Titles of Psalms (3)

Musical Notations and Instruments

It is common for some translators to comment (typically as footnotes or marginal notes) regarding many of the terms in the psalm titles that “the meaning of the Hebrew is unclear” and that the terms are probably musical notations of some kind. Thirtle, not content to leave matters as “unclear” or too difficult, distinguishes the terms in the superscripts from those in the postscripts. He claims on the one hand that the superscripts contain information about authorship and sometimes historical background, as well as using literary terms which describe the type of psalm. On the other hand, the postscripts contain musical terms, including references to instruments, and certain liturgical terms. The most important term for his thesis, primarily because it occurs in Habakkuk which provides a “key” to its correct placement in the Psalms, is למנצח “for the leader” or “for the Chief Musician” or “to the choir master” which occurs in fifty five Psalms. It is rendered in LXX by εἰς τὸ τέλος  for the end, or regarding completion, apparently reading the Hebrew as a niphal participle לנצחת enduring or for eternity.[1] Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki), referring to the verbal root נצח meaning “leading” and citing Ezra 3:8, understands the term to refer to the Levites who lead the instrumental music in the Temple.[2]

The title מזמור mizmor, from the root זמר , is attached to fifty seven Psalms (predominantly in Book I but spread across all five books) and seems to be connected with playing instruments.[3] The Septuagint translates it ψαλμὸς psalmos which is derived from psallein which means to pluck and presumably refers to stringed instruments which were plucked. Montagu suggests that these psalms may therefore have been performed with musical accompaniment and that the psalms titled שיר a song were sung. That may further suggest that the fourteen psalms which have both words (“A Psalm, a Song” in some translations, or better, “A song with musical accompaniment”) were sung with musical accompaniment. This then raises the question as to how those described as מזמור mizmor (“with musical accompaniment”) only were to be performed, as the words must have been heard somehow, if not sung. “Unfortunately, no such correlations wholly work and the only thing that can be said with any certainty is that we really do not know what these words imply”.[4] Psalm 81:2 uses the phrase שאו־זמרה using another word also derived from the root זמר together with a word meaning “to lift up” (cf. Psalm 24:7, 9) and the directive probably means “lift up the zimrah. This suggests that the zimrah was a particular instrument, or class of instruments. Accompaniment by musical instruments is also indicated in seven psalms as well as Habbakuk 3:19 which use the term בנגינות which probably means “with stringed instruments”.[5]

According to Rabbinical interpretation a number of other terms in psalm titles also refer to musical instruments: “Menahem [b. Jacob Ibn Saruq] explained that all of the terms nehiloth, alamoth (Ps. 46:1), gittith (Ps. 8:1; 81:1; 84:1), and Jeduthan (Ps. 39:1; 62:1; 77:1) are names of musical instruments and that the melody for the psalm was made appropriate to the music characteristic of the particular instrument named in the title of the particular psalm.”[6] Against this, Thirtle argues that עלמות, which literally means young women,[7] refers to a female choir (while שמינית refers to a male choir[8]), and ידיתון refers to the choir originally under the control of the Levite thus named.[9] Sendrey concurs and lists several biblical texts where female singers are mentioned.[10] Thirtle understands נחילות inheritances to refer to a commemoration of the taking possession of the promised land under Joshua,[11] a view also taken by the aggadic Midrash Tehillim which interpreted נחילות as “inheritance”, although Rashi disputes this meaning “as the subject matter of the psalm does not refer to inheritance”.[12] However, if this is read as a postscript to Psalm 4 not only is this objection removed, there are, in fact, several expressions in that psalm which might allude to the occupation of the land (Psalm 4: 8, for example, refers to dwelling in safety, a strong Deuteronomic theme). The LXX also adopted this meaning with its translation ὑπὲρ τῆς κληρονομούσης over her that inherits.

To be continued …


[1] Sarna, “Psalms, Book of,” 673.

[2] Gruber, Rashi’s Commentary on Psalms, 60.

[3] Montagu, Musical instruments of the Bible, 72.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ludwig Koehler and Walter Baumgartner, The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament (Leiden: Brill, 2001), 668.

[6] Gruber, Rashi’s Commentary on Psalms, 63.

[7] Koehler and Baumgartner, HALOT, 835.

[8] Thirtle, The Titles of the Psalms, 110.

[9] 1 Chronicles 15:16-22; 16:1; 25:1

[10] 2 Samuel 19:36; 2 Chronicles 35:25; Ezra 2:65; Nehemiah 7:67, and Ecclesiastes 2:8. Sendrey, Music in Ancient Israel.

[11] Thirtle, The Titles of the Psalms, 172.

[12] Gruber, Rashi’s Commentary on Psalms, 63.