Church Music Throughout the Ages

Music like all artistic expression is a gift of God to humankind. And like any of God’s gifts, music can be put to good use or to bad use; it can be used in holy ways or in unholy ways; it can be a power for virtue or for vice.



In the first article of this series, we noted the. wide range of music and songs in the Bible. God’s people in both the Old and New Testaments played musical instruments and sang in a variety of ways so that God. would be praised, the believers would be edified and the people of the world would hear about and perhaps come to serve our almighty God.

In contrast to this, we can find several instances in the Bible where music and song are put to bad use. Early in human history, Lamech, from the line of Cain, sang to his wives out of a spirit of pride and revenge: “I have killed a man for wounding me…If Cain is avenged seven times, then Lamech seventy-seven times” (Gen. 4:23–24). Coming down from Mt. Sinai, Moses heard singing coming from the Israelite camp. With their idolatrous songs they were making music and dancing around the golden calf (Ex. 32:18ff). On more than one occasion the Bible refers to idle and unbelieving people of wealth who spend their time enjoying frivolous music and song while unconcerned about the plight of the poor or the worship of the true God (Job 21:11ff, Is. 5:11ff).

Music as God’s gift is meant to be put to God-glorifying use. Yet, like any gift of God, it carries within itself the potential for abuse.

In surveying the history of the church and its use of music in worship, we find a great variety of styles. Depending on the particular church or denomination, the preferences of their leaders and musicians, the particular era and the prevailing culture, musical forms and tastes covered a wide range. Those especially trained in the history of music would be more capable in explaining this great variety than I am, but let me mention some of the changes over the centuries of church history.


Church historians are generally agreed that in the early centuries church music was quite simple. Psalms were mainly sung; perhaps a few early Christian hymns and “spiritual songs” outlining the basic beliefs about Jesus were added later. As worship became more standardized and formalized, at certain moments within the service the congregation would respond with short, sung sentences such as “Lord, have mercy” and “We lift up our hearts.”

From this point on however, change became the hallmark of what was acceptable church music. Plain chanting of certain Scripture selections and creedal statements gradually gave way to more melodic tunes. And the chanted prose was transformed into metrical poetry. This sung poetry originally had no rhythm except for classical meter. Later the rhythm became more important. Likewise, the sung poetry was first acceptable without rhyme. But over the years, worshipers would hardly look at a song that did not follow a set pattern of rhyming words.

From the beginning, church music was often sung responsively. But this responsive singing also underwent great changes over the centuries. At one point the cantor and the choir would sing back and forth responsively. But in some eras, the responses echoed between the cantor and the congregation or between the choir and the congregation, or even between two groups within the worshiping congregation.

At first, almost every church leader gave priority to the singing of the psalms and other selections from Bible texts. But already within the second and third centuries certain hymns in praise to the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit can be found. A few hymns begat a great number of hymns as pastors and theologians discovered that words put to song had a greater power than words without song. The learning and the singing of hymns also became a method for teaching Christian truth (and in some cases, heresy). So over time, hymn singing became as popular as psalm singing.

And even psalm singing had its variations. Some composers followed the original Hebrew wording very closely, daring not to depart from the perfect words that God had directly inspired by His Holy Spirit. Others were not afraid to take great liberties with the Bible text, “Christianizing” the psalms, updating them to better fit the New Testament revelation.1

We could develop a very lengthy list of all the changes and variations within church music over time and across different traditions. But let me mention just a few more. The exclusive use of Latin eventually gave way to the vernacular languages (though that took about fifteen hundred years!). Some church musicians made use of secular tunes, adding Christian words to popular melodies, even those going back to ancient Rome and Greece. Though the eight (or fourteen) classical musical modes were originally popular, these gradually gave way to the use of the major and minor keys with which we are familiar today. Though most church leaders at first prohibited and, when that proved impossible, discouraged the use of musical instruments to accompany congregational singing, gradually these instruments became an accepted and valued part of worship in most churches to this day.

Not all these changes in church music were for the better. The Roman Catholic contemporary of Martin Luther, Desiderius Erasmus (1466–1536) complained that “modern church music is so constructed that the congregation cannot hear one distinct word.”2 Not only was this a complaint against the use of the Latin when the people could not understand it. Erasmus was also criticizing how, in much of the church music of his day, the text was being sacrificed to the tune, the instrumental was crowding out the verbal. About a century and a half later, an official papal pronouncement declared that “all music for use at Mass…must be truly ecclesiastical in style, grave and devout in character.” The pope at that time forbade anyone “to sing with a solo voice, whether high or low, a hymn…in whole or in large part.” He also decreed that during Lent the playing of the organ was altogether prohibited (presumably to add more solemnity to that holy season).3 Evidently these restrictions were not sufficient to ensure “grave and devout” worship, because a hundred years later Pope Benedict XIV declared that “ecclesiastical music must be composed in a style which differs from that of the theatre. The solo, the duet, the trio, are forbidden.” While the organ was “acceptable” and stringed instruments “tolerated,” the “forbidden instruments included timpani, trumpets, oboes, flutes, mandolins” and “in general, all instruments which are theatrical in character.”4 Another century passed and the Roman Catholic list of the forbidden included “long introductions or preludes,” “brilliant pieces which are distracting,” and “rapid and restless [instrumental] movements…when the words express joy and exultation.” Monetary fines were levied against violators found on the organ bench or in the choir loft and, after a third offense, such musicians would be dismissed.5

But time has a way of changing musical tastes. Around the turn of the current century, Pope Pius X, ruled that solo numbers from now on would be permitted in Roman Catholic worship. Likewise, with the local bishop’s permission, wind instruments “limited in number, judiciously used” would now be allowed. Yet, this greater latitude in some areas of church music was accompanied by greater strictness in other areas. Though by this time the organ had been fully accepted, the pope decreed that “the employment of the piano is forbidden in church, as is also that of noisy or frivolous instruments such as drums, cymbals, bells, and the like.” And with firmness he prescribed the Gregorian Chant to be used exclusively for some parts of the liturgy for it was regarded as “the supreme model for sacred music.” And with equal rigor, Pius X declared it was “forbidden to sing anything whatever in the vernacular in solemn liturgical functions.”6


The Reformers of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were unanimous in their opposition to this Roman rule against the use of the vernacular languages. They agreed that the common languages had to be used in worship, not the Latin, which even in that day most people did not comprehend. The Reformers were desirous of bringing spiritual worship to the understanding of the common person. Singing in the vernacular languages was part of that desire. Especially in a context where the people lacked basic knowledge of Bible teachings, the Reformers’ focus was placed upon the people learning the basic gospel truths and Scripture texts. So anything that was judged as detracting from the written Word or the verbal message was eliminated from Reformed worship.

Certainly this was a worthy goal. And it was pursued with zeal, a zeal prompted by the conviction that only the Scripture should be our exclusive rule in matters of faith and life. But the sola Scriptura principle as applied to the worship setting came to be understood as “the Bible in isolation” or “the Scriptures in solitary.” In some instances, this led to the complete elimination of all artistic expression in worship. In places on the European continent where Calvinistic majorities pre

vailed, all instrumental accompaniment of singing as well as decorative paintings, elaborate architecture and stained glass windows fell prey to this application of that key Reformational principle. In the most extreme cases in latter day America, some churches allowed their members only to wear black and white clothing as they attended the worship services. Anything more than this was regarded as vain and sensuous, detracting from the purity of the Word.

Believing he was following the sola Scriptura principle, the Swiss Reformer, Ulrich Zwingli (1484–1531) was the most consistent in his prohibition of any musical instruments in the worship service. And as a corollary to the sola Scriptura principle, he stated that since the Bible nowhere commands the use of instruments to accompany congregational singing, they cannot be permitted.7 Based on this “regulative principle.” Zwingli’s theological descendants such as the English Puritans and some Scottish Presbyterians and other groups, have continued the practice of a cappella singing to this day.8

Whereas Zwingli set down more strict regulations for worship, John Calvin proved a bit more moderate. Overall, he regarded music, both texts and tunes, as one of the greatest gifts of God to man.9 Yet, he was aware that music could be used for wrong purposes by wrong-thinking people or pastors. He writes:

In truth, we know by experience that singing has great power and vigor to move and inflame men’s hearts to call upon and praise God with a more vehement and burning zeal One must always see to it that the singing not be light and frivolous but have weight and majesty…[It] is not without reason that the Holy Spirit exhorts us so carefully by the holy Scriptures to rejoice in God and that our whole joy be directed there as to its true end. For he knows how we are inclined to rejoice in vanity…We must deem it [i.e. music] to be a gift of God…However, we must guard against abusing it for fear of soiling and contaminating it and thus converting it to our condemnation when it is intended for our profit and salvation…[We] must be moved to moderate the use of music, to make it serve all honesty and that it may not be occasion to unbridle us to dissoluteness or to weaken us to disordered delights, and that it may not be an instrument of fornication or any immodesty.10

Since all songs have two main parts, the words and the melody, Calvin warns that a melody attached to evil words “pierces the heart much more strongly and so enters inside it. Just as by a funnel wine is forced into a vessel, likewise venom and corruption is distilled into the depths of the heart by melody.”11 In place of some popular church songs of his day, those “of a vain and frivolous sort, some stupid and dull,” Calvin proposed that Reformed people sing “the divine and heavenly songs” of King David, namely, the psalms. Where these Scripture words are set to a “moderate” melody, a tune bearing “gravity and majesty fitting to the subject” then each worshiper truly can “rejoice honorably and toward God, with regard to his salvation and to the benefit of his neighbors.”12

In addition to the psalms, Calvin himself translated French versions of the Song of Simeon and the Ten Commandments. And to the surprise of many people today, he composed at least one hymn, presumably for use in the worship service.13 This hymn brings into question Calvin’s strong endorsement of exclusively singing the “heavenly” songs of King David. Either the psalms are sufficient for God’s people or they are not. Evidently, Calvin sensed an insufficiency here and took a small step to fill it.

Overall, Calvin greatly limited the use of music in the Reformed worship service. The power of music to move and to shape human existence is too great to allow unrestricted use of it in the midst of the worshiping congregation. And it is true that some Roman Catholic priests and choirmasters had been terribly abusing church music for centuries in some countries.14 So reformation had to be applied to the music of the sixteenth century church as well as to her theology. But with the benefit of historical hindsight, we would have to judge today that some Reformational musical reforms went too far.

For example, Calvin strongly opposed the use of the organ in the worship service. In the sixteenth century the organ increasingly was being used for non-liturgical purposes, mainly for professional and theatrical performances. And of course, if played by a performance-minded organist, this grand instrument tended to obscure the message of Bible-based songs.15 Not only this, but, said Calvin, musical instruments such as the organ “only amuse people in their vanities.”16 The danger he perceived was that the ears of the worshipers might become more attentive to the musical melody than their minds would be to the spiritual meaning of a song’s message.17 Clearly, Calvin’s preference lay with Zwingli’s no-instrument policy. And this clear preference silenced church organs in almost every European area inhabited by Calvinist majorities. Some zealots even tore out or destroyed the beautiful organs housed within former Roman Catholic churches converted to Protestant use.18

What conclusions can we draw from all this? Well, one thing becomes immediately clear. All of us are to a great degree prisoners of our own times and our own tastes, of our church traditions and our character traits when we have to determine what we believe to be “good” church music. The appeal from some people, namely, to go back to “good” church music, immediately raises the question: back to the church music of what century? And for those who call us to return to good “Reformed” music, we must ask: to which Reformer? To which century of the Reformation? To what country?

What is often forbidden in church music in one century, became acceptable in a later century. This is particularly true of certain musical instruments. At one time the organ was rejected; now in almost all of our churches it is viewed as the musical instrument of the church. And whereas once the piano was suspected as “worldly,” most of us today thoroughly enjoy good piano accompaniment with our singing.

Any historical survey such as the above also warns us of the futility of making endless lists of strict rules and regulations for church music. Yes, there are a number of abiding principles for good church music; we will turn to these next time. But detailed restrictions on certain instruments or certain musical types or rhythms are doomed from the start. This may be threatening to us conservatives who want to “guard” the church from further decay. But the best church music held up to the scrutiny of the Word and sung in the Spirit from the heart will ultimately carry itself and will endure for ages to come.


1. Allen Cabaniss, “The Background of Metrical Psalmody,” Calvin Theological Journal 20 (November 1985), p. 199.

2. Elwyn A. Wienondt, Opinions on Church Music: Comments and Reports from Four-and-a-Half Centuries, (Waco, Texas: Baylor University Press, 1974), p. 3.

3. Weinondt, p. 42

 4. Welnondt, pp. 67–68.

5. Weinondt, pp. 143–144.

6. Various quotes from Weinondt, pp. 163–167.

7. John H. Leith, Introduction to the Reformed Tradition, (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1977), p. 200.

8. It is not my purpose to critique the “regulative principle” here, but it must be observed that this principle has not been observed in all Reformational churches on all matters of worship.

9. William J. Bouwsma, John Calvin: A Sixfeenfh Century Portrait, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), p. 135.

10. John Calvin, “The Form of Prayers and Songs of the Church, 1542, Letter to the Reader,” trans. Ford Lewis Battles, Calvin Theological Journal 15 (November 1980), p. 163.

11. Calvin, p. 164.

12. Calvin, p. 165.

13. Cabaniss, p. 203.

14. Millar, Patrick, Four Centuries of Scottish Psalmody, (London: Oxford University Press, 1949), p. xx.

15. Leith, p. 201.

16. Calvin, in “Sermon No. 160 on Il Samuel,” quoted by Bouwsmo, p. 225.

17. Ibid.

18. James Winfield. “The Classical Organ Revival and the Church Today: The Second Golden Age of Organ Building,” The Chicago Theological Seminary Register, 76 (Spring 1986), p.5.

Rev. Lankheet is pastor of the Ontario CRC, Ontario, CA