalms (and, interestingly, other books of the Old Testament) feature symbols written alongside the text. These are known in Hebrew as te’amim, sometimes called ‘accents’ or ‘cantillation marks’.

Haïk-Vantoura suggested that these symbols were originally a method of recording hand signals for directing the temple singers, and that they correspond to the degrees of a musical scale. The musical scale is lost, but after a laborious process of examining and comparing how the symbols appear in relation to the text, which took many years, she was finally convinced that she had decoded the te’amim and rediscovered the original music. She published her research in her book Music of the Bible Revealed, and performed her work widely.

Scholarly opinion is divided. Some are persuaded by Haïk-Vantoura’s claim, some are not.

Recordings of her music are available on the internet. It’s moving and beautiful, and the more poignant when you consider that this may well be the music that Jesus and the apostles listened to and sang—possibly even the music which King David and the other Psalmists originally composed.

The problem for me, and probably for you, is that these recordings present the Psalms in Hebrew. Wouldn’t it be brilliant to hear them in English?


The Psalms have inspired some of the greatest hymns in the English language. For example “The Lord’s My Shepherd”, based on Psalm 23, set to the Scottish tune Crimond, is a hymn which has lifted the hearts of worshippers for hundreds of years and is still popular today. But such hymns are paraphrases of the Bible’s words—they give a flavour of the Psalm and they convey its basic thoughts, but in order to fit the words to the tune they inevitably move the words around and miss some out.

There are ways to enable the Psalms to be sung in their entirety. For example the Anglican chant uses a simple melodic formula which can fit irregular English word patterns. Such chants are easily learned and enable anyone to sing them, but they can lack feeling and they don’t encourage the words to stick in the mind.

An internet search will reveal a number of individuals and organisations who have set some or all of the Psalms to modern music, with varying degrees of faithfulness to the text. Recordings are available, as well as resources to enable you to sing the Psalms individually or as a choir.

The Psalms were written to be sung, and music brings out the beauty and power of the words. But it is the words that are most important:

Oh how I love your law!

It is my meditation all the day.

(Psalm 119:97–104)

Doug Potts

Related Articles

Social Networks


Latest Articles