The Bible, the Old Testament in particular, contains several music terms that we no longer use. Some describe the purpose of the song; some the format of the song; some even name the tune. And many terms describe something that has long been unknown.
Sir or shiyrah is Hebrew for “song” (Genesis 31:27), “singing,” “singers,” “sing,” “music,” or “musical,” depending on the context.
Zamar is also Hebrew and means “to sing, make music, or play an instrument.” In all its iterations, it refers to music that praises God. It is used in Judges 5:3, 2 Samuel 22:50, 1 Chronicles 16:9, Isaiah 12:5, and thirty-seven places in Psalms.
Selah is probably the most well-known music word in Hebrew—ironic, since we don’t know for sure what it means. Some say it means “to lift up or exalt,” while others think it is a pause or interruption in the song.
Tehillah is Hebrew for “praise” and is translated that way in 54 verses, but in the introduction of Psalm 145, it represents a song or psalm of praise.
Mizmor is also a Hebrew term indicating instrumental music, but it is translated “psalm,” which, by implication, means it is a poem set to music. “Psalm” is found in 93 psalms, 56 of which are attributed to David.
Neginah literally means “to touch the strings”; it’s a poem or proverb sung to the music of stringed instruments. Besides Job 30:9, Lamentations 3:14, and Isaiah 38:20, it’s found in the introduction of several psalms. In the psalms, it can be translated “on stringed instruments” or “with stringed instruments.” In the other verses, it is “song,” “music,” or “taunt,” depending on the context.
Nechiylah is Hebrew for “flute accompaniment.” It’s only found in Psalm 5.
Zamir is Hebrew for “a song or psalm sung to instrumental accompaniment,” but unlike mizmor, it emphasizes the singing. The topic of the song may vary, and zamirim include songs that God gave (Job 35:10; Psalm 95:2), songs about the law (Psalm 119:54), praises (Isaiah 24:16), songs of the ruthless (Isaiah 25:5), and even birdsong (Song of Solomon 2:12).
Ron is Hebrew for “a shout or cry.” Some passages use this word to indicate a general shout (1 Kings 8:28; 22:36; 2 Chronicles 6:19), but many psalms and passages in Isaiah associate it with joyful shouts in the context of singing.
Rinnah is similar to ron, but it is only found in Isaiah 35:10.
Alamoth is the plural of “girl” in Hebrew. It probably refers to a high-pitched voice, whether soprano or falsetto. In 1 Chronicles 15:20, the harps are tuned to alamoth. It’s also in the introduction to Psalm 46.
Semini means “over the eighth,” but Hebrew music didn’t have an eight-part unit. Some think it refers to an eight-stringed lyre. First Chronicles 15:20–21, however, compares it to alamoth, so it may mean “low pitched.” It’s also found in the introduction to Psalm 12.
Parat literally means “to divide.” It is translated as “strum away” (NIV), “sing idle songs” (ESV), or “chant” (KJV) in Amos 6:5.
Qonen is the verb, and qinah is the noun meaning “elegy” or “lament.” It’s used in reference to Saul and Jonathan (2 Samuel 1:17), Abner (2 Samuel 3:33), Josiah (2 Chronicles 35:25), Zion (Jeremiah 9:17), Tyre, and Egypt (Ezekiel 27:32; 32:16).
Types of Songs
Miktam or michtam is from the Hebrew for “poem.” It’s a type of psalm, but we don’t know the specifics. It’s found in the introductions of six psalms.
A maskil is a poem that is particularly insightful or contemplative. It is found in thirteen psalms.
Humneo and humnos are Greek for “hymn,” a sacred song or a song of praise. Jesus and the disciples sang a hymn after the Last Supper (Mark 14:26), and Paul and Silas sang in the jail in Philippi (Acts 16:25). We are called to sing to God in praise (Hebrews 2:12) and to each other for edification (Ephesians 5:19; Colossians 3:16).
Psalm 60 identifies itself as lemed or “for instruction.” It’s a song designed to teach.
Massa is Hebrew for “a tribute,” especially through singing. It’s translated as “music,” “song,” or “singing,” depending on the Bible version. Kenaniah led the singing of the massa when David brought the ark of the covenant to Jerusalem (1 Chronicles 15:22, 27).
Natsach literally means “preeminent” or “enduring”; in the introductions of many psalms, it refers to the choirmaster or chief musician.
The Sons of Korah are members of a family that were professional musicians at the temple.
An Ezrahite is a descendant of a man named Ezra, but not the Ezra who wrote the book. Ezrahites were known for their wisdom (1 Kings 4:31). The Ezrahites Heman and Ethan both wrote psalms (Psalm 88; 89).
Aijeleth Hashshahar is Hebrew for “Hind [Deer] of the Dawn.” Psalm 22 apparently was sung to this melody.
Al-Taschith means “Thou Must Not Destroy.” Four psalms (57, 58, 59, and 75) were set to it.
The meaning of Jonath elem rehokim is less clear. It may be “Dove of the Silence of Distances” or “The Dove on the Far-off Terebinths.” It is the tune to which Psalm 56 was sung.
Mahalath is also a mystery. Mahaleh means “sickness” but mahol means “dance.” Then again, halal means “to pierce,” so it may mean the psalm (53) was set to pipes.
Mahalath Leannoth means “The Suffering of Affliction.” Psalm 88 certainly applies.
Muth-labben means “To Die for the Son.” Presumably, it’s the name of a song that shared the tune with Psalm 9.
Shir Hanukkak Habayit identifies Psalm 30 as used for the dedication or rededication of the temple. Literally, it means “song of the dedication of the house.”
Shir-yedidot literally means “song for the beloved.” Psalm 45 was written for weddings.