Not having been raised in the Reformed tradition, indeed, not having been raised in the church, I am still getting to know the Psalter the way I should. Second, I don’t read music. As my musical children tell their unmusical dad, “The only instrument you play is the radio.” Fair enough.
So, how does one pick a psalm for a worship service?
Well, there’s no substitute for getting to know the psalter. At lunch Bob Godfrey was able to name a psalm from memory that related to a topic of conversation. I was very impressed until I realized that he was right next to the psalmist when it was written, so he has an advantage (trust me; I owe him). Still, it’s hard to use the psalter the way we ought unless we know it. Bible programs such as Accordance (for Mac) or Bible Works or Logos (for PCs) are helpful. Knowing the general outline of the psalter is also helpful for narrowing the field.
The back of the Book of Psalms for Singing has an excellent topical index that helps one find an appropriate psalm. Then there is this terrific site operated by the folks at Crown and Covenant Publications: Psalter.org. There you’ll find midi files for all tunes in the Book of Psalms for Singing. Here is a link to the tune for psalm 23(b), Crimond. I’m not crazy about the midi files but at least they give you an idea of what the tune is so you can decide whether you can use it or another.
If a tune doesn’t work for some reason (e.g., your congregation doesn’t know it or it’s just too difficult) you can always switch tunes. Find a tune with the same meter and the tunes are more or less interchangeable. So any tune with the meter C.M. is interchangeable with any other tune with that meter. Ps 23(d) is set to a tune with the meter 22.214.171.124. If you don’t like that tune use another with the same meter such as Greyfriars used for Ps 24(c). Each of the tunes on the C&C site has the meter next to it and every Psalm (and hymn) in the Psalter-Hymnal has a meter signature on the top or bottom of the page. The Psalter-Hymnal has a metrical index as well to allow congregations to change tunes.
What we need, however, are new tunes for the psalms. Where are our gifted musicians? They seem to put a lot of energy into new hymns, but what about the only inspired songbook in the canon (not to say that there aren’t other songs in the canon of Scripture)? We all recognize the value of the psalter, don’t we, even those who don’t share the historic view of the RPW? Well, even on that basis, there ought to be interest in setting the psalms to appropriate contemporary tunes for congregational singing.