I have never been able to read music. When I was a kid, I tried to learn to play the viola, but after four years of lessons I didn’t have a grade or a certificate to my name. I had to count the lines above and below every note I wanted to play. It took an age to play a piece, unless it was committed to memory. The same was true when I tried to use a Psalter for the first time.
I was not brought up singing Psalms, so I did not recognise the name of tunes, nor could I pick up a tune by sight reading music. However, when I heard the Psalms sung, I often immediately recognised the tune. Many of the tunes in Psalters are the same tunes that popular hymns are sung to. Once I recognised the tune, I did not need to follow along the music, it was something I was already familiar with.
The purpose of this blog post is to provide resources to help you sing the Psalms. This is by no means exhaustive, and as you begin to sing Psalms regularly, you will no doubt find other tunes that fit the words. You may also find that some tunes and Psalms do not quite match up, and may require a bit of inventiveness to sing. There is no right or wrong way to do this. The goal is to sing the Psalms, and get to know Psalter. Singing engrafts them into our heart. These Psalms would have been sung by our Lord, and shaped him as he grew in ‘stature and favour with God’ (Luke 2:52). May they do the same for us.
How to get started
Singing the Psalms and using a Psalter requires a familiarity with Metre. Metre is number of syllables per line of a tune, that give it an overall rhythm and structure. They are marked by the numbers on the top left of the Psalm. Once you find the Metre of the Psalm, turn to these lists of tunes to find one you recognise, give it a quick hum to see if it fits, and then try singing along. It is simple and can picked up with very little practice. For an example, let’s look at Psalm 1.
Here we can see that this Psalms Metre is ‘C.M.’ or ‘Common Metre’.
Having found the Metre, turn to the list of tunes to see if there are any recognisable hymns that you think suits the rhythm and tone of the psalm.
The tune ‘My heart is filled with thankfulness’ fits, so try singing Psalm 1 to that tune. Let’s try another example.
Psalm 29, has a number rather than letters marking the metre.
The Metre for this Psalm is ’188.8.131.52’. So turning to the list of tunes, let us see if
there are any that fit.
You may find selecting a tune a little more difficult here, as you draw out certain syllables to fit the rhythm. I think ‘Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise’ fits easiest. However, try singing it to the other tunes and experiment to see what suits best.
These are the basics in how to adopt a Psalm and a tune, and with a little practice it will become more natural. The best way to get the hang of it is to simply sing the Psalms and sing them often!
Here is an a5 insert, which has a small selection of hymn tune metres. You can keep this in you psalter for when you need to pick a tune.
Here is a more comprehensive list, also with some instructions on metre:
Here is a free copy of the Free Church of Scotland's Psalter 'Sing Psalms':
The Free Church have also made a very helpful app that plays the tune for you: