Thursday, November 4, 2010

Music in Christian Worship

Copyright (c) 2010 Robert Hinchliffe

The history of music in Christian worship is a substantial
one which can trace its origins all the way back to
pre-Christian times in the Old Testament. In those very
early days we read of the Jewish people singing, playing
instrumental music and even dancing. Such activity was
widely used as a means of expressing faith. Music played an
important role in many acts of celebration and worship. It
was into that society that Jesus was born.

Over the two thousand years since Christ's life the use of
music in Christian worship has gone through many phases and
many musical idioms. It is really over the second of those
two thousand years that church music, as we know it today,
has developed.

One of the most important events in the whole of the world
of music came about through the work of a Benedictine monk,
Guido of Arrezzo who lived from about 995 to 1050. He
didn't actually 'invent' staff notation but he perfected
it, completing the evolution of the earlier neumes into
plainsong script, which was the forerunner of what we know
today as 'tonic-solfa'. All music had previously been
passed down by aural tradition so the facility to write
down music for others to read and perform was a massive
step forward. Almost all musical expression since that time
has come as a direct result of that development.

From that time on, composers were able to create
substantial works for use in worship. This early church
music was written to form the framework of an act of
worship. The music was performed primarily by professional
musicians attached to the church and was not for
congregation participation. Composers did eventually begin
to incorporate chorales (hymns) into the liturgy which gave
the congregation the opportunity to join in at certain
points in the service.

Many of the greatest composers over the centuries have
added their voices to the ever growing repertoire of great
church music. Bach, Handel, Mozart, Beethoven and many
others have given us masterpieces adding to the wealth of
music in Christian worship. We tend to know many of these
works today through concert performances, forgetting that
many were originally created as liturgical pieces for use
in church services.

At times of spiritual revival (the Protestant Reformation,
the missions of Moody & Sankey, the evangelical energy
which led to the founding of Methodism and the Salvation
Army, etc.) there was a burst of hymn writing surrounding
these events. These highly creative times in church music
led to the appearance of many of the greatest and most
popular congregational hymns of all. The hymns from these
eras of church history have stood the test of time and are
still to be heard today in even the most contemporary of
worship situations.

Over the last 50 years worship music has gone through a
whole new phase of development. Since the early 1960's
composers of church music have gained much inspiration from
the popular music of their day. We now regularly encounter
worship bands accompanying church singing rather than the
traditional organ. More and more, we hear the term "worship
song" rather than the word "hymn" and congregations are
becoming much more attuned to worship music in a popular
contemporary idiom. This can be a contentious issue at
times but it is important that all Christians have the
right to express their faith in a manner which suits them.
Many churches are coping with this by having both
traditional worship and contemporary worship on a Sunday.

So, music in Christian worship continues to develop and
change. We now have a massive repertoire of music in many,
many different styles and idioms to choose from. At all
costs, we must avoid the blinkered view of focusing on
music of one idiom and ignoring the rest. Every generation
adds to the rich tapestry of worship music we have
available to us.

Robert Hinchliffe is a professional musician and Methodist
local preacher. This article is a result of his recent
research into the history and development of music in
Christian worship. Would you like to know more about his
research? If so please visit and find out how
you can access a FREE copy of Robert's contemporary
Christmas song, "The Greatest Gift".

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