The psalms are a gift from God in a time of crisis. In them, we hear the voice of our suffering Savior, and He joins with us in our cries for mercy and restoration.
Early in 2020, I was looking for a way to bring the psalms to more people in a time of upheaval. What began as a single Youtube video has developed into an album and psalms booklet called “Anatomy of the Soul.” I’ve been asked to share about the project here in part one of this article and then follow up with some practical tips for psalm-singing in a later installment.
I learned to sing by singing psalms in family worship. At home and at church, I saw how a fitting tune could bring the psalms to life and grip hearts. In 2009, when The Book of Psalms for Worship came out, I was glad to see many excellent new tunes written by members of our own denomination. The Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America has a rich history of its own members composing new tunes. As I learned the new tunes, I began to realize that if we wanted to keep singing the psalms in fitting ways, we needed to keep fostering that creativity. Instead of waiting until another psalter revision was initiated, continuing to compose in the interim would provide an even more excellent body of work from which a future revision could draw!
I took some music classes at Geneva College that gave me some of the rudimentary tools for composition, and I began writing tunes as a hobby in 2016. Over the next few years, I sent tunes off to family and friends for feedback but didn’t do much else with them.
In the spring of 2020, I was looking for a way to encourage others during the COVID crisis, so I posted a video of a tune I wrote for Psalm 143 and called the Youtube channel “Anatomy of the Soul,” borrowing the title from John Calvin who had a custom of referring to the psalter by that title (as a way of expressing the scope of emotions contained in the psalms). The response was positive, so over the next few months, I posted near-weekly videos until most of my collection was exhausted.
My plan had never been for the psalm settings to be simply for listening, so in the second half of 2020, I turned my focus to polishing the recordings and putting together a sheet music booklet so that these psalms could be sung by others. The first Anatomy of the Soul album and psalms booklet were released in January of 2021.
If any of you are interested in listening to the album, you can listen for free on Spotify, and it’s available on all other major streaming services. CDs and booklets of sheet music are available on the project website.
There are many excellent arrangements of the psalms being produced right now. Here are four self-imposed principles that have defined this project:
- Simple: They should be simple enough that untrained singers can learn them easily.
- Modern: Harmonies should follow current trends to evoke emotions fitting for the psalm. Though melodies should be simple, harmonies can be more complex because those singing them are often equipped to handle greater musical difficulty.
- Participatory in style: The musical style should lend itself more to singing together than to performing. Rhythms, in particular, should be less complex than performance styles.
- Metrical: Tunes should be metrical to lend themselves to memorability and to make use of the rich resources of metrical psalm settings in English.
If you’re interested in writing tunes or metrical settings yourself, see the Collaborate page on the website.
Singing from the Heart
I first learned to sing next to my dad in family worship, but culturally, Western men seem to be singing less and less. One of my passions is to see men in the church sing with power and conviction in worship. God commands all of us to engage in the art form of singing, and one of my goals has been to produce settings that may draw out someone who has been hesitant about singing in the past. In part two, I’ll provide some tips for singing the psalms well, whether you’re an old hand or are just getting started.
Brian Wright is a follower of Christ who loves singing, the psalms, and singing the psalms. He is married to his college sweetheart, and they live with their three children in Sterling, Kansas where Brian serves as the pastor of the Sterling Reformed Presbyterian Church.