Sing. Play. Edify.

Announcing a new psalter

April 14, 2020

Since our hymnal Sing the Wonders was first published in 2016, we’ve printed nearly 10,000 copies across two editions. Hundreds of churches and families are using these hymnals in their times of corporate singing, and it’s been thrilling to see how the Lord has used them to provide rich texts and singable tunes to the Lord’s people.

The second edition of Sing the Wonders included 32 texts based on the psalms, both literal and paraphrased. But it’s long been our desire to provide a resource to help believers sing more psalms.

Today we’re pleased to announce the upcoming publication of a new psalter.

The role of psalms in singing

We believe the church ought to sing hymns in corporate worship: songs full of Scripture and shaped by Scripture, yet also informed by human composure and creativity. At the same time, we recognize the profound gift of the Psalms to the people of God. They were the divinely-inspired song book of Israel, including the incarnate Lord Himself. They contain the whole breadth of human emotion and experience, expressed with divine authority and clarity. The Psalms stir our hearts to praise, thanksgiving, lament, confession, and rest. And the church should sing them.

We are not required to sing every psalm, or to sing only psalms, or to sing only literal, verse-by-verse psalm settings. But we must not neglect the Psalms—in instruction, private devotion, or public worship.

Literal or poetic?

If psalms are to be metricized (shaped into rhyming, structured poetry for the purpose of singing), it requires a high degree of skill to produce a literal translation that doesn’t sound awkward and unnatural (“The Lord to me a shepherd is/ want not therefore shall I”). As a result, available offerings for psalm singing vary widely. On one end, there are multiple publications of literal, verse-by-verse settings that often sacrifice poetic beauty in order to faithfully represent the text. On the other end, there are settings that reference a psalm text so vaguely that it’s difficult to even categorize them as “from the Psalms.”

This new psalter will include settings ranging from literal translations to free paraphrases. There are psalm settings by Timothy Dudley-Smith, David Regier, Chris Anderson, Greg Wilbur, and other contemporary writers. In regards to loose paraphrases, it’s difficult to know where to draw the line of inclusion, much like choosing which guests to invite to a wedding. While most of the settings are fairly literal, we’ve chosen to include looser paraphrases if their content and language is clearly derived from and based on a particular psalm text. We hope the result is a broad selection of musical offerings to direct our hearts, minds, and voices to the Psalms.

Familiar tunes or new ones?

After the matter of translation strictness, the other important decision concerns musical material: should the texts be set to familiar tunes, such as HYFRYDOL (“Jesus, What a Friend for Sinners”), or new ones?

The benefit of choosing familiar tunes is obvious. Congregations or families who are singing a new psalm text will almost certainly find it daunting to learn a new melody as well. The result is that some psalms may remain unused that could have been learned and loved. By contrast, a familiar tune allows a congregation to immediately begin singing a psalm text with ease.

But the decline in musical literacy over the past century, coupled with an abandonment of traditional hymnody, means that the typical church member has actually learned a relatively small number of hymn tunes. The inevitable result is that well-known tunes may become overused, resulting in a musical presentation that is stale and un-creative. The benefits of unique text-tune pairings are also lost: when one hears the melody of DIADEMATA, what text comes to mind? “Crown Him With Many Crowns”? “Give to the Winds Your Fears”? “Soldiers of Christ, Arise”? The mind may be able to retain a small handful of shared texts, but add many more titles to that list, and the confusion seems unavoidable. The mental association of exclusive pairings is not of first importance, but the other extreme—one tune paired with a dozen or more texts—seems undesirable and unnecessary. While there is historical precedent for such practice in the church, it seems to have arisen more from tradition and circumstantial limitations rather than conscious choice. That’s probably the case in our present context as well: if we were to assign a small number of tunes to a large number of texts, it would likely be accompanied by an acknowledgment of the same circumstantial limitations: that is, “We wish we knew more tunes.”

A complete psalter, then, almost certainly requires the inclusion of some musical material that will be unfamiliar, whether it be new tunes or old ones. The advantages of new tunes are obvious. First, they allow for the exercise of creativity through musical composition, which may be crafted and customized to reflect the mood, contour, and rhythm of the particular text. Second, the congregation can begin to cement these “permanent pairings” in their minds and memory, which I believe aids in retention and adds to the effectiveness of the music: hearing a melody line will bring to mind one particular text. Finally, and perhaps most simply, congregations will learn more music. A right appraisal of music in worship won’t elevate it to equal status with the text, but neither will it relegate it to an unimportant role. Music is both a command from God as well as a gift for our good. We are beings who not only think, but feel. It would be wrong to ascribe to music a purely utilitarian function. A new collection of sung texts without some new tunes seems like a missed opportunity.

Our new psalter will seek to serve both approaches. We recognize familiar tunes will make many of these settings immediately accessible—and some tunes may be partially familiar to some, but they’ll still be more quickly learned than those that are brand new. Tunes like AURELIA, HYFRYDOL, and KINGSFOLD are represented by multiple texts, and there are a host of other familiar tunes represented. But we’re including many new tunes as well, tunes we believe are well-suited to their respective texts and easily learned. To help mitigate the difficulty of learning them, we’re planning to offer extensive digital resources on Grace Music to accompany the psalter, including recordings and downloadable, printable PDFs.

Scope, size, and timeline

As I wrote above, we believe the psalms should be sung, but not that they must be sung exclusively. This psalter is intended as a resource, a supplement for churches that may already have a rich tradition of singing hymns and wish to sing more psalms. So at this point, we’re not necessarily committed to creating a complete psalter, although the project is still in process. So far we’ve compiled and typeset 215 psalm settings representing 110 psalms, with many more in process. If a complete psalter seems increasingly likely, we’ll aim in that direction.

We’re hoping to launch a Kickstarter campaign soon to help fund the project. We’re also looking to improve the quality of the printing even further, both in terms of binding and paper. We will be offering online companion resources for musicians. And if the Kickstarter campaign goes well, we’ll also plan to print a spiral-bound edition with chords.

At this point, we hope to go to print this fall. Keep an eye on the blog for more updates soon!

Our prayer is that this psalter will encourage churches and families to sing the psalms, to the glory of God.