A Brief History of Sacred Music Until the Protestant Reformation

Music in the Old Testament

Religion and art have been closely connected ever since the beginning of the world. God has a keen artistic sense. On each of the six days of creation, He approved what He Himself had done. He saw that everything was good, that everything was beautiful. Nature, mankind, and the Creator enjoyed complete communion with one another. But after sin, the relationship between Creator and creature was broken and now man had to turn to God through offerings and worship.

Worship could not be performed in the vulgar language of everyday life. When addressing God, the people were expected to speak differently. This form of expression became known by the name of “cantilena”. The cantilena was a kind of sung declamation of a text. In Israel, the Scriptures were not only read, but sung, so as to be fixed in the minds of the people and thus, transmitted orally from generation to generation. Musical instruments accompanied the cantilenas.

The music of that time had some interesting characteristics:

1) The song was constructed from a small musical fragment. The musical phrases were short, which facilitated memorization.

2) The rhythm varied according to the words. The music was completely subordinate to the text. The rhythm was made to fit the punctuation of the words that were being sung.

3) The music was of an improvisational character, meaning that the singer could use different melodic structures, so long as they were compatible with the text. At that time there was no sheet music as we know it today, but instead there were accents that indicated when to raise or lower the pitch of the voice while reading the Scriptures. Intonation was determined by the structure of the written phrase.

4) There was also a certain freedom of vocal ornamentation, provided, of course, that it be subordinate to the text.

5) Microtones, intervals smaller than the semitone, were used.

6) The music was monophonic, that is, the singing was done in unison. It was not until much later that the concept of harmony was introduced.

Old Testament Records of Song

The history of music in the Old Testament includes both secular and sacred song. Some scholars argue that there was a musical form throughout the Old Testament. This is indeed very likely since music was of such great importance in Israel, more so than in other nations. But unfortunately, we do not have any records of the music from that time; all that we have are the lyrics.

Yet, in Genesis, chapter 4, we find the song of Lamech, a song of pride and revenge, in which he explains why he killed a man. In the same chapter, the Bible states that Jubal was the father of the harp players—this being the first reference of musical instruments in the Bible. Neither Lamech nor Jubal were followers of Jehovah.

The first song inspired by God appears in chapter 15 of the book of Exodus, which Moses composed shortly after the liberation of Israel in the Red Sea. This song is so important that it will be sung again by the saved in heaven, according to chapter 15 of Revelation. Inspiration tells us that the song of Moses was sung by all the people of Israel on the journey through the desert.

“As the people journeyed through the wilderness, many precious lessons were fixed in their minds by means of song. At their deliverance from Pharaoh’s army the whole host of Israel had joined in the song of triumph. Far over desert and sea rang the joyous refrain, and the mountains re-echoed the accents of praise, ‘Sing ye to the Lord, for He hath triumphed gloriously.’ Exodus 15:21. Often on the journey was this song repeated, cheering the hearts and kindling the faith of the pilgrim travelers.” Education, p. 39.

On the journey through the desert, other songs were composed and taught to the people of Israel. For example, chapter 32 of the book of Deuteronomy, with 43 verses, is known as the song of the swan, a song that had to be memorized by all Israelites. The passage from verses 4 to 7 of Deuteronomy 6, called the “schema”, was a song Israelite families sung daily during the morning worship services in the desert.

The Old Testament records songs of war, of triumph, of marching, of harvest, of labor, of love, of lamentation, of marriage, and much more. There were secular chants for the various aspects of life in society.

Music in Israel during the time of David 

The history of ancient music in Israel can be divided into the time before and after David. During the reign of David, the musical ministry of the Levites was established. In total, there were 4,000 Levites serving as musicians. These were responsible for the music and performed for all temple services. The choir consisted of 288 members, distributed into 24 groups of 12 persons each. The three sacrificial services each, along with Sabbath services, required that all groups perform in some way each week. It is likely that all the groups would join together in playing for special occasions and larger events.

The Levitical musicians could only begin working in the Temple at the age of 30. The length of their service was 20 years, and at age 50 they would retire. The period specific to musical learning lasted for five years, not including the years of childhood during which the Israelite songs were learned. The music of the Temple was done in unison, most of the time at a loud volume and high pitch. The instrumental accompaniment was also performed in unison or in octaves with the singers.

The Levites were responsible for maintaining a musical tradition, since they possessed musical training and technical ability. The Bible says they were chosen by God for the ministry of music (1 Chronicles 6:31; 25: 1). Not only did they have a natural gift, but they studied and dedicated themselves exclusively to music.

David was a great musician and leader. He personally selected the Levites who would direct the music in the Temple. The singers Heman, Asaph and Ethan were chosen to be leaders of the instrumental musicians. All were led by Chenaniah, who also led the choir. In addition to the Levite musicians, some priests played trumpets.

The Psalms

One cannot study the music of the Old Testament without looking at the Psalms. The Psalms were basically the sacred songs of the people of Israel. To this day, the psalms are sung, that is, they have been used to praise God for four thousand years straight.

The main work that contains the psalms is the book of the Bible called “Psalms”, with 150 songs, which were accompanied by musical instruments. These psalms were composed within a period of a thousand years. The first of these was Psalm 90, written by Moses; the last ones, such as Psalm 126 and 137, were written after exile.

The most prolific composer of the psalms was David: 73 of them are his own. The other psalms were written by different people, such as: Solomon, Asaph, and the sons of Korah, among others.

At first, the psalms were sung only by the Levites in the temple, but then the congregation began to participate more actively. Hence came the responsorial singing, in which the congregation responded with small acclamations, and later antiphonal singing with the repetition of whole choruses.

During the exile in Babylon, the psalms served as a consolation to the Jews and became very popular. They were sung at national religious festivals and even at private gatherings.

Psalms are a powerful tool for spiritual edification. Their words serve as the basis of devotion for many Christian families. Sure, in the psalms we may find many doctrines, but above all, they are a guide in our communion with God, whether in times of joy or sadness.

Music in the early church

The early Christians were Jews, spoke Hebrew or Aramaic, and continued to attend the old places of worship. During this time, two main types of worship existed: worship services in the Temple, which tended to be more organized and ritualistic, and worship services in the synagogues.

Along with the preaching of the gospel to the Gentiles, the model of worship present in the synagogues was also established among Christians. There was no longer a group of Levites to conduct the music and neither was there a specific place where the worship was centered. Instead, services were held in smaller, informal settings, in the synagogues, and in the homes of believers. These meetings, although impressive, became more participatory, thus creating an opportunity for freer musical expressions and allowing for the appearance of less formal and more spontaneous singing.

Still, the Jewish musical tradition was preserved. The cantilenas and the responsorial singing of the psalms continued. The psalms were used as the Church’s prayer book. Musical instruments, however, were banned from worship. The songs were sung a capella and in unison.

The absence of musical instruments at that time occurred because the worship centered on the teaching and exposition of the Word, which was more closely associated with vocal music rather than with instrumental music. Another factor was zeal on the part of the new converts. They understood that musical instruments were also associated with pagan worship and should therefore not be part of Christian worship. The only records in the New Testament regarding musical instruments may be found in Revelation, where it shows that there will be instrumental music in Heaven. Thank God for that!

There is an interesting reason behind the fact that singing was done in unison. The early Christians understood that only homophonic music, that is, singing a single vocal line, could express the unity and communion of believers

Changes in the concept of worship

In the encounter with the Samaritan woman, Jesus had said that the place of worship doesn’t matter, but that it be done in spirit and in truth. Later, the apostle Paul wrote that our body is the temple of the Holy Spirit. These statements reveal a change in the concept of worship. The rituals and ceremonies had lost much of their importance. What mattered now was obedience to the teachings of Christ. Living the faith was the new focus.

Besides individual piety, communion among the brethren (koinonia) came to be valued. In this way, music became a very important tool for maintaining and strengthening the unity of the church, as the apostle Paul confirms in the following two Bible verses:

Colossians 3:16: “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom; teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord.”

Ephesians 5:19: “Speaking to yourselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord.”

First of all, music should be sung in the heart. The heart sings because it is filled with the presence of Christ. When the brothers in the congregation are filled with the presence of Christ, they gather and sing. Thus the people of God manifest their unity, by way of a common language, which is music. The singing of the assembled church provides a means whereby they may together praise, thank, and beg for the blessing of the Lord. Congregational melodies symbolize brotherly love among the believers. Songs always had a place in the Christian meetings.

Both Colossians 3:16 and Ephesians 5:19 suggest the kinds of chants that Christians should use in their meetings. Paul here remembers the psalms, which represented that which the Jews had inherited, and also gives reference to hymns and spiritual songs, which were new.

These new types of songs emerged for a few reasons, the main one being the need to give priority to the teaching. The early Christians needed to “persevere in the doctrine of the apostles” (Acts 2:42). For this reason, nothing was more important than to lead the church in the study of new Christian doctrines, with special emphasis on the teaching of the Word. Therefore, these types of hymns contained the truths of the Christian faith and served in teaching the message.

We must not forget that the great majority of the congregation was composed of illiterate people. The New Testament had not yet been organized and the scrolls of the Old Testament were accessible only to a few Jews. Thus, the psalms and hymns were used as an effective means to teach Christian truths and were therefore repeated many times. These lyrics were an important resource in spreading the gospel.

Another important factor for the emergence of new types of songs was the increased spontaneity of the meetings. The meetings encouraged participation. The idea of ​​koinonia, with an appreciation of the relationship between the brothers, gave rise to a new musical style, called “spiritual songs”.

The picture we have just described continued during the first centuries of the Christian era. At the end of this period, there were three options for the presentation of songs: Cantus Responsorius, Cantus Antiphonarius and metrical hymns. The first two represented tradition. The Cantus Responsorius was an inheritance of Jewish chants: a soloist who would sing the song, which would be followed by the congregation with a refrain, or with an “Amen” or “Hallelujah.” The Cantus Antiphonarius, or amphiphonic singing, was first used by boys and men, who would sing in octaves. It was well suited to the psalms and became widely used by the monks. Scholars say that Ambrose, bishop of Milan, was the main one responsible for changing antiphonal singing and molding it into something more like the way we know it to this day.

The metrical hymns were brought by the Greeks. As the name itself implies, these songs possessed meter, which later would become an important musical element.

The picture mentioned above refers to the patristic period. The name is due to the fact that, at precisely this time, the church received the very strong influence of so-called fathers of the church, highly knowledgeable theologians who helped solidify the doctrine and overcome heresies. However, the action of the church’s fathers eventually sowed seeds that would change the picture of Christian music and worship. They clung too closely to tradition, creating rules that impeded spontaneity. This set the mood for what would happen in the Middle Ages: the liturgy would become a clerical attitude and the active participation of lay people would be excluded in worship.


Gregory I, a pope who lived in the fifth and early sixth centuries, was one of the main ones responsible for changing the liturgy of worship during the Middle Ages. He promoted the creation of Schola Cantorum, a center that specialized in the teaching of vocal music. In a short time, the music in worship lost its congregational characteristic and began to be sung only by the professionals of the Schola cantorum.

Gregorian chant predominated within the Catholic Church during most part of the Middle Ages. It was characterized as exclusively vocal – musical instruments were rejected. It was solemn and severe, totally distinct from secular music. There was no division of musical time, no meter or fixed rhythm. The melody and the rhythm were made flexible so as to fit the syllables of the text. The words were chanted in unison. Nothing was allowed other than the melodic model created by Ambrose: a melodic line without jumps or large intervals.

The congregation did not take part in praise — rather, the music was presented by members of the clergy, who sang only in Latin, which meant that the people did not understand what was being sung.


The limited nature of congregational participation in worship was due to some various factors. Perhaps the most important of these was monasticism, a movement widely stimulated by the Church in the Middle Ages. The monks withdrew from the cities and isolated themselves in the monasteries. True piety was thought to consist in being isolated, devoting oneself to prayer and contemplation.

Such thinking had repercussions in the very concept of worship: the individual dimension began to overlap the communitarian character of worship. The worship became rather clerical. The monks took care of the sacred music, for now they were the ones who knew musical notation, unlike the secular musicians, who could only play and sing “by ear”.

Participation by the populace could be seen in “liturgical dramas” – theatrical depictions of biblical stories or of saints and martyrs. But the “dramas” and accompanying songs were performed outside the ecclesiastical environment.

To understand the role of the church during the Middle Ages, we must consider the ecclesiastical system of hierarchy, which excluded the layman. The people were placed in the spectator category. The Church was more like an institution run by the hierarchy than a community of believers saved by Jesus.

Even the architecture reflected the new concept of worship. The ships of the temples became increasingly long, distancing the people from the altar, the choir from the congregation. It came to a point where the maximum participation by the attendees of the church was to pray silently.

By the thirteenth century, Europe entered a period of serious economic, social and moral decline. Misery increased. There was hunger everywhere. The monks came to be viewed as a privileged class, sheltered in their monasteries. They became unpopular. Their simplicity and piety had vanished. They worried about their possessions and did not care to know the dire needs that people were facing. The Church of Rome had become increasingly corrupt. The sins of the popes were now known to all. Corruption had become widespread. At that time, the church was in financial difficulty and decided to make money by selling indulgences. Thus, the people were even more oppressed. It was in this atmosphere of moral degradation that the way was paved for the Protestant Reformation.


The Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century brought a radical change not only in theology but also in music. Though various reformers played prominent roles in the dissemination of the theological principles of the Reformation, when it comes to the musical question, credit should be given mainly to Martin Luther, the leading reformer in Germany.

The Protestant Reformation was led by different people in European countries who warned regarding the corruption of the Catholic Church and defended the doctrine of justification by faith. But there were differences between them, especially in relation to music: Calvin, for example, did not allow instrumental music in worship and only permitted melodies whose lyrics were strictly Bible texts. Zwingli was even more radical: he banned music in worship altogether. Both Calvin and Zwingli, and the rest of the reformers, were used by God at various points, but in the musical aspect Luther stood out among them all. He was expanded the use of music and revived its function in the church.

In fact, Luther promoted the most radical change that sacred music had ever experienced: he established congregational singing as a vital ingredient of worship, placing music on people’s lips and ears, but especially in their hearts.

Singing by the congregation, something innovative at the time, was established definitively and hymnbooks began to be compiled. These hymns were written with the melody line in the tenor, arranged for four voices, all based around the cantus firmus, that is, the main melody.

Luther developed the Biblical doctrine of the general priesthood of all believers: every person, whether lay, poor or illiterate, had direct access to God through Christ. This was something completely new at the time. This doctrine stimulated the idea that believers should not remain passive in worship. The vision of the cult changed. In the Middle Ages, the Mass was seen as a sacrificium, that is, a sacrifice offered to God by human beings; In the Protestant conception, the Mass came to be seen as a beneficiam, that is, a gift from God to believers.

Thus, Luther was able to promote the modification of the view that the cult was to be “heard” by lay people and “performed” by professionals. He understood and instilled in the faithful the idea that in worship it was the grace of God that manifested itself to the human being.

Luther set his musical work on three pillars: the use of the common language, a simple melody and the text of the Scriptures.

Luther introduced the congregational chant in the vernacular, that is, in the native language of the people. He understood that sharing through singing was a way for believers to express their new condition as an active element in worship.

Luther reasoned that it was not enough for people to be present at worship services: it was necessary for the supplications to resound from their own lips through songs that translated the repentance and contrition of their souls. According to him, in singing simple melodies related to the day-to-day, the common man could understand the biblical doctrines.

Luther valued the simplicity of the melody, because he wanted the text to be clearly understood by those who knew how to read or not. This factor was extremely important to the success and popularization of the Reformation. The believer was encouraged to approach God personally because he understood what was said and sung in worship.

Luther wanted the music to speak about the Gospel directly to people. He was convinced that the spirituality of a congregation is directly related to the hymns it sings. If we want spirituality to reflect the gospel, we must choose very well what we sing.

In order to reach his objectives, Luther sought the help of the best poets and musicians of the time, chosen by him personally. One of his closest collaborators was Johann Walther, who composed several of the most important hymns of the Reformation.

The music of the Protestant Reformation inherited the musical tradition of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, which consisted of Gregorian chant and polyphony, respectively. In these traditions, there was virtually no room for popular participation. On the other hand, another great musical tradition of the Reformation era, the metrical version of the Psalms sung in unison and a cappella, opened great possibilities for congregational singing. In this tradition there was no room for more elaborated musical art. Luther used both alternatives, combining the more artistic and elaborated traditional musical with popular congregational singing.

The new songs used a non-rhythmic notation, often with melodies borrowed from secular music. The musical result of this combination was the Lutheran Choir, with its poetic texts centered on the Gospel and written in the local language, no longer in latin. The melodies were vigorous, with jumps and extensions of voice thought for the group singing, with cadences (resting places) at the end of the sentences. The rhythmic structures were strong and based on repeating patterns of rhythm.

These characteristics, combined, resulted in musical compositions in which the text and the melody formed a totality, so that the chorale was perceived as something familiar. Thus the community of believers and the musicians themselves were comfortable as they sang and played.

Over the years, the reform in music was carried forward. New hymns were composed, hymnals, published and articles on music, writed. But Luther did not care only for the musical results. He was an educator and cared about musical training and teaching. He strongly advocated that music should integrate the education of children and the training of teachers and pastors. He once said:

“Necessity requires that music remain in schools. A teacher must know how to sing, otherwise I will not consider him.” Before a young man is admitted to the ministry, he must practice music at school. To the Councils of all the cities of Germany to create and maintain Christian schools, 1524.

In Luther’s view, music appropriate for liturgy is one that adheres to the following principles: first, it must be a means of praise and worship to God; Then, it should contribute to the devotion and piety of the Christian and, finally, serve as an effective element in Christian education and in the propagation of the gospel.

The hymns of the Reformation were a fantastic tool in spreading the central message of the movement, which was salvation by the grace of God, through faith in Jesus. These songs emphasized the truth that salvation is not received by sacraments or human works, but through the merits of Christ.

Music was so important to the success of the Protestant Reformation that a Jesuit priest once observed that Luther’s hymns were more “harmful” to souls than all his books and sermons.





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