What song do you have stuck in your head right now?
If you’re as unfortunate as me, it’s probably an annoying top-40 hit you heard at the grocery store one time, against your will, that you wish you could “delete” from your mind. For some reason, those seem to be more popular with my brain than my favorite tunes.
You’re heard it said that music (specifically, lyrical song) is one of the greatest mnemonic devices we can use to build our memory. It’s true. It’s also true that God designed us this way, and He gave us songs in His Word that we can sing–and memorize.
If we’re called to meditate on the Word day and night (Psalm 1:2)…
and store His Word in our heart that we may not sin against Him (Psalm 119:11)…
…then surely one of the best and easiest ways to achieve this is to sing the Psalms frequently enough to memorize them.
But first, we have to sing them in the first place.
In case you missed it, in part 1 we saw the blessings of singing the Psalms, and why we should sing them. This time I want to briefly share how.
Keep in mind that the Psalms are not only God’s perfect Word like the rest of Scripture, they are honest expressions of the human heart toward God. In them you find the words to praise and plea with God, to rejoice and to lament. Even better, you discover Christ and His works.
By the time of the New Testament, the people of God would have been more familiar with the Psalms than any other text, because they sang them regularly in worship. How gracious, then, of the Lord to include so many messianic passages in the Psalms–more than any other book in the Old Testament! He taught the church to hope in the coming of King Jesus.
Now we who await His second coming and the restoration He will bring also find hope in the Psalms. They weren’t just for Israel; they are for the church of all ages.
They are the songs for pilgrims on earth longing for their eternal home.
Let’s sing them together.
STEP 1: LEARN THE VOCABULARY
Don’t worry–there won’t be a test. Familiarity with terminology is helpful if you’ve never tried psalm-singing before.
- Psalm: The Greek word for “song;” in the Bible, specifically referring to the Psalms of Scripture.
- Meter: In music, the rhythm of a tune; in our case, determined by counting the number of syllables per line.
- Psalter: A text containing the Psalms translated into a singable form, usually with meter, rhyme, and an accompanying tune.
- Tune: The music of a song, with notes that can be sung to any matching meter.
- A cappella: A phrase originally meaning “in the style of the church.” It means a song sung without accompanying instruments; just voices.
STEP 2: FIND A PSALTER AND PICK A PSALM
You may wonder why we can’t just sing the Psalms straight out of the Bible. It’s not impossible, but for songs to work well, we use Psalters that translate the psalms into singable form.
There are two Psalters I will recommend to you. One is the 1650 Scottish Metrical Psalter (sometimes abbreviated, 1650 MP). It is the most literal and true to the text, and has been sung for centuries. Another benefit is that it’s free. You can use it online here. Or on the YouVersion app for your phone; it’s listed as a translation.
The other Psalter is the Book of Psalms for Singing (different from the Book of Psalms For Worship, which is a looser translation). One benefit of this Psalter is that the psalms are written in many different meters, whereas the 1650 MP is only common meter. You can find it on Amazon.
Start with the 1650 if you don’t have a psalter yet. Open it up to Psalm 1 (follow that link) and leave it open for the remaining steps.
STEP 3: IDENTIFY THE METER
This is likely the most difficult step, but I think you’ll find it’s not too complicated.
Meter, again, is rhythm of the song. For our purposes, it is defined as the number of syllables per line. Let’s look at meter using a simple example. Count the number of syllables per line (each separate phrase):
Amazing grace, how sweet the sound (8 SYLLABLES)
That saved a wretch like me! (6 SYLLABLES)
I once was lost, but now I’m found (8 SYLLABLES)
Was blind, but now I see! (6 SYLLABLES)
The meter of this song is 126.96.36.199., also known as COMMON METER. As expected, it’s one of the most popular meters.
Other meters include 8.7, 8.8. (long meter), 188.8.131.52. (short meter), and more. In the Book of Psalms for Singing, you’ll find psalms in many different meters. But in the 1650 MP, the meter is nearly always common meter.
If you’re not sure what meter the Psalm is, count the number of syllables. But most Psalters will tell you somewhere on the page–usually right on top, next to the tune or psalm title.
It’s important to know the meter, because you must choose an appropriate tune to use when you sing with the words of the Psalm.
STEP 4: CHOOSE A TUNE
The Book of Psalms for Singing offers sheet music of a specific tune for each Psalm, just like a hymnal. Look at the sample page below:
You can see in small print in the top right corner that the name of the tune for Psalm 37:23-28 is WARWICK and it is in CM (Common Meter). You’re not required to use the tune they chose, and–don’t miss this–you DON’T need to know how to read music to be able to sing it!
The website Psalter.org can help you learn the tune used in the Psalter. Just type the tune in the search bar and listen to it as many times as you’d like so you can learn it. You can even look up “Warwick.” Simple as that!
But if that’s too complicated, you can always use a tune you already know. Think of a hymn or song you’re comfortable with, and count syllables to figure out its meter. If the meter matches, you can use that tune to sing the Psalm. (You may discover some tunes are “happier” or “sadder” than others, and you can choose one that goes best with the mood of the Psalm.)
Remember, for this tutorial we are focusing on COMMON METER and the 1650 MP. And we are singing Psalm 1.
Here are some tunes in common meter: Amazing Grace, O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing, O Little Town of Bethlehem, and Auld Lang Syne.
Choose a tune and move on to Step 5.
STEP 5: TRY SINGING!
Here are the words to Psalm 1 from the 1650 Scottish Metrical Psalter. Sing them to the tune you choose. For instance, you can sing them to the tune of Auld Lang Syne. Try singing it now in a cappella, using only your voice:
That man hath perfect blessedness,
who walketh not astray
In counsel of ungodly men,
nor stands in sinners’ way,
2 Nor sitteth in the scorner’s chair:
But placeth his delight
Upon God’s law, and meditates
on his law day and night.
3 He shall be like a tree that grows
near planted by a river,
Which in his season yields his fruit,
and his leaf fadeth never:
4 And all he doth shall prosper well
The wicked are not so;
But like they are unto the chaff,
which wind drives to and fro.
5 In judgment therefore shall not stand
such as ungodly are;
Nor in th’ assembly of the just
shall wicked men appear.
6 For why? the way of godly men
unto the Lord is known:
Whereas the way of wicked men
shall quite be overthrown.
Did it work? You should find that the tune and the words completely match up, in rhythm with each other!
And that’s it–you just practiced psalm-singing!
You can use these and other tunes to sing the Common Meter tunes in the 1650. Start there. If you purchase another psalter, you will need to learn tunes that match various meters, but they always have a tune chosen for you that you can look up.
STEP 6: INCORPORATE INTO YOUR PERSONAL/FAMILY WORSHIP
I highly suggest that you add psalm-singing to your personal or family worship time. It has been a huge blessing for me and my family. Before or after singing, you can study the psalm and ask, “What do I learn about God? What do I learn about myself and my duties? How do I see Christ revealed in this psalm?”
I think you’ll find that it brings you joy and edification to worship with God’s Word this way. Even more, you will glorify God in doing so. You could sing the psalms all the way from 1 to 150, or you could start with a couple and sing them regularly to memorize. There are also commentaries to help you, including those of Matthew Henry, John Calvin, and John Brown Haddington.
Want more information? Here is a webpage with more resources on psalm-singing, such as recordings of church gatherings. An amazing new app for iPhone has also been released, that enables you to listen to various tunes while seeing the words to the 1650 MP at the same time!
I want to know: Was it your first time singing a psalm? How did it go? Does it give you a new perspective on the psalms?