Anglican chant is a system for singing the psalms and canticles in church services. Chant is different from other singing forms because its tunes are not written for any particular set of words. In hymn singing, for example, the tunes are often written for one particular hymn and are suited only for that hymn and a few others that have an identical verse structure.

The Psalms are believed to have been written by David and appear in the Old Testament. The Canticles are sets of verses from elsewhere in the Bible. The both texts' verses have irregular structures (at least in the various English versions of the Bible). Each verse has a different number of syllables. One approach to singing them is to use paraphrases, which are versions of the psalms adapted into regular verses to fit regular hymn-like tunes. This is the approach favoured in Presbyterianism.

Anglican Chanting enables any normal chant (tunes for chanting are called "chants") to be used to sing any psalm or canticle. Unlike a paraphrased setting, the rhythms used are close to the rhythms of ordinary speech. Chant books are available that contain hundreds of chants. Most are "double chants" that contain 14 bars (or measures), and some are "single chants" with 7 bars. In Anglican Chant, the majority are in 4-part harmony for sopranos or trebles, contraltos, tenors and basses. Each verse of the psalm or canticle is sung so that it takes 7 bars. On reaching the end of a chant, it is repeated until the psalm or canticle is finished. Each note in each bar is held for a variable length of time, to suit the sense of the words.


Psalms and canticles are annotated to assist in the mapping of syllables to the bars of the chant. These annotations and the mapping they represent are known as "pointing". The symbols used in pointing in the Church of Ireland follow.
  • | - in the text corresponds to a bar-line in the chant.
  • : - shows the "half-way" point of the verse, indicating a bar-line in the chant and a pause in the rhythm.
  • · - between two syllables marks a change of note within a bar. These marks are not used in every bar. They only appear where there may be some ambiguity, or where a deviation from the established practice of changing note on the last syllable is considered beneficial.
  • * - a breath should be taken and a pause observed. A shorter pause is marked by an extra space between words. Normally, a choir should not all breathe at the same time, but wherever each singer needs to (without causing disruption, of course!).
  • † - appears before some verse numbers, showing that the following verse should be sung to the second half of a double-chant. This means that sometimes the first half of a double chant is skipped. This symbol is ignored if a single chant is being used.
  • _ - this mark appears at the end of some lines and indicates that no breath or pause should be taken here. It is used only where the arrangement of words and the typesetting might otherwise suggest a pause to the unwary. I have used a normal underscore, but the prayer book uses a curved underscore, somewhat like a $_{\smile}$ in LaTeX.

Pointing enables the choir to chant together and to preserve the meaning of the words. However, it is tricky to get right and this can be an obstacle to full participation in the service by the congregation. It is not normal practice for the congregation to have the score for the chants, and until the introduction of the "Alternative Prayer Book" in 1984, the congregation's prayer books did not even show the pointing marks!

An Example

The first 5 verses of Psalm 8 are reproduced below, with pointing, as they appear in the 1984 "Alternative Prayer Book" of the Church of Ireland. (sorry about the use of <PRE>:you know how it is...) An explanation of how the marks affect the singing of the verses shown will conclude this write-up.
 1 O | Lord our | Governor:
    how glorious is your | name in | all the | earth!

 2 Your majesty above the heavens is | yet re|counted:
    by the | mouths of | babes and | sucklings.

†3 You have founded a strong defence_
      a|gainst your | adversaries:
    to quell the | ene·my | and · the a|venger.

 4 When I consider your heavens the | work of · your |
    the moon and the stars which | you have | set in |

 5 What is man  that you should be | mindful of him:
    or the son of | man that | you should | care for him?

In each verse, it is easy to see by the "|" and ":" marks that there are 7 bars. The first two verses are straightforward. Try reading them aloud:- the rhythm they are sung to will be similar how they are said. Assuming that a double chant is used, verse 1 will be sung to the first half (bars 1 to 7) and verse 2 will be sung to the second half (bars 8 to 14).

Verse 3 is prefixed by a "†" mark. This means that instead of starting the chant again at bar 1, we skip to the second half of the chant and begin from there. The "_" suppresses our instinct to pause after defence. The "|" in the middle of the word "against" shows that the first syllable of the word is to be sung to the last note of bar 8, and the second syllable to the first note of bar 9. The "·" which appears later in the word "enemy" and between "and" and "the" shows how the syllables are divided between the notes of the bar. In the second case, it suppresses the instinct to change note on the "a" of avenger. This keeps the definite article together with its noun, so the music reinforces the meaning of the words.

Verse 4 now now starts again at the beginning of the first half of the chant. Verse 5 is sung to the second half of the chant (i.e. from bar 8) and contains an extra space after "man", indicating a short pause.

This extract doesn't show the "*" mark, but its use is self-explanatory. It also doesn't show that the final verse, verse 10, is again prefixed with a "†" mark. This ensures that the end of the psalm lines up with the end of the chant. Without it, the psalm would end on bar 7 of the chant, which is less likely to have a suitable cadence than the end of bar 14.

The reader may also note that AFAICR, in the Church of England, the pointing marks are the same as shown above, except with a "'" instead of a "|". Now that's diversity for you.

I've also used the word "bar", whereas in some countries it's called a measure. Whatever. You get the idea.

Is all of the above clear? Let me know!
Copyright (c) 2002 KENNETH KILFEDDER

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