This is my own paraphrase of a translation of the last part of Calvin's Preface to the Psalter. Translations are freely available, but the style of writing from the sixteenth century and of many later translations is rather ponderous. It is a shame to have this fresh take buried under the weight of words.
Henry de Jong, September, 2008
Preface to the Psalter
by John Calvin, 1543
THE IMPORTANCE OF MUSIC
Among those things which are good for our recreation and pleasure, music is either the best, or one of the best; and we have to conclude then that it is given to us by God. Because of this we should be careful not to abuse it, for fear of spoiling it -- letting it condemn us rather than ennoble us. Just for this reason we should make careful use of music, letting it serve all honest things, without becoming an occasion for dissolution, disordered delight, lasciviousness or shamelessness.
THE POWER OF MUSIC
But even more than this, we have to agree with philosophers like Plato, that there is hardly anything in the world which is more able than music to turn or sway the morals of men. And in fact, we find by experience that it has a sacred and almost incredible power to move hearts one way or the other. Because of this, we should be still more diligent in making music that is good for us, and in no way pernicious. The Church fathers complained frequently that the people of their times were addicted to dishonest and shameless songs, and claimed that such music was poison for corrupting the world.
Now there are two parts to sung music, the text and the melody. It is true that every bad word (as the apostle Paul has said) perverts goodness, but when the melody is with it, it pierces the heart much more strongly, and enters into it. Just like a funnel is used to get wine into its vessel, melody directs words, both good and bad, into the depths of our soul.
WHY CHOOSE THE PSALMS?
So what then do we do? We need songs that are not only honest, but holy, songs which will be like spurs to incite us to pray to and praise God, songs to help us meditate on his works in order to love, fear, honor and glorify him. St. Augustine has said that no one can sing things worthy of God except that which God has given. So, though we look thoroughly, and search here and there, we can hardly find better songs or more fitting songs for the purpose, than the Psalms of David, which the Holy Spirit spoke and gave to us through him. So when we sing these Psalms, we are certain that God puts them in our mouths. It's as if God himself were singing through us to his glory. That's why the Church has placed so much emphasis on singing the Psalms, putting us, with this sort of meditation, in the company of the angels.
SING WITH UNDERSTANDING
In conclusion we must remember what the apsotle Paul has said, that spiritual songs cannot be sung well except from the heart. But the heart requires the intelligence. And in that (says St. Augustine) lies the difference between the singing of men and that of the birds. For a linnet, a nightingale, a parrot may sing well; but it will be without understanding. The unique gift of man is to sing and to know what he sings. And through knowing comes the affections of our heart. something which happens best when the song is etched into our memory, so that we never cease from singing it.
From Geneva, this 10th of June, 1543