Paul R. Schilf, Ph.D.

The Psalms are the prayer book of the Scriptures. They are God’s words that we can use in prayer back to Him. This is much different than the common understanding of prayer today. We often think of prayer as our spoken words and thoughts.

God’s words of prayer, found in the Psalms, are intended to be chanted or sung. We know this because of the specific instructions provided in scripture. We find the word Selah in the text of the psalms. This is a specific musical interlude or instrumental interaction between the stanzas of the Psalms. These interludes were often played on simple stringed instruments and produced several key pitches that reinforced the tone(s) the Psalm was chanted on.

Through the centuries following Christ’s death, resurrection, and ascension, various bodies of liturgical music schools argued that they each had the best and most appropriate set of pitches for the singing of the Psalms. Thus, Ambrosian, Anglican, Byzantine, and Gregorian forms of chant were developed. Today, it is most common to use Gregorian chant in our worship.

Gregorian chant is the music of the Roman Catholic Church, named after Pope Gregory I (590-604). The music lacks regular meter and measure, and is monophonic, that is, no harmony. Traditionally, these chants have been sung in alternation by a soloist and congregation or choir and congregation and are said to be responsorial or antiphonal. A Gregorian chant traditionally uses one of the eight church modes, or tone centers. These tonal centers have their roots in Grecian music and were surely audible during Paul’s journeys. Most recently these melodies on the church modes have been associated with the Psalms and more Western music for about 1,800 years and are very similar to the chant melodies Martin Luther used.

Chanting was and is intended to make the words more distinct and easier to hear. Through the simple monophonic music, chanting lends beauty to the divine service. It helps to set Divine Words or God’s Word of the Psalms, apart from everyday, secular words and ceremonies. The music of the church modes is deliberately simple. It is intended to carry the words, not interpret them. This is what distinguishes chants from spoken words in the Divine Service and more specifically chanting from the singing of hymns.

The Psalms are God’s words used back to Him in prayer. Dietrich Bonhoeffer once said, "Our prayers should be shaped by the richness of God's Word, not the poverty of our own hearts." Since we use God’s own words in the Psalms, we should set them apart from our everyday, secular words. There are many different ways of chanting the Psalms. They have a simple beauty and dignity to them, which draws the "prayer" into the Word of God.

Coming in November: Teaching Lutheran Music to Children

Apel, W and Daniel R.T. (Eds.) (1960). The Harvard brief dictionary of music. New York, NY: MJF Books and Creative Media.
Buszin, W.E. (1958). Luther on music. New York, NY: Lutheran Society For Worship, Music, and the Arts, by permission of G. Schirmer Inc.
Elson, A. (1937). The book of musical knowledge. New York, NY: Houghton–Mifflin Company.