Semantron 23 Summer 2023

Music and religion

Brooke Storey

Music and religion, in the current age, are almost always seen as connected in some way, and this is true throughout history. From the first hymns found in Egypt, to the music that is performed and enjoyed

in church services today, I hope to show just how close these two things are and also discuss why they might be so closely linked. Although I am choosing to focus on Christianity, I will point out that almost every sizeable religion involves some form of music, and music development has been very much impacted by religion, aspects of which can still be seen in the music of today. Even in the oldest of religions, for example Shamanism, there were songs for religious rituals, as seen on the left. This particular example is a piece of music sung at a purification rite for healing (Onon 2005).

Music and religion are very similar in the way they interact with us as people. Religion gives us ideas as to what is above us and watching over us, and music helps us to experience our spirituality, and allows us to reach for what is above us. In one of his books about music and philosophy, Anthony J. Palmer explains the purpose of music in our lives when he says, ‘ Music serves superbly as the bridge between the outer and inner worlds ’ (Palmer 2010). However, the earliest physical evidence we have discovered of Christian church music is a hymn of praise to the Trinity, with Greek words and vocal notation, dating back to the third century CE, although it was likely not written or influenced by Greek musicians, and instead has ties to more eastern origins. This shows that the origin of church music is in southern Europe, where the services closely followed those of the Jewish synagogue. These services included music such as sung hymns and psalms alongside readings and prayers (all aspects of which are found in the modern church service today). It was not, however, the same congregational singing that we are familiar with today; instead, it consisted of two choruses singing parts of a verse or one verse each and then alternating between the two choruses. The early psalms were called responses, which holds particular similarity with the modern- day ‘preces and responses’ used in se rvices such as Evensong. These responses were either an antiphonal psalmody, or the reciting of passages by a soloist using specific melodic formulae, similar to the collects (Grout 1981). The first definitive influence on the English church service is from the Byzantine church which itself was prominent in the west from the third century CE until 1054. The Byzantine church service contained two types of hymns: ‘kontakia’ and ‘kanones’. The kanones were sung to odes, which corresponded to a Biblical canticles. The most significant of these canticles was the Magnificat , still sung today in the English evensong service (Grout 1981).


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