How to sing Psalms using Anglican Chant

Throughout the Anglican Communion there is a tradition of singing the Psalms in services using Anglican Chant. This involves combining a 4-part harmony chant with the pointed words of a psalm.

Structure of a chant

The musical structure of a standard Anglican Chant in the format of: 3 bars / 4 bars / 3 bars / 4 bars. This is called a double chant, because it is used to sing 2 verses of the psalm. It’s also possible to see single chants that are half the length of a double chant in the format: 3 bars, 4 bars.

For each group of 3 or 4 bars, the first bar normally has a single note, the last bar has a single note, and the middle bars have two notes each – making up 20 notes in total for a double chant, or 10 notes for a single chant. More advanced chants have what’s called passing notes that add additional movement in each bar – see more on passing notes later.

Here’s an example of the format of a double chant:

Ignore the fact that the notes are all the same in this example

Structure of the psalm text

In order to fit the psalm text to the chant, the text is “pointed” (or notated) in a certain way, so that you know which text to sing with which notes:

Here’s an example of a pointed version of Psalm 23:

1 The | Lord is my | shepherd; * therefore | can I | lack | nothing.
2 He shall feed me in a | green | pasture, * and lead me forth be- | side the | waters of | comfort.

You’ll notice that the words are broken up with pipe “|” symbols (or sometimes alternatively the single quote ‘ symbol). These give an indication of when to change note when singing. Each pipe “|” corresponds to the bar lines in the chant, and so the text is pointed in the same 3 bar, 4 bar format.

Putting it together

The 3-bar section (delimited in the music with a double bar line) is used to sing the first half of the verse, and the 4-bar section is used to send the second half of the verse. A colon or semi-colon normally shows the middle of the verse.

  • A single chant is used to sing one verse of the psalm
  • A double chant is used to sing a pair of verses of the psalm

For each verse, the first and last bar of the 3-bar or 4-bar sections are treated differently to the one or two bars in the middle. All the words up until the first pipe “|” in a verse are sang to the note in the first bar. Similarly all the words after the last pipe “|” in a verse are sang to the note in the last bar.

For each of the middle bars, the set of words between the two pipes “|” are shared across the two notes in that bar. We need to look at the number of syllables in the bar to work out how to allocate them to the notes:

  • If there is only one syllable, we sing that syllable to both the notes – in our example, the word “lack” is in a bar of its own, and so we sing this word across two notes.
  • If there are two syllables, we sing each syllable to one note each – in our example, the bar with “can I” only has two syllables, so they get one note each.
  • If there are more than two syllables, we sing all the syllables except the last one to the first note, and the last syllable to the second note – in our example the bar with “Lord is my” has 3 syllables, so “Lord is” is sung to the first note, and “my” to the second note.

Sometimes a period “.” is used in the pointing of words to indicate an early change of notes in the middle of a multi-syllable bar. Without the period – in this example – the note changes between the words “is” and “my”:

1 The | Lord is my | shepherd; * therefore | can I | lack | nothing.

With a period – in this next example – the note changes between the words “Lord” and “is”:

1 The | Lord . is my | shepherd; * therefore | can I | lack | nothing.

Here’s how the words and music fit together for the first two verses of the psalm. I’ve inserted periods between each syllable to highlight them for you:

Click for bigger version

Rhythm

The note lengths don’t dictate the rhythm when singing Anglican Chant. The sense of rhythem comes from the cadence of the text, and should be at the usual pace used for reading out loud. To practice this, it’s often a good exercise to speak the text without the music.

Some singers are often tempted to slow down their pace of singing just before the bar line, because the note is changing, but this should be avoided if possible.

Passing notes

We talk about having passing notes, when there are more than one note in the first and last bars of each section, and more than two notes in the middle bars. Not all parts can get passing notes at the same time. Indeed, it can be common for just one of the four voices to have a passing note.

When we have passing notes, the syllable or syllables that would normally be sung to one note are instead shared over two notes – but in the same time as if you had been singing it to one note – so, quicker.

Additional pointing

Here’s some additional pointing of the words that you need to be aware of, which vary from place to place:

  • A space, comma or asterisk – used to mark a break in the singing of a line of words
  • Underlined or bold words – used to indicate words that need stressing or lengthening
  • A slur or arrow in the middle or end of the verse – used to indicate that you continue singing without a break
  • A long-dash “—” indicates to omit that bar of music from the chant
  • Dagger “†” indicates use of the second part of a double chant

Have a listen

Here’s a video of the Rivelin Singers singing Psalm 37. The person posting the video has kindly overlaid the pointed text so its easy to follow. You might also like to download the music for this version of Psalm 37 to sing along.

Which psalms are sung when

In some cathedrals and churches where the psalms are sung every day, the Psalter is divided equally in order over a month, with a few psalms appointed for morning prayer, and some appointed for evening prayer or evensong – with the idea that we start with Psalm 1 on the morning of the 1st of the month and get through all 150 over the course of the 31 days.

In other churches psalms are appointed for certain days based upon the Lectionary, which dictates all the biblical readings for a particular day, and in this case are not sung in numerical order.

Other things to note

When singing the psalms to Anglican Chant, here’s some things to note:

  • The music and words of the psalm aren’t printed together. Typically the chant is shown once at the top of the page, and all the verses of the psalm under it. So you need to get used to flicking back and forth between the music and words.
  • Different institutions use different editions of the Bible for the words of the psalms. The traditional words associated with the Book of Common Prayer are know as the Coverdale translation. Many churches use more modern English translations.
  • It’s possible to also have triple and quadruple chants that take 3 verses or 4 verses to sing through the whole chant.
  • Many choirs sing verses antiphonally. That is, they sing alternate verses. The first two verses of the psalm will be sung by the whole choir, and then the odd numbered verses by one side of the choir, and the even verses by the other. 

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