Have We Forgotten the Purpose of Music in Worship?

Music plays an important role in our worship services. The value of that role does not necessarily depend on the means—the quality of instruments, the skill of the congregational singers, or the complexity and creativeness of what is sung. It does not stem from its inclusion in the liturgy. Music plays an important role because of its purpose.

The simple purpose is for the worship of God. The purpose of sound, including the sound of instruments, is for the praise of God (Ps. 150). The purpose of singing is to fulfill the biblical command to sing (Ps. 98; Col. 3:16). In other words, God’s Word says music should be included.

But there is another layer to the purpose of music. This may be more easily realized when asked as a question: Why is it music that is included in the worship of God? Why is there a call to sing? Why is there not just a call to respond with responsive readings? Why sing? Why play instruments?

The short answer could relate to singing and supportive accompaniment being a communal activity. Indeed, the purpose of music does not apply only to those trained as musicians. It applies to everyone who has gathered as part of the congregation. But church history gives us some further principled clues as to this multi-layered purpose of music. It is not that churches or people in the past had perfect practices, or that thinking about these principles will correct all contemporary deficiencies. But in the spirit of always reforming and in continuity with our heritage, the multi-layered purpose of music in worship needs to be retrieved.

Music Is a Creative Act

When a musician plays or a congregation sings, something is made. They are giving their energy to something. They are creating a witness of what they value.

Martin Luther was a musician, playing the guitar, writing lyrics, and adapting melodies for new hymns. He understood the creative act and its power in changing lives and minds. He embraced the creativity within music, saying it had the “power to inform and enlighten minds.” How? Well, it is hard to understand it all, but music should bring about enjoyment of the Creator. In that sense, music was next to theology. It was making, or expressing, a creative response to God.

The quality of music in our churches can be seen as a creative response to God. This is not necessarily about style or complexity, but a creative response to what God has made possible in creation. Every person’s musical creativity is at a different level, but the fact that everyone in church is called to make music should not be neglected. This is using His creation to glorify Him.

Music Is Communication

We understand what communication is—it is relaying a message. Music is communication. It relays a message. Seeing a pastor stand back from the pulpit, songbook in hand, singing his heart out, communicates. As does looking out at the congregation and seeing the unity of voice and message.

Erasmus recognized that all music communicates. He saw musicians as orators who were expressing and promoting a certain spirituality. It was for that reason that he was concerned with instrumental music that was used for dancing. He did not see how that was communicating a common good. It is very possible for music to communicate unhealthy attitudes.

But what does the music in our churches communicate? What does it say when the congregation is just not into it? But what is the “it”? It needs to be understood as relaying a message—back to God. And what humble prayer and praise our music ought to be then!

Continuing the thought of music as oratory, three things are necessary: content, passion, and consistency. Good musical content in church is provided through our songbooks. Passion needs to come from within, regardless of skill. If every person is to communicate through music as well as possible, that person’s life and actions need to be consistent with the message of the song. In that sense, singing is a call for reflective examination. Now, it is very possible that the song and the life are inconsistent, but the most powerful singing happens when it is consistent, when people believe what they are singing. And if we say we believe what we are singing, why does it not always sound like it?

Our churches often have recognized that music in worship is not a performance opportunity, and accompanists are to be just that—accompanists. But accompanists are there to help the congregation sing. Saying we sing in our churches is not enough. We need to realize both accompanists and singers are engaged in communication.

Music Reflects an Affective Response

Music is not just a creative act that communicates. When engaged in properly, it can and does reflect what is in the heart.

Augustine wrote a relatively unknown work titled De Musica. In it, he described how music elicits a “justifiable affective response.” He knew that from his own affections, his own conversion, and from his own grieving the death of his mother how powerful music could be.

But Augustine also understood that the affective response was not just external—with our ears. It was not merely a sensed thing. There was a “melodia interior” that was affective. There was a powerful resonance with good sound that was much more than a romantic stirring of emotions. There was an affective response to that which was good, true, and beautiful.

Music, to some extent, reveals the affections of our souls. Are we happy? Are we humbled? Are we tired? Are we so unaffected by baptisms, by gospel encouragements, by warnings, and by the reminders of God’s love that all our music has come to sound exactly the same?

Music Unifies the Prayers of the People

As affective communication, music rises as prayers of the people. As John Calvin explained, “As to public prayers, these are of two kinds: some are offered by means of words alone, the others with song. . . . [These] will be like spurs to incite us to pray to and praise God, and to meditate upon his works in order to love, fear, honor, and glorify him. . . . Moreover, when we sing [the Psalms], we are certain that God puts in our mouths these, as if he himself were singing in us to exalt his glory.”

The blessing of joining voices in prayer should not be lost on us. It is a blessing to pray alone, but the lifting of simultaneous congregational prayer is powerful. My meager praise is magnified by the praise of many others. My pleas for mercy and help are underlined when God’s people sing with me.

If the congregational aspect of prayerful singing is important, individuals need to hear each other. That means we all need to use our voices. It also means we should be able to hear one another. Any instruments should not be too loud. If electronic instruments are necessary, they should not be amplified to the point of electronic distortion. Music, and singing in particular, needs to be of the people, for the benefit of people.

Music Is an Apologetic for the Faith

When people walk into our churches and do not know us, or even understand the spiritual realities of what we are singing about, are they at least intrigued by it? Does our music have an authentic, indescribable power? Does it make our faith seem more authentic, honest? Or does it lead to the contrary?

Hendrick Speuij is not known today, but during his lifetime he was a popular organist in the city of Dordrecht. He was the first published Dutch Reformed musician, already publishing some psalm arrangements in 1610. While people were debating the value of songs and organs in the worship service, Speuij set out to perform and persuade through performance. It is likely he even played for the delegates to the Synod of Dordt. And from evidence in our churches, he seems to have been successful in sharing music that reflected the Reformed faith.

Today, when visitors hear our church music, does it sound like we believe it? Does it sound like we want to persuade others of the beauty and truth of our Reformed faith?

Much more could be said, but music is an important part of worship for a reason. We need to hold onto the robust tradition of congregational singing, in harmony, desiring to beautify our worship to the glory of God. Although the purpose of a worship service is not music, if so much time is given to music, is our current practice really all that music in worship is intended to be? Are we asking ourselves and consistories the hard questions: Are we doing all we can to encourage the best singing our congregation can offer? Is this what good Reformed worship music is? Does our singing magnify and increase our worship? Or does it just fill a part of the liturgy?

Dr. David VanBrugge is currently serving as the pastor of Grace Free Reformed Church in Brantford, ON.

1. John Calvin, Preface to the Genevan Psalter of 1565; this can be found online at