Psalms Meters and Tunes: How Does the Metrical Psalter Work? | Seedbed

Sing: A resource for Singing the Psalms

Meters and tunes: How Does the Metrical Psalter Work?

See Index of Meters and Tunes for a complete list of all hymn tunes.

Every psalm in a metrical psalter has a regular meter (as do the majority of hymns we sing), and the meter determines what tune may be used for the singing. The meter is the number of syllables in each line of the song or hymn, and “regular meter” means that there is a pattern of syllables which is consistently repeated. Thus, a meter which is designated as 86.86 means that a line with eight syllables is followed by a line with six syllables, and then another with eight and another with six. This particular metrical pattern is used so often in poetry that it has become known as “common meter.”  In American churches, we are accustomed to pairing up one particular tune with a particular text, and therefore we often identify a tune by the first line of a hymn text.  But a tune can be used for any text that matches its meter, and tunes actually have their own names quite apart from the hymn texts we usually associate with them.

In this Psalter, you will find at the start of each psalm the meter noted in which the psalm has been set; and at the end of this collection, you will find an index of meters and tunes which lists many available tunes that can be used for any text with that meter. Some tunes are majestic and celebrative; others are somber and quiet; some are reflective and others are mournful. The mood of the psalm may be brought to life in different ways by different tunes, so this allows for variety and multiple ways in which a psalm may be sung. The metrical settings of the psalms are given here as text only without musical notation, with the verse numbers attached just as they are in the Book of Psalms. This format  helps us to remember that these metrical settings follow the actual text of the biblical psalm, which takes us on a journey that we must walk through with attentive focus. The tune is the vehicle for the journey, carrying the message of the psalm into the deep places of the heart and soul; but the journey is ultimately in the text, not the music.

You will notice that some of the psalm settings have suggested tune names – these are just suggestions, and other tune options for that same meter may be found in the index.  If there are tune names that you are not familiar with, you may listen to recordings that are available to “click and hear.” Or, if you read music, you may also find the notated melody line which can be useful to either learn the tune or to refresh your memory of a tune with which you are perhaps only vaguely familiar. Next to the tune name in the index you will often find listed the first line of a hymn which is commonly associated with that tune – this may also aid you in recognizing the tune until you become familiar with the tune names themselves.

The psalms are presented here in numerical order, and can be sung sequentially as they occur in the book of Psalms. You will also find a liturgical index, however, that will enable you to sing through the 150 psalms in an order loosely coordinated with the liturgical year, beginning with Advent and ending with Pentecost. With this arrangement of the psalms, such themes as creation, second coming, and characteristics of God associated with the Incarnation are placed during Advent and Christmas; themes of light, manifestation and teaching during Epiphany; passion, lament and penitential psalms during Lent; resurrection psalms of kingship, rule and reign during Eastertide; and themes of the global nature of the kingdom at Pentecost.

Finally, quite a few of the psalms in the Hebrew language are acrostics, probably written that way not just for poetical beauty, but also for purposes of catechesis and learning.  It is impossible to capture this poetic feature in the English translation with the same compelling quality it would have had in Hebrew; nonetheless, five of those acrostic psalms (25, 34, 111, 112, and 145) are rendered here in an English acrostic form, in order to bring to mind how the Hebrew people, and indeed the early Christians who sang these psalms (not to mention Christ himself), would have encountered them.

– Julie Tennent