Question: "To what do the various musical terms in the book of Psalms refer?"
Answer: Several musical terms are used in the titles or verse breaks of the Psalms. In most Bible translations, a footnote will state that the meaning of these musical terms is uncertain. Many versions of the Bible will not attempt to translate the terms but instead will transliterate the Hebrew letters into a word pronounceable in English. The following list of musical terms in the book of Psalms gives a reference where each term can be found, along with suggested meanings:
Alamoth: Psalm 46:1. The meaning of this word is uncertain, although it has been suggested that the term refers to the music’s pitch being high or soprano, since its Hebrew root refers to young women or virgins.
Gittith: Psalm 81:1. Many meanings for gittith have been suggested, including “tune from Gath” and “song from the grape harvest.”
Higgaion: Psalm 9:16. The meaning of this word is uncertain, with some suggesting it refers to a musical interlude. The KJV translates it as “solemn sound” in Psalm 92:3.
Mahalath: Psalm 53:1. This most likely refers to an unidentified song tune or to a certain style of playing it.
Maskil: Psalm 32:1. The word means “prudent” and could refer to a contemplative style of music. The NET Bible translates it as “a well-written song.”
Miktam: Psalm 59:1. This technical word is of uncertain meaning to us.
Muth-labben: Psalm 9:1. This word can be translated as “to die for the son,” which could be the title of the tune used to accompany the song. However, the exact musical use of this term is uncertain.
Selah: Psalm 3:2. Selah is the most frequently used musical term in the Psalms, occurring 71 times in the book. Most scholars believe it refers to a pause or silence. Some Bibles translate it as “interlude.” Selah is also found in Habakkuk 3:3, 9, and 13.
Sheminith: Psalm 6:1. This musical term refers to a musical instrument—possibly an eight-string lyre—and can also be found in 1 Chronicles 15:21.
Shiggaion: Psalm 7:1. We are uncertain of this word’s meaning. Suggestions range from “dirge” to “rapid change of rhythm.”
The Psalms are songs and therefore include many musical terms that were important for those originally playing and singing these sacred tunes. Though the meaning of most of these terms has been lost, we can appreciate their importance and consider how God has used and continues to use these songs to the praise of His glory.