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A Song for every Season: Singing the Common Psalms

This post is a summary of a workshop given at the Society of St Gregory Summer School 2015

How can you start to sing the psalms if you have limited musical resources or a congregation reluctant to try new music? There’s a new psalm to learn every week!

The Lectionary does give us options. But before we get to that, why do we sing the responsorial psalm anyway? And why do we call it “responsorial”?

The place of the psalm

The General Instruction of the Roman Missal has the answer in section 61:

After the First Reading comes the responsorial Psalm, which is an integral part of the Liturgy of the Word and holds great liturgical and pastoral importance, because it fosters meditation on the word of God. The responsorial Psalm should correspond to each reading and should, as a rule, be taken from the Lectionary. It is preferable that the responsorial Psalm be sung, at least as far as the people’s response is concerned. Hence, the psalmist, or the cantor of the Psalm, sings the verses of the Psalm from the ambo or another suitable place. The entire congregation remains seated and listens but, as a rule, takes part by singing the response, except when the Psalm is sung straight through without a response. If the Psalm cannot be sung, then it should be recited in such a way that it is particularly suited to fostering meditation on the word of God.

Celebrating the Mass says

The responsorial Psalm follows the First Reading and is an integral part of the Liturgy of the Word. After hearing and taking to heart God’s word, the assembly responds with words which are themselves God-given. This response, the Psalm, holds great liturgical and pastoral importance because by this use of the word of God meditation, on the word of God is fostered.

The psalms have been used to give prayerful expression to the faith and feelings of God’s people over the centuries. They were used by Christ himself in prayer. In these words of wonder and praise, repentance and sorrow, hope and trust, or joy and exultation, the Church now responds to God’s word. The psalms in the Lectionary have been selected to help the assembly to meditate on and respond to the word that has just been proclaimed.

The responsorial psalm is not (just) responsorial because it has a response for the congregation, it is our response to what we have heard in the first reading and will hear in the Gospel. When the Lectionary was revised in the 1960s, the authors chose Gospels, Old Testament readings and psalms that link together. Sometimes the Gospel directly quotes from the Old Testament, the themes are the same or the Gospel reinterprets the first reading in the light of Christ’s new promise. The psalm is our response to hearing God’s word – all of it, Old and New Testament alike. It directs our minds and prepares us to celebrate the Liturgy of the Eucharist.

The Journey of the Word

As a psalmist, read all of the readings first and try and find the links between them. Ask yourself who Christ is in the Gospel and what is he doing? Who are the other people in the story and what are they doing? In the first reading, what is God doing? Who are the other people in the story and what are they doing? Who are you? Do you empathise with Christ and what he is saying and feeling, the other people in the story (maybe they are the disciples, the people of Israel, the establishment, the evil people), or both?

In the Psalm, what is the relationship between God, the psalmist and “the others” in the psalm? How do we find a deeper encounter in the psalm with the God of the First Reading and the Christ of the Gospel? How do these readings focus us to celebrate the Eucharist?

It is sometimes said that “The Liturgy of the Word is a dialogue of proclamation and response with silence acting as the verb.” This highlights that the Liturgy of the Word is a dialogue – of proclamation and meditation. It isn’t one-way traffic. Silence in between the readings allows the word to settle in our minds and hearts and prepares us to receive Christ in the Eucharist.

In this example, taken from At your Word, Lord for the First Sunday of Lent Year C, the first reading from Deuteronomy speaks of the history of Israel as a people released by God from slavery and brought to the Promised Land. During Lent those preparing for baptism at Easter will make a similar journey, from slavery to sin to new life in Christ, and we are all invited to accompany them on this journey.

The psalm for this Sunday – Be with me, O Lord, in my distress – is a song of confidence in God’s care as we set out on this journey. The second reading from Romans affirms the importance of this faith. The Gospel is Luke’s account of Jesus’s temptations in the wilderness, and how he responded to each with his faith and the teaching of scripture. What connects all of these readings is the way that they engage us with something of the season of Lent. They remind us of what we are to be about, and call us to journey together with all the Church, to keep away from temptation and hold strong in faith.

Common Psalms

Here’s the key paragraph from GIRM: 

In order that the people may be able to sing the Psalm response more readily, texts of some responses and psalms have been chosen for the various seasons of the year or for the various categories of Saints. These may be used in place of the text corresponding to the reading whenever the Psalm is sung.

These are the Common Psalms.

Around 35% of the Sunday Lectionary already consists of the psalms in the Common Psalms list (sometimes with different responses), so if you are just beginning to sing the psalms, they are an excellent starting point.

The texts are arranged according to the liturgical seasons. The intention of the compilers of the Lectionary is for communities to have a core repertoire of psalms that can be used at any occasion.

There are:-

  • two psalms for Advent
  • one for Christmas
  • one for Epiphany
  • three for Lent
  • one for Holy Week
  • two for the Easter Vigil
  • two for the Easter season
  • one for Ascension
  • one for Pentecost
  • nine for Ordinary Time, including one for the last weeks of Ordinary Time

Full details are given in the references (below), but you will probably recognise most of them from your Sunday worship.

In addition, there are a number of common responses for the seasons. These responses could be used in two ways: the psalmist sings the verses of the psalm of the day and all respond singing the common response or a reader proclaims the verses of the psalm of the day and all sing the common response.

Choosing your common psalm

Psalms are often a conversation between the psalmist, God and “the others” – often the people of Israel or the wicked who oppose the psalmist. There are several ways of dividing up the psalms, but they commonly fall into songs of praise or lamentation. However, many lamentation psalms change towards the end into a song of praise for God who lifts the singer from despair to freedom.

Think again about the readings and how they make you feel. Does the common psalm you have chosen for the psalm reflect these feelings? Is it too happy, or too sorrowful? How can you convey this in your singing, and in the assembly’s response?

Let’s look at that paragraph from Celebrating the Mass again:

The Psalms were used by Christ himself in prayer. In these words of wonder and praise, repentance and sorrow, hope and trust, or joy and exultation, the Church now responds to God’s word. The psalms in the Lectionary have been selected to help the assembly to meditate on and respond to the word that has just been proclaimed.

Even though the link between the psalm and the readings may seem tenuous – or non-existent – it is there for a reason. The same Lectionary is used by the whole Church. Where ever Catholics gather to celebrate Mass on a Sunday they will hear the same readings — it is a sign of our being in communion with each other, and of the Mass being not only the prayer of this local community but of the whole Church gathered together in common prayer. Would the actual psalm chosen for the Sunday be a better fit for the other readings, and so make it worth the extra effort of learning?

Is your psalm a good fit? choosing new music to use in liturgy, ask yourself whether it is a good fit:-

  • musically – technically suitable for the instruments / voices / skills / assembly you have, aesthetically pleasing, of suitable quality for the worship of God?
  • liturgically – meets the requirements of the rite it is accompanying? In particular here, does it reflect the verses of the psalm chosen? Does it link clearly to the other readings?
  • pastorally – relevant to this assembly and this celebration, enables it to express its faith in a way meanigful to it?

If it doesn’t meet all these criteria, consider a different piece of music.

In particular, you’ll know many songs and hymns that are based on the common psalms. On eagle’s wings is a setting of one of the Lent psalms, for example. Think carefully whether these are appropriate for use as a responsorial psalm, though. They may be a better fit at other points in the liturgy, such as communion.

Once you’ve decided to use a common psalm and picked the one to use, start with that setting over a number of weeks or a season to allow the psalmist to gain confidence and for the community to get to know a particular psalm and be able to sing from their hearts.

The short seasons of Advent and Lent (up to the 5th Sunday of Lent) particularly lend themselves to this approach. A common psalm can help to reinforce the nature of the season.

Other uses of the common psalms

Usage of psalmody is not just restricted to the responsorial psalm. Psalmody is the song of the Church, and could be used in many places where there are processions, including the entrance and reception of communion.

The common psalm Taste and See might be useful during the sequence of readings in Year B from John’s Gospel about the bread of life.

The verses of the Advent psalm  To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul  mention being led in the ways of the Lord, so may be useful for themes of guidance and needing to find new direction.

The Lent psalm  Have mercy on us, Lord, for we have sinned  could be used at reconciliation services, or interspersed with intercessions in an examination of conscience.

The Pentecost psalm  Send forth your spirit, O Lord, and renew the face of the earth refers to the power of God to change the world, so could be used for themes of mission, discipleship and sending out, or at a confirmation Mass.

The psalm  The Lord is my light  is well known for its usage at funerals as it mentions living in the house of the Lord for ever, but it can also be used in times of hardship or separation from God, when longing for being at one with God is a powerful urge. Another of the Lent psalms,  Be with me, Lord, in my distress, refers to the protection God gives to those who need it.

The ordinary time psalm for the last weeks of the year – I rejoice when I heard them say, Let us go to the house of the Lord – could be used as an entrance chant on many Sundays in ordinary time. The Easter psalm This day was made by the Lord equally applies, especially during Eastertide.

You could pair some of the common psalms with Taize responses for prayerful personal or group meditation. For example, Bless the Lord my soul … who leads me into life could be used with To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul  for the reasons mentioned above. Confitemini Domino (Praise the Lord who is good) could be paired with  The Lord is compassion and love.

How do we start using common psalms?

Celebrating the Mass has some examples:

The common responsorial Psalms, and responses provided in the Lectionary for various seasons and days, may be used instead of the one assigned for the day, if that choice would facilitate sung participation.

But if other ways of singing or sharing the psalms are appropriate, such as the use of a sung response with a ‘recitation General’ of the text, these too may be used, so that the people’s participation may be facilitated by every means. Even when it is impossible to sing the psalm, it may be possible to support and enrich its recitation with instrumental music.

Psalms should always be recited in a manner conducive to meditation. The psalm should not be replaced by a non-scriptural song or text.

This paragraph gives us some useful tips on how you could structure the psalm, and different approaches to take, especially if you are starting out. Singing the response and speaking the words could be an ideal first step. Or maybe using a common response from the common psalm list and the verses of the psalm of the day.

By repeating a common psalm for a number of consecutive weeks, your assembly can get used to singing the psalm – and so can your cantor or choir. Make sure your priest agrees first, though, because he may be referring to the Sunday’s lectionary psalm in his homily! Your bishop has some responsibility for determining local adaptations in the liturgy, so you should check with your diocese what, if anything, has been agreed locally.

‘Psalms should always be recited in a manner conducive to meditation’ might seem to be at odds with suggested song settings of the texts, especially where the editors have suggested that a particular text is ‘hard’ and needs to be ‘gritty’ or ‘sung with oomph!’

Frequent psalms

If you take a look at the Sunday Lectionary (see the references below), there are also a number of other psalms that occur several times over the cycle – “frequent psalms” if you like. Learning some of these will help expand your repertoire.

Psalms in this category include  The Lord’s my shepherd (Ps 22(23)), My soul give praise to the Lord (Ps 145(146)), The Lord fills the earth with his love (Ps 32(33)), I will sing forever of your love (Ps 88(89)).

Not the end of the journey

The guidance mentions that the common psalms are useful for congregations starting out with singing the psalms, but they should not be seen as an end point in the journey. There are many riches to be found in the psalms – and remember that the psalm for the day in the Lectionary was especially chosen to link with the other readings.

Take care to make sure that the common psalms don’t become the only choice used. You can also miss out on some very strong psalm texts which could help deepen the meditation on the word of God to a greater extent than a common psalm could do.

As a reflective minister of music, take time to think about what has worked and what hasn’t, and how you can improve your ministry. Have you evaluated the psalms you have used? Have you gathered a musical variety of psalm settings over the years that are liturgically, musically and pastorally appropriate?


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Skills for Cantors

These posts are summaries of a workshop given at the Society of St Gregory Summer School 2014

Why do we sing and make music in our worship? Maybe because music “reaches the parts that other things cannot reach”. Think about a song that moves you. If you just read the words out aloud, does it have the same effect?

Our liturgy – our worship – can be described as our participation in the mystery of the death and rising of Jesus. It’s not just the assembly that is worshipping, it’s the priest, deacons, other ministers – and Christ too. It’s our baptismal call to worship God together as his “chosen race, royal priesthood, holy nation” [Sacrosanctum Concilium 14].

The Second Vatican Council stressed that “the whole body of the faithful may be able to contribute that active participation which is rightly theirs … by means of acclamations, responses, psalmody, antiphons, and songs, as well as by actions, gestures, and bodily attitudes. And at the proper times all should observe a reverent silence.” [SC 114, 30].

As a cantor, you have an important role in helping the assembly to find its voice and participate in worship – not to sing for them! The cantor needn’t be one person; you can have several cantors for one service, each leading a different piece of music. The cantor need not be an individual – it could be a small group of people, or a choir.

Most importantly, the cantor is the psalmist, singing the psalm and encouraging the assembly’s response to the word of God. You may also be a song leader, or animator, to help the assembly to sing at other times, and the person who introduces new music.

Each of these facets of being a cantor is explored below:-

Useful resources

Cantor Basics – Jim Hansen, Melanie Coddington and Joe Simmons.
The Singing Thing, The Singing Thing Too – John Bell.
The Ministry of Cantors – Kathleen Harmon. ISBN 978-0814628775
The Parish Cantor: Helping Catholics Pray in Song – Michael Connolly. ISBN 978-0941050241
Sing something simple: resources to support the ministry of cantor.

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Planning your wedding

Music is a wonderful way to uplift your marriage service and provides a chance for the congregation to play a full part in the ceremony. Careful selection of hymns, songs and music will reflect your hopes for your future together and the promise you are making in the presence of God.

The planning meeting

Meet your music co-ordinator to discuss your ceremony at least three months in advance, usually after you have met your minister so you know what music will be required. Try to meet in the church you are getting married in, so that the musicians can play excerpts of music and you can hear how they will sound.

It is helpful if you already have some ideas of music from weddings of family or friends, but remember that not every piece of music may be playable on the instruments available. For example, some pieces may not be suitable for organ. The church is also likely to have policies against the use of secular music or pop songs, which have unsuitable texts or connotations for a religious service. The music co-ordinator may ask you to play these pieces at the reception instead.


Check exactly what fees you need to pay. The fee will usually cover playing for your ceremony only and the planning meeting. You may have to pay more if the music co-ordinator attends the walk-through rehearsal with your minister or if the wedding is filmed. If you also have a choir or soloists, they will have a separate charge. It’s worth checking fees at an early stage to avoid any awkward situations later. Musicians may require payment in advance.

Couples sometimes ask a friend to play the organ their wedding; a fee may still be payable to the resident organist as part of their agreement with the church.

If you are bringing in a soloist or other musicians, mention this now as the musicians will want to rehearse with them. Their fees will be separate to those of the church’s own musicians.

You will be expected to pay for any copies of music not in the church’s or choir’s possession; copies of music that is still in copyright are against the law. Please don’t place your musicians in a difficult legal and moral position by asking them to use photocopied music.

Choosing music

There are plenty of options available, especially if you don’t want to have the “usual in and out” music. Seek advice from family or friends to find out what they had at their church wedding. Use wedding CDs or websites to listen to music suggestions, or find clips on YouTube.

Involve the congregation in the singing of hymns or songs during the service. Make sure that you choose familiar hymns: it’s dispiriting if your guests don’t know them and the minister is left to sing alone!

Your minister will advise you on the number of hymns and where in the service they are sung. This might include: at the beginning – after the arrival of the bride, as a psalm/song between the readings, at the signing of the register, during communion (if yours is a communion service), at the dismissal – before the couple leave the church.

Options include: (* Well-known pieces)

  • The Lord’s my Shepherd (Psalm 23)*
  • Fill your hearts with joy and gladness
  • Give me joy in my heart, keep me praising*
  • God, in the planning and purpose of life
  • God is love, let heaven adore him
  • Lord of all hopefulness
  • Make me a channel of your peace*
  • Morning has broken*
  • Jerusalem*
  • Love divine, all loves excelling
  • Now thank we all our God
  • Lead us, heavenly Father, lead us
  • O praise ye the Lord
  • Praise, my soul, the King of heaven
  • The King of Love my shepherd is (Psalm 23)
  • A new commandment I give unto you
  • Lord, for the years your love has kept and guided

Some hymns can be sung to more than one tune, so ask your organist for advice.

At the arrival of the bride, ‘Here comes the bride’ has been a traditional favourite, but there are plenty of other choices. Trumpet tunes work well. The piece should be fairly short, giving enough time for the bride to process up the aisle, arrive at the altar, and bridesmaids to move to their seats. If in doubt, practice walking up the aisle – very slowly! – while the organist plays a few pieces. If you are planning a more elaborate procession, let the organist know so they can advise on a suitable piece of music.

Options include:

  • The Bridal March from Lohengrin, Richard Wagner (“Here comes the bride”)
  • Arrival of the Queen of Sheba, George Handel
  • Prince of Denmark’s March (“Trumpet Voluntary”), Jeremiah Clarke
  • Te Deum Prelude, Marc-Antoine Charpentier
  • Trumpet Tune, Henry Purcell
  • Trumpet Voluntary, John Stanley

The favourite for the recessional is Mendelssohn’s ‘Wedding March’, but there are plenty of alternatives. The greater the number of guests you have, the longer the music you’ll need – you don’t want to run out of music while the guests are still filing out of the church. Make sure the theme (main tune) of the piece happens within the first 30 seconds; as the newly-married couple, you will be outside the church doors by then and will miss it!

Options include:

  • Wedding March from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Felix Mendelssohn
  • Toccata from Symphonie No 5 in F, Charles-Marie Widor
  • Nun danket alle Gott (Marche triomphale), Sigfrid Karg-Elert
  • Hornpipe from The Water Music, George Handel
  • March from Scipio, George Handel
  • Finale from Fireworks Music, George Handel
  • March, Louis Lefebure-Wely
  • Crown Imperial, William Walton

Before the service, the musicians will often choose the music and start playing about 10-15 mins before the planned arrival of the bride. There is usually chatter before her arrival so save a favourite tune for another point when you have people’s attention. The musicians will often continue playing until the bride arrives, but if she is very late, they will stop after a while so their hands don’t get cramp!

At the signing of the registers, there is plenty of opportunity for a special piece to be performed. The congregation won’t be doing anything at this point, so make sure that it captures their attention. Calm, quieter pieces work best, especially if you have a choir or soloist. Signing the registers often takes at least ten minutes, allowing for your photographer to pose and take pictures, so your organist may have extra music on stand-by.

Options for a soloist or choir include:-

  • A Gaelic Blessing, John Rutter
  • Because the Lord is my shepherd, Christopher Walker
  • Faith, hope and love / Ubi caritas, (various composers)
  • Love divine, Howard Goodall and others
  • O blessed are those who fear the Lord, Paul Inwood (setting of Psalm 128)
  • The Lord is my Shepherd, Howard Goodall (or other composers) (Psalm 23)
  • God be in my head, John Rutter
  • If ye love me, Tallis
  • Irish Blessing, Bob Chilcott
  • Set me as a seal, William Walton
  • The Lord bless you and keep you, John Rutter
  • Ave Maria, Franz Schubert or Charles Gounod
  • Jesu, joy of man’s desiring, JS Bach
  • O for the wings of a dove, Felix Mendelssohn
  • Panis angelicus, Cesar Franck

Many of these pieces can also be played as solos. Other choices for organ only include:-

  • Gymnopedie I, Erik Satie
  • Ave Maria, Franz Schubert or Charles Gounod
  • Priere a Notre-Dame from Suite Gothique, Leon Boellmann
  • Canon in D, Johann Pachelbel
  • Air from Suite No 3 in D, JS Bach (“Air on the G string”)
  • To a wild rose, Edward MacDowell
  • Various movements from The Water Music, George Handel

Be careful about the words of your hymns, songs or solo pieces. “I watch the Sunrise” and “Pie Jesu” are regularly requested for wedding ceremonies, but the words of these songs are connected with death or funeral services.


Copyright exists in musical, poetry and dramatic works for the duration of the author’s life and for seventy years after their death. For instance, works by a composer who died on 31 December 1939 came out of copyright on 1 January 2010.

If you print words of hymns or poems on your order of service that are under copyright, you will need to pay copyright fees and obtain written permission to print the words.

Many churches will already have a copyright licence to cover the printing of songs, but if not you will need to buy a licence specifically for your ceremony. You will need to include the licence number on the back page of your order of service.

Filming your ceremony

Performers have rights in their performances. It is the law that performers may not be recorded without their consent, under any circumstance. The organist may refuse outright to allow the performance to be recorded, or choose to give permission on payment of a fee.

With the arrival of mobile phones with video recording, many weddings are recorded, even if the couple and minister request that video cameras are not used. The minister has the right to control the conduct of the wedding, including use of flash lights and siting of cameras, and may stop their use if they disrupt the ceremony.

Order of Service

Your order of service should include the sequence of events, the words of hymns (or just hymn numbers if a separate hymn book is used), the titles of readings and names of readers, the text of any prayers, especially those needing a spoken congregational response, and the Lord’s Prayer (“Our Father”). It should also include details of any other musical items during the service and the names of musicians taking part.

Circulate this to the minister and musicians for any suggested amendments well in advance of your printing deadline.

Make sure you double-check the words of the hymns; the versions on the internet may be different to the version in the organist’s hymnbook (e.g. Make me a channel of your peace).

On the day

Enjoy the music! All the preparation has been done in advance – so relax and be uplifted by the music during the occasion. You’ll have chosen music that everyone can appreciate and join in with.

This article is the view of the author and does not constitute legal advice or best practice. Always check with your minister and the policies of your church before making any decisions about your wedding ceremony.