Psalm Tones

In the regular discussion on this web-site of music for psalms, particularly that which might be useful for song leader in weekly worship, the emphasis is often on the refrain or antiphon. Then quite often I will write: “verses may be sung to a tone”.

Detail of an early antiphon, largely on one note. Antiphon leading onto the first verse of Psalm 31 ‘In te Domine’. Howard Psalter, British Library MS83, f.28r.

The tone is simply a very simple and repetitive way of singing free text, that is not scanned and paraphrased into a regular rhythmic metre.

It is based on the old practice of chanting holy texts and liturgies to a single note. This has been standard practice for millennia and is still widely used today in some cultures, including Judaism and Islam.


Chanting Koran text in a Turkish mosque. Such chanting in Islam is a way of presenting the sacred writings rather than a musical exercise.

In the Western or Christian usage, chant traditions evolving in the first thousand years CE include Old Roman, Gregorian, Ambrosian, Mozarabic and Gallican chant. The details need not detain us here.

Singing on one note may have been encouraged by the cavernous nature of worship spaces. Cathedrals and synagogues are usually large bare stone spaces with long reverberation times. So many fast-changing notes become confused with the notes sung one, or even several seconds ago. Atmospheric, perhaps, but the words get lost. Words is what it is all about. Worshippers get the message better when that confusion is removed.

To make it more interesting, the long lines can be adorned here and there, just as ancient bards would sing their tales around a simple tune but improvise according to how they felt the text should be presented. Our main surviving influence in this context is the Gregorian chant. This evolved around a chanting note or tenor with musical frills, literally at middle and both ends, usually termed intonationmediant, and termination as shown below. There were eight psalm tones for different musical modes plus tonus peregrinus, but we need not dive down that rabbit-hole.

Psalm tone 4 from Liber Usualis with section names added above.

Hebrew psalm poetry was in couplets, often restating the same idea in a different or consequential way. So the tone has two parts. The mediant roughly marks the end of the first line and the beginning of the second, sung again on the tenor. (The flex may be used to break up long lines of text.)

Settings in use in churches still vary widely, of course. These range from the Presbyterian Psalter, a descendant of the 16th century Calvinist settings; to Catholic and high Anglican choirs keeping alive the flame of Gregorian chant in square notation and four-line staff. You can hear the latter, for example, at Christ Church St Lawrence in Sydney.

Back to the present

Tone for Psalm 112 in Together in Song No 69.

What has this to do with our tones? Well we find something very similar in our own hymn books, like Together in Song for the Uniting Church in Australia, or the United Methodist Hymnal in the United States where the author was contributing musician for a few years. The first one to pop up in Together in Song is TiS 5, a setting for Psalm 15.

Two of my secondary source books (The Emergent Psalter by Isaac Everett and New Century Hymnal from Pilgrim Press) present refrains for each psalm using a key verse. Then they just reprint the text of the psalm. Everett assumes you will read or sing the verse if you want to, with a background vamp. New Century provides a page of ten tones; choose your own adventure.

This is similar to Gregorian psalm tones without those few intonation or entry notes. In this case, the dot anove the word ‘fear’ shows when to move from the tenor to the mediant or termination notes. This is called pointing.

For more information on singing tones, see under Notes for Singers.

Some tones have no frills. This setting for Psalm 111 shows chanting tones in bars 1 and 3, followed by a simple mediant in bar 2 and ending bar 4. The people’s refrain follows.