Christian Music: Song, Hymns, and Psalmody

Christian music has always been an important part of both defining and practicing the faith. As the old axiom goes, lex orandi, lex credendi—as we pray, so we worship; so we believe. This is true even today in a secular context. Modern music plays an important role in creating and reinforcing cultural values, sustaining identity, and connecting individuals with communities, movements, and subcultures.

Christian music is and will continue to be a vital part of Christian practice and the formation of Christian belief. It is therefore imperative that we be thoughtful about the messages that we send through the music, both in the explicit theological content of songs, and in the implicit messages of form.

A Brief History of Christian Music

Traditional Christian music has its roots in the liturgical music of the Temple and the prayer patterns of the synagogue. We know a little about how worship was conducted in the Temple around the time of Jesus: Scripture was sung and chanted, and sacrifices conducted. We know less about the synagogue worship of the period around the first century: indeed, (somewhat ironically) the most detailed account of a synagogue service we have from that period comes from Luke's account of Jesus reading from Isaiah in Nazareth. (Luke 4:16-30)

Ancient Attitudes toward music Music

It seems that in antiquity "speech," "chant," and "song" were considerably more permeable categories than they are today. This is difficult to comprehend in our culture, where analytical discourse is so distinct from the poetic. In ancient times, you may have found that as your friend "waxed rhapsodic" he may have actually burst into an extemporaneous song. At any rate, when we hear that Scripture was publicly "read" or "recited" in public religious assemblies, what actually happened was probably closer to what we would call "chant."

There are many complicated reasons for this. Practically speaking, chant carries better; it is far easier to hear than regular speaking voice in venues without electronic amplification. Beyond this, music has the power to impact and affect us more than everyday speech. The tones and rhythms carry the words and their meanings deep into our consciousness.

Instruments played a part of Temple worship, both in Jerusalem, and in the Greco-Roman assemblies. In synagogues and early churches, however, instruments were not

The music behind the Scriptures was scrupulously passed on from generation to generation orally, but there was no particularly organized form of written notation until the Middle Ages.

Music in the Early Church

The New Testament has some piecemeal evidence as to the character of Christian music in the early church. There are passages in the Scriptures that were most likely hymns composed by the early Christian communities imported into Scripture by its authors. Most notable of these are the canticles at the beginning of Luke, but some passages of Paul are also said to have been drawn from hymns. Based on the attitude of the ancient world toward song, it is also likely that many of the sayings and stories of Jesus that were not immediately written down were remembered in song.

St. Paul's admonition to sing "psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs" is telling. It seems to indicate that the early Christian corpus of worship consisted of the Jewish heritage (ie. the book of Psalms, Old Testament canticles, and some other Jewish hymns), perhaps a small selection of Christian hymns, and charismatic, extemporaneous music on Christian themes.

In the early church, Christian hymnody was dynamic and growing enterprise. It seems most Christian hymns were born in moments of public religious ecstasy, then were good enough to be remembered, transmitted, shared, and ultimately (in some cases) written down. The song fragments of the New Testament are evidence of this practice. Similar fragments also appear in much of the apocryphal early Christian literature, and we posses much of a "Book of Odes" that seems to be a Christian complement to the book of Psalms.

The Effect of the Gnostic Controversy on Early Christian Music

The most frightening heresy for the Ante-nicene church was the school of Gnostic teachings. Gnosticism was particularly ornery because, unlike other heretics, gnostics didn't regularly form their own communities. Instead, were rather quite comfortable "blending in" in the local Christian assemblies. They would pray the same prayers, read the same Scriptures and Epistles, but believe something very different than the people standing next to them. They were also very low key about their worldview; they kept a lot of "secrets" and claimed to have "special knowledge" that they discussed only with the initiated. Without an organized expression of the belief system, it was a very tricky thing to combat.

To make matters worse, Gnostics were typically more educated than their protoorthodox counterparts. Education, in the ancient world, meant (among other things) having a command of rhetoric and music theory. So, naturally, the Gnostics wrote better songs than the spontaneous hymns that erupted from Christian worship. These songs began to infiltrate the worship patterns of local churches, and, consequently, shape their beliefs. (Much to the chagrin of protoorthodox bishops.)

The ultimate response of the church was to dump the bulk of the new Christian worship material, and return to ancient sources (the Psalms and OT Canticles, for instance). Not everything that was disposed of was Gnostic. But it was far easier to categorically dismiss the new music than it was to scrutinize the theology of every song individually.

As a result, a limited number of sources on the earliest Christian music remain.

Early Christian Hymn Writers

The genre of distinctly Christian music was ultimately rebuilt by orthodox hymn writers, like St. Ambrose of Milan, and St. Ephraem of Edessa.

St. Ambrose wrote in Latin. His music had a tremendous impact on the development of Western Christian music, chant, and liturgical philosophy.

St. Ephraem wrote in Syrian. His music had the most impact on the Syriac Christian churches, who became divided from the church at large by the Nestorian controversy, and ultimately dwindled under Islam. His work gained wide translation, however, and he was also appreciated in the Eastern (Greek-speaking) church.

Recommended Reading on Christian Chant

Cynthia Bourgeault has a good introduction for the absolute beginner. It will get you started. But yo uwill need some other material as well to get through the whole psalter.

We are currently singing out of the Grail Pslams translation; the Gelineau Psalter. It is a stunning modern translation, available on You can also get it done up in nice hardcover with large, handwritten calligraphy in the Abby Psalter.

The only problem in the Grail Psalms book is that the music in the back is quite hard to read. I've put them all into the computer to make them more legible, and so that I have a digital file to sing along with. Download resources for the Gelineau Psalter.

Links to Great Web Resources for Christian Music Traditions

The Internet Cyber Hymnal
Guide to Greek Orthodox Chant

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