The shapes of psalms: songs, litanies, shanties, lullabies

Psalms come in different shapes as well as sizes

If you want your congregation to join in, it’s very important that they feel comfortable with what’s going on.  If they don’t, they will keep quiet and just watch everyone else.  We long for the days when we can encourage a congregation to join in the singing again, so when the restrictions are lifted, we want everyone to feel ready to take part with confidence.  This means understanding what is going on; and part of this is knowing what shape the Responsorial Psalm is for this week,

Lady = Church scaring off dragon=Satan
Is it one of these?

 – because the Responsorial Psalm can take different forms.  I’ve written before about psalm-lullabies, but at least they usually follow the standard shape.  Some of the other types change even the format.   Most often we have the verse + chorus model, with which everyone is familiar from folk songs and Christmas carols.  The verses change but the chorus stays the same, so even those who didn’t know it at the beginning can pick it up and join in freely by the end.  

Dinosaur in a snailshell
…or more like this?

Other liturgies which use the psalms (like the Anglican tradition) sing the psalms straight through without a Response or Chorus. This is beautiful, covers the Psalter more efficiently and is easier to control and practise, but you don’t get the congregation joining in.  Sometimes the choir divides, just as in the cathedral tradition (Decani, the side where the Dean sits, and Cantoris, the other side, for the Cantor), so that the verses of the psalms can alternate; again, no audience participation, but difference in the way it feels and sounds.  Think of it like mediaeval stereo, with the sound coming from alternating speakers, or as God’s Dolby helicopter in a film’s opening.

Psalm as psea pshanty
Jonah and whale
yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum

There are a few psalms (and a couple of canticles) where the poetic form is like a sea shanty. I’ve talked about this before, specifically about the Daniel canticle.  Sea shanties are currently having a moment, as part of the pandemic, though I am not at all sure why. Perhaps it’s because, if you’re rehearsing on Zoom, it’s a lot easier to keep together when the lines are short, and anyway, with shanties, a bit of rough-and-ready is already factored in.

Stella maris (Coptic) with goldfish

In a religious context we tend to call them litanies rather than shanties, but the principle is the same. One person (or less often, a group) says or sings a line of text, which varies every time but has something to keep them together. They might be titles for Our Lady : ‘Rose of Sharon’, ‘Tower of David’, ‘Star of the sea’ etc. After each brief line, another person (or usually group) answers with their own line, which keeps repeating: ‘Pray for us’, or ‘Alleluia’, or ‘Have mercy on us’, but the pattern is that the first halves change all the time and the second half doesn’t. I used this sort of shape in the Mayfield Mass Kyrie, so that the congregation can ease into singing it after learning just one simple line of melody.  The Agnus Dei inverts this, using the same first half three times, and changing the second half.  It seems to work well, and is easy to pick up.


Verse and chorus
children singing and marking the rhythm by clapping as well ( we could do that with psalms, but some people don’t like it)

One of the things which first attracted me to writing tunes for psalms is the shape of the Responsorial Psalm as we Catholics sing it Sunday by Sunday, with verse and chorus, like so many traditional folk songs or nursery rhymes. Children learn how they work just as they learn turn-taking in speech.  I say this; you answer that.  Some of the oldest forms of tonguetwister and word games work the same way (I am a gold lock…I am a gold key, and so on).  Some of our earliest musical memories are probably this shape; such songs are easy to pick up and join in with. They encourage everyone to take part.

Shapes in the Psalter

If the Book of Psalms is the Church’s first hymn book, it’s a hymn book designed to encourage audience participation, with its repetition and simple shapes.   It’s fascinating to see the shapes already there in the written text of the Book of Psalms, from litanies (Pss 117/118, 134/135)  to songs with choruses (Pss 45/46, 48/49, 66/67).  We can see the shapes of some psalms more clearly than others.  Sometimes a chorus is used to give shape to what might otherwise be a bit unwieldy (Ps 79/80, for example).  I think it’s quite likely that some of the psalms, where there is a short first stanza before the psalm takes a breath and sets off, might well have been sung as we shape them today, as Responsorial Psalms, with that first piece being the recurring Response (see Pss 19/20, 83/84 and 127/128, as well as the several which just start ‘Alleluia’).  In Psalm 106/107, this possible suggested response even comes in quotation marks.  I’m not sure at what stage of translation or editing they would have been added (this is, after all, a very ancient, very foreign text, however familiar),  but I think they indicate something about the way that psalm has been shaped and used, as well as the other psalms where similar phrases occur.

Shaping the Response as well as the psalm

The only slight problem here is that sometimes the Responses we have prescribed for us in the Lectionary can feel too short.  This didn’t matter in the old days, when church musicians were allowed to repeat something (imagine saying to any church musician of previous centuries that they couldn’t repeat an Alleluia or a Dona nobis pacem),  but nowadays this is officially frowned upon and some Responses feel too short to balance the verse length.  I have talked about this before.  And sometimes a Response is just bad (see my complaints about this here).

Mary and choir of angels
you really want me to sing that?
Sailors and marines

Litanies are even easier than the standard Responsorial Psalm (because there is less to remember), but the group/congregation/team has to work harder, as they are holding up half of the song.  They are also less familiar as a shape for the psalm, so it really is worth explaining before Mass what the shape is, if it’s not the standard verse+chorus.  So long as enough people are not taken by surprise, the latecomers will catch up.  Every line (or pair of lines) in a litany/shanty alternates between the singers, and everyone has to stay alert (this is why they are good work songs).  An older form of sea shanty is called ‘chanty’, which is of course a reference to its heritage from Gregorian chant.  No, there I am kidding, but certainly some sea shanties are old, and Phoenician sailors were probably using similar songs to help keep time hauling up an anchor even long before Peter and Andrew were boys learning to fish in Galilee with their father.  A modern version is US Marines singing as they do their morning runs.

another way to use music to keep together (Georgians dancing clasped together)
All together now

It’s not about beautiful singing or developed melody; it’s all about rhythm and keeping together.  Think about the man on the drums to keep the rowers together on the ship in Ben HurThey have to have a Hortator (the man doing the drumming, same root as ‘to exhort’) to set the rhythm because they are working so hard they have no breath to sing (and they are slaves from all over the Roman Empire, so they wouldn’t have come from a shared musical tradition).  With a free crew singing a normal sea shanty, the men are working but not at full stretch, so they can sing at least enough to make the responses.  And the shantyman can improvise and/or make jokes, so long as he keeps to the rhythm, which also keeps the crew listening attentively (just like the Marines).  This is not a technique open to us with our Sunday psalms, however.

Youths singing
Trying to keep together
Making it clear and keeping it simple

Anything can work, so long as the people singing and listening know what the form is.  The usual shape of our Sunday psalms is verse + chorus, and most people are used to that.  The number of verses can vary, the length of the verses can vary, but so long as the movement into the Response is clear and remains the same throughout, you can get away with a surprising amount of variation.  There are even psalms (e.g. Ps 30/31 for Good Friday) where I have needed to use two tunes alternating (though always keeping the same Response), and it’s been fine.  Confidence (yours as well as theirs) is crucial.  Explain at the beginning if you need to, give a clear lead and offer plenty of eye contact.  At the moment, this all feels slightly academic, as our congregations are tiny and behind face masks, but we can nurture the will to sing, and better times are coming.

© Kate Keefe and Music for Mass 2021 Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Kate Keefe and Music for Mass with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Love songs and lullabies (and some old films)

Different sorts of psalm

The psalm for Thirtieth Sunday in Year A is a love song; the psalm for Thirtyfirst Sunday Year A is a lullaby. I have been thinking about the similarities, and then I came across a reference by Sally Emerson to lullabies as ‘love songs to babies’, so it’s not just me, and I decided to explore the idea.  All lullabies are love songs, but not all love songs are lullabies.

I’ve said before that the Book of Psalms is a book of infinite riches, so it’s not surprising that we find both love songs and lullabies there. There are lots of different sorts of love songs: bellicose, triumphant, wistful, relieved, celebratory. Most of the Hurrah for God psalms are different sorts of love songs. Lullabies in the Psalms are rarer (mostly male poets, perhaps?).  Psalm 130/131 is perhaps the best example of psalm words clearly needing a lullaby setting, picking up the central image of the sleepy child, but there are others.  And now the Pope too has admitted that he sometimes drops off to sleep while in God’s arms, which I am delighted to hear.  The US version of Psalm 18 for 30 OTA gave me enough room to allow a lullaby setting, whereas the UK/OZ version (Ps 17) seems more wakeful, even fierce, runs the words into longer verses and does not have the restful feel, so I had to handle it differently.  But for 31 OTA, everybody needs a lullaby.

Characteristics of lullabies

So what makes a lullaby a lullaby?  Usually but not always in 3/4 time, sometimes 6/8, they mustn’t go too fast, and it’s clear when you sing them that this is because it gives a rocking movement, either just mentally or to the real baby in your arms. (The surprising thing about the Rocking Carol ‘Little Jesus, sweetly sleep’ (Hajej, nynej) is how jerky it is; it’s in 4/4, and I’m always reminded of small children trying to rock dollies and not quite getting it right! As a children’s carol, that’s probably a useful association.)  But you can get away with 4/4 if you sing it sufficiently fast and smoothly to be beating one in a bar (Sleep baby sleep, Coventry carol).

Some golden oldies

Most classic lullabies are 3/4; Golden slumbers (not the Beatles version, the lovely tune recycled by John Gay in the Beggar’s Opera), Sweet and Low, Brahms’ Cradle song, Feed the birds in Mary Poppins, Hushabye Mountain in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.  It was very difficult to find acceptable versions of these to link to (you should have heard the ones I left out), but there’s vast amounts of stuff on YouTube, although the best lullabies are the ones you sing yourself.  To go back to films, the worst indictment of Mr Brown in Nanny McPhee is not just that he’s stopped reading stories to the children, they aren’t getting lullabies either (even if they are, oddly, pronouncing it loolaby).

Lost lullabies

But of course the ones we know about are only the tip of the iceberg as most lullabies in the world probably aren’t written down.  This tends to be (certainly traditionally has been) women’s words and music, and so, ephemeral and transmitted by oral tradition, rather than by book.  So any generalisations are tentative, but I think the 3/4 rocking movement is a fairly safe one (though having said that, I keep thinking of 4/4s.  Never mind.)

Purpose of lullabies

What are lullabies for?  They are to encourage your beloved child to go to sleep.  So they need to be steady, reassuring, comfortable and soothing; not exciting, not sudden, not musically athletic, not scary (don’t sing ‘I’m going on a bear hunt’ as a lullaby).  Your aim is a gentle boring to sleep.   (It took us a while to work this out, as it’s very engaging to have an awake baby even in the night, but once we had missed enough sleep, we went for boredom rather than entertainment, and it was a breakthrough.)

This is the feel you are aiming at, but it’s one of those musical paradoxes, like writing a tune for Chaos (Hadyn’s Creation), infinite space (Holst’s Planets), heaven and the Beatific Vision (Elgar’s Gerontius, Palestrina Sicut cervus).  You know you can’t do it, but you try.  I’m sure even geniuses as above quailed at the challenge, whereas for a simple tune writer……The music I’m offering is trying to express peace, and moving towards silence and stillness.

Lullaby or sea shanty

This is difficult, especially in a Responsorial Psalm format, with the chorus coming back in again repeatedly.  Lullabies don’t usually have choruses, for obvious reasons, but they do use repetition.  The tune matters, but it can’t be showy or too upbeat; a little bit fey, modal or folky seems to work.  Lullabies are by their nature unaccompanied, so again, not much on the instrument front.  You need to be able to sing them almost under your breath, let them tail away, fade to nothing as the eyelashes close…….but pick up again gently if needed.

Words for lullabies, good and bad

The tune is important, not so much the melody for once but the movement of it; the words are not so important (you have to be able to fade to a hum).  I have the psalm words as a given, so I don’t need to worry about the words, but it’s fun to read traditional lullaby words from different cultures.

So long as the tune is steady, an aggravated parent can let off steam with the words (and if you are really sleep-deprived, and garble or forget them, it doesn’t matter).  Rock a bye baby is a fine traditional example of this, with total catastrophe at the end tied to a serene tune, although there are modern bowdlerised versions.   There’s another one, Go to sleep you little baby, in O Brother, where art thou?   One I like is Icelandic, I think, and the letting off steam line is ‘Sleep, you black-eyed pig.  Fall into a pit full of ghosts.’  Now there’s a singer longing for oblivion and just marking time till she gets there.  Thomas Hood wrote his Serenade for a father in precisely this situation, and it contains the line, ‘The more I sing, the more you wake’,  which is precisely not what we want here.

Setting a lullaby psalm : practical considerations

We can’t have the congregation nodding off during the readings,  so I am not trying for a real lullaby here, just something suggestive of it.  Luckily it’s a clear and understood brand.  I was amazed to discover how many pop songs are based on lullabies, and that is one reason why it was so difficult to find clips for my earlier references.

Psalm 130/131 is short and irregular, with a final half-verse.  I couldn’t go for 3/4 in the UK version because of the rhythm of the Response words, so I was aiming more for a Tallis feel there, a simple metrical psalm with a stepping bass;  and the half-verse fitted smoothly into the second half of the verse tune, so that worked.  The OZ/CAN version had a gentle rock, with a long wait on the note for peace which I deliberately left as simple and calm as possible.  I could streamline the tune around the half-verse using all four lines but more simply, as though it was easing away.  The US version was tricky, because the words are a bit Yoda, except for the Response, which has the same beautiful words as the OZ/CAN version, but a different tune.  This time the half-verse fitted into the first and last lines, so I ended up doing it differently for each group, but each version keeps it clear for the congregation, which is my main concern.

Responsorial psalm as a lullaby

So if you don’t want the congregation to go to sleep, why set the psalm as a lullaby?  Especially for Psalm 130/131, the words are so strongly suggestive that it seems the only sort of tune to write.  Nobody sings you lullabies any more once you get big, but everyone remembers the feeling of being totally safe and close to the person you love most, and being able to let go.  I hope the congregation won’t go to sleep, but I hope they will feel calm, rested and peaceful; like a weaned child on its mother’s breast (or lap, for the US) indeed.  It is hard to think of a more peaceful image of us and God.

© Kate Keefe and Music for Mass 2017. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Kate Keefe and Music for Mass, with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.