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Origins of music in worship

MUSIC HAS always been prominent in worship in the Christian church and was originally used to convey doctrine and later to tell biblical stories to the uneducated masses. To some, music enables spiritual experience.

The western Christian worship music we know today grew from ancient Greek and Jewish traditions (the Psalms) and largely influenced and shaped what we now call classical music.

It was in church worship that the singing of monks moved from plainchant or Gregorian chant (all singing the same thing) to two part singing; the beginning of harmony and music notation.

As everyone had one, the voice was the most prominent instrument in the early church.

The exact point of the introduction of instrumental music in western church worship is highly debated but common agreement is that instruments were not included in worship until several centuries after the New Testament was completed.

It is commonly agreed that the organ was the first instrument used in western church worship, mainly because of its versatility and ability to imitate other instruments and the voice.

When it was introduced however is contested. Some historians say it was introduced around the time of Pope Vitalian I (657-672), others say it was not until the 10th century.

The trumpet is said to have been the next instrument adopted by the church.

As early as the Middle Ages the Mass was the most popular form of music used in worship and utilised Latin texts. Composers such as Palestrina, Monteverdi, Bach, Mozart, Haydn, Scarlatti and Handel explored the Mass. Bach (1685-1750) wrote a Mass in all twenty-four keys as well as writing many chorales still sung in worship today. The music was difficult, the musicians were professionals and congregational involvement was limited.

During the 18th century, composers began looking to popular and secular tunes and incorporated them with sacred lyrics.

Charles Wesley’s spirited hymns were the central feature of Methodist worship and increased congregational involvement.

By the 19th century, the Church’s influence on society was dwindling, alternative performance venues began to appear and churches had to rely largely on amateur musicians to provide music for worship.
The publication of the book Hymns Ancient and Modern in 1861 was said to reflect “the very best of the many traditions of hymnody”.

It was an instant success and by 1912 (and in a time when many people couldn’t read or write) had sold 60 million copies. It is still in print today.

With dramatic changes in technology, western church music was thrust into the 20th century. Global influences on music saw European folk music, African gospel music and many other forms of music incorporated into worship.

Churches also re-embraced hymns, particularly those of Martin Luther (1483-1546) who had been influenced by German folk music.

Other favourites were Fan­ny Crosby, Charles Wesley, George Matheson, and Isaac Watts.

Now music used in western church worship varies from chants to rock songs. Organs are giving way to guitars and drum kits.

Hymns continue to be sung in most Uniting Churches but the influence of popular music is also prevalent, just as it was in the early church. This helps the church relate to society and the worshipper.
Many church-goers love hymns because they are reminded of times past. No doubt future church-goers will also enjoy singing the songs they sang when they were young.

Written with the assistance of The History of Music in Church Worship by Elaine Schneider www.cartage.org.lb/en/themes/Arts/music/vocalmusic/liturgical/histfmusic.htm

Author’s note: Since attending the opening ceremony of the 12th International Hand Bell Ringers Symposium I stand corrected. Bells may have been the first instrument used in Christian church worship.