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I recently discovered four lines of numbers painted on the inside wall of a church bell tower in Wales, and I'm trying to interpret them. From the style of the writing, degree of decay and location, I believe the writing is most likely eighteenth or nineteenth century in origin.

I've thoroughly investigated the possibility that they may be related to (largely English) art of change ringing, and have rejected this possibility for several reasons. My leading theory is that they represent a melody that was played on the bells. Until recently the church had five bells in a major scale tuned to G. From the other writing on the wall, I know the numbers referred to notes as follows: 5=G, 4=A, 3=B, 2=C, 1=D. Translated to notes, the four lines read as follow:

GACBDACG / GACBDC / GACBDACG / DCBACG

I don't recognise this tune. However, lines of 8, 6, 8, 6 notes suggest common metre, and the fact that most lines start and finish on the tonic seems to support its interpretation as a melody. I think the title above the numbers says 'The IV PSALM' (the 'P' is totally illegible, and several other letters are difficult to read, but the 'IV' is clear and not space for there to be a missing letter before the 'IV'). Psalm 4 is not one I know well, but its words (at least in the King James Version) don't easily fit a common metre. There is no indication of the rhythm in the numbers on the wall.

Obviously it would be fantastic if someone here could identify the tune, though I'm not necessarily expecting that. Failing that, is there a good strategy for looking up a song or hymn from its notes? Alternatively, is there a way of finding settings of Psalm 4, especially those in common metre?

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  • Did you try a web search for melody or music lookup? Commented Sep 10, 2023 at 20:51
  • Yes. I found a few sites, but searching them either found nothing or found lots of tunes that bore no resemblance that I could see to the phrase I was searching for. Quite possibly I wasn't using them right.
    – richard
    Commented Sep 10, 2023 at 21:18
  • Another possibility is that the melody has never been cataloged. Commented Sep 10, 2023 at 21:19
  • That's very possible. I can well believe an obscure Victorian setting of Psalm 4 that's no longer commonly used today might well not have been catalogued.
    – richard
    Commented Sep 10, 2023 at 21:22
  • "lines of 8, 6, 8, 6 notes suggest common metre": but the fourth line has seven notes.
    – phoog
    Commented Sep 10, 2023 at 23:03

1 Answer 1

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A friend who is a cathedral lay clerk has recognised this tune as a version of the old Scottish tune 'York' (also called 'Stilt'), slightly adapted only to need five notes. It uses common metre. I'm not quite sure how old that tune is, but it's certainly old enough that it could written on this church wall.

I've also found a seventeenth century book, A New Version of the Psalms of David, which includes a version of Psalm 4 in common metre. There's no indication of the intended tune, however 'York' is supplied as a tune for Psalm 23 ('The Lord's My Shepherd', though these words do not appear in its version, adapted to use common metre).

I'm not sure whether using 'York' for Psalm 4 was a local peculiarity to this particular Welsh village, or whether it was a wider trend, but either way, I think the mystery is solved. Thanks for everyone's input!

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