Wanted: Better Tunes for the Psalms

We were having an interesting discussion about the WHI show on “happy-clappy” worship. One of the things for which I have been “banging the drum” is the need for contemporary settings of the Psalms. I love the Book of Psalms for Singing. There are some great tunes there and I love the singable Genevan tunes. We ought to keep all the good, older singable tunes. I know there are about 5–6 tunes for Ps 23 but CRIMOND is the only one that I care to sing. I cannot imagine that will change — but I suppose it could.

Nevertheless, we are saddled with a lot of tunes for the psalms in the Psalter-Hymnal (CRC 1959) and in the Book of Psalms for Singing (1973) that are not singable. Okay, perhaps we need to work on it a little more, but as non-Reformed and non-Christian folk walk into our services how much dare we ask of them? Not only must we ask of them to learn our vocabulary — this is non-negotiable — and our faith but our cultural forms as well? I doubt that.

I’m sure that there are contemporary musicians (of which I am not one!) who can write appropriate contemporary tunes  for the psalms. We need tunes that can be sung by congregations of all ages (5-90), that come from a variety of ethnic backgrounds, and that are intended to be sung by groups and that reflect the tone of the psalm being sung. That’s a tall order.

Traditionalists (“that’s the way we’ve always done it”) need to move beyond the assumption that “reverent” means “classical, European” and contemporary (“Shine, Jesus Shine”) folk need to realize that there is more to worship tunes than the same schmaltzy do-wop line over and over (does anyone realize how much CCM is just do-wop music?) We need Irish/celtic tunes, we need  African tunes, we need Latin tunes, we need ancient tunes. We need a collection of tunes that aren’t written ONLY for little old ladies (here I’m thinking of the blue Trinity Hymnal in which every tune seems to be set so high that only ladies of a certain age can sing them). I’m still not sure what syncopation is, but I hear it’s a had idea for congregational singing.

The Trinity Psalter is a good start, inasmuch as it uses mainly familiar American tunes, and there are a number of other Psalters that have appeared in recent years, but few of them incorporate many contemporary tunes. I hear that the OPC is working on a psalter, but that’s all I know. The most recent Psalter-Hymnal uses some interesting tunes but the newer red Trinity Hymnal has the psalms scattered throughout so that one needs the spiritual gift of “finding psalms” to locate them. I don’t have any proof, but I’m convinced that the old TH was that way to spite Mr Murray. I don’t understand why the newer (red) TH did this. I don’t understand it at all.

As you can probably tell, I don’t usually know much about what I write here and on this topic I know less than usual. I don’t read music. I don’t write it. In worship, I follow the precenter or, if needs be, the instrumentalist. Still, I can tell when the congregation can’t sing a tune and I can tell when a tune just isn’t appropriate for sacred worship.

Some contemporary forms are not appropriate because they are not intended to be sung by congregations. E.g. rap music arose as a way of highlighting an individual performer. Rock music is not intended, ordinarily, to be sung by large groups. At least do-wop music can be sung a cappella by large groups but it lacks the necessary reverence to be used in public worship and rock music that is slowed down becomes schmaltzy and goofy and thereby disqualified. Elevator music is not appropriate for public worship. Andy Williams and Elvis tunes are not appropriate for public worship — I don’t sing “How Great Thou Art” for the same reasons I don’t sing “In the Garden:”  1) it’s non-canonical; 2) It’s schmaltzy and sentimental and inappropriate to public worship. Tunes that are intended to manipulate the emotions are inappropriate. Any tune that is played over the speakers at Wal-Mart in ipso facto out.

Here’s something to think about. We sang a psalm yesterday that was arranged by Sullivan of “Gilbert and Sullivan” fame. If one knows G&S one can tell that it is a Sullivan tune. One can almost here it as the stereo blasts, “I am an Englishman.” That was once a contemporary tune. The associations it must have had when it was done must have been quite strong. Light opera isn’t sacred worship, but the tune works. It’s simple, singable, and the its tone seems to fit the psalm.

There are musicians today who could do the very same thing. Some are working on it. If I can encourage you musicians: work faster! (Somehow I guess that didn’t help).  There will never be a perfect Psalter. The Genevan Psalter wasn’t perfect, but at least it was complete and it was “contemporary” for its time — but it included many older tunes as well as contemporary tunes. We can do the same thing. If we’re going to revive Psalmody we must do the same thing in our time that they did in theirs.

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  • R. Scott Clark
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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

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  1. Scott,

    I could not agree with you more in this regard. About two years ago I was asked by a member of Christ URC why most of the songs in the Psalter-Hymnal are from the 19th century and why can’t we begin writing new tunes (this man is himself a professional singer and finds many of the tunes downright unsingable). This has always bothered me. While I think there is some value in retaining some of the older tunes that *are* singable (such as Crimond!) in order to promote some continuity and familiarity from generation to generation, I think we need to get rid of the tunes that are…well…lame (there, I said it) and replace them with tunes for this century. I think you make an excellent point about asking to much of people, especially those new to our churches.

    Here is a question for you: should the new Psalter-Hymnal ever materialize and, as the majority position is arguing for, *only* the new Psalter-Hymnal may be used in our churches, what does that mean for the tunes of the songs?

  2. Scott,

    I agree as well. My wife and I joined a URC church about a year ago and the only thing I really can’t appreciate in the worship service is the music from the Psalter. The lyrics themselves are beautiful, but the music – and the organ – that could use some upgrading.

    I don’t think I’ve ever been moved emotionally by our music and I understand that emotion isn’t the goal, but is there something wrong with enjoying music in our corporate worship? I’m about ready to start taking my iPod with me. 🙂

    Have you ever heard of Indelible Grace? They just released their fifth album and this is what they do, taking old hymns and putting them to new music. The WHI guys use some of their stuff as bumper music between segments.

    I realize it’s a touchy subject and these battles over music have divided many congregations, but I thought we were to make a joyful noise unto the Lord. I think we can do that and still maintain the integrity of the service. I don’t think the regulative principle forbids good music.

    • I am a deacon of a small Reformed Baptist Church and, having recently called a new Pastor, we are singing hymns from ‘Grace’ which we have (as far as I can remember) never sung before. We also sing Psalms from the Irish Psalter, including portions that we have never sung before. We shall, at some time in the next year or three, have to replace the Psalters. Sugestions with reasons welcome.
      Now, concerning the regulative principle. I thought (and I will stand correction from those who are more learned than myself) that for the Church under the New Testament the application of the regulative principle forbids anything that is not commanded or clearly inferred from the Scriptures of the New Testament, whilst all that is commanded or clearly inferred must be embraced. Here’s a can of worms! My experience with those who endorse this as a principle and precept has been that this is used as a rod (or a club) to beat those who disagree with their own particular views. Especially on matters of music. However, to ask where in the New Testament a church building is allowed or enjoined usually leads to answers of the ‘That is in a different category’ type.
      However – does anyone know where I could download the Psalm tune ‘Bays of Harris’?

  3. R.J.,

    The trouble I find with the Indelible Grace stuff for corporate worship is that it seems to be written more for acoustic guitar. Now, while I do not believe there is anything in principle that prohibits the use of a guitar in worship (if we take the understanding that instruments are a circumstance and not an element), I do not think it is the most wise choice. As a URC pastor (and a former Calvary Chapel “youth-pastor” [false, detestable term!] and “worship leader” [another one]) I don’t think a person with a guitar leading the congregation in singing is conducive to our understanding of worship.

    At least a piano (and its player) can be tucked away out of sight more easily than a guy strumming a Taylor or a Takamine. It too easily devolves into entertainment and opens up too many questions about who is doing what in worship. I know, in *principle* there is nothing different between a guitar or a piano. But as with everything circumstantial in worship, it rests on a continuum of wisdom. If I see a way to do music like Indelible Grace without introducing the dreaded praise band, then I might be more open to it.

  4. I sort of like the Indelible Grace stuff, but, my objections to the guitar are not so much based on the visibility of the instrument as much as the “culture” that is associated with that type of music.

    That said, I would take the IG band as our church’s worship band any day of the week actually (especially Sundays:)

    One thing that can be done to avoid the “praise band” syndrome is to put whatever band you have on the side of the sanctuary, or better yet, in the back of the church. Having played in several worship bands, and having sworn off praise bands and everything they represent, I also think that modern contextual music for psalms based worship would be great.

    I guess the question is whether someone can write good modern church music!


  5. R J,

    Nothing wrong with emotion. There’s a distinction to be made between “affective” music and “manipulative” music. Evangelical church music since the 2nd great awakening (and since not long after the 1GA) has been intentionally written to elicit a certain sort of pre-planned response. To this day praise teams meet before services to plan the emotional structure of the service. This tune ends in this key and on this tempo and leads to this.

    We used to do this in radio all the time. We had jingles to transition from one sort of tune to another to get from a commercial to a song or vice versa. We manipulated the time, the tempo, the key, all sort of things in order to get (manipulate) the listener (the client) to think a certain way, and more importantly, to feel a certain way, to get them to do a certain thing. Mot evangelical services are organized on that principle.

    We’ve become trained to think that such emotive services ARE worship that without the highs and movement of the emotions we haven’t really “worshiped.” As I said in reply to another post on the other worship thread, we’re like addicts. We don’t even know what reality is anymore. I’m not picking on you, I’m talking about myself and the lot of us.

  6. I have been the piano man at our PCA church for the past six months or so. We had an elderly lady (my best friends mom) playing the organ VERY S L O W. We are trying to find our way with our music. We utilize the Trinity Hymnal, and have been mixing in some Getty tunes. This is a slippery slope in our circles. The refugees from the mega-church praise band scene take some time to learn how to worship with us. I’m with Scott, lets get some new tunes !!!
    BTW, our batlle is with the opera crowd at our church. If it is not 4 part harmony, then they pout…


  7. An upcoming summer conference with particular interest…..

    WorshipGod 2008: Rediscovering the Psalms


    “WorshipGod08—Rediscovering the Psalms
    July 30–August 2, 2008
    Gaithersburg, Maryland

    Worship leaders and planners are always on the lookout for ways to serve their churches more effectively. Thank God, we have an increasing number of tools, websites, and books we can turn to. But the most important teaching on modern worship wasn’t written in our lifetime. Thousands of years ago, God gave us the Psalms to inform, inspire, and direct our worship. Every generation has the opportunity to rediscover what he’s said.

    That’s what we’ll be doing at WorshipGod08, a conference for anyone who wants to grow in understanding and leading biblical worship. Six main sessions will explore how the Psalms model worship that is God-glorifying, Christ-centered, emotionally engaging, full of faith, relevant, and lived out every day. You’ll also be able to choose five practical seminars that will sharpen your thinking, improve your skills, and refresh your soul. As in past WorshipGod conferences, one of the highlights will simply be meeting and interacting with like-minded Christians who share your passion to glorify God.

    Whether you come alone or with your whole team, I hope you’ll join us at WorshipGod08 as we rediscover how the ancient Psalms can transform our worship today.

    Bob Kauflin, Director of Worship Development
    Sovereign Grace Ministries

  8. Scott and Mike,

    Thanks to both of you for your comments. As much as I’d like to see some changes to the musical aspect of the service, I’d rather be bored out of my mind for a few minutes and see the integrity of the entire service preserved. If I want entertainment I have stacks of CDs I can listen to 6 days a week – with guitars and everything – even electric ones! 🙂

    My wife and I chose our URC church because the Word of God is rightly preached and the sacraments are properly administered. They could play Wagner week after week and we’d still go because in far too many churches with really kickin’ music, Christ isn’t preached and He isn’t honored.

    Hopefully some very talented people can do for our generation what men like Luther, Watts and Newton did for theirs. Incorporating new material won’t be easy, but perhaps it shouldn’t be.

    Scott, thanks for the great blog and Mike, thanks for your book “Called To Serve”. I read it a few weekends ago and was really blessed by it.

  9. With all due affection, we don’t need a new Watts! He was part of the problem. It was Watts’ paraphrases of the psalms that led the American Presbyterian church away from the psalms in the first place.

    Yes, we need tunes, but we need them so we can get back to singing the Word of God and get away from singing uninspired, non-canonical songs.

    We do need the gifts of talented people to put canonical songs to music for us.

  10. R.J. said, “If I want entertainment I have stacks of CDs I can listen to 6 days a week – with guitars and everything – even electric ones!”

    Amen and Amen! May good secular music flourish till the consummation! Right Scott? Gabba Gabba Hey!

  11. With all due affection, we don’t need a new Watts! He was part of the problem. It was Watts’ paraphrases of the psalms that led the American Presbyterian church away from the psalms in the first place.

    Yes, we need tunes, but we need them so we can get back to singing the Word of God and get away from singing uninspired, non-canonical songs.

    We do need the gifts of talented people to put canonical songs to music for us.

    Are you an exclusive-psalmist?

  12. Mike,

    Sorry, I missed the first one. I haven’t seen anything about the new Ps-Hymnal. It has non-canonical hymns in it so that’s disappointing. I’ve heard a little about the committee work but that’s all. Have you seen it? Can you comment?


    No, I’m not an exclusive psalmodist, but I an exclusive -canonicalist! I only sing canonical songs. I don’t sing paraphrases and I don’t sing uninspired texts. I would be happy to sing only psalms but I’m happy to sing the Song of Moses and Miriam or the stray Psalm of Moses in Deut or the various NT songs.

    I don’t see any evidence that “psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs” has anything to do with uninspired texts. That’s an assumption unwarranted by the context or the language of those passages.

    “Worship in the Spirit and in the Truth” requires us to “keep in step with the Spirit” and those two principles also lead me to this position. It was also the view of a smallish number of 17th century divines.

  13. No, I, like most of the URC ministers, have not yet seen the book (!). But I am just wondering what you think, in principle, of how to handle the tunes.

  14. Mike,

    In principle, I think the tunes should be suitable for congregational singing, they should diverse enough to represent the variety of folk in our congregations, and they shouldn’t rely on instrumentation. We ought to be able to sing the tunes a cappella. I got a post recently from someone who said that the Genevan tunes can be sung well if they’re not allowed to drag.

    I’m hoping for more good contemporary tunes, but I don’t know if the committee is working that way.

    My biggest concern is that the Ps-Hymnal is still hyphenated! The other great concern is that we should rid the PH of paraphrases and get back to psalms.

    I like some of the “bible songs” in the Grey PH. Perhaps they can incorporate some of those.

    Those are my random thoughts for now.

  15. This last Lord’s Day, we worshipped in a PR church here in the Philippines, and I was dejected with the choice of Psalms we sang from their Psalter. The congregation could hardly sing them. They were, what everyone here says, unsingable! Canonical, yes; singable, no! They’re not just unsingable, but they’re outright ugly. And our PH also has ugly, unsingable tunes. I also don’t like the red Trinity Hymnal since they also have ugly, non-canonical traditional and contemporary songs.

    I believe the most important words in terms of worship music are “appropriate” and “fitting.” What songs, tunes, and instruments are fitting for reverent and joyful worship? Using rap and hip-hop for worship would be like playing Souza for your romantic evening, or singing Psalm 51 to the tune of Antioch.

    Or how do we deal with our “factory of idols” when we sing? If we were in a remote pagan village and we “Christianized” their pagan chants to be used in worship, what would these believers be imagining as they sing their old pagan music? It’s for this reason that rap, hip-hop, and rock are not fitting for Lord’s Day worship.

    And it is for this same reason why I believe all other instruments, except for piano and organ, are not fitting for worship: their use brings up in the worshiper’s mind images of himself in a rocking, swaying, shaking stadium on a Rolling Stones night. Even a piano, at least, isn’t of much use these days in rock concerts.

  16. Hi Dr. Clark. I would like to put in a plug if may for the 1650 Scottish Psalter. Before we can talk about tunes we ought first to be concerned about using the best metrical translation. I realize it is not perfect and may be improved upon, but it who can find a better and more faithful English translation? If you read Rev. David Silversides article on The Development of the Scottish Psalter you will understand why this is the most faithful English translation on the planet.


    Let the URC look no further for their metrical text to sing to the Lord during congregational singing, let us choose the 1650 Scottish Psalter.


    The tunes can be worked out later, it is the word of Christ that is important, it is quick, and powerful, and sharper than any twoedged sword, piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart.

    Bellingham urc.

  17. Dr. Clark,

    I second Rick Taron’s thoughts.

    The Scottish Psalmody (1992), a split-leaf published by the Free Church of Scotland, is the best book I’ve seen yet as far as offering consistently singable tunes that are fit for corporate worship. It is the Psalm book that we use in our congregation. If we begin with that, perhaps additional contemporary tunes and tunes that suggest other cultures and nationalities could be composed, with the standard being singable a capella and appropriate.

    Sing Psalms, a later split-leaf also published by the Free Church of Scotland, has a lot of new tunes in the common meter, long meter and short meter. I don’t like their contemporary renditions of the metrical, and I haven’t heard all of the new tunes that would fit the 1650. There is one tune in there titled Bays of Harris (common meter), that I think is a fine example of a good contemporary tune that is singable and is appropriate for the Psalm with a prayerful, meditative, or restful theme.

    Thank you for your previous article encouraging people to “come to the Psalter”. That was a great encouragement.

    Please visit my blog http://precentorincharlotte.blogspot.com some time to see some examples of what we’re doing. You will be able to hear some familiar tunes that have been transposed down 1/2 step or more so that everyone besides the little old ladies can handle them. Our house rule is not to go above D-sharp/E-flat. It may not be the total answer you’re looking for, but I think it’s a good start.

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