Music has the ability to deepen the meaning of words that accompany it, both in a religious context or even on your local pop radio station you listen to on the way to work. As described by St. Augustine in Weiss and Taruskin’s Music of the Western World, St. Augustine reflects on his baptism,
“The tears flowed from me when I heard your hymns and canticles, for the sweet singing of your church moved me deeply…The music surged in my ears, truth seeped into my heart, and my feelings of devotion overflowed…” (
St. Augustine’s account makes it clear that the hymns and canticles sung at his baptism amplified his personal religious experience all the way back in the 4th century. At the same time, music wasn’t always considered an appropriate mode of worship, so why has music become such a universal part of worship today?
In the early Christian tradition, as with many other religions, one had to be careful with their use of music. According to Weiss and Taruskin’s Music of the Western World, using music for unholy purposes such as pleasure was sinful because pleasure gets in the way of the Lord.
If early Christians considered music a pleasure capable of distracting them from their relationship with God, then the impact music had on people of this time must have been significant. Luckily, many religions agreed the sin of music is taken away when it is used for worship.
Putting religious text to music allows for a more involved worship experience, incorporating song performance skills that give the performer and the listener a heightened sense of praise. In this way, music can be used as a tool for praise that is appealing to the worshiper.
Music has a way of filling in the gaps in thought, feeling, and emotion that words cannot do justice, which can be incredibly powerful when accompanied by a spiritual belief.
Using music for religious reasons also gave early humans the ability to experience and explore the tantalizing effects of music without committing a sin. In the present day, music is used much more widely and for purposes other than worship, which has allowed religious music to grow and expand into many types of praise that have a wider impact many people.
Music is a nearly universal part of religion because it appeals to and heightens human senses in a pleasurable way which, in turn, allows humans to praise through a medium that makes worship more enjoyable.
Music and religion have played integral roles in human life since our beginnings. While it often isn’t given the credit it deserves for carrying musical traditions, religion continues to influence and shape our musical tastes.
The values of liturgical music and religious songs are to encourage participation and build community — while giving praise and thanks to a higher power. Roots of these traditional music forms permeate themselves into the work of our favorite contemporary musicians, both secular and nonsecular.
Like belief in a higher power, our ability to create and comprehend music is a defining feature of humanity. Although the world continues to evolve, religious institutions and predominant spiritual practices continue to be preserved through music. Most musicians have been noticeably shaped and influenced by traditional religious music and themes.
Within hip-hop, rappers use samples, references or vocals inspired by the Christian church — a objective example being Kanye West’s “Jesus Walks,” which uses a mixture of choir vocals, harmonies and swoons. He touches on the intersection between church and rap music, rapping, “that means guns, sex, lies, videotape, but if I talk about God my record won’t get played, huh?”
The style can also be seen more subtlety in songs like “Blessings” by Chance the Rapper. In addition to using a choir, this song also relies on traditional liturgical instruments. Blending organ, trumpet and piano sounds, it’s an upbeat hip-hop tribute heavily influenced by traditional Christian music styling.
Traditional liturgical music is characterized by organs and harmony — two musical functions that play a major role in contemporary gospel songs like “Silver and Gold” by Kirk Franklin. In order to appeal to an American audience,
the modern gospel style borrows from church hymns, pop, jazz, hip-hop and classical music. Gospel music intertwines tradition, religion and musical styling, while retaining the core ideals of compassion, love and faith in God.
Rooted in what many call “the Bible Belt,” country music is a genre which has long been understood as having a basis in traditional Christian values. Artists like Carrie Underwood have built their careers citing the influence of God on their lives. In her Grammy acceptance speech for “Best New Artist” in 2006, she said,
“There’s so many people to thank, I’m gonna start at the top, thank you God.” At that same Grammys, she won “Best Female Country Vocal Performance,” for “Jesus, Take the Wheel.” Her relationship with God and the way she integrates it into her music creates relatable music for millions of people.
And in mainstream pop music, classic songs like “One of Us” by Joan Osborne, “With Arms Wide Open” by Creed and “Every Grain of Sand” by Bob Dylan have each topped off the charts while featuring a central message about God.
Religion will continue to play a role in the evolution of music. While its impact isn’t quantified in record sales or mainstream appeal, the value of this music comes from how it encourages participation and thanks giving amongst its listeners.
As opposed to industry music, based on the talent or popularity of individual artists, most religious music functions through the participation and harmony of its members. By fulfilling us sonically, while allowing a medium for reflection and connection, religious music — whether it’s mainstream or not — allows us to form solidarity with a higher power, as well as one another