English Common Tunes. 16th & 17th Centuries

The tunes sung by colonists well into the 18th century came from The Whole Book of Psalms, Collected into English Meter (1562) versified by Sternhold and Hopkins, known as the Old Version , and from other Psalters such as Day's Psalter (1563), Damon's Psalter (1563), Este's Psalter (1592), and Ravencroft's Psalter (1621). Most of the tunes were in one of three meters used in English metrical psalmody, common meter (, short meter (, and long meter (, and could be fit to any text of the same meter. These tunes came to be known as "common tunes" because they could be used with a number of different metrical psalms. "Proper tunes" were associated with only one text. The tunes were not only of English origin but many were borrowed from the French-Genevan Psalm-singing tradition assimilated by the refugees escaping persecution in Holland and Switzerland during the reign of Queen Mary (d. 1558). PSALM 100 is one of those tunes and comes from the Anglo-Genevan Psalter of 1561.

When the Pilgrims landed in Plymouth, Massachusetts in 1620, they brought with them The Book of Psalms: Englished both in Prose and Meter published in 1612. The Pilgrims had taken exception to the accuracy of the Psalm translations in the Old Version used by Anglicans in Britain, and published their own (48 Psalms were included) while taking refuge in Amsterdam. Known as the Ainsworth Psalter after its author Henry Ainsworth, it was widely used by colonists until it was supplanted by the The Whole Book of Psalms Faithfully Translated into English Meter. The Bay Psalm Book, as this later book came to be know, was published in 1640 by a group of clergymen from the Massachusetts Bay Colony who were concerned with awkward wording and the retention of exact meaning in the translation in the Ainsworth Psalter.

The 9th edition of the Bay Psalm Book (1698) was the first edition to contain printed tunes. Thirteen common tunes mostly in common, short, and long meter were included, all from the English Psalm-tune repertory. The book's "Admonition," however, suggests that the psalms could be "sung in very neere fourty common tunes; as they are collected, out of our chief musicians, by Tho. Ravenscroft" or to tunes in "our english psalm books." The Ainsworth Psalter contained 39 common tunes "from our former Englished Psalms." Notably there is a wide range of meters represented, unlike most English psalters.

By the early years of the 18th century church leaders in the colonies and those interested in the state of music in the church agreed that the singing had become intolerably bad. The "Old Way" which had prevailed for years with its rote singing and "lining out" of the psalm had led to unbridled improvisation and ornamentation so that the tunes became unrecognizable and congregational singing had become by all reports cacophonous. In the preface to his Grounds and Rules 1721, Thomas Walters commented on the predicament (original spelling, capitalization, italics preserved):

. . . the Tunes that are already in use in our Churches; which, when they first came out of the Hands of the Composers of them, were sung according to the Rules of the Scale of Musick, . . . are now miserably tortured, and twisted, and quavered, in some Churches, into a horrid Medly of confused and disorderly Noises. . . .Our Tunes are, for the want of a Standard to appeal to in all our Singing, left to the Mercy of every unskilful Throat to chop and alter, twist and change, according to their infinitely divers and no less odd Humours and Fancies.  That this is most true, I appeal to the Experiences of those who have happened to be present in many of our Congregations, who will grant me, that there are no two Churches that sing alike. Yea, I have my self heard (for Instance) Oxford Tune sung in three Churches (which I purposely forbear to mention) with as much difference as there can possibly between York and Oxford, and any two other different Tunes.

. . . I have observed in many Places, one Man is upon this Note, while another is a Note before him, which produces something so hideous and disorderly, as is beyond Expression bad. . . . The Instructions of this little Book [will provide for] just and equal Timeing of the Notes, [and] our Singing will be reduc’d to an exact length, so as not to fatigue the Singer with a tedious Prostration of the Notes beyond the compass of a Man’s Breath, and the Power of his Spirit: A Fault very frequent in the Country, where I my self have twice in one Note paused to take a Breath. . . . For much time is taken up in shaking out [the] Turns and Quavers; and besides, no two Men in the Congregation quaver alike, or together; which sounds in the Ears of a good Judge, like Five Hundred different Tunes roared out at the same time, whose perpetual interferings with one another, perplexed Jars, and unmeasured Periods, would make a Man wonder at the false Pleasure, which they conceive in that which good Judges of Musick and Sounds, cannot bear to hear. (Read the preface.)

In an essay written in 1720 Reverend Thomas Symmes asked some questions that were prophetic: "Where would be the Difficulty or what the Disadvantage, if People that want Skill in Singing, would procure a Skillful Person to Instruct them, and meet Two or Three Evenings in the Week, from five or six a Clock, to Eight, and spend the Time in Learning to Sing?" (Symmes, The Reasonableness of, Regular Singing. Boston, 1720 as quoted in Richard Crawford, America's Musical Life. New York: W.W.Norton, 2001) He was describing the singing school which became the answer for the advocates of "Regular Singing:" singing the tunes by note so that everyone sang the Psalm tunes correctly. This of course led to the need for teaching materials and this need began to be filled in 1721 by John Tufts' An Introduction to the Singing of Psalm Tunes and Thomas Walter's The Grounds and Rules of Music Explained. Both contained note-reading instructions and a collection of well-know Psalm tunes homophonically harmonized in three parts.