Troublesome Topic: Words of Instruction in the Psalms

QUESTION: Do you usually pay attention to the title of a psalm, or do you glance briefly at it and then move on quickly to the first verse of the psalm?

“For the Director”

The role of the director was more closely related to a coach. He chose the singers, decided who would be in each choir, scheduled practice times, in general dealt with the human element. It appears that he also arranged those songs that needed arranging, got the choir started, and interacted with the worshipping audience to help them know if they had a role to play.

Lacking the ability to easily reproduce written words or show them on a screen, the audience would not have known what to sing, unless it was something simple and easy to learn e.g. very repetitive things such as are found in Ps 136. Therefore the audience usually just listened unless they had heard the song enough times to participate with the choir of their choice or if the director gave them instructions on how to participate.

When the introduction of a Psalm states “for the director” or something similar, it is an indication that the arrangement is not obvious and the singers should not assume they know how this is being sung; instead they should wait to be told the director’s arrangement.

 This means that these psalms were flexible since different directors would arrange them differently.


“Selah” means “Lift it up.” Within the context of that meaning, “selah” appears to be instruction to the music leader granting him the flexibility to choose an expression that will be appropriate for the situation. Selah was the one word of instruction that did not appear in the title at the beginning of the psalm. See the various uses of Selah in “Selah” Deserves Special Consideration.


Mizmor = a song set to an accompaniment by “pipe” or “reed,” or possibly a stringed instrument. Pipe might be the best option, unless this is one type of stringed instrument and Neginoth is a different type of stringed instrument (used 57 times, mostly of David).

Neginoth = to play on stringed instrument, possibly exclusively on stringed instruments. Strong’s Concordance confirms that this word means “on stringed instruments, a minstrel, to pluck the strings” (used in 6 psalms).


Shir = a sacred song, or a love poem or ballad  (used 30 time in the Psalm titles),

Maskil =  a meditation or contemplative poem, (found in 13 title), 2 of which are didactic poems (i.e. teaching poems) (Ps 32 & Ps 78), 

Tephillah =      prayer or praise (in 5 psalms)

Tehillah =        Song of praise  – only Psalm 145 has this title,

Mikhtam = “golden”  artistic in form and content – in 6 psalms, all of David. Strong’s says it is possibly from Katham which means “a stain” or possibly “to engrave.”

Shiggayon (only in Psalm 7) = “to wander or reel;” it is an enthusiastic ode with a reeling, wandering gait and an irregular form.

Pitch or Vocal Register

Two titles seem to refer to pitch. Al-Alamoth (Psalm 46), “set to maidens”, i.e., to be sung with a soprano or falsetto voice. Also upper register.

Al-Hassheminith or just sheminith (Psalms 6 and 12), “set to the eighth”; lower, the lower or bass register, in contrast with the upper or soprano register.


Eight titles may indicate the melody of the psalm by citing the opening words of some well-known song. Some examples are:  Ps 5,  57-59, 75.

My conclusion – It’s okay to skip over the title of a psalm because it wasn’t intended for you anyway but rather for the director of temple worship.

(Much of the content of this article was taken from