Anglican Chant and the Psalms

And when many evils and troubles have come upon them, this song shall confront them as a witness (for it will live unforgotten in the mouths of their offspring). -Deut 31:21a

Consider this: How many prose readings can you quote by heart? Now, how many songs can you sing by heart? Probably far more. The marriage of words to music lends itself to memorization.

The Psalms were originally intended to be sung, and are still primarily sung in some traditions. So why not memorize them through music?

We tried the Presbyterian Trinity Psalter during our devotions, but our, uh, devotion to a metrical Psalter cooled quickly. It just isn’t the real thing. Also, it is set to other songs. It was difficult to memorize a Psalm set to “Amazing Grace” since we have already attached words to that melody. Searching for a solution to this predicament, I found an article about chanting, but failed to click with its instructions.

Enter one of my favorite Anglicans, Fr. Bill Mouser. He wrote a brief comment elsewhere about Anglican chant. A personal query prompted a kind response, edited and reprinted below with his permission.

Before getting to that, note that me and my wife, as guinea pigs who knew nothing about chanting prior to this, learned the basic gist of it in a few hours. We have since memorized Psalm 1. You can “roll your own” melodies, or find available ones for each Psalm from Anglican, Catholic, Orthodox, etc. sources. We are going through the Psalms in order, using melodies from Psalms from St. Paul’s, Vol. 1: Psalms 1-17 (a Hyperion 12-CD box set of all 150 Psalms is available as “The Psalms of David: the Complete St. Paul’s Cathedral Psalter.” I’ve seen it new on Ebay and in the Amazon Marketplace for under $110). We like chanting because it truly is portable between Bible versions–we prefer the ESV– and we haven’t heard these melodies before, so they lack lyrical association. The chants are novice-friendly, too. As Fr. Mouser puts it:

A choirmaster with oodles of musical talent at his disposal might scoff. I couldn’t care less, for what I’ve sent you is for the denizens of the pews, to enable them to know the joys of singing God’s word. As with anything, there are embellishments, refinements, and intricacies that are worth the time for those with time to invest in them. But, ordinary folks usually don’t have the talent or time for that. This may be one reason the skill has vanished; it got co-opted by the experts, making the ordinary folks think it’s beyond them… [T]his primer is for the simple folk.

Without further ado, his instructions. Enjoy.


One thing that has fascinated me since I picked up the practice of chanting the Psalms is the knowledge that this is how they were composed to be sung. Hebrew poetry is not metrical. The Psalms are not metrical. But, the psalms are musical. In other words, they were sung. And, they were often, maybe usually, sung to stringed instruments eg. harps. That means there ought to be a style of guitar performance that recaptures — at least in outline — the original performance dynamics of the Hebrew Psalter. I’ll pick this up again, when I get to one of the distinctives of Anglican chant: it’s chordal characteristics.

Here are the topics I’ll explain in order:

1. Music and words in conventional singing
2. Music and words in chanting
3. What is the structure of a chant?
4. What is pointing?
5. How do they go together? (with examples)
6. Modes and Harmonies in Anglican chant
7. The Gloria Patri
8. The Genius of Anglican Chant


Singing is the union of words and melody. I can speak the words “row, row, row your boat; gently down the stream.” Or I can sing them to the tune you know so well. All you do by singing is to unite the words to a melody.

Melody in the west is more than a series of notes. It is a series of notes with attached durations for each of them and a rhythm.

Some tones in “Row, row, row, your boat” have durations different from other notes in the melody.

“Row, row, row, your boat” has a duple [two-part] rhythm. You could march to it, but you could not waltz to it. On the other hand, the hymn “Amazing Grace” has a triple rhythm. You could waltz to it, but not march to it.

Ninety-nine percent of all folk singing (popular songs, hymns, rounds, etc.) have either duple or triple rhythms in their melodies.

Finally, melodies have determinate numbers of notes in the same sequence. After they are sung, the song is over, or the next verse of the song is sung, which verse is melodically repeated.

People ordinarily do not sing mere notes; they unite them to words. A song is a union of words and melody. But, in conventional singing in the west, you cannot just any old words may be united with a melody. This is because of two things:

* A melody can be, and usually is, conceived apart from any words that attach to the melody in a song. We hum the melodies of the songs we sing. The melodies rattle around in our heads without the words — just the melody.
* A simple melody, including the melodies of songs, is often a feature of western musical art that stands on its own wholly apart from any words attached to it to make a song. So, Beethoven, or Tchaikovsky, or Dvorak, or Copeland wrote entire symphonies around the melodies of folk songs, never needing once to incorporate the words into their compositions.

For these and other reasons (though these reasons are sufficient), whenever melody and words are united in conventional singing, it is the melody that determines which words are united to it. The melody imposes limits on what words may be used.

To see how this is so, sing these words to the conventional melody:

Row, row, row your boat,
Gently down the stream.
Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily,
Life is but a dream.

Now, sing the following to the same melody:

Row, row, row your flat-bottomed boat,
Gently down the trout-filled stream.
Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily,
Life is but a fisherman’s dream.

Doesn’t work, right? Why not? Because the words don’t fit. There’s too many syllables to fit comfortably into the melody. And, if we alter the melody to accommodate the words, the melody is not the same melody– the notes may be the same, and in the same order, but their durations and rhythm are disturbed.

This is the origin of the so-called “metric Psalter.” You cannot sing any English translation of the 23rd Psalm to any melody. Instead, you must rewrite the Psalm text in a metrical form and put that to music. For an example, see here where you can see one rewrite of Psalm 23 and links which will generate two different melodies (midi files).

Again, the reason one cannot sing the English Psalter in any conventional way is this: the translation is made with no thought of meter in mind. But, conventional singing melodies are metrical. Consequently, the English Psalter, if it is to be sung conventionally, must be rewritten, to produce words that will scan correctly with the various melodies to which they might be united. Here is a comprehensive example of this project.

So far, nothing has been said about Anglican chant. But what I have said above is helpful to keep in mind, so that you can understand what Anglican chant is not, how it differs from conventional singing, and how you must think differently about singing when singing Anglican chant.


Anglican chant is a form of singing, a union of melody and words. It differs from the singing described above in this way: the words control the music.

Notes: An Anglican chant melody is a series of notes– a very few notes, in fact. Almost all Anglican chants have ten notes. A few have eleven notes (but they are used as if they were only ten notes, as will be explained later).

Note duration: the reason we say that the words control the melody is this: the duration of any note is determined by the words. Words are assigned to notes by a marks in the text called “pointing marks,” explained below. For now, know this: notes take their duration from the text. And, so, every repetition of the chant melody will have different durations to every note in the melody. The only constant in the melody will be the sequence of notes. The sequence will be the same every time the melody is sung.

Rhythm: As you might suppose from the above, there is no rhythm in Anglican chant. There may be the perception of rhythm in any line of a psalm that is sung to Anglican chant, but this sense of rhythm is coming from the cadence of the text, not some sort of meter in the ordinary sense of that word.

The best pace and cadence for an Anglican chant is the pace and cadence of audible reading. In fact, when choirs are learning a new chant, one of the first things they will do is speak the words together repeatedly, until everyone feels and reproduces the same cadence at an ordinary reading/speaking pace. Next, they will sing the same text on a monotone, again striving to develop a unity of pace/diction/cadence for the lines of the text. Finally, they will add the actual notes of the chant, striving to keep the pace and cadence that was present when they were simply reading it in unison.


A chant is a series of ten notes. They are divided into two phrases. Phrase one of a chant is four notes long; phrase two of a chant is six notes long. Once these notes have been sung, the chant is repeated– the same notes, in the same order.

The texts for chants are, of course, the verses of the English Psalter. In general (there are exceptions), a verse of a Psalm is assigned to one iteration of the chant. Since a chant has two parts, so also the text of a verse is divided into two parts.

The first half of a verse in a psalm is assigned to the notes of the first half of the chant (i.e. the phrase that has four notes). The second half of a verse in a psalm is assigned to the notes of the second phrase of the psalm, the phrase that has six notes.

In some texts of Psalms, you will see an asterisk in the middle of the verse. This is one way that a psalm is “pointed” (see below). All you can tell from this is that the first half of a chant (the four note phrase) goes with everything before the asterisk; and everything after the asterisk goes with the six notes.

Here are the key ideas about chant structure:

All chants and all pointed texts sung to chants have the same structure:
Two phrases, musical and textual
Four notes sung with the first half of the text verse
Six notes sung with the second half of the text verse
Repeat the chant as many times as necessary to get through the Psalm text.


The chunks of a chant are easy to recognize: they are the individual tones of the melody, grouped into two phrases, four notes to the first phrase, six notes to the second phase.

But, how do we know how to recognize the corresponding chunks of a verse from a Psalm which is sung to the chant? We know this by marks placed in the text, marks which are called points.

In its simplest form, pointing involves placing marks in the text of a verse, marks which do two things: (1) they mark the place where the Psalm verse is divided into two parts, each of them corresponding to the two phrases of the chant; and (2) they mark the point at which the text is sung to the next note in the melody of the chant.

Here is Psalm 1:1-2, as it is sung by those on that CD you mentioned, pointed for singing to the Anglican chant that they are using on that CD, an Anglican chant evidently composed by Edward Elgar, composer of one of my symphonic favorites The Enigma Variations:

1Blessed is the man that hath not walked in the counsel of the ungodly
Nor stood in the | way | of | sinners *
And hath not | sat | in the | seat | of the | scornful

2But his delight is in the | law | of the | Lord *
And in his law will he | exercise | him- | self | day and | night.

If you are able to play the recording of this Psalm (do you have the CD? Can you rip off just the singing of these two verses and play them over and over in a loop?), you can follow along, noting where the singers change notes, and you will see that they change notes at the places where there is a vertical [ | ] bar inserted into the text.

A couple of additional notes:

It is fairly common that in each half-verse and its corresponding musical phrase, most of the text will be assigned to the first note of the musical phrase, no matter whether it is the first four-note phrase, or the subsequent six-note phrase. For this reason, the first note of each phrase is often referred to as the “reciting note,” and the remaining notes of the phrase are referred to collectively as the “inflecting notes.”

Sometimes, notes in the inflection parts of the phrase have a syllable per note, or a multi-syllable word per note, or more than one word per note.

In principle there is no “right way” to point a text, but for purposes of congregational singing and collecting pointed texts into collections for use by a congregation, it is common (or, it used to be common) to find collections of pointings for Psalms. Of course, with the multiplication of English translations, there is an accompanying need to produce a pointed Psalter for each of the translations. For example, below are the same verses in several versions, each of them pointed to be sung to the same chant you have on this CD for Psalm 1:

1 Blessed is the man that walketh not in the counsel of the ungodly,
nor standeth in the | way | of | sinners, *
nor | sitteth | in the | seat | of the | scornful.

2 But his delight is in the | law | of the | LORD; *
and in his law doth he | medi- | tate | day | and | night.

1 Blessed is the man that walketh not in the counsel of the wicked,
Nor standeth in the | way | of | sinners, *
Nor | sitteth | in the | seat | of | scoffers:

2 But his delight is in the | law | of Je- | hovah; *
And on his law doth he | medi- | tate | day | and | night.

If, after repeated listening and singing along with the CD you are able to memorize the chant, you can then give a try at singing the various translations of Psalm 1:1-2 to the same chant. They are all pointed to that they have the right number of chunks, in the right order, to guide you in assigning the notes to the relevant portions of the text.

Though I gave a few examples of pointing a psalm text before singing it, I did not actually discuss how to make the various decisions one makes when pointing a text. And, unless the New King James is simply unsatisfactory for you, I have already pointed almost the entirety of that version of the Psalms (we use the NKJV in our parish worship). So, you would not need to point much of anything; I’d be happy to send you all the psalms I have pointed.

Also, I have not addressed your question as to the chants on the CD you mentioned. I have only listened to a couple of them (the snippets available at Amazon). The chant for Psalm 1 is most certainly an Anglican chant. In fact, it’s a single chant. One other I listened to is a double-chant. There is likely a triple chant lurking in the CD somewhere, and perhaps something that isn’t even Anglican chant. At any rate, I haven’t even raised those ideas yet (they’re simple to understand, once you’ve well digested what I did send your way).


That is, how do the chants and the pointed texts go together?

The examples just above give the first illustration of how they fit. Since the chant has ten pieces (i.e. notes) divided into two groups (four and six), and the text has been marked so that it has the same number of pieces and groups, then putting them together is simply making a one-to-one correspondence between the pieces of the chant and the pointed text.

It’s best to try this by learning the chant first, until it is memorized. This should not take long, say a minute or so. Really. If you can pick out the notes on a piano, or a toy xylophone, and sing along, the memorization will come quickly.

One man taught his fellows a chant quickly by having them sing a nonsense line to it, thusly:

Strawberry | one | two | three *
Strawberry | one | two | three | four | five

If this were all there was to it, Anglican chant would be simple enough for chimps. But, it’s got a couple of variations which are dandy for variety, interest, and beauty.

Let’s first consider double chants. These are two different chants stuck together. Each chant has exactly the structure of any chant, but when they are grouped together and sung, you sing the first verse of the Psalm to chant A, the second verse to chant B, the third verse to chant A, the fourth to chant B, and so on through the Psalm.

Why do this? Well, some chants are sooo simple that to repreat them over and over and over becomes monotonous. If we add a second chant, especially when they sound good one after the other, then there is much less chance for a sense of monotony. In fact, most double chants are composed so that the first chant seems to “call” (in a musical sense) for an answer, and the second chant supplies it, providing a satisfying sense of closure and completion.

But, this can lead to a problem. Double chants work just fine when the verses chanted are even in number (2, 4, 6, 8, etc.). But what happens when you have a Psalm with an odd number of verses, as in Psalm 8? If you begin with chant A and simply alternate, you’ll end with chant A, and this will usually be unsatisfactory in a musical sense.

So, what you do is select a place in the Psalm where two successive verses are both chanted to the second chant. The verse which gets this sort of treatment is preceded by the notation 2nd. Here is the NKJV text of Psalm 11, with the half-measure marks and other points already supplied:

1 In the LORD I | put | my | trust; *
How can you say to my soul, | “Flee as | a | bird to | your | mountain?”

2 For look! The wicked | bend | their | bow, *
They make ready their arrow on the string,
That they may shoot secretly | at | the | upright | in | heart.

3 If the foun- | dations are | des- | troyed, *
What | can | the | right- | eous | do?

4 The LORD is in His | ho- | ly | temple, *
The LORD’s throne is in heaven;
His eyes behold,
His eyelids | test | the | sons | of | men.

5 The LORD | tests | the | righteous, *
But the wicked and the | one who | loves | violence His | soul | hates.

6 Upon the wicked | He will | rain | coals; *
Fire and brimstone and a burning wind
| Shall be | the | portion of | their | cup.

7 For the | LORD | is | righteous, *
He loves righteousness;
His | countenance | be- | holds | the | upright.

The best place to repeat the second chant is at a place in the psalm where the verse that gets the repeat is closely tied in sense to the verse preceding it. What constitutes “closely tied” is a close call, sometimes. Many different things can tie the sense of a verse to the one preceding it.

There are two places where one might repeat the second chant. One of them is at verse 3. where the despairing question in this verse is a natural consequence of the alarming lament in verse 2. A second place would be verse 7, because it begins with “For” which signals that verse 7 is expressing a ground or basis for the statement of verse 6.

If we were to take the first possibility, the pointing would look like this:

1 In the LORD I | put | my | trust; *
How can you say to my soul, | “Flee as | a | bird to | your | mountain?”

2 For look! The wicked | bend | their | bow, *
They make ready their arrow on the string,
That they may shoot secretly | at | the | upright | in | heart.
3 If the foun- | dations are | des- | troyed, *
What | can | the | right- | eous | do?

That notation “2nd” just before verse 3 tells us to sing verse 3 to the second chant, just as we have just done with verse 2.

If we take the second possibility, the last verses of the Psalm are pointed as follows:

5 The LORD | tests | the | righteous, *
But the wicked and the | one who | loves | violence His | soul | hates.

6 Upon the wicked | He will | rain | coals; *
Fire and brimstone and a burning wind
| Shall be | the | portion of | their | cup.
7 For the | LORD | is | righteous, *
He loves righteousness;
His | countenance | be- | holds | the | upright.

A word, now, about an embellishment which is only an embellishment. Some Anglican chants have eleven notes, rather than ten. Doesn’t that screw everything up?

No. The extra note is always sung with the tenth note and both of them are assigned to the last chunk of text in the second line of the verse. In other words, the text which is sung to the tenth note in a ten-note chant is sung to both tenth and eleventh notes in an eleven-note chant. In other words, one does not need a differently pointed text to use an eleven-note chant.


“Modes” refer to any of certain fixed arrangements of the diatonic tones of an octave, such as the major and minor scales of Western music. The major and minor scales of Western music are only two of many possible modes. Gregorian chant might use any of these additional modes, as would Byzantine chant, or Mozarabic chant. Anglican chant (in my experience, anyway) uses only the Western major and minor scales, though they might be used in any of the keys possible with these scales.

So what?

Well, in the tradition of Western music (including church music), a variety of moods have become attached to the major and minor scales. Major keys are generally happy, or bright, or triumphant, or romantic, or jolly. Minor keys are used to signal a host of “dark moods” — danger, sorrow, longing, fear, or anger. Consequently, when committing a number of chants to memory, for use in singing the Psalms, it is good to have several minor key chants as well as major key chants in one’s repertoire.

If you begin chanting through the Psalter, you will be amazed at the number of laments. These Psalms, if they are sung to major key chants, will sound ridiculous. It will be like singing “A Spoon Full of Sugar Helps the Medicine Go Down” at a funeral. Minor key chants are also very stirring when used with imprecatory Psalms, or Psalms of confession of sin.

If you have a nimble ear for major and minor modes, it is often a simple matter to sing a major key chant in minor key. Once in a while, this produces something really weird sounding, but usually not. I have found that going the opposite direction (singing a chant composed in minor key to a major key) more often produces something inane or hysterically comic. So, if you want to build your repertoire of minor key chants, either learn them straight, or transpose them from chants originally written in major key.

As far as harmonies go, Anglican chant is distinguished by being written as four-part harmonies. They do not need to be sung as harmonies; an individual may sing them a capella during the daily office, or while digging in the garden. Or, a group may sing them a capella in unison. This unison singing of an Anglican chant may also be accompanied by an organ, guitar, or other instrument which has a sustaining tone that can mimic the duration of a sung tone. But, if enough persons are available to sing in parts, the effect is hauntingly beautiful. It should also be noted here that the voices in Anglican chant all move together: everyone changes note at the same time, as in barber-shop quartet music.


On the CDs and any other time you hear a Psalm sung to Anglican chant, you will notice that every Psalm concludes with these chanted lines:

Glory be to the Father, and | to | the | Son *
And | to | the | Ho- | ly | Ghost.

As it was in the beginning, is now, and e- | ver | shall be*
World without end. | A- | a- | a- | a- | men.

The attachment of this couplet to the singing of any Psalm from the Psalter is very ancient, well before the Fourth Century. It originates during the time when the early Church was fighting against Jewish polemicists against the Christian faith.

One of the most common challenges from the Jews is that the Christians had stolen and perverted the revelation of God to the Jews in the Old Testament. They charged the Christians with hypocrisy to use the Old Testament as Scripture but to repudiate the Second Temple Judaism which claimed exclusive ownership of the Scriptures and any religion based on it.

Christian apologists had plenty to say in return, of course. But, one thing they began to do was to add the lines we know as the Gloria Patri at the conclusion of every singing of every Psalm in the Psalter. It was their very in-your-face way of expressing in their worship that the Psalms were the revelation of God the Father, in the person of His Son, by the power of His Spirit.

You might, I suppose, decline to follow your ancient brothers in the faith on this point. I follow them gladly, and I hope you will too. It is a simple, emphatic, and reasonable expression of solidarity with the Body of Christ in its earliest struggles to affirm and embrace the trinitarian faith embedded in the Psalter.


I know you have been impressed, and rightly so, with the beauty of the Psalter sung to Anglican chants. I trust you will also learn that the technique is so simple and straightforward that you’ll be asking yourself “Why doesn’t everyone sing the Psalms like this?” That’s a very good question, and I don’t have an answer.

Anglican chant is so simple and accessible that anyone can do it. And once you get the knack, you discover that any Psalm pointed for Anglican chant can be sung to any Anglican chant that is ever written, so long as it is truly an Anglican chant.

Fr. Mouser has used this in a ministry he tentatively calls “Men at Worship.” He teaches men to compose their prayers in collect form, then to follow a simplified liturgy of Scripture reading, Psalm singing, and prayer. “The very Protestant, utterly non-liturgical men I have taught this to have taken to it like ducks to water, confirming my suspicions that this form of communal prayer is peculiarly compatible with and edifying to the masculine soul.”

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