The Whole Booke of Psalmes, Protestant Ideology, and Musical Literacy in Elizabethan England

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The Whole Booke of Psalmes, first published in 1562, was not only the English Reformation’s primary hymnal, but also by far the most popular printed music book published in England in the sixteenth century. This dissertation argues that in addition to its identities as scriptural text and monophonic musical score, the WBP functioned as a music instructional book, intended by its publishers to improve popular music education in Elizabethan England. Motivated by Protestant ideology, the WBP promoted musical literacy for the common people. This dissertation further demonstrates that the WBP made a hitherto unrecognized contribution to music theory in early modern England, introducing the fixed-scale solmization system thought to originate at the end of the sixteenth century. Drawing upon musicology, book history, and the study of Reformation theology, this dissertation makes a contribution to post-revisionist English Reformation scholarship, arguing that the WBP and its music-educational materials formed part of the process of widespread conversion from Roman Catholicism to English Protestantism.

John Day’s highly successful claim to monarchical authorization and religious authority for the WBP made the book the most prominent guide to a Protestant musical aesthetic for the common people. According to the WBP, the English Protestant musical identity was characterized by several features: communal singing of easy monophonic melodies, particularly by the laity rather than clergy and musical professionals; a broad selection of appropriate texts that encompassed Scripture (particularly the psalms), liturgical canticles, and catechetical texts; regular singing both devotionally as a household and as a congregation in church settings; and performance with instrumental accompaniment. Musical literacy was an imperative: if being a Protestant meant becoming an active part of musical worship, then it was crucial to teach all the laity to sing well, enabling them to fully inhabit that identity.

For this reason, many of the 143 known editions published from 1562 to 1603 contained one of two features intended to teach basic musical literacy: a letter to the reader which served as an introductory music theory treatise, and a special font that assigned solmization syllables to individual pitches for ease of sight-reading, which was accompanied by its own single-page explanatory preface. These prefaces made the WBP unique among the music-theoretical works produced in sixteenth-century England, the prefaces being neither the sort of introductory essays found in instrumental instruction books nor freestanding music theory textbooks. Their content was simple and accessible, with the goal of educating their common readers in the musical skills necessary for the singing of psalms (but not improvisation or composition, critical topics in other sixteenth-century English music theory treatises), and both prefaces employed religious language that gave sacred meaning to music education. The WBP’s simplified solmization system made an important advance in the history of music theory, one that has up until now been thought to originate thirty years later with music theorists Thomas Morley and William Bathe.

Yet as we know from early Jacobean documents and practices, the average early seventeenth-century churchgoer remained unable to read music and was therefore unable to utilize the WBP as a musical score. I contend that the failure of the WBP’s didactic content was due to music printing errors that significantly hindered the psalter’s capacity to improve musical literacy. Despite John Day’s introduction of the music preface and printed solmization syllables and the general policy of his successors to maintain Day’s general structure, content, and Protestant message, the usefulness of the WBP in promoting musical literacy and Protestant musical devotion was severely hampered by seemingly musically-illiterate compositors and a lack of editorial oversight.






Arten, Samantha (2018). The Whole Booke of Psalmes, Protestant Ideology, and Musical Literacy in Elizabethan England. Dissertation, Duke University. Retrieved from


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