The Roots of Early Christian Music

We began this blog by exploring visual artists’ interpretations and responses to the Bible through painting and sculpture. Those arts were organized generally according to the order of the books of the Bible. We then explored the architectural settings of those paintings and sculptures.  We organized those posts by stylistic periods and technological advances in church construction and decoration.   The next series of posts will be organized according to the development of liturgical music in stylistic periods.  Each of these arts represents a medium of human response (the “humanities”) to the Bible and ideas associated with it, each in its own unique ways, through color, line, shape, space, and sound.

Early Church Music

It should not be surprising that the earliest Christian music was an extension of Jewish music and worship practices.  Jews had a history of song and instrumental music, both in its religious practices and in its secular life, as revealed by the Jewish writings called by Christians, the Old Testament.  The “Old” in Old Testament is a Christian designation of these sacred writings which were adopted by the early Christians which were “fulfilled”  by their” New” Testament, or the new covenant as represented by the teachings of Jesus, and his followers, the apostles, and by the letters of the church leaders, most notably, the Apostle Paul.   While the early Christians were known for their love, unfortunately much of Christian history has been marked by strife and destruction of human life in the name of Christian “Truth.”   There are other Christian leaders and sects that foment violence in the name of “protecting the faith;” but there are have arisen peacemaking Christians such as the Quakers, St. Francis, Mother Teresa and Dr. Martin Luther King.  But, I digress.   Back to the Old Testament and its record of music in the life of the Jews, which Christians adapted to their own use.

The Old Testament provides rich examples of the function of music in the Jewish life and worship. In Genesis 4:21 (NIV) we read of an early descendent of Adam and Eve, Jabal: “His brother’s name was Jubal; he was the father of all who play stringed instruments and pipes.”  Numbers 10 describes two trumpets made of hammered silver which were used to gather the people in assembly, to give audible commands during battle, and “at your times of rejoicing.”  Exodus 15:20 – 21 describes Mariam’s dance and song of praise to God, with the accompaniment of timbrels, for delivering the children of Israel from the Egyptian army, or as the spiritual puts it, “Pharaoh’s army got drownded.”  “Little David” played on his harp to soothe King Saul until even that no longer soothed him.  King Saul threw his spear at David, causing David to flee.  See, also,

Psalm 150 vividly describes the role of music, particularly instrumental music to praise God:

Praise the Lord.

Praise God in his sanctuary; praise him in his mighty heavens. 2 Praise him for his acts of power; praise him for his surpassing greatness. 3 Praise him with the sounding of the trumpet, praise him with the harp and lyre, 4 praise him with timbrel and dancing, praise him with the strings and pipe, 5 praise him with the clash of cymbals, praise him with resounding cymbals.

6 Let everything that has breath praise the Lord.

Praise the Lord.

The Old Testament also describes the manner in which the Jews sang praise to God, such as antiphonal singing (1 Chronicles 15:16; 1 Chronicles 15:22; 2 Chronicles 5:12-13) and as described in Nehemiah 12:31 -43:

31 I had the leaders of Judah go up on top of[e] the wall. I also assigned two large choirs to give thanks. One was to proceed on top of[f] the wall to the right, . . . —with musical instruments prescribed by David the man of God. . . .

38 The second choir proceeded in the opposite direction. I followed them on top of the wall, together with half the people . . . .

40 The two choirs that gave thanks then took their places in the house of God . D . The choirs sang under the direction of Jezrahiah. 43 And on that day they offered great sacrifices, rejoicing because God had given them great joy. The women and children also rejoiced. The sound of rejoicing in Jerusalem could be heard far away.

Unlike its later practices in the medieval and early Renaissance periods, early Christian practice embraced instrumental music in their worship with other Jews, considering that instrumental music in worship was not only approved by God, but demanded by God.  2 Chronicles 29:25 – 28.

During Jesus’ lifetime, his followers were Jews; the people who had a resurrection experience of Jesus were also Jews and they continued to worship in the synagogues with other Jews. The first Christians simply adapted their synagogue worship to their Jesus-as-the-Christ experience. Therefore, until the Apostle Paul took the gospel message to the “Greeks,” or the Gentiles, Christian worship looked like Jewish worship. It is not surprising, therefore, that the New Testament makes mention of music and worship, particularly of singing and hymn; they were in the Jewish musical traditions which were familiar to them.  Matthew 26:30; Mark 14:26; Acts 16:25.  The Psalms were likely performed responsorily, as the structure permitted.

With the conversion of the Apostle Paul, Christianity burst the bonds of its Jewish heritage as Paul brought the Christian gospel to the Gentiles.  They were steeped in a blend of Greek and Roman cultures. We know that such cultural influences entered Christian practices with the newly converted Gentiles because Paul objected to the gluttonous observation of the communal meal shared by his congregations in memory of “the Last Supper.”  Moreover, Paul warned the Gentiles not to be drunk with wine, but to be filled with the spirit, as expressed in Psalms and hymns and spiritual songs. Ephesians 5:18-19; Colossians 3:16 – 17. Will Durant and other historians have noted that those pagan practices that were familiar to the converts influenced the shaping of Christian practices and doctrines.  Indeed, the pagan festival of the Dionysian rites was most notable for its drunken excesses, which Paul warns against.  Such things were “sorted out” by the Christian Fathers during the next few centuries when various pagan concepts and practices were adopted, adapted and had become established as common practice, and others were rejected. Those Christians who could not compromise and sort it out established their own, usually isolated, Christian communities.  Little has actually changed over the centuries.

By the second century of Christianity, worship became a man’s activity to which women were subservient, justified by the Apostle Paul’s warning that women should be seen, not heard: if a wife has a question, she should address it to her husband.  Choral participation also became limited to men, and if a soprano or alto voice was desired, that was sung by young boys whose voices had not yet matured.

The basic, common melodies that were associated with particular scriptures or rites were called plainchant.  Much of that tradition is still maintained in monasteries associated with the Catholic Church, particularly. For excellent examples of plain chant, its original Latin texts, and their wide liturgical use, see:   See   video of Plainchant sung at at the Basilica di San Marco, Milan, Italy) and a source for purchase of recordings of  plainchant and other medieval music.

For an excellent video of unison chant as it has been maintained in the Abbey of Notre Dame, see

I have mentioned the unison singing of liturgical chant.  Those particular examples are also sung without instrumental accompaniment, or a cappella.    A cappella has come to mean vocal music without instrumental accompaniment.    Actually, the phrase refers to the manner in which the chant and choral music was rendered in the Chapel, i.e., a cappella.  For an excellent modern Catholic writing in support of a cappella Gregorian Chant in the original Latin, consistent with ancient practice, and a description of its spiritual value for that writer, see

See  for an essay concerning Christianity’s inheritance from Jewish liturgical  music and chant.

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