Our increasingly diverse and global society means exposure to a variety of musical traditions, which can be a gateway to learning more about other cultures. Study of music and religion can help us better understand our traditions and those of others. It can also explore the impact of religious traditions on development of music, as well as music as a force in impacting perspectives about religion.
• Music History
• Music Performance
• Music Theory
Religion and music: Religion has a long-held role in the history of music. Many major musical works have been composed for religious occasions or with religious themes. Music is often used to convey the glory of God. It is part of many types of religious celebrations and observances, and music and songs are used to pass on religious stories, teaching and values.
At the same time, music of all sorts – from classical to contemporary pop – can be used to explore feelings about religion. Musicians may intend to pose questions or provoke thought about religious beliefs and practices through music. This may incite more conservative believers of religious traditions to protest, particularly when religious values are challenged or confronted in an unorthodox way. Religion continues to impact the music industry in many ways.
Music and morals: Music is often judged by religious standards. As such, it can both define and defy status quo beliefs of its time.
Baroque composer Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) is known for his hundreds of compositions, many of them deeply religious in origin. A devout Lutheran, Bach felt compelled to express reverence and celebration of God’s glory in his works – influencing the beliefs and styles of many later composers and musicians.
By contrast, some notes in music have been considered evil by religious standards. In the Middle Ages, the Roman Catholic Church banned a musical interval of the augmented fourth spanning three tones, called a tritone, considering it the “Devil’s Chord” or “Devil’s Interval.” Experts say before it was outlawed, the dissonant tritone was used to portray the devil or evil. But the ban impacted both secular and religious music of the time. By the Romantic era, composers stopped avoiding the tritone, which appeared in music from then to the modern day, including classical, blues, jazz, musical theater and rock.
“Blue notes,” a slight drop of pitch on the third, fifth or seventh tone of the scale, common in blues and jazz music, were also considered by some to be “devil’s notes.” The term “devil music” has been applied to music ranging from 1950s rock ‘n’ roll to contemporary heavy metal.
Music as a cultural force continues to be debated in recent decades. In the political arena, it has been argued that music that promotes “bad” values should be censored or banned. Some in the religious community continue to believe that particular beats and rhythms are inherently evil, and some believe evil and sin can be avoided by conscious avoidance of particular music. These issues are important for the artist/musician because they deal with freedom of expression, a key tenet in artistic exploration, and because social and political climates historically have impacted how musicians operate.
Religion and notation: Music notation as we know it in Western traditions is descended from Medieval Christian Gregorian chant, or plainsong, an early form of liturgical music. Greeks and Romans had named notes after letters, but as liturgical chants became more complex, church musicians invented symbols – or neumes – to indicate changes in pitch and duration within each syllable. A long horizontal line to indicate fixed pitch was introduced by the 10th century, followed by a four-line staff in the 13th century and fifth line in the 16th century, making what we recognize as the musical stave. The bass clef, flat, natural and sharp symbols we use today derive from Gregorian notation.
This notation allowed for more complex compositions and introduction of polyphonic hymns, as well as a system of recording parts for instrumentation. These innovations led to major developments in religious and secular vocal and instrumental music. According to some reports, the naming of “do re me fa so la ti do” notes also came from an eighth-century Latin hymn to John the Baptist, in which the sounds were named for the first syllables of each of the song’s lines.
Other Western musical notation forms related to religious practice include that used by Shakers, a Protestant religious denomination that believed in the importance of recording spiritual revelations in the form of musical inspiration. They used alphabet letters and notation of rhythmic values similar to ancient Greek notation. Also of note is the “shape-note” system popular in the American south, which uses various-shaped notes to show the position notes on a scale. Found in church hymnals, sheet music and song books, shape notes are also often used in Amish and Mennonite traditions.
Music and philosophy: Music has the capacity to reflect society and to influence society. Its development is often related to similar movements in literature, art, philosophy and religion. Examples include the Classical and Romantic movements of music and corresponding themes of religious thought.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart typified the Classical movement (roughly 1750-1820), with his invention of the sonata form. Classical music was defined by order, balance and elegance, also reflected in philosophical and religious ideals of the time. It corresponded with the Age of Enlightenment, a period based on belief in rationality and order. Deism – the belief that religious beliefs should be founded on human reason and observed features of the natural world, rather than divine revelation – was popular, as was the idea of God as the master mathematician.
The Romantic period of music (roughly 1820-1901), gave up symmetry and reason in favor of release of emotion and individualization of expression. It relied on virtuosic performances and personal interpretation without orderly themes and variations. The time period corresponded to the Second Great Awakening in the United States, an evangelical Christian period defined by revivalism. The movement focused a message of salvation on the individual rather than the congregation, emphasizing personal experiences of conversion that were animating and emotionally jarring. Leading evangelist Charles Finney – known for throwing his whole body into eloquent and hypnotic preaching – urged people away from scriptural structure to personal revelation.
Religion and music today: Religions continue to use music to foster values taught in religious communities, both to minister to believers and to share values and beliefs with the larger world. A recent development is the popularity of music that combines contemporary secular formats with messages that make it acceptable to those within religious communities. Christian rock and pop music, for example, attempts to imitate popular forms while focusing on lyrics that reflect shared Christian values. A booming industry, Christian music has also produced “crossover” artists popular in the secular genre, which has both been seen as “selling out” faith and sharing a message of faith with others.
Today’s music blends sounds and traditions from many cultures representing many religious beliefs. Examples range from samples of traditional Arabic and Asian music spliced into American pop songs; to Muslim hip-hop group Native Deen, whose music calls to remembrance of Allah; and Hasidic Jewish rap/reggae performer Matisyahu, who sings about Jewish prophecy, the Torah and devotion to God.
Current issues: Researchers interested in music history could partner with the Center on Religion & the Professions to explore what music trends in past and current times explain about the status of societies. Researchers can work with the Center to help create tools and curriculum that improve religious literacy among musicians as well as musical literacy among the religious.
Work could also focus on debates over whether certain words or expressions ought to be censored in popular forms of music, a debate which likely will be ongoing and influential in today’s culture. Researchers could look at whether today’s religious music is viewed as “serious” artistic endeavor, and whether there are quality educational programs available for those wanting to go into industries that focus on religious music.
Researchers may also be interested in exploring music’s ability to aurally communicate spiritual experience.