Electric Prayer

The Liturgy of the Hours, the Mass, and other things.

Chanting the Psalms

Posted by universalis on 19 July 2018

The Grail psalms, which are used in the English Liturgy of the Hours, are designed with a given number of stresses in each line. The number of syllables per line may vary from one verse to the next, but the stress pattern remains consistent throughout the psalm. As one might say:

When chánting each psálm,
the páttern of stréss is consístent.
If you lóok at the márks,
you will sée how the psálm should be chánted.

In general, among the printed Liturgy of the Hours books, the English books tend to include these marks (“pointing”) and the American ones tend not to. The latest versions of Universalis give you a choice between viewing the stress marks (if they are helpful) or hiding them (if they are distracting).

The question then arises – what to do with these marks once you have them?

The point of chanting is that it is not singing. Chanting is sung speech. It takes the natural rhythm of ordinary speech and builds on it. It is, if you like, recitative rather than song. The Grail psalms were translated so that the pattern of natural speech stresses in each line should be consistent, for just this purpose.

The short answer to “What do I do with this?” is “Whatever you like – whatever works”.

The “singing editions” of the Grail psalms are built round the psalmody of Father Joseph Gelineau, adapted and explained by Dom Gregory Murray OSB, which gives about 45 “psalm tones” of various rhythmic patterns. Here is an article from First Things about it. Here is the Wikipedia article. Here is one YouTube video, and another, recommended by a correspondent. You can find more instructional videos if you search for “Gelineau psalms” on YouTube.

The Gelineau psalmody is not for everyone. Some people dislike it or get bored with it; some find it too complicated for amateurs and too limiting for more advanced musicians. The beauty of the Grail pointing is that it does not restrict you to one method of chanting but can be used by many different ones.

For less radical bareness, another of our correspondents, David Clayton, runs a web site called The Way of Beauty, which goes into detail on many psalm tones, from the very simplest to some more elaborate ones. The site in general is rich in resources, both descriptive and educational.

For singing in one’s head, the simplest pattern of all is to imagine the first line all on one note until it goes up at the end, ready for the second line to take it home, and the second line all on one note until at the end it turns downwards and arrives home. For three-line groups, add a “noughth line” which comes before the first and the second line, and stays all on one note throughout, building suspense.


One Response to “Chanting the Psalms”

  1. bobmounger said

    The way I go at it can be read about here:

    A similar table to the Fr. Weber tones can be constructed from Aristotle Esguerra’s psalm tones that are much more like the gregorian melodies

    A good roundup is here:

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