Melodies for Psalms

When a single voice intones a psalm or prayer, singing recto tono or to some other simple chant, there is no need to coordinate with other voices, so the singer can decide where to change pitch, add ornaments, and so on. But when several voices sing together, they must have some way of changing pitch in unison - either by singing from music written out in advance, or singing from memory or text and using a melody whose turns are predictable.

In the prostopinije tradition, the simplest of these melodies are called psalm tones.

The usual psalm tone

Psalms have their origin in Hebrew poetry, consist of a sequence of verses, each of which is ordinarily divided into two short half-verses. Generally, if the singing of a psalm is divided up, one person or group sings a verse, and another person or group sings the next verse, and so on.

In the usual psalm tone, the first half-verse is sung on the home pitch, or do; then the second half verse is sung a whole step higher, on re. At the end of the second half-verse, the melody drops to the seventh degree of the scale (ti) before concluding back on the home pitch of do.

Listen to an example sung to the usual psalm tone.

Because the psalm tone begins and ends on the same pitch, and uses only three notes in a particular and predictable way, it is easy to sing; the use of the seventh scale degree ti (which reinforces the home pitch) makes it easy to sing without going flat.

Here is how this melody is customarily written out in musical notation:

Usual psalm tone

Note that in the second sample verse, the voice drops to ti a syllable early, so that the accented syllable of DWELling is on the tonic. This ti is never accented; the sung line should aim toward to conclusion on do, and pass over the ti very lightly.

When a text is written out for singing to the usual psalm tone, the second half-verse is indented, and the syllable where the voice drops to ti may be italicized or bold-faced. (This does NOT mean to accent this syllable! In earlier MCI music, underlining was used, but this was sometimes hard to read in printed form.)

All of these look to you
   to give them their food in due season.
You give it, they gather it up;
   you open your hand, they have their fill.

Sometimes a psalm verse falls into three or four parts. The portion that is not indented is sung on do; the part that is indented is all sung on re, up to the ti - do ending:

You hide your face, they are dismayed;
   you take back your spirit, they die,
   returning to the dust from which they came.

Here, the first line is sung on do, and both the second and third lines are sung on re, up to the ti - do conclusion (on "they came.")

The singing of psalm tones should be smooth, and notes are not held; there should be a very slight pause between the half-verses. At the end of each verse, take another slight pause, unless another person or group will sing the next verse; in this case, it is acceptable practice to hold the last note slightly, while the other voice(s) begin the next verse.

Exercise: Try chanting Psalm 141, on pages 115-116 of the green Divine Liturgies book, to the usual psalm tone. You don't need to be able to read music! Just try to maintain the home pitch, and chant expessively, chanting at about the tempo rhythm you would read the psalm aloud.

Variations on the usual psalm tone

Occasionally (as at the beginning of Vespers), some priests like to alternate prayers with the people by half-verse. This is indicated by going briefly up to re just before the end of the half-verse:

Usual psalm tome with switch

Sometimes the singing goes up to the third scale degree (mi) at the end of the half-verse. (This is also the way we sing twelve or forty repetitions of "Lord, have mercy.")

Usual psalm time with mi

Both this version, and the following which comes from the tradition of the city of Prešov, are actually harmonies of the usual psalm tone. The Prešov melody has the same initial half verse, but goes up to mi for the conclusion rather than dropping to ti.

Presov psalm tone

These variations are usually functional: they allow the cantor to signal where the melody is going, while harmonizing with anyone who is still singing the continuing pitch.

Other psalm tones

The usual psalm tone is not the only one in the prostopinije tradition. For example, there is a festive melody for Psalm 103 (listen):

Psalm tone for Psalm 103

as well as special melodies for the Typical Psalms (102 and 145), a melody used in singing the Psalter over the departed, and so on.