The performing practice of the psalms is closely connected to their liturgical or paraliturgical functions and is influenced by old local traditions. Idelsohn (1929/R, pp.20–21) summarized three responsorial ‘forms in which the Psalms and prayers were rendered’ in the Temple: (a) the leader intoned half-verses and the congregation always repeated the first half-verse of the psalm as a refrain; (b) the congregation repeated each half-verse after the leader; and (c) the leader and congregation alternated full verses. This practice was modified in the synagogue, where psalms can be heard in antiphonal, responsorial and choral (i.e. congregational) renditions. Antiphonal alternations of verse between two individuals or two groups are rare; but can be found among some North African communities (e.g. in Algiers). More common are responsorial practices, a great variety of which exist. Thus, for instance, the Kurdish Jews chant Psalm xcii alternating full verses between precentor and congregation, but the shift always occurs at the half-verse (Flender 1992, p.125). The Yemenite Jews preserve an ancient Temple tradition of chanting the hallel in which the congregation responds with the word halleluyah after each half-verse by the precentor, and repeats the first half-verse of each psalm as a refrain (see below, §III, 5). Ashkenazi Jews chant Psalm cxxx and similar rogation psalms so that each verse is sung by the precentor and is then repeated using the same chant by the congregation. Choral chanting by the entire congregation is the rule for those psalms that are part of the daily liturgy. In Sephardi and Middle Eastern communities these are chanted without a precentor. Among the Ashkenazim, the psalms are chanted individually by the congregants with the precentor singing the last verses of each psalm, thus directing the pace of the service.
This form of psalmody is by no means the only way of singing psalms among Jews. Important or favourite psalms are sung to special melodies during the liturgy or in paraliturgical functions. Thus, for instance, during the Sabbath service Psalm xxix is sung to a particular tune or composition when it accompanies the procession of the Torah Scroll. Psalms are sometimes chanted in long melismatic cantorial recitatives. In east European Ashkenazi communities the first penitential selihot service begins with a cantorial rendition of the last verses of Psalm cxlv, and in Syrian communities various psalms serve as opening solo recitatives (Arabic muwwāl) which are sung according to the Arabic maqāmāt improvisations (see Mode, §V, 2). On the other hand, chant formulae resembling psalmodies are used for various other poetic or even prose texts. Finally, it seems quite clear that the cantillation system of Hebrew scripture, namely the public reading of the Pentateuch, the Prophets and books of the Hagiographa is based on psalmodic concepts.
Jewish music, §III, 2: Synagogue music and its development.