The word canticle is Latin in origin and simply means “little song.” In Latin versions of the Bible, the Song of Solomon (also expressed as the Song of Songs based on the opening verse) is called Canticle of Canticles.
Canticles are biblical. They are songs derived from biblical texts other than the book of Psalms. Canticles are non-rhythmic songs and are either spoken, chanted, or sung in liturgical worship services. For the most part, canticles are said at Lauds, or morning prayer services. Denominations that incorporate canticles include Roman Catholic, Anglican, Episcopal, and Eastern Orthodox churches. The Greek Orthodox Church has nine biblical canticles, called odes.
Examples of Old Testament canticles are the two Songs of Moses (Exodus 15:1–19 and Deuteronomy 32:1–43); the Song of Hannah (1 Samuel 2:1–10); the Song of Habakkuk (Habakkuk 3:2–19); the Song of Isaiah (Isaiah 26:1–21); and the Song of Jonah (Jonah 2:2–9). Examples of New Testament canticles are Ephesians 1:3–10; Philippians 2:6–11; Colossians 1:12–20; 1 Timothy 3:16; 1 Peter 2:21–24; and Revelation 4:11.
Three better-known canticles are taken from the Gospel of Luke. The Benedictus is the hymn of Zechariah celebrating the birth of his son, John the Baptist, and the fulfillment of God’s promise of salvation for Israel (Luke 1:68–79). The Magnificat or Canticle of the Blessed Virgin is Mary’s song of praise upon greeting Elizabeth (Luke 1:46–55). Mary expresses joy over the privilege of giving birth to the promised Messiah and praises the Lord for His power, holiness, and mercy toward her and the nation of Israel. The Nunc Dimittis is Simeon’s hymn of joy and praise for the Lord’s salvation of all people (Luke 2:29–32). These three canticles have been used in public worship since the earliest Christian centuries and can still be found in many contemporary prayer books, including the Book of Common Prayer.
Te Deum, believed to be written by Ambrose of Milan, is the only canticle not taken directly from Scripture, although some consider it to be a hymn rather than a canticle.
Augustine of Hippo noted a distinction between canticles and psalms. While canticles are sung with the voice only, psalms are accompanied by instruments, “so by a canticle, the intelligence of the mind is signified, by a psalm the operation of the body.” Jerome, translator of the Latin Vulgate, distinguished them “to the effect that psalms properly belong to the region of ethics, so that we know through the bodily organs what to do or avoid—while canticles deal with higher matters, the harmony of the universe, and the order and concord of creation” (Hotham, H. J., “Canticle,” A Dictionary of Christian Antiquities, Vol. I, Smith & Cheetham, eds., London: John Murray, 1875, p. 284).
Psalms, then, are poetic compositions from the Bible set to music for praise and worship. Canticles, on the other hand, are non-metrical biblical texts that are chanted, spoken, or sung.