From the Latin, “canticulum,” or “little song.” A CANTICLE is a hymn-like passage of scripture in the Bible which is similar to a Psalm but occurs in a book other than the Book of Psalms.

Among other psalm-like compositions, those such as the Gloria in excelsis Deo and the Greek hymn Phos hilaron are at least as old as the 3rd century. Some songs of this type were suspected as early as the 4th century of being heretical (psalmi idiotici) and were eventually suppressed. See Early Gnostic Hymns.

In spite of a lack of documentary evidence, it may be assumed that early Christians used some of the Old Testament CANTICLES in their services. One of the earliest Christian rituals, Easter, was expanded at the end of the 2nd century with a vigil service during which the book of Exodus was read; the Song of Moses from that book was sung not later than the beginning of the 4th century. In the Daniel Papyrus dating from the 2nd or 3rd century, the text of the Hymn of the Three Children (also known as Song of the Three Young Men) is divided into verses and supplied with accentual marks suggesting musical performance. The growth of monasticism in the 4th century, particularly in Egypt, and the gradual establishment of a daily cycle of services in which the canticles were sung during the morning Office contributed to the increasing prominence of the biblical canticles. By the first half of the 5th century, 14 canticles were collected in the Codex Alexandrinus and placed after the book of Psalms. Of the 14, ten are Old Testament canticles, three are from the New Testament and the last is the GLORIA (i.e. the Great Doxology) of which only the opening words are biblical. (Although the GLORIA is now part of the Roman Mass, it still occupies a place in the Byzantine morning Office, Orthros, for which all 14 were originally intended.) The copying of a group of CANTICLES after the psalms served as a model for a later type of manuscript known as Psalter and Odes. The number of CANTICLES contained in such manuscripts varied considerably until well into the Middle Ages; most include no more than a couple of dozen, but in one Mozarabic source there are as many as 106.

-- from New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians   Music Ref ML100.N48

See The Canticles of Luke [from]

Canticles are classified as “greater” or "lesser” :

(a) Greater Canticles ( major, or Gospel) are those from the New Testament:

Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55)
Benedictus dominus (Luke 1:68-79)
Nunc dimittis (Luke 2:29-32

The Te Deum laudamus, an extra-biblical hymn attributed to Niceta (c. 335 - c. 414), is also generally considered to be one of the Greater Canticles.

(b) Lesser canticles (minor) are those from the Old Testament and from the Apocrypha:

Audite coeli (Deut. 32:1-43) The Song of Moses
Cantemus Domino (Ex. 15:1-18) The Song of the Sea
Domine, audivi (Hab. 3:2-19) The Prayer of Habakkuk
The Prayer of Jonah (Jonah 2:2-9)
Excultavit cor meum (1 Sam. 2:1-10) The Song of Hannah
Song of David (1 Chron. 29:10-18)
Ego dixi (Isaiah. 38:9-20) Song of Hezekiah
The Song of Jeremiah (Jeremiah 31:10-14)
The Songs of Isaiah (sung during appointed liturgical festivals)

Populus qui ambulabat (Isaiah 9:2-7)
Confitebor tibi (Isaiah 12:1-6)
Urbs fortitudinus (Isaiah 26:1-12)
Illuminare (Isaiah 60)

Lesser Canticles from the Old Testament and from the Apocrypha:

Benedicite, omnia opera (Song of the Three Young Men from the book of Daniel 3:51-90 -- added in the Septuagint to the original Hebrew -- a paraphrase of Psalm 148, also draws from Psalm 136)

Justorum animae (Wisdom 3:1-3) -- extolling rest for the righteous dead

The Song of Judith (Judith 16:1-27) -- extolling God for the defeat of Israel"s enemies. Also uses imagery from the Song of Deborah and Barak, and various Psalms.


In the Roman Catholic rite the Greater Canticles form the climax of Vespers, Lauds, and Compline respectively. In Anglican churches they occur in the Morning and Evening Prayers. In the Lutheran service the Lesser Canticles can be used as alternatives to the Greater Canticles.

In the Roman rite, the Lesser Canticles all belong to Lauds, where they function as one of the five Psalms. Two of them are assigned to each day of the week, one for normal use, the other for the period of Lent.

See Order of the Divine Offices

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