A few years ago (ok… five years ago) I wrote an article on how to pray with the Psalms that is located here:
The second consideration for the Psalms is to sing them by way of plainsong or chant. I’m not going to delve into Gregorian chant because the work is much more complex and for those who are just beginning a spiritual practice, keeping up with the melodies and the words becomes distracting. (And then there’s that whole singing in Latin thing.)
If you are not of a particular religious practice keep in mind that many non-religious people do chant and hymn singing not as much for the message in the words, but for the healing rhythm that runs through the body while participating, both in melody and the physical sensation of the lyrics as they are sung.. (I will later share later an interesting article I read on atheists who have a regular prayer practice.)
So there are two types of chanting that are very similar: those in the tradition of the Roman Catholic Church which is the easiest of all to learn and has the most use of Latin lyrics, and the Anglican chant which has slightly more texture of the voices and is a little more complex to sing. Since I grew up with Anglican chant and it’s in my blood and my soul, we will look at that.
In the earlier page above I used a clip from Psalm 23, the most recognizable of the songs, The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want….
Singing works exactly the same with the breath points you see in the lines, except instead of stopping for a pause/breath, that is the point at which the melody phrase changes.
Anglican chanting in general is a 1-2 * 1-2 * etc pattern of two musical phrases.
This runs from the beginning of the psalm to the end. An exception here is if the song has an odd number of lines or verses. We end up the odd line with note #2
Confused yet? Excellent!!
The musical example I have for you shows two musical phrases (plus the breath points,) and how they are split between the verses. Below that, I’ve marked up a copy of the Psalm showing where to sing each phrase.
This melody is chanted as:
- first half of the phrase (breath)
- second half of the phrase (pause)
- first half of second phrase (breath)
- second half of second phrase (pause)
- (repeat to the end.)
- (Optional) depending on your practice, the Glory to the father… is added to the end of all Psalms that are sung in this manner. If you do not use that in your practice, this may be omitted.
More after the song:
(1a) The lord is my shepherd, *
(1b) therefore I lack nothing
(2a) He shall feed me in a green pasture *
(2b) and lead me forth beside the waters of comfort.
(1a) He shall convert my soul, *
(1b) And bring me forth in the paths of righteousness for His name’s sake.
(2a) Yea tho I walk through the valley of the shadow of death *
(2b) I will fear no evil,
(1a) For thou art with me *
(1b) they rod and they staff comfort me.
(2a) Thou shalt prepare a table for me *
(2b) against them that trouble me
(1a) Thou has anointed my head with oil, *
(1b) and my cup shall be full
(2a) But thy loving kindness and mercy shall follow me
all the days of my life, *
(2b) and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.
(1a)Glory be the Father and to the Son *
(1b) and to the Holy Ghost.
(2a) As it was in the beginning is now and ever shall be, *
(2b) world without end, Amen.
If I’ve counted correctly you hear that there are only 5 notes per phrase, regardless of how long the lyric is. The stretch is on the first note, and you repeat that single note over as many words in the verse as necessary until you get to the final four notes. (These numbers will vary by the tune being used, so 5+5 is not a hard and fast rule.)
The great benefit here to that the very long repetition in the lines like “…And bring me forth in the path of righteousness….” is that of the great harmonics that build up in your lungs, radiating through your body as you hold on that one note, repeating it, and turning your attention to the words you are singing rather than having to follow a hymn melody. This brings singing and praying to its simplest form.
These tunes always appear in a tight harmony across a very small musical range so that it’s comfortable for any singer with no wild vocal stretches. Again, through the simplicity of the singing, our thoughts turn to the Psalm itself, and our communal singing is the Amen that wraps it all together.
With practice, these tunes become as well-known to your body as humming, and at that point they become invisible to your reading: they are there in your singing voice, and they do not interrupt your reading and understanding mind.There are a number of different tunes and variations used, and if you look for recordings of singing the Psalms, you will find great examples and can pick tunes that work best for you. The recording that I use in my office is The World of Psalms, a recording of 18 Psalms done in various Anglican chant tunes. It also makes wonderful background music for times you need to knuckle down and get serious.
What is the point of this simple two-phrase singing?
In congregational singing, this is one way to make sure that everybody stays in tempo with reading the psalm aloud together. It also takes your reading of these songs to a deeper and more advanced level. As the music becomes more like humming to you, the minor key used in the music draws your whole being to attention that something special is going on here. Right now, among us all. Holy, if you will.
And as these tunes become so memorized by your whole body, your attention focuses on the words of the Psalm, rather than trying to keep up with a congregational hymn. And the breath points further break it down so that as you’re singing, your attention can stay on … and my cup shall be full, and what that is saying to you as a lyric. The melody only carries the words to your heart.
Think of this as an ancient form of multitasking.
Notice that the melody is very slow. At this point in your meditations, it’s not the time to speed up, to keep on schedule, to hurry on to the next thing that you like to do better. It is a time of very close, focused attention – if this is a prayer, it is a time alone with you and God to sit together, for you to be receptive and calm, and to spend five minutes or so getting your spiritual ducks in order for the day, or put away today’s mistakes at the end of the day.
If you do not have a religious spiritual practice, consider the melody and the simple words. Again, this is a time of centering, of bringing peace to yourself and hopefully to those around you. In order to meditate well, you must first focus well.
Give this a try if you haven’t already, and see how it effects your prayer and meditation time.
Keep the faith!
(Please feel free to leave a comment on any technical errors in the musicology of the above text and I’ll be glad to make corrections.)