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Singing the Psalms and Canticles at Trinity

The traditional service of Matins remains popular at Trinity and is led by our excellent choir.

However, for those who enjoy singing, the Psalms and Canticles can be challenging to sing....

The text is pointed for chanting by assigning each verse or phrase to a simple

harmonised melody of 7, 14, 21 or 28 bars (known respectively as a single,

double, triple or quadruple chant).

An example of a single chant is shown above. Below are the first four verses

of the Magnificat, with the text coloured to show which words correspond to

which notes in the music ("the chant").

1. My soul doth ' magnify the ' Lord : And my spirit hath re'joiced in ' God my '


2. For ' he hath re'garded : the ' lowliness ' of his ' handmaiden.

3. For be'hold from ' henceforth : all gene ' rations shall ' call me ' blessed.

4. For he that is mighty hath ' magnified ' me : and ' holy ' is his ' Name.

Various psalters have been published over the years, with each one showing

how the chant is to be fitted to the words and each having its own variation on

the precise rules for doing so. The rules used in the Parish Psalter (one of the

more popular psalters, edited by Sydney Nicholson) are as follows:

• Each verse is sung to seven bars of music (the whole chant in the example

above, though most chants are 14 bars = 2 verses long)

• The bar lines in the music correspond to inverted commas ("pointing

marks") in the text.

• The double bar line in the music corresponds to the colon in the text.

• Where there is one note (a semibreve) to a bar, all the words for the

corresponding part of the text are sung to that one note.

• Where there are two notes (two minims) to a bar, unless indicated otherwise

all the words except the last syllable are sung to the first minim. The

final syllable is sung to the second minim. Where more than the last

syllable is to be sung to the second minim, a dot (·) (between words) or

a hyphen (within a word) is used in the text to indicate where the note

change should occur.

Other psalters use different notation; modern psalters such as the New St

Paul's Cathedral Psalter (John Scott, 1997) have adopted the following


• A vertical bar (|) is used to indicate a barline.

• Whenever there are 3 or more syllables in a bar containing two minims, a

dot (·) or hyphen is used, even if the change of note is on the final


There are various additional rules which apply occasionally:

• Some chants have more complicated rhythms than the example above,

generally in the form of a dotted minim and a crotchet (in any bar

except the last of a quarter) or of two crotchets taking the place of a


• When a minim in an internal bar (i.e. not the first or last bar of a quarter) is

replaced by two crotchets, one of two things happens. If there is only

one syllable, both notes are sung to it in quick succession. If there are

two (or occasionally more) syllables, they are split as appropriate to

smoothly match the rhythm of the words to the two notes.

• When an internal bar has a dotted rhythm, it is to be sung as above,

excepting that the crotchet can be omitted from the music if the natural

rhythm of the words and the sentiment of the words indicate that it is

appropriate to do so.

• When the first bar of a quarter has a dotted minim and a crotchet, all

syllables except the last are sung to the note of the dotted minim, with

the crotchet being tucked in on the last syllable before the barline. If

there is only one syllable, both notes are sung to it in quick succession

with the subtle emphasis being on the first note.

• Sometimes the last bar of a quarter has two minims instead of the usual

semibreve, in which case a dot/hyphen may be required after the last

barline in the text: (e.g. even as ' though they ' were mine ' enemies.)

Particularly in long psalms, changes of chant may be used to signal thematic

shifts in the words. Psalm 119, which is the longest in the psalter, is generally

sung with a change of chant after every 8 of its 176 verses, corresponding to

the 22 stanzas of the original Hebrew text. However, it is never sung all at

once, but spread over successive days.

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