A Musical Introduction to the Trinity Psalter Hymnal

What is singing, and why would the Lord command its use in Christian worship and in our interaction with him and with one another?

To sing is to give voice to the emotions. Of the more than six hundred passages in Scripture that address singing and music, most connect them to human emotions. Because singing contains words, and words propose ideas, the apostle Paul is quick to remind us that singing is an activity of both the spirit and the mind. Singing contains the same God-given components of sound that we use when we speak: rhythm, pitch, timbre, and volume.

To sing, we simply extend the sound of our speech by elongating our vowels. The rise and fall of our voice, the rate at which we permit it to rise and fall, and the volume with which we do so, all combine to create singing, and singing in turn elicits and conveys emotion. We can speak of singing as a magnified version of the “tone of voice” a person uses when talking. Compared to speech, then, when we use singing in the praise of our Savior, our praise is extended, and the feelings that are elicited and conveyed are magnified. In a very real sense, when we extend our spoken praise of God by singing, we are practicing here on earth for that everlasting praise which we will offer God in glory!

The Bible gives dozens of reasons why we are to sing his praise, including: the Lord has triumphed gloriously (Ex. 15:1); he is our rock, fortress, and deliverer, who has rescued us from our strong enemy, and his way is perfect (2 Sam. 22:1–50); we are commanded to tell of his wondrous works and his salvation (1 Chron. 16:9, 23); he is the King of all the earth (Ps. 47:7); he has done marvelous things (Ps. 98:1); his glory is great (Ps. 138:5); we are thankful (Ps. 147:7); the Lord has comforted his people and redeemed Jerusalem (Isa. 52:9); he has come and dwells in our midst (Zech. 2:10); and so that we may teach and admonish one another (Col. 3:16).

During the years that the Trinity Psalter Hymnal Joint Committee (representing our two churches) has endeavored to assemble a collection of hymns and psalms suitable for our churches to use in public and family worship, our goal has been to follow the above instructions and examples from Scripture, in addition to adhering to the specific advice of our own assemblies and synods regarding sung praise in worship. In the hymn portion of the book, for hundreds of selections, the committee has sought to preserve the best hymns from our respective denominations’ current hymnals (Trinity Hymnal, Trinity Hymnal (rev. ed.), Trinity Psalter, and the Psalter Hymnal) in order to retain a core musical tradition that is loved by, and familiar to, our congregations. Approximately 90 percent of the hymns in the hymnal section were selected in this manner. These hymns have been well tried and tested for decades, and have served our churches as we have sought to worship our God.

These hymns have been well tried and tested for decades, and have served our churches as we have sought to worship our God.

The hymns included in this volume that are new to both denominations were selected to fulfill topical, scriptural, or liturgical needs, and to increase the representation of sung praise from both the earliest days of hymnody and the modern era.

In all cases, several overarching principles have guided the quest for good hymns and psalm settings. First and foremost, our songbook must be Word-driven. This, of course, means biblically Reformed theology in the hymnody and textual accuracy in the complete psalm settings, both rendered in beautiful and comprehensible poetry.

Secondly, the musical choices for the Trinity Psalter Hymnal are guided by the texts of the hymns and not by musical style. A Word-driven songbook has implications for the choice of the musical compositions used to set the texts. To this end, the committee has sought to choose musical settings that are affectively congruent with the tone of the texts, meaning that the mood of the music fits the mood of the text. Also, the music selected must support the natural syllabic inflection of the spoken text; that is to say, important words and important syllables of words must align with the important notes in the melody. This helps to make the text more intuitively singable and more comprehendible as it is sung, in an attempt to honor the apostle Paul’s command to sing with our spirit and also with understanding.

The affective congruity of the music chosen has in large part been guided by the way in which the musical elements of the composition work together to form emotional content. While on the surface this may seem to be entirely a subjective matter, there are, in fact, objective elements of music that work together to form a cross-cultural, time-transcending emotional language. If that were not so, would the Lord be able to compare his own immutable feelings to the music made on the flute or lyre (Jer. 48:36; Isa. 16:11; see John Makujina, Measuring the Music)? This is also evidenced in the manner in which human beings have used music for millennia: mothers do not sing their babies to sleep with marches, and soldiers do not march into war to the sound of lullabies.

Melodies are made of pitches that rise and fall—sometimes slowly, sometimes rapidly; sometimes by step (adjacent pitches), sometimes by leap (nonadjacent pitches). The infinite number of combinations of these melodic features, combined with the choice of accompanying harmony notes, work together to create sounds that imitate the motions of the nonverbal body language that human beings manifest when they experience certain feelings. For example, a sad person will quite commonly exhibit body language that includes slow movement, a downward countenance and posture, and a soft and smooth tone of voice. By contrast, a joyful or victorious person will manifest upward body language (including jumping and raising arms), raised eyebrows, relatively rapid motions or speech, and often a loud tone of voice. Such exhibits of body language are universal, transcending time and culture. (It is no accident that the words “motion” and “emotion” are etymologically related.)

A reader of the Bible, for instance, knows precisely what feelings are experienced by the psalmist of thousands of years ago when he tells of his soul being cast down (Ps. 42:6–7), or by Pharaoh’s officers when Joseph asks them, “Why are your faces downcast today?” (Gen. 40:7). Similarly, the beautiful melody of the tune Passion Chorale, when paired with the text of “O Sacred Head, Now Wounded,” evokes the feelings of the grief, shame, and suffering that are portrayed in the text, precisely because the majority of the phrases in the tune descend from their starting points, thus imitating the body language of the downcast one who is experiencing those very feelings. The emotional tone of the text is thus amplified by the congruency of the melody, helping to convey its emotional meaning. It is this congruency of text and tune that the committee has largely sought to achieve in its selections and assignments of tunes to texts, for both hymns and psalms.

Thirdly, the committee has sought after excellent craftsmanship in the musical selections. Scripture tells us repeatedly to bring our firstfruits to the Lord. The committee has sought to bring the firstfruits of musical craftsmanship from the many generations of Christian hymnody and psalmody. Decipherable musical notation did not develop until several centuries of the Christian church had passed, and therefore quite a bit of the history of sung praise has been lost. But the present volume contains a broad array of musical compositions, from the earliest recorded history of sung praise to the present day, including some that were composed during the time of its production. Several of the newer hymns were written for the Reformed church by Reformed poets (from the OPC, URCNA, and PCA) and set to music by Reformed composers from these same churches. In selecting new songs for the book, the committee has sought musical compositions that, while often modern in their harmonic and melodic styles, are beautifully balanced in melodic construction, follow the logical and well-established rules of good voice leading, avoid excessive or vain repetition in the musical elements (rhythm, melody, or harmony), and support the text of the hymn, both in character and in inflection.

Timothy Shafer