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  Echoing the Word May 2013  
  Vol. 12 No. 2, 2013 The Psalms Music  

Musical Strategies for the Psalms
Part 1
Peter Olley

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This is a collection of activities for teaching the psalms using music. All of these ideas can be adapted to suit the particular stage and context of your class.

Background reflections

  • The word psalm is derived from the Greek psalmos, which means a song sung to a plucked instrument (Galvich, 2008).
  • For Christians, psalms are Christ-centered even though they were written before Jesus and within the Jewish tradition. They are prayers – “raising our heart and mind to God”. As prayers they express the breadth of thoughts, feelings and human experiences. “Psalms are a keyboard upon which we can play every song of our lives – our songs aren’t always all happy or pious. The Psalms give us an apt language to help us raise mind and heart to God” (Rolheiser, March 2007).
  • The Psalms express the stuff of our everyday lives (Galvich, 2008). They were composed for people who experienced similar needs as we do today in a world of good and evil. For example the anger and violence expressed in them can represent, in today’s world, the evil of homelessness and hunger, terrorism, bullying, violence against our neighbour, greed, and vengeance etc. (Newland).
  • Psalms were prayed daily by the Hebrew people. Parents would sing them to their children to help teach them about God and loving ways to live. They were also sung in the Jewish Temple and synagogues, during festivals and as pilgrimage songs while travelling to the Temple. Psalms were sung by the Israelites exuberantly and loudly, with cries, shouts, moans and joyful exclamations.
    They included handclapping, dancing, movement, and kneeling (Galvich, 2008).

Strategy One: Our lives in sound

Students identify the celebrations and tragedies they hear about in their own community. Collate the human experiences using yellow Post-it Notes. Place these on a wall chart for the class to read. Examples: violence, love, the environment, fear, friends, technology, new life, forgiveness, revenge, etc. The psalmists also expressed the celebrations and tragedies of the human experience in prayer to God. Here are some examples:

  • Happiness – Ps 148
  • Forgiveness – Ps 32, 51
  • Anger – Ps 13, 58
  • Injustice – Ps 36
  • Temptation – Ps 55
  • Anxiety – Ps 37, 73
  • Journey – Ps 121
  • Hopelessness – Ps 13, 51
  1. Identify sounds that relate to the psalm and express the human experiences.
  2. Tap out the type of rhythms and tempos that fit and portray these human experiences.
  3. Identify the type of instrument(s) you would use for these human experiences. Justify your choice. (Example: Psalm 148 Happiness – steel drums as their bright tone sounds like a celebration).
  4. Compose a piece of music that lasts for one minute to represent these human experiences. Ensure there is a structure to your music (a beginning, middle and ending). The middle might be more climactic.
  5. Create an enhanced podcast by recording your sounds into a short track using a tool such as Garage Band. Add images and psalm verses to your composed music to create a multimedia interpretation of your particular psalm.

Strategy Two: Instruments in the Psalms

Read Psalms: 33:1-7, 43:2-5, 149:1-9 and 150 to discover the musical instruments of the psalms. Students use the suggested Research Chart to collect information about each psalm. This task attempts to research some of the world within the text and how the instruments are used in today’s world.

Research Chart


Psalm 33:1-7

What Instrument(s) are mentioned in this psalm?


What is the modern day equivalent to this instrument?


Compare and contrast the ancient instrument mentioned in the psalm to the modern day equivalent.

The lyre is a small harp from antiquity (c.5000 BCE – 476 CE), possibly made from tortoise shell with 3 to 12 strings. It was played with a plectrum
The harp is a much larger instrument with many more strings and foot pedals to control. The harpist needs to sit while the lyre musician could stand while playing, as it was much smaller.

What is the purpose of using the instrument(s) in the psalm?

Assist in leading the believers in prayer to God.

What did the instrument(s) look like? Find an image of the instrument of biblical times and one of modern time.


Do the instruments in these psalms still exist today? Find a recent example of someone playing the instrument?
Why does the musician play the instrument (purpose)?

The lyre is not as popular as it was in the ancient world.
Michael Levy produces ancient music today using many ancient world instruments; one of the instruments is a lyre.

Strategy Three: Wordle Analysis

  1. Students are to find and select, using a hymnal, a song based on a psalm that belongs to each of the categories below. Students then find and read the psalm in the bible.
  2. Analyse the two versions: Scripture text and composed to music version. Create a Wordle using the text of the psalm from Scripture and another Wordle using the text from the composed song version of the same psalm.
  3. Compare and contrast the two visual Wordles of the same psalm. In a Wordle the most prominent words and ideas will appear bigger.
  4. Further Reflection
    1. What is the psalm about?
    2. What words have been changed?
    3. Have words been omitted?
    4. Has the composer altered the message of the psalm? Explain.
    5. Identify key words and phrases that might reveal the attitudes and feelings of the psalmist and composer, and their relationship with God.
    6. Can you find a contemporary song with a similar message to the psalm?




5, 13, 22, 27, 28, 31, 42, 43, 54, 56, 57, 61, 64, 70, 83, 86, 120, 137, 140, 142


19, 29, 33, 65, 100, 111, 112, 113, 117, 146, 147, 148, 149, 150


9, 30, 34, 41, 66, 92, 116, 118, 124


78, 105, 106, 135, 136

Penitential (asking for forgiveness)

6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130, 143


4, 11, 16, 23, 46, 62, 63, 91, 115, 121, 125, 131




Glavich, Mary K. (2008). The Catholic companion to the Psalms, Illinois: ACTA Publications.

Levy, Michael. (2013), Viewed 13 March 2013, <>.

Newland, M.R. (2006), “Wisdom and Wit”, in Foundations Module 2 Book of Readings,
Faith and Life Brisbane.

Rolheiser, Ronald. (2007, March), Praying when we don’t feel like it, viewed 2 February 2013. <>.

Roleiser, Ronald. (2007, August), Praying the Psalms, viewed 2 February 2013, <>.




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