Published 2006-09-15



Femi Adedeji, PhD, Department of Music, Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife, Nigeria. E-mail:


Samson O. Olanisebe, Department of Religious Studies,Obafemi Awolowo University,

Ile-Ife, Nigeria. E-mail:


Musical passages in the Bible, which constitute a special textual form, have not been given enough attention either in musicological or biblical studies. Yet such passages have influenced contemporary Christian liturgies and music in no small measure. In the same vein, shrouded in the dark in terms of meaning, are special musical terminologies most of which are found in the Psalms. Their interpretations will enhance a better understanding and structural analysis of the Psalms, which themselves are a genre of Biblical music. In view of the above, this paper, an interpretative enterprise, aims at bringing out the correct meaning of the terminologies since most users do not know the meaning. The aim and objective of this paper is to examine the musical terms in the Psalms, the meanings of which are obscured to the readers and general users of the Psalms. The Psalms are so important in the contemporary times because the texts are adapted for Christian musical compositions. Hence, knowing the correct meaning of the musical terms will enhance a better appreciation of the Psalms, music wise. The paper, which employs a bi-disciplinary approach, makes use of historical-grammatical, linguistic and exegetical methods, and taking its place in theological musicology as a theoretical framework.


The aim and objective of this paper is to examine the musical terminologies in the Psalms, the meanings of which are obscured to the readers and general users of the Psalms. The Psalms are so important in the contemporary times because the texts are adapted for Christian musical compositions used in various liturgies. Hence, knowing the correct meanings of the musical terminologies will enhance a better appreciation of the Psalms, music wise. Musical studies of the Bible are exciting, but problematic. Firstly, because most of the musical elements such as scale, melody, form, harmony, rhythm and performance practices do not accompany the texts. Secondly, because there are no extra-biblical sources of information concerning the musical practices in the Bible. The Jews are, however, a highly musical people in similar traditions with ancient cultures such as Egypt, Babylon, Canaan, etc. Most of their indigenous musical heritage was however lost in several captivities they experienced. So what remains are just hybrids and syncretic forms. However, the Bible was preserved and the information therein has been proved authentic through history, archeology and other scientific studies.


The Book of Psalms is a unique book of the Old Testament and probably the most widely read and memorized by Christians. This fact cannot be divorced from the theological, sociological and psychological therapy, which the book exudes. Coupled to the above is the musical and poetical nature of the book, which permits it easy accessibility and memorization both for liturgical, personal and community usages. It comprehends the complexities of human life, the varieties in the Bible, the elements of the doctrine of salvation and the two dimensions of divine-human communications. The book contains all the important themes and topics in the Old Testament, i.e. the marvelous works of God in creation, judgment and salvation, Israel’s history, the law of life, the holy city (Zion) and God’s presence there, the future Messiah, warnings against wickedness and exhortation to righteousness, the majesty and tragedy of the human condition, to mention a few.

From a musical point of view, the psalms are vocal forms accompanied with musical instruments (see Adedeji, 1998). It is significant to note that the title ‘Psalms’ given to the book is not the original Hebrew word used originally. The term ‘Psalms’ was derived from the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible called the Septuagint (LXX). The Greek term psalmoi means ‘music of a stringed instrument,’ or more generally ‘songs adapted to such music.’ (Unger, 1981:739). In the original Hebrew Bible, the name given to the book is Tehillim meaning ‘Songs of praise’, or in fuller form Sefer Tehillim meaning ‘Book of Psalms’. It must be pointed out that at the earlier stage in the compilation of the ‘Tehillim’, it was being referred to as ‘Tephillot’ (prayer), probably as a result of its contents and tonation that can be used for prayers. (Weiser, 1965:20). From the musical point of view, Psalms are chants accompanied with musical instruments, which means the verbal mode of musical communication is chanting as against singing ( Adedeji, 1998:).

The Psalter houses 150 hymns, but these hymns do not exhaust all the hymns in the Old Testament, which are still extant. For instance, Moses’ hymn in Exodus 15; Hannah’s hymn in 2 Samuel 2:1-10, and others in Isaiah 38:10-20; Jonah 2:2-9; and the so-called “Psalms of Solomon dating from the time of Pompey.” (Weiser, 1965:21). The contents of the Psalter, with most identified with one choir master or the other, and can be sung to the accompaniment of musical instruments, and with most of them been used for liturgical purposes among the Hebrew, have made it to be called a “hymnbook of the second temple” by scholars as Cornill, Wellhausen and Robertson Smith (Harrison, 1969:976). The Psalter, like the Pentateuch, has been divided into 5 sections based on the contents, which are adjudged to have bearing of resemblance with the books of the Pentateuch. Thus, Psalms 1-41:13 are regarded as the Genesis section; Psalms 42-72:20 are regarded as the Exodus section; Psalms 73-89:52 are regarded as the Leviticus section; Psalms 90-106:48 are regarded as the Numbers section; and Psalms 107-150:6 are regarded as the Deuteronomy section (Unger, 1981:743-747). However, the division must not be strictly adhered to while studying the book, caution must be exercised.

In addition to the above, grouping the Psalter along the line of literary genre, about eight different types of psalms have been identified. First, there is psalms or hymns of praise. This is essentially a song of praise given reasons why Yahweh must be praised (e.g. Pss. 8; 19:1-7; 29; 33; 46-48; 65; 66:1-12 etc.). Secondly, psalms of lament, that is personal or community laments. In these psalms, the author is in a pitiable condition and cried out unto God for help out of the problems and oppression from the enemies that are stronger than him (e.g. Pss. 3; 5-7; 10; 17; 25-28; 35-36; 38-39; 40:12,18; etc.). Thirdly, there is thanksgiving psalms which are normally rendered on the occasion of thanksgiving offering or sacrifice (toda). This can also be individual or collective as the Psalms of lament (e.g. Pss. 10:1-11; 30-31; 40:2-11; 41; 66:13-20; 73; 92; 103; 107; 116; 138; 124; etc.). Fourthly, there is the royal psalms whose classification is based on the content and not literary characteristics. They could either be lament or thanksgiving, but they are regarded as royal in that they commemorate some events that has its life setting in the King’s experiences i.e. accession to the throne, marriage etc (e.g. Pss. 2; 72; 110; 45; 18; 21; 20; 101; etc.). Fifthly, there are wisdom psalms, which address problems retribution, the contrast between the just and the wicked. Practical advise concerning conduct, fear of the Lord etc. (e.g. Pss. 1; 32; 34; 37; 49; 111; 112; 128; etc.). Sixthly, there is liturgy psalms. This term is used by Gunkel to indicate songs in which different literary types are brought together and expressed in choral style in Temple service. Examples of such Psalms include Pss. 12; 15; 24; 50; 60; 75; 81; etc. Seventhly, there is historical psalms, which Gunkel called legends e.g. Pss. 78; 105; 106; etc. Lastly, there are the torah psalms whose thematic emphasis are on the law and statues of Yahweh. Examples include pss. 1; 19:8-15, and 119 (Murphy and Carm, 1968:572-575). Again, as indicated concerning the division of psalms in relation to contents, the literary genres is not susceptible to rigid application of the division because many of the psalms are intertwined and a single psalm can belong to two or more literary types.

The authorship of the psalter has traditionally been ascribed to David, possibly as a result of the superscription in most of the psalms (73 psalms) that read ‘le Dawid’ which means ‘to or for David’ or simply ‘a psalm of David.’ From the understanding of the Hebrew language, ‘le Dawid’ can mean ‘connected with, belonging to, concerning or for David, or in the style of David’, and by no means must these titles be required in every instance to indicate authorship whether with reference to David or others. In Nigeria this superscription has influenced the interpreter of the Yoruba Bible and had translated Psalms as ‘Orin Dafidi’. It therefore follows that while David could not be robbed of authorship of certain psalms, he could not be regarded as the author of the entire Book of Psalms. According to H. L. Ellison, Psalms is generally believed to be divided into three segments, viz. Pss. 1-41; 42-89; 90-150. The authorship of Psalms has also been divided along this polarity i.e. Davidic, Levitical and Anonymous (Ellison, 1969:69). However, Unger identifies about five facts why David should be considered as the principal author of the psalter. These include (i) the historical books of the Old Testament give ample evidence of David’s poetic and musical gifts (2 Sam. 1:19-27; 23:1; cf. 1 Sam. 16:16-18; 18:10). (ii) David is everywhere closely associated with the origin, composition and publication of liturgical songs (2 Sam. 6: 5-15; 1 Chron. 7:6; 29:30). (iii) David was especially anointed by God’s Spirit as a musician and devotional singer (2 Sam. 23:1-2; Mark 12:36; Acts 2:25-31; 4:25,26). (iv) The Psalter itself furnishes substantial evidence of Davidic authorship. In most of the psalms ascribed to him, events in his life are clearly mirrored (e.g. pss. 23; 51; 57). (v) Both the Old and New Testaments cite certain psalms as Davidic in origin (e.g. pss.2 cf. Acts 4:25-26; Pss.16, cf. Acts 2:25-28; Pss.18, cf. 2 Sam. 22:1-2, etc) (cf. Unger, 1981:740).

In addition to Unger’s assertions, another emerging evidence from the biblical point of view is the fact that the Old Testament confirmed that David raised about 288 singers among the Levites for the services of the Lord and made as leaders such people like Asaph, Heman and Jeduthun, to whom superscription are also made in the Psalter, who should prophesy with harps, stringed instruments and cymbals (1 Chron. 25; cf. 2 Chron. 7:6). Solomon, David’s son, continued in this tradition also (2 Chron 9:11).

The entire Book of psalms is to be used for worship and for personal and corporate edification. It is not surprising therefore to see many of the psalms being sung as a song. As a matter of fact, the name given to the book ‘songs or hymns of praise’ presupposes that the entire Book of psalms is meant to be sung to the accompaniment of musical instruments. In accomplishing this task there is musical terminology used in the Psalter that has not been accorded proper consideration. The examples of musical terminology are devoid of theological interpretations because scholars traditionally have believed that they are later additions to the psalms. However they have significance from the perspective of musical interpretation, especially on the psalms to which they are attached. In the words of Weiser, ‘The musical superscription to individual psalms points in a similar direction; they too are later additions which have a bearing on the musical rendering of the psalms in the cultus’ (Weiser, 1965:22). To these musical terms we now turn.


Most bible translations are conjectural in their interpretation of the terminology under study. For instance, the International Inductive Bible (New International Version) in most cases describes most of the terminologies in the following manners: ‘a word of uncertain meaning occurring frequently in the Psalms’, ‘possibly a musical term’ or ‘probably a musical term’. Since different interpretations are given by different bible versions, this enterprise seeks to harmonise and to bring out correct interpretations


This is an ancient Hebrew word that is most commonly used of all the musical terminology in the Book of psalms. According to Dake, it is used 71 times in the psalms and 3 times in Habakkuk 3. It is used in 39 psalms out of the 150 psalms. Of these 39, it is in 31 psalms that it is used in reference to the chief musician. It occurs four times in the middle of verses (cf. Pss. 55:19; 57:3; Hab. 3:3,9). In four cases, two psalms are connected to Selah (Pss. 3-4; 9-10; 24-25 and 46-47). Most of the time, it is at the end of verses. Scholars are divided as to its meaning. However, the following meanings could be deduced: (i) a thought-link connecting ideas in Hebrew poetry; (ii) the Septuagint translated it by diapsalma, which means a pause in the psalm by the singers, or what musicians call interlude; (iii) the Chaldee sometimes translated it by Lealmin meaning ‘forever’; (iv) it is also a word which is equivalent to da capo in music directing the choir to repeat; (v) it is also a word from the Hebrew Language Sal, meaning to raise or elevate the voices of singers; (vi) it is also a word from Salah meaning to spread out, indicating that the subject should be meditated on by the reader; and (vii) it is a word denoting an instrumental interlude or louder accompaniment (Dake, 1991:549).

Commenting on the term Selah in Ps. 3, Matthew Henry has this to say: “To this complaint he adds Selah, which occurs about seventy times in the Book of psalms. Some refer it to the music with which, in David’s time, the Psalms were sung; others refer it to the sense in which the Psalms are to be sung, and that it is a note commanding a solemn pause. Selah means ‘mark that’ or ‘stop there and consider a little.’ As it is used in Ps. 3:4, they say there is no help for the Psalmist in God, Selah. It means, Take time for such a thought as this. Get thee behind me Satan. The Lord rebukes thee. Away with such a vile suggestion.” (Henry, 1991:747).

Theologically, Selah is a poetic expression calling the attention of the reader to the importance of the idea just expressed. It compels the reader to pause and ponder on the ‘truth’ either about Yahweh or about general life situations that has just been revealed. In Hebrew learning, the major part of which is memorization, there is the realization of the fact that memorization only produce head knowledge, but not the knowledge stored up in the heart. The latter could be achieved through meditation, hence the device of Selah to draw the attention of the reader to have a second look and thought and peruse on the subject matter at hand. This creates room for mental reflection that in turns engenders remembrance and collections of past thoughts and events relating to the discourse. If this happens, there is high degree on the part of the reader of receiving more insight from the subject matter.

The subject matter may depend on the varieties of the theological themes under discussion. It is the context that determines the theme. For example, in Pss. 55:7 where the word Selah is used, this is a psalm of lament in which the psalmist is complaining to Yahweh about the wicked’s attempt to snuff life out of him. He then expresses the desire to flee to the wilderness as an escape measure from the wrath of the wicked, then the application of the term Selah. A reader is enjoined, by the application of the term, to contemplate whether it is possible to actually escape from the wrath of the wicked by mere fleeing to the wilderness or any place for refuge. During the meditation, a number of factors may come to fore and influences the outcome of the meditation, the most important of which is the cultural milieu of the reader. For instance, an African reader, whose cultural background believes in the existence of witches and wizards and sorcerers who can carry out their nefarious activities at anytime, anyday and anywhere, cannot but conclude that there is no physical refuge that can prevent the wrath of the wicked and may find solace in making Yahweh his refuge.

Musically speaking, a closer study of the use and placement of the word Selah vis-a-vis the suggestions already made by biblical scholars, reveal its affinity to music rather than calling for meditation on the texts. Of the seven possible meanings suggested by Dake, four affirm this position. ’pause, and calmly think of that’ as suggested by the Amplified version of the Bible could not also be taken because there are more than one ideas already expressed before its use. The da capo theory could not be applied because there is nothing that suggests repetition of the text. Also, the psalm itself is noted for its repetitiveness. Even where call and response is suggested, the texts are fully written out. A good example is Psalm 24. The term could not also have been used to instruct singers or instrumentalists to indicate dynamic, especially forte as suggested since it is not placed at the beginning of a section of the text but at the end, after a full stop suggesting a perfect cadence and itself followed by another full stop. The most appropriate interpretation and application of the term then is ‘musical interlude’. This position is further buttressed by the fact that the term occur never as the title nor at the beginning but intervalically in the text and at the end whenever it is used. The idea of musical interlude is firstly to enable the instrumentalists to demonstrate their skills after a logical conclusion in singing or chanting, and secondly to enable the singers to have some rests; thus giving room for possible meditation of the text as suggested by theologians. As observed in Africa, musical interlude forms and occupies a significant space in structural forms of musical compositions.


As submitted by Dake, this is a musical term that literally means eight or octave. It is found in the title for Psalms 6 and 12; and in 1 Chron. 15:21. From the titles and contents of the Psalms, one can decipher that they are psalms of lament, arising out of the distress faced by the composer.

However, musically speaking, the application of the literal interpretation is ambiguous. It may be interpreted as ‘sing in an octave below’ as suggested by the Amplified Bible, or to be accompanied by an eight-stringed instrument, as suggested by Unger. It may also be interpreted to mean ‘a tune’ as indicated in the description of International Inductive Study Bible: ‘according to Shem’inith’, in which case, the title of the tune would be ‘Octaves’. Since there is nothing that indicates singing in octaves in all the psalms, the most plausible interpretation musically, is the last one which refers to the tune of the psalm.


According to Dake, this Hebrew word means ‘praise’ and it is used as a title for Psalm 7. In the psalm, Yahweh is praised as the righteous judge. He justifies the righteous and makes Himself unsavoury to the wicked. The author of this psalm – it is ascribed to David – uses the opportunity of praising God as a judge to plead for vengeance on his foes and persecutors who were about to tear his soul like a lion. In this praise also, the composer pleads innocence and asks that if Yahweh has found him to the contrary, he should allow the adversary to triumph over him. He concluded that he would continue to praise Adonai according to His righteousness (v.17).

Although the meaning of the term shiggaion is declared to be uncertain by Unger (1014) and most Bible translations, the structure of the title where it is used suggests its musical meaning. In this case ‘A shiggai’on of David’ could not mean any other thing but a musical form or genre, which is different from psalm or song. As suggested by the Amplified Bible, it means ‘an ode of David [probably] in a wild, irregular, enthusiastic strain’.


Gittith appears in the title of Psalms 8, 81 and 84. According to Dake, this is a type of Gittith harp used in accompaniment of the respective psalms. The psalms speak of God’s dealing with mankind, the exalted place that the adam (mankind) occupies in Yahweh’s mind and agenda (Ps. 8). It reveals God’s dealing with the nation of Israel and the corresponding response of frequent disobedience received by Elohim from the Israelites (Ps. 81). Other possible interpretations given to it by most Bible translations are ‘musical instrument characteristic of Gath’ or a tune ‘The March of the Gittite Guard’ as suggested by Unger (409), or ‘a Philistine lute’ or ‘a particular Hittite tune’; all of which are musical. While we may leave them as possible meanings, the ‘tune’ theory seems to be more accurate since the phrase ‘according to Gittith’ is employed by most translators.


According to Dake, this means ‘graven or permanent writing.’ It is the title for Psalms 16, 56, 57, 58, 59 and 60. It probably meant hymns composed and preserved for certain permanent events among the Jews, events that may still be extant in the contemporary world. For example, the majority of these psalms center on the deliverance of the author from the adversaries. It designates mankind with the connotation of man’s weakness, as opposed to the Spirit. It reveals that trust in Yahweh is enough to dispel fear. One cannot but admit that the issue of victim and foe is a permanent event in life. The hymns are, therefore, to be sung when facing such events by those who believe in Yahweh, the God of the Jews. It also reveals how one should react to such events as a victim. Since the meaning of this word is uncertain to Bible translations, the manner in which it is used suggests the musical meaning as in the case of Shiggaion. It is rendered ‘a Michtan of David’ which implies a musical form or genre as differing from psalm, song or Shiggaion. The Amplified Bible in this regard may be apt when it presents the title as ‘a poem of David; [probably] intended to record memorable thoughts’, thus distinguishing the verbal mode of musical expression from chanting or singing.


Maschil is one of the musical terminologies with difficult interpretation. According to most Bible translations, the meaning is uncertain. According to Dake, this term means ‘instruction.’ It is used as titles for Psalms 32, 42, 44, 45, 52, 53, 54, 55, 74, 78, 88, 89 and 142. These psalms fall to different categories of literary genres in psalms. However, the musical term, Maschil presupposes that beyond other subject matters the psalms may address, the reader should look for moral exhortation or instruction communicated by Yahweh through the priests or the composers of these psalms. Such moral and spiritual instructions include the blessedness that follows forgiveness of sin (Ps. 32); trusting God for deliverance from the present and future catastrophes by counting on His past saving acts (Ps. 44); an indictment of the evil man and the reaction of the just man (Ps. 52); and many other instructions. King James Version in line with Dake, interprets Mas’chil as ‘instruction’ even when the thematic title is also indicated separately as found in Ps. 44, ‘a prayer for the distressed’ and 45, a ‘wedding song’. Like Shiggaion and Michtam, judging from the lexical structure of its usage, the word could only mean a musical form or genre. The Amplified Bible interprets it, in this regards, as ‘a skillful song, or a didactic or reflective poem’. Although still ambiguous, but the certainty of ‘form’ theory cannot be faltered.


This ancient Hebrew word, according to Dake, means ‘maidens or virgins.’ It connotes either a musical instrument or a melody. It serves as a title for ps. 46 and 1 Chron. 15:20. The title helps to identify which choir group in Israel is responsible for the song. Dake submits that there are three special choir groups in Israel, the Levites (1 Chro.n 15:16-19); the Alamoth, maiden singers (v. 20) and the men singers (v. 21). Dake also opines that:

all the three choirs are referred to in Psalm. 68:25. The men’s choir went before, the musicians following the maidens playing timbrels among or in between the men singers and the musicians. The whole picture seems to be that of a processional. The temple services included singing and music. Men were devoted to the training of choirs and musicians, and they led the national worship (Dake, 1991:437).

The King James Version and the Amplified Bible support this line of thought by interpreting the term as soprano or ‘treble voices’. Thus we can conclude that Alamoth indicates that the Psalm was to be rendered by virgins or a composition meant for virgins or soprano voices. The submission of Dake above indicates that forming singing group is not a new development in contemporary Nigeria, it has been part of Judaeo-Christian culture right from the time immemorial. In Nigeria, there are many of those singing groups ranging from the church Choir, which are not commercial oriented, to the Gospel performing groups that are commercial oriented.

Mahalath or mahalath leannoth

Mahalath and Mahalath Leannoth appear in the title of Psalms 53 and 88 they are ambiguous and interpretation. Many Bible translations avoid its interpretation. Unger gives three meanings of Mahalath: (i) daughter of Ishmael and the third wife of Esau; (ii) The grand daughter of David, daughter of Jerimoth and wife of Rehoboam; and (iii) part of title of Psalms 53 and 88.

According to Dake, mahalath means ‘harp’; a musical instrument and title for Psalms 53 and 58. This title signifies what instrument should be used as accompaniment to the psalm. The contents of both psalms that speak of fools and abandonment are not things that make one happy, hence, the use of harp as musical instrument to accompany the psalms and also reflect on the contents. Since harps are used to accompany solemn songs in most cases. The International Inductive Study Bible suggests ‘probably a musical term’ and ‘possibly a tune, “The suffering of Affliction”. The Amplified Bible interprets both Mahalath and Mahalath Leannoth as ‘in a mournful strain’ and ‘set of chant mournfully’. In support of these views which are in agreement with previous lines of thought, it is most safe to interpret the two terms as a tune and its variant to which the two Psalms in question were to be chanted or sung.

Neginah or neginoth

The term neginah or neginoth occurs as part of the descriptive title written on Psalms 6, 54, 55, 61, 67 and 76. Most Bible versions translate it as ‘stringed instruments’, which means that such Psalms were to be accompanied by stringed instruments only. According to Unger, stringed instruments used in the Old Testament Judaism included zithers, lyres and harps. The term neginoth encompasses all of them.


Nehiloth, an Hebrew word, appears as part of the title of Psalm 5 and it is translated by most Bible versions as ‘wind instruments’. To musicologists, wind instruments are aerophones, which produce sounds when air is blown into them. The appearance of the term on Psalm 5 indicates that the psalm was to be accompanied by wind instruments. The Revised Standard Version of the Bible however is more specific by interpreting the term as flutes which are a category of wind instruments.


This is one of the most ambiguous musical terminologies in the Psalms. It occurs as part of the title of Psalm 9. While many Bible versions and dictionaries avoided its interpretation, others give different views. While The Amplified Version interprets it as ‘set for [possibly] soprano voices’, The International Inductive Study Bible interprets it that the Psalm was set ‘to the tune of ‘The Death of the Son’, probably the tune of David’s lament at the death of one of his sons. The latter is more plausible judging from the way Revised Standard Version renders the title as ‘according to Muth-labben’ which means as dictated by the tune. In music, compositions that are melody-born such as this are described as melogenic. It is a common compositional technique in all cultures of the World.


This is an Hebrew word of ambiguous meaning. It appears in the middle of the texts of Psalms 9, 19 and 92. The word literally, means ‘a musical note’. However it is interpreted as ‘meditation’ in most Bible translations. According to Unger, the same word is translated ‘solemn sound’ in Psalm 92 verse 3. The use of Higgaion in addition with Selah could mean that the instrumental interlude was to be rendered solemnly or that the singers meditate while the instruments play on. Either way, it is a musical term, giving instruction as regards mood and character of the music.

Aijelet shahar

As deducted from Unger’s definition, the interpretation by theologians is conjectural. This terminology as an instruction to the director of music, appears as part of the title of Psalm 22. It could be literally interpreted as ‘the Hind of the Dawn’ or ‘the Hind of the morning Dawn’ or ‘the Doe of the Morning’ (a composition already in existence before Psalm 22). As suggested in The Revised Standard Version, The Amplified Version and The International Inductive Study Bible respectively. Its usage in Psalm 22 indicates that the tune be used for its rendition, thus indicating another melogenic compositional enterprise.

Shoshannim, shushan-eduth or shoshannim-eduth

These Hebrew words are found in the titles of Psalm 45, 60, 69 and 80. Most Bible translations in agreement with the view of Biblical scholars interpret the word as an existing composition known as ‘Lilies’ (for shoshannim) and ‘Lilies testimony’ (for Shoshshannim-eduth). It indicates that the tune of this song (probably a popular air as suggested in The Amplified Bible) is to be used for psalms 45 and 60. The shushan-eduth and shoshannim-eduth are a modified versions of the original Shoshannim.


Unger (604) only describes this term as ‘a term in the title of psalm 56. However, most Bible translations interpret it as the tune of ‘Silent Dove Among Those Far Away’, ‘according to the Dove on Far off Terebinths’ or as the tune of ‘A Dove on Distant Oaks’ all of which point to the same concept; a tune to which Psalm 56 was set and which should be used in its rendition.


This Hebrew word which appears in the title of Psalms 57, 59 and 75 has been traditionally interpreted by most Bible translations to mean ‘set to the tune of “Do not Destroy” ’, an already existing musical composition. The present writers subscribe to this view.

Song of ascents or song of degrees

This title is given to Psalms 120 to 134; fifteen in number. According to Scoffield, the generally accepted view is that the term was used to describe Psalms rendered by pilgrims in the ascending march from the Babylonian captivity to Jerusalem or the psalms sung by worshippers from all parts of Palestine as they went up to Jerusalem for the great festivals. Another view interprets them to be fifteen psalms rendered on the fifteen steps leading to the court of Israel in the Temple. While The Amplified Bible shares the first school of thought it also suggests the possibility of the meaning having something to do with the musics or the manner in which they were used.


In this paper, we have attempted to establish the correct interpretations of the terminologies under study, thus clearing the long-time existing ambiguities and obscurity on them. The findings in the study have further confirmed the musicality of the psalms. They have also indicated that organizational and structural forms exist in the psalms. For instance, the use of certain tunes and specific musical instruments are associated with particular psalms. Also, the idea of selah connotes the presence of musical cadences in the psalms. While the terminologies themselves may not be divine, their musical significance cannot be overemphasized.

This paper calls for more detailed collaborative studies between music, biblical and Jewish studies on the musical passages of the Bible so as to identify, analyze, evaluate and rightly contextualize their contemporary usage. Then, more composers would be encouraged to use the psalms as compositional materials and contemporary users would be more adequately informed of their socio-musical imports.


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Dake, F. J., 1991, Dake’s Annotated Reference Bible. Lawrenceville, Georgia: Dake Bible Sales Inc.

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Harrison, R. K., 1969, Introduction to the Old Testament. Toronto: Inter-Varsity Press.

Henry, Matthew, Commentary on the Whole Bible. Hendrickson Publishers Inc., 1991.

Murphy, R. E., and Carm, O., 1968, ‘Psalms’ in The Jerome Biblical Commentary. New York: The Macmillan Company Inc.

Unger, M. F., 1981, Unger’s Commentary on the Old Testament Vol.1. Chicago: Moody Press.

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Weiser, A., 1965, The Psalms: A Commentary. London: SCM Press Ltd.