Singing the Psalms: Old Words, New Life

by Nancy Raabe

“…be filled with the Spirit, as you sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, singing and making music to the Lord in your hearts….” (Ephesians 5:19)

Many of us already include psalm singing as a regular component of our worship services. But you would be surprised at the number of congregations in which the psalm is simply read, or in which the psalm virtually never materializes at all.

As musicians of the church we must use all the resources at our disposal to articulate why we cannot live without the psalms, and why singing them reaches more deeply into the identity of these incomparable prayers than does speaking them, and why singing serves immeasurably to enhance their communicative power.

Here are a few things to keep in mind.

  • The psalms are indispensable to our worship (and devotional) life because these are the prayers Jesus himself prayed. As well, their spiritual reach stretches across all of scripture: Martin Luther considered that the Psalter “might as well be called a little Bible. In it is comprehended most beautifully and briefly everything that is in the entire Bible.”[1] And Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote in Life Together that the Psalter is at the same time God’s Word and the prayer of all humankind.
  • Praying the psalms connects us directly and immediately to all Christian souls across the ages who have used these very same words in their own situations to be renewed in the assurance of God’s love, mercy and compassionate care.
  • It is widely acknowledged that the psalms were originally intended to be sung. Aside from the historical value, though, psalm singing as applied to weekly worship enables us to seek, or create, musical means by which the deep emotion and spiritual yearning inherent in these texts may be conveyed, and by which a lively interest in the Psalter as a whole may be encouraged within our congregations.
  • In terms of its liturgical purpose, the psalm is much more than just another reading. It provides us with a communal response to and meditation on the Old Testament reading, and it positions us to take the Gospel reading deep into our hearts. Kathleen Harmon, co-author of the annual resource Living Liturgy, has this to say: “The psalm is a response to the entire liturgy of the Word – to all the readings (for a given day). The psalm pulls it all together.” And, she adds, “it interprets the other readings AND it interprets us. It is doing something to us.”

With this in mind: What do you do, and how?

  • For those who have never sung the psalm: Start with the basics. The best beginner’s resource is the Evangelical Lutheran Worship edition of Augsburg Fortress’ three-volume Psalter for Worship, containing simple refrains and harmonized tones for all Sundays, the week of Holy Week, and festivals and lesser occasions. Or, use these refrains and go back to the old set of tones in the Lutheran Book of Worship, many of which are easier for beginners to navigate than those in ELW.
  • Even better, try writing your own refrains based on the appointed verse. You can locate these verses in the Psalter for Worship and in the texts for each day on Or, decide for yourself, based on the constellation of readings for the day, which is the key verse that should constitute the refrain. In writing refrains, here are a few things to consider:
    • Before you start, spend time with the psalm and all the readings for the day. What is the heart of the prayer which the psalm lifts to God? Let the music that you write flow out of that deep understanding.
    • Work from the incomparably beautiful, poetic translations in ELW rather than those in NRSV.
    • Make sure your refrain is not only singable but memorable. This is the great gift of music as employed in worship: The melody enables us to remember the words at the drop of a hat. Music is invaluable in the teaching of scripture.
    • Generally, keep it simple. Simple does not have to mean dull! Pile on too much harmonic or melodic complexity, or too many instruments, and the effect will distract from the text rather than enhance it.
    • Make sure you or your cantor or choir sing the verses, and the refrain, with great expression. While the purpose of the psalm in worship is meditation and not proclamation, we can still bring dynamic and other coloristic shadings to our singing that convey the impassioned prayer that resides within these words.
    • Work carefully through how you plan to get from the psalm tone back into the refrain. The congregation must know with absolute certainty when it is time to sing. Almost always some kind of thoughtful transition is required. Augsburg’s Psalter for Worship does not provide for this, so conscientious musicians must work these out as well when that printed resource is used.
  • Those who are more advanced in their practice of psalmody, and who have good choral forces at their disposal, will surely want to immerse themselves in Augsburg Fortress’ two-volume Psalm Settings for the Church Year. Let the creativity of these settings ignite your own imagination about ways in which you may enlighten, inspire and encourage those in your congregations in the infinitely rewarding practice of singing the psalms.

God be with you in all your endeavors as you serve the Lord with gladness and come into God’s presence with a song!


More resources: The ELCA web site has a page devoted to the history and purpose of psalm singing.


[1] Luther’s Works, ed. Jaroslav Pelikan, Concordia Publishing House, 1955: 35:254.

Posted on May 7, 2012 4:03:00 PM
Filed Under: Assembly Song, Filed Under: review-prelude,

Nancy Raabe

Written by Nancy Raabe

Nancy Raabe is a composer, author, and church musician who lives with her husband, Bill, in Bexley, Ohio. Their children Margaret and Martin attend the College of Wooster and St. Olaf College. A graduate of Pomona College and Trinity Lutheran Seminary, Nancy serves as Director of Music at Prince of Peace Lutheran Church in Columbus, Ohio.