Psalm Tones

One of the most enjoyable experiences I’ve had since moving to Baltimore from Indiana has been chanting Morning Prayer with a group from St. John the Evangelist in Long Green Valley (Hydes). Last winter, Msgr. Richard Cramblitt shared with me that he had a group of parishioners who prayed Morning Prayer daily in the chapel. For Lent, they hoped to begin chanting the Office. I was intrigued.Not only is the setting picturesque, but the chapel, built in 1855, was the first Catholic church in what is now Baltimore County. The original church, built in 1822, had burned down. This reminds me that when the Church prays the Liturgy of the Hours (and the Mass and Sacraments), it is not only those physically present who pray. We pray with the Church Universal, the Faithful Departed and the Communion of Saints. The Morning Prayer group at St. John isn’t the parish choir. They are ordinary folks with average voices, but when they chant the psalms, their voices are raised in the beautiful strains of “the Church at prayer”. Through our common prayer and faith, I have become friends in Christ with the members of this group. What a gift we have shared!

The beauty of these simple plainsong chants is their ability to organize the voice of the assembly into “one voice”. I’ve heard people say they don’t like chanting because the music is boring or because it isn’t uplifting. It is true that the chants are “plain,” but they do fulfill the primary purpose of liturgical song: to unify the voice of the assembly and emphasize the natural rhythm of the text, because it is not metrical. When we realize that the most important instrument in the Roman Catholic Church is the voice of the assembly, then we begin to appreciate the music that allows us to sing together as one. Music is “an art in service to the liturgy.” Our sung prayer is about our “self-offering” rather than our entertainment.

These chants are easy to pick up and are set in a limited, medium range. Therefore, almost everyone can join in and no one’s voice stands out. We breathe together, sing the same words and melody at the same time, and truly become one voice.

It has been common for several years now to chant the Divine Office at national gatherings. The General Instruction of the 3rd Edition of the Roman Missal (GIRM) emphasizes that sung liturgy is normative and encourages clergy and the assembly to chant the dialogues. This is what seminaries are teaching, and in my experience, most of the young priests prefer the traditional antiphonal chanting of the Liturgy of the Hours that follows the order of the 4-volume set and the Book of Christian Prayer, although the Introduction to the Liturgy of the Hours certainly allows for adaptation to this structure.

St. John the Evangelist already owned copies of the Mundelein Psalter, so we used that resource. The Mundelein Psalter holds the entire Divine Office in one attractive volume and is sold through LTP (Liturgy Training Publications ). (If your parish is interested in purchasing this, please contact the Office of Divine Worship at I am able to offer parishes a significant discount on these.) The Mundelein Psalter uses accessible two-line chant formulas for all the psalms and canticles. These chants are easy to sing; audio assistance is available online as well. You will need at least one strong singer to get this started in your parish.

There are other chant formulas available for parish use that are less expensive. The best known of these is the St. Meinrad Psalm Tones,  they are available as a free download.  The accompaniment is also available. There are eight different plainsong chant modes available. They can be adapted for stanzas of 2-6 measures. Instructions are included in the download, which is offered at no charge.

Conception Abbey also has a set of psalm tones that can be purchased from GIA Publications  This collection uses the newly revised Grail Psalter for its text. In time, I imagine that the Grail Psalter will be the only official translation of the psalms, but that will be in the future.

In addition to using plainsong chant for the Liturgy of the Hours, it can also be used for the Responsorial Psalm in the Mass. These melodies are prayerful and easy to assimilate. Once you become familiar with a system of chant, you will find many uses for them in your parish.

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