To what do the various musical terms in the book of Psalms refer?


Clarify Share Report Asked August 20 2015 Mini Anonymous (via GotQuestions)

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Shea S. Michael Houdmann Supporter Got Questions Ministries
Several musical terms are used in the titles or verse breaks of the Psalms. In most Bible translations, a footnote will state that the meaning of these musical terms is uncertain. Many versions of ...

August 20 2015 0 responses Vote Up Share Report

Mini John Appelt
Most of the musical terms are uncertain, but the Psalm headings are not correctly observed. 

James W. Thirtle, author of ‘The Titles of the Psalms, Their Nature and Meaning Explained,’ proposed that the headings of the psalms were actually the superscription and subscription fused together and should be split. The musical information belongs to the previous psalm as a footnote and the title heading goes with the new psalm. This would help to clarify some of the terms.

Habakkuk 3 provides the pattern of how the psalms should be. Verse 1 has “A prayer of Habakkuk the prophet, on Shigionoth.” The meaning of Shigionoth is unknown, but as it is in the title that describes type or contents of the song, it is not a musical instrument. The ESV translates it, “according to Shigionoth.” The only other use of the word, ‘shiggaion,’ the singular form, is in the heading of Psalm 7, which speaks of a song David “sang to the Lord concerning the words of Cush, a Benjamite.” Both songs describe some theme of dire trouble.

The last words, Habakkuk 3:19, has musical directions, “To the Chief Musician. With my stringed instruments.” It is directed to the chief musician to put it to music and directs which instruments to use. 

The musical notations often fit the previous psalm. For example, Psalm 55 should end with “For the Chief Musician; set to ‘the Silent Dove in Distant Lands,’ which goes with Psalm 55:6 which has, “Oh, that I had wings like a dove.” 

Then, Psalm 56 should begin with, “[A Psalm] of David. Michtam: when the Philistines took him in Gath.” ‘Michtam’ may mean ‘poem.’ The instructions, “Set to ‘Do Not Destroy’” in the heading of Psalm 57, goes with this psalm when David was captured by the Philistines.

In the heading of Psalm 88, the musical notation “A Song, a Psalm of the sons of Korah; for the Chief Musician; set to Mahalath Leannoth” belongs at the end of Psalm 87. If it does not, then the words “Maschil [or Contemplation] of Heman the Ezrahite” in the heading of Psalm 88 leads to confusion. The song cannot have been written by both the sons of Korah and also Heman the Ezrahite. Furthermore, ‘Mahalath Leannoth’ means ‘Dancing with Shoutings’ which does not fit the mournful tone of Psalm 88, but it does with the cheerful tone of Psalm 87. 

One striking example is the part of the heading of Psalm 9 that reads, “For the Chief Musician; set to Muthlabben.” ‘Muthlabben’ means ‘death of the Son.’ This musical notation should end Psalm 8 which is appropriate to the psalm of the Son of God. 

The Psalm 46 heading ‘Alamoth’ likely meaning ‘maidens’ choir,’ goes better with Psalm 45:9 about the King’s daughter.

While some terms are uncertain, the headings of the psalms may be clearer when divided into musical instructions at the end of the previous psalm and title information at the beginning of the new.

February 05 2022 0 responses Vote Up Share Report

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