The superscript of Psalm 9 contains the phrase:

BHS: עַלְמ֥וּת לַבֵּ֗ן
RSV/ESV: according to Muth-labben.
NIV: To the tune of “The Death of the Son.”

Most translations have chosen something similar to one or the other of these. The first seems to have pulled a preposition off the beginning to get “according to” and then transliterated the rest, which I presume indicates that the translators didn’t think the meaning could be ascertained with certainty. The second seems at least loosely like a reasonable translation, again pulling apart the first word. The LXX weirdly has ὑπὲρ τῶν κρυφίων τοῦ υἱοῦ ("over the secrets of the son"?).

Despite the fact that these English translations (and I guess that Greek) seem to understand על as a separate word, there is a entry in HALOT עַלְמוּת (“uncertain”, with a comment about the LXX that I don’t follow).

Is there a reason to think that there was a tune called “The Death of the Son” that would help this make sense? Or is there any other speculation about what “Muth-labben” (or “Almuth-labben”) refers to?

2 Answers 2


"This superscription is especially difficult, and many medievals struggle to understand the possible historical context of "over the death of the son, if that is the correct translation." (JPS Study Bible pp1291-2)

While the exact meaning and translation is uncertain, the superscription can be used to explain the unusual structure of Psalms 9 and 10.

Some scholars believe the two Psalms were originally one (as found in some Hebrew manuscripts, the LXX, and the Vulgate). There are several factors used to support this position. One is the acrostic which begins in 9 continues and ends in 10; another is the lack of a superscription in 10, something rare in Book 1. Many also see the current text as being corrupted as the acrostic is disrupted with 7 letters missing.

Ron Benun (http://www.jhsonline.org/Articles/article_55.htm) shows the text is not corrupted and the missing letters are an intentional device by the psalmist and part of a sophisticated structure of both Psalms.

This study also supports the conclusion that the two Psalms were purposely divided. To this I would add the distribution of the 7 missing letters is patterned after the Sabbath with 1 in Psalm 9 and 6 in Psalm 10.

It is in recognizing these Psalms are in many ways one and at the same time separate that the superscription brings greater understanding.

The death of a son effects both father and mother. A Psalm written about the death of a son should reflect that. Without the superscription we have the curious situation of 2 Psalms with so much in common and yet divided into two. The death of a son superscription is the explanation for the structure. Also Psalm 9 makes reference to the daughter of Zion and Psalm 10 speaks to the man of the earth. So there is an additional division along the lines of gender.


I asked this question on Mi Yodea and got an excellent answer which I'll paraphrase.

"Al-Mut" refers to the soprano of a choir. "Ben" refers to a child singer who has a high pitched voice (common in all-male choirs). So "למנצח על-מות לבן" is instructing that a child soprano leads the choir when performing this song.

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