Sacred Music: Historical, Musical, Economic, and Psychological Perspectives

In music history classes (or any history courses for that matter), it is pretty predictable that teachers are going to expect students to start reading the beginning of their textbooks regarding such periods as the “Dark Ages,” and move forward to be able to analyze how thoughts about education and technology have been reformed over time…and how these changes have contributed to a much more sanitary lifestyle. Because the Roman Catholic Church was the ruling political institution of the Holy Roman Empire (or modern-day Europe), it exercised dominion over several educational subject matters, one of which was music. As a result, it is safe to say that all forms of music began in the church. A lot of people would automatically assume that music has strayed far from its religious roots. But, there are still large religious and spiritual communities which listen to sacred music not only at church, but, also for leisure, though their purposes for doing so may have changed over time.

*DISCLAIMER: This article does not attempt to demonstrate bias toward or against particular faiths; it would be difficult to examine every religion’s music history in depth. That being said, this entry focuses on religions with extensively documented musical changes over time. Discussion is open to sacred/worship music of any sort, so please be respectful of other people’s belief systems!*

Historical Perspectives

In early church services, music usually served ritualistic purposes. These rituals were gained from holy books, such as the Bible and the Torah. According to Judaism, Catholicism, and, Christianity, (which stemmed from the former two religions), the singing of hymns was viewed as a Godly order from the Hebrew book of Psalms. One source notes that in Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16 of the New Testament of the Bible, the apostle, Paul encouraged his followers to honor God through Jesus Christ by singing “‘psalms and hymns and spiritual songs”’ (qtd. in Burkholder, Grout, and Palisca, 24). Synagogue services heavily emphasized cantillation, or the chanting of readings and homilies (each reading was designated to a specific festival or calendar date), by a synagogue official, rather than through the participation of a whole congregation of worshippers.

Yet, in some instances, the acts of singing and dancing have been perceived controversially. St. Augustine claimed that the pleasure he gained from singing could corrupt him into seeking temporary earthly rewards over those which are eternal and heavenly. He consequently thought that music should solely be utilized for spiritual purposes over recreational purposes. Islam has a tradition of chanting similar to that of Judaism and Catholicism, which Islamic mysticists advocate for the spiritual transcendence they receive from it. Islamic legalists have maintained contrary views to the mysticists throughout history, though, as they have seen chants as “usury, fornication, and intoxication,” contributing to vanity (Lewisohn, 3).

It is interesting that Islamic legalists point out the selfishness (implied through the term, “vanity”) exhibited in chanting practices. During the Protestant Reformation, Martin Luther observed that the mass of the Roman Catholic Church was inclusive, as it only targeted church officials, rather than appealing to all members of the congregation. Not all church members could partake in worship because melodies were difficult to discern (and without written notation of these melodies, the process was even more challenging), and because the texts to each movement of the mass were in Latin, which not everyone had the opportunity to learn. Therefore, it may be argued that Martin Luther set a precedent for the way in which sacred music is utilized today (at least for Protestant sects), as various Christian services open and close with music, during which people hug, sing, dance, cheer, and/or reflect. The fact that all people attending the services have access to the words of the songs or hymns performed (through projectors or hymn books), are permitted to sing alongside the worship leader, and interact with the music in some personal way aside from simply reading the words from a holy book, has demonstrated that sacred music has more recently been about community building and prayer over preserving religious tradition.

Gregorian Chant:

Musical Perspectives

Bare with me here because this section introduces a lot of fancy musical terminology! Like synagogue services, Catholic church services incorporated a form of cantillation or chant, which we all recognize today as Gregorian chant. Gregorian chant was monophonic (meaning that only one melody, or vocal line/part was sung without accompaniment), and it involved a call by one singer and a response by the rest of the chorus. The chant was performed by monks in Latin. Eventually, this chant evolved into more musically complex genres, which were also utilized for services. The Organum genre set a Cantus Firmus (or a preexisting melody, which, in this circumstance, happened to be a Gregorian Chant melody) below a melody with a higher vocal range. These two voice parts were polyphonic, as they consisted of rhythmic and melodic patterns, which were not the same. Expansions upon Organum were the Latin Motet and the Musical Mass, which placed three or four choral parts above the Cantus Firmus. Cantus Firmus melodies still drew from the Gregorian chant repertoire in the Latin Motet; yet, in the Musical Mass of the Renaissance, people began basing Cantus Firmus melodies on secular songs which were familiar to laypeople, and not just to people performing the chants. The polyphony exhibited in these genres relied heavily on imitation, in which one voice part would model another, but, would then branch off into differing notes and rhythms, creating a whole new melody.

Martin Luther argued that this imitation inherent within polyphony (aside from the fact that motets and musical masses were in Latin, which people of the lower classes did not have a knowledge of, due to lack of education) presented an obstacle for members of the congregation. In establishing the Lutheran religion, he mimicked the format of the original Gregorian chant, which was monophonic (one melody without accompaniment). He also employed German text, so that all churchgoers could feel like active participants of the services.

Christian music specifically has undergone reforms similar to those that Martin Luther called for various centuries ago. According to the Gospel Music Association, it is one of today’s most widely followed genres, as 68% of Americans (or approximately 215 million people) listened to Christian/Gospel works in the month of June. Because Christian worship music closely resembles the structure of mainstream pop/rock music (consisting of verses and a chorus linked together by a bridge), it is accessible to all groups of people. If people may memorize the music they hear on the radio without having to endure intense musical training, the same may be said of the learning process which occurs during the acquisition of  Christian music played in the church today. The chord progressions and lyrics of Christian worship songs run parallel to those of secular pop/rock songs, preaching themes of love and forgiveness (and how many pop songs today do we hear speaking about either unrequited love or young love?) instead of taking steps to fulfill a ritual or narrate a theological story. One such example of the genre crossover is Ray Charles’ jazz work, “This Little Girl of Mine,” which layered instrumental improvisations atop the basic melody and subject matter discussed in “This Little Light of Mine” (Howard and Streck, 27).

Latin Motet (Hear all of the different parts at once a.k.a. polyphony?!)

Economic Perspectives

The increasing popularity of worship music has piqued the interests of scholars, as they wonder whether the commercialism involved undermines the music’s intent of glorifying God. In the 1990s, the band, Dakoda Motor became famous for its multifaceted market appeal, constituting a cheerleader lead singer and a surfing guitarist whose face was made recognizable by MTV, though they still wrote songs with lyrics about Jesus. The band members admitted that they were ultimately concerned with garnering support from “‘…fans of music, not fans of Christianity,”‘ showing that they used Christianity as a label to lure fans (and consequent profits) in at a time of religious revival in America (qtd. in Howard and Streck, 79). However, other Christian bands, such as the Newsboys have asserted that creating a label for themselves and seeking media coverage have helped to make their mission of spreading their faith worldwide possible (158).

Modern Christian Worship (Notice the differences from the other genres in how worship is conducted and in the modern pop/rock sound of the music?):

Psychological Perspectives

What is the effect of sacred music on worshippers–does it differ from the impact of secular music upon listeners? Is there a correlation between people who listen to music and their spirituality? Scholars have asked all of these questions. In an experiment done at Liberty University, a group of students was expected to listen to six pieces of music (sacred, secular, vocal, and instrumental). It was predicted that those who distinguished themselves as religious or spiritual would experience a greater amount of emotional intensity than those who did not identify with such characteristics, and, that they would be more likely to relate to sacred music than to secular music. Yet, the results instead yielded that there was an equal emotional catharsis reached by both the spiritual and the non-spiritual students (depending upon which students were more prone to experience trances in the first place), and that sacred and secular music achieved equally strong physiological responses (Norman, 21-26).

Contrarily, music therapy research sustains that music not only has the ability to heal a person who is physically injured or has an emotional disability, but, may also take control of a person’s sentiments. Wilson-Dickson contends that sacred music intended for worship presumably motivates a person to express his or her emotions more than does ritualistic sacred music, which puts forth trumpets to symbolize God’s authority in ceremonies. But, he ultimately comes to the conclusion that symbolic ritualistic music is just as influential as is sacred worship music, as people have different learning styles, and, consequently, interpret God’s love and supremacy in various ways (23).

Feel free to discuss one or more of the following questions:

Should there be a uniform purpose for sacred music, or does this depend upon the particular person attending the service and the religious sect they belong to (i.e. music to complement readings, worship/praise, community building, etc.)? How large of a role should music play in sacred services? Do you think that the performance underlying sacred music takes away from one’s ability to experience music spiritually (branding, costumes, lights shows, etc.)? May one’s spiritual experience be academically simplified (as it was in all of the psychological/marketing experiments conducted)? May all music be considered spiritual (even if it is technically “secular,” and not performed in/written for a place of worship), if it has uplifting qualities and allows a person to connect with a divine figure or theme?

Scroll to the VERY, VERY bottom of the page (past the Works Cited, until you can’t scroll anymore) or go to the “Sacred Music…” section to leave your comments. Check out the “Help! What Do I Write About?” tab if you have questions about what to discuss musically, or even if you have writer’s block!

Works Cited:

“Best-Selling Christian Artists in 2014.” TheTennessean. News, 27 June 2015. Web. 1 August 2015.

Burkholder, J. Peter, Grout, Donald Jay, and Palisca, Claude V. A History of Western Music. W.W. Norton and Company, 2014. Print.

OrthodoxChannel. “Gregorian Chant-Kyrie Christe Eleison.” YouTube. YouTube, 11 April 2008. Web. 2 August 2015.

Howard, Jay R. and John M. Streck. Apostles of Rock: The Splintered World of Contemporary Christian Music. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1999. Web.

Lewisohn, Leonard. “The Sacred Music of Islam: Samā’ in the Persian Sufi Tradition.” British Journal of Ethnomusicology 6.1 (1997): 1-33. Web. 29 August 2015.

Norman, Anais Dorian. “The Psychological Relationship Between Spirituality and Emotional Responses to Music.” Digital Commons, 2013. Web. 30 August 2015.

QuireCleveland. “Sicut cervus, by Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (1524-1584).” YouTube. YouTube, 10 June 2013. Web. 2 August 2013.

VitalyEve. “Newsboys (Blessed Be Your Name).” YouTube. YouTube, 6 November 2008. Web. 2 August 2015.

Wilson-Dickson, Andrew. The Story of Christian Music: From Gregorian Chant to Black to Gospel. Oxford: Lion Publishing, 1992. Web.

3 thoughts on “Sacred Music: Historical, Musical, Economic, and Psychological Perspectives

  1. Music is a nice addition to a church service. However, it should not be what the service is all about. If one visits certain Churches, he will observe some people really getting into the music. My question would be, is that really to praise God, or is that for a more self serving purpose?


  2. As a Worship leader in non-denominational settings and also a sound tech in several Christian venues for 25+ years I always was very respectful of motive in my own worship performance and service. The following article by David Reagan comes in handy when self analyzing worship motives.
    Forgive me if you are offended by it being based in Christian scripture, but it is what I relate to.

    “I always hear how satan was a musician how is this supported by scripture?
    Most who teach this take the description of the King of Tyrus inEzekiel 28:12-15
    to be a description of Satan. He is said there to have been in the Garden of Eden and was perfect in all his ways until iniquity was found in him. That fits none other but the devil. Therefore, the prince of Tyrus mentioned earlier in the chapter would be the earthly ruler of Tyre, while the king of Tyrus would be the devil who rules over the prince of Tyrus. Daniel, chapter ten, also deals with the connection between many earthly rulers and evil spiritual principalities.
    Therefore, taking this to be Satan, Ezekiel 28:13
    has a phrase that is very interesting: “the workmanship of thy tabrets and of thy pipes was prepared in thee in the day that thou wast created.” That is, he was created with tabrets and pipes built in him. What would this refer to? Tabrets (spelled taborets in modern English) are small drums like those used to beat out timing for a fife player. Pipes probably refer to tubes used to produce tones by blowing air through them, as in an organ. This shows us that the devil had the makings of percussion instruments and wind instruments built into his very being.
    We can also arrive at a good conclusion as to why he had this apparatus built in him. In Ezekiel 28:14
    , he is called the “anointed cherub that covereth.” In Ezekiel 10:1-22
    , there are four cherubim who stand at the four corners of the throne of God. Since “the glory of the LORD went up from the cherub” (Ezekiel 10:4
    ), the cherubim were there to give glory and praise to the Lord. But here we see no cherub covering the throne. That had been the job of Satan as the anointed cherub that covered. He would be the fifth cherub and his job would have been to glorify God. It is interesting that the most powerful of God’s heavenly creatures is the one who most prominently gives glory and praise to God. In one sense therefore, Satan was the heavenly choir director and he led the songs of praise to the Lord that still ring in heaven. The inbuilt tabrets and pipes would definitely come in handy here.
    Now, when Satan fell in rebellion against God, he did not lose the natural abilities that God had given him. Therefore, he kept the tabrets and the pipes. But now, he did not use them to bring glory to the Lord but to turn God’s creatures against their Creator. His expertise is seen in the powerful influence he welds today in music. He knows his music and he hates the Lord. This is a dangerous combination.
    David Reagan”


  3. Is that so different that we praise to god or self serving??? We all respect the place, the people and the music right? Btw, I really love music in videos you post. especially the first one!


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