Tag Archives: music and religion

The History of Music in Judaism

In this last leg of our journey to explore the relationship of music and the major religions of the world, this brief condensation of sacred music in Judaism cannot fully explain the extent of music and its relationship with Jewish life. As with our posts on the other major religions of the world: Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, and Islam, these are attempts to provide an overview of each, rather than a comprehensive account. There are undoubtedly many omissions for each religion as well as content that is open for debate. Because one or two blog posts cannot accurately depict the full relationship that music holds with the world’s major religions – this has not been our attempt in this series. It aims to show how from the very beginning of recorded music, sacred and worship music has been centrally intertwined in our society as a whole. Judaism is no exception to this. 

Early Written Records of Music and Judaism

From the very beginning of biblical times, music has been seen as a integral part of Jewish life. At the very recorded moment of Israel’s birth as a nation, Exodus tells that Moses led the people of Israel in a song of divine praise. It is said that Jewish music stems from prayer chants of the Levant and influences the musical notation in the bible that is still practiced today. The bible goes on to describe the use of many different instruments as a part of synagogal music in the ancient Temple in Jerusalem. According to the Mishnah, the first major written collection of Jewish oral traditions, the regular Temple orchestra consisted of a choir of twelve singers, as well as an orchestra of twelve instruments including a harp (Nevel), lyre (the Knnor), ram’s horn (Shofar), trumpet (chatzultzera), small drum (tof), cymbal (metziltayim) bell (paamon) and flute (halil).

After the destruction of the Temple, a consensus developed in Judaism that all music and singing would be banned, although this custom was soon understood that only as a ban outside of religious services. Within the synagogue, the custom of singing soon re-emerged, often in the mode of singing prayers. Known as hazzanut, or “the art of being a hazzan (cantor),” this tradition was introduced into the liturgy as passages that were regarded as to demand special vocalization.

Example of David’s harp.

The Three Areas of Sacred Jewish Music

While Jewish music has its roots in the Middle East, its traditions are not limited to any geographical area. Just as history tells how Jewish society was one of “wanderers,” sacred music came from many influences from those outside of Israel or Dispora. This cross-cultural phenomenon gave birth to many different sub-genres within sacred Jewish music, but three main areas have been categorized – Ashkenazic, Sephardic, and Mizrahi. Music of the Ashkenazim was very popular with European Jews. Klezmer, its most popular form, was performed by traveling musicians who would entertain villages with folk dances and traditional songs sung in Yiddish. Sephardic music, sung in ancient Spanish origin, contains some of the melodies and rhythms of Mediterranean regions while Mizrahi from the Jewish communities of North Africa and Arab countries often contains Arabic lyrics. As a result of these many cross-cultural and geographic differences, religious as well as secular Jewish music is a blend of many different languages and styles.

Secular and Modern Sacred Jewish Music

Jewish music encompasses many genres of religious, semi religious, and folk music used in the synagogue and in the Jewish home as well as classical music using Jewish texts or themes. Jewish music today includes a wide diversity of musical traditions and Jewish songs sung in many different languages. There seems to have been a polarization over the last few generations between the Orthodoxy and Reform Judaism, with each treating its sacred music differently. Increasingly, Jewish musicians produce work with noticeably external, modern influences influenced by a new generation. North American Jewish music, for example, reflects a delicate attempt to uphold distinct Jewish identity while participating in the broader North American culture.

The rise of North American Jewish folk music, as well as the revival of traditional music such as klezmer, is a testament to this phenomenon. Indeed, many of North Americas most famous composers and songwriters are Jewish, including Aaron Copeland, George Gershwin, Irving Berlin, Carole King, and Bob Dylan. The scope of contemporary Jewish music embraces a wide range of genres and styles, including music for the synagogue, folk and popular music on religious themes, modern creations based on traditional musical styles and languages, and classical music. Every sector of the Jewish community – from orthodox to secular – participates in the Jewish music endeavor, creating, performing, and listening to the particular music that meets its taste and needs.

As we have explored the strong and reciprocal relationship between the major religions of the world and music, one common theme has emerged across all. Music in Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, and Judaism have each been influenced not only by the sacred scriptures and texts they adhere to, but also the geographical and cultural influences each has adopted over time.

The Relationship Between Music and Islam

Continuing our exploration of music and its relationship with the major religions of the world, the following is a brief and imperfect discussion of Islamic civilization and musical influence. Our last blog post covered Hindu music and its nearly inseparable relationship to musical worship. One cannot discuss Islam and musical traditions without various conflicting opinions, and even contradictions in terms. Generic terms for ‘music’ or activity recognized as involving ‘music’ have never been applied orthodox practice of Sunni and Shi’a Islam. The view of scholars and theologians vary widely as whether music in Islam is strictly forbidden to generally forbidden but with varying restrictions that do not lead listeners into temptation

Music and the Quran

Part of the source of disagreement in the Muslim world about music and Islamic worship stems from the term ‘music’ and that the Quran does not explicitly refer to music itself. However, scholars on both sides of the argument have interpreted certain passages for and against tolerance. Those who contend that music is strictly forbidden in Islam point to phrases such as “And of mankind is he who purchases idle talks to mislead others from the path of Allah…”, whereas ‘idle talks’ has been translated as the amusement of speech or theatrics.

Others refer to Allah giving the prophet David the ‘gift of the Psalms’, poetic in structure and character, as evidence of allowing music as long as it did not lead to sinful acts. There are some Sunni movements of Islam, including the Salafi and Deobandi who strictly interpret the Quran and hadith (a record the words, actions, and silent approval of the prophet Muhammad as translated through chains of narrators), prohibit music in all forms as haram (forbidden).  

Some Exceptions for Music in Islam?

There is also wide variety of opinions over what expectations can be made to the prohibition of music for Muslims. Examples of what is allowed can range from vocals but not instruments, only certain instruments (such as a one-sided drum and tambourine) or vocals only if the audience is of the same gender. In the opinion of some scholars, including some Muslims, a number of Islamic rituals have at least some musical relevance. The first of these is the call of prayer by the mu’ethín, the caller to prayer, which they believe provides the choice of the right mu’ethín to be based on his musical voice and its emotional impact to worship.

The second cited example of a musical act is in reading the Quran where the musical voice gained popularity, especially with the development of ‘ilm al-qiráa , “science of the recitation”. Indeed some Shia and Sufi orders use instrumental accompaniment to music as part of their worship. Many Muslims believe that it is not music itself that must be forbidden by Islam, but that the subject matter of the music itself does not mention forbidden practices such as alcohol, sexual connotations, or presented in a sexually coercive manner. For many, judgement seems to be the key.

 Music and Islam in Modern Society

Despite the prohibition of music by some Islamic scholars, devotional/religious music as well as secular music is very well developed and popular. Secular and folk musical styles can be found in Arabic, Egyptian, Iranian, Turkish, Algerian, Moroccan, Maldivian, and others. Music is used in many public Islamic religious celebrations today across the globe, including Ta’zieh, Ashurah, Manzuma, and Thikiri. Secular music of all kinds also abounds in the Muslim world, including such familiar genres as rap, rock, jazz, and folk, and pop. In some places where strict Islamic interpretations are enforced, however, this music must be played and enjoyed behind closed doors and in secret.

The subject of music in Islamic civilization continues to be the subject of debate between scholars and theologians. Above all, the debate seems to stem around whether it is music itself that is forbidden through hadith or that it is the subject matter, intent, or delivery of music that deems it sinful and forbidden. We will conclude our series on the relationship between music and the five major religions of the world next with an exploration of Judaism.

The Relationship Between Music and Hinduism

Over the last several months, we have been discovering the inseparable relationship between music and the world’s major religions. Beginning with the connection that prehistoric worship and utility shared with rhythm and voice, we have continued our journey by exploring those links into more formalized musical forms as practiced in Buddhism and Christianity. As with these two world religions, Hinduism also has a rich history and tradition of music in worship.

The Mythological and Historical Roots of Hindu Music

Indian music, called Sangeet, has mythological roots that is associated with heavenly singers, the Gandharvas. It was decided to bestow this celestial art upon humankind, but a suitable person was required to receive it into the world. The god-sage Narada, a traveling musician and storyteller predating the second century BCE is believed to be one of the mind-created children of Brahma, the great creator. Narada was chosen as the recipient of the musical art form, which Hindus say arouses the senses and creates spiritual vibrations that enhance devotion. Repetition and chanting often found in Hindu music helps connect devotees to humankind and their spirituality.  

Hindu Musician
Hindu Musician

Teaching Music in the Hindu Tradition

From the very early days, Hindu music was considered a means of moral and spiritual redemption rather than mere entertainment. The oldest musical texts are the Sema Veda, consisting of melodies or hymns for reciting during ritual sacrifice. The process of learning to play this music is believed to closely resemble traditional spiritual disciplines. Guru Mukha-Vidya, or knowledge which must come from a teacher, is based on three divine qualities that are inherent in the musical traditions – The guru (teacher), Vinaya (humility), and Sadhana (regular and disciplined practice). This pedagogical tradition of guru transferring knowledge to the disciple is the same approach that many children’s music programs and curricula teach today.

The Evolution of Sangeet and Hindu Music

In the second century BCE, Bharata Muni, a sage who is considered the father of Indian theatrical art forms, laid the foundations for two important principles upon which Indian music is now based – raga being the melodic scale, and tala being the rhythm. The resulting nine principle “mood” or “tastes” that Bharata Muni outlined were based on nava-rasa, or the belief that the primary goal of performance and arts is to transcend the audience into another reality to experience the essence of one’s own consciousness.

Modern Hindu Music and Worship

In Hindu music, there are both ancient traditions and contemporary songs, with mysticism and dynamism being common threads. Much of this framework is provided by two main classical music forms – Hindustani, from northern India, and Carnatic, from the south. Hindu Music is also as varied as Christian Music in the US, including rock, rap, and jazz, as well as taking influences from other cultures and nations such as Arabic and British songs. Instruments have also played a major role in Hindu music. The sitar, a stringed instrument, is common in Hindustani music, in which flexibility and improvisation shape songs. Carnatic songs are beat heavy and commonly feature a drum called the mridangam. Classical hindu instruments also include the tabla, include the flute, vinasitar, sarangi, santoor, and shenai.

Despite all of the variances in musical styles, nearly all Hindu music is considered to be divine, providing a means by which listeners and performers alike can concentrate on blessings and remember the good things in life. Its pedagogical approach to disciplined learning and practice under a teacher or guru can be seen in many children’s music education programs today. In our next post of this series on music and the world’s major religions, we will explore the relationship between Islam and music.

The Relationship Between Music and Christianity Part 2

In our first post in our installment of The Relationship Between Music and Christianity Part 1 we explored the role of music throughout the Bible focusing on both the Old and New Testament records. We found that music played an important role in worship and faith.

In this Part 2 post on Christianity we will explore the different types and styles of worship music that have come about as Christianity spread and changed over time.

A Melting Pot of Musical Influences

As Christianity spread across the border cultures of the eastern Mediterranean Sea throughout the first two or three centuries following the death of Christ, Christian communities incorporated features of other musical influences including Greek and Syrian styles. However, the use of instruments in early Christian music started to be frowned upon during this time, with St. Jerome writing that a “Christian maiden out not even know what a lyre or flute is like…” Because of the instability of Christian institutions through numerous invasions and political conflict of the sixth through seventh centuries, record of musical roles in Christianity is scarce.

Gregorian Chant and the Organ in Christian Music

After being used as a secular instrument in imperial and court music, the organ in church music is believed to be from the time of Pope Vitalian in the 7th Century. As Christianity came back into acceptability in the 9th and 10th centuries, worshipers started building large cathedrals and churches which were filled with large singing groups of monks and nuns. The very first groups performed monophonic, unaccompanied sacred songs sung in Latin called Gregorian chants. While named after, and often attributed to Pope Gregory, scholars believe they actually arose from a later combination of chants. Eventually, Gregorian chants evolved over time from various sources and influences to a more modern structure, allowing for multiple octaves and even harmonies. In the late middle ages, pipe organs became more commonplace in churches, accompanying the choir to fill the room with sound. And when congregational singing was introduced, the organ was used to help worshipers follow along. During the Baroque period, harmonic theory culminated in famous composers such as Pachelbel , Handel, and J.S. Bach. Still used in musical instruction today, Bach’s innovations arguably gave birth of what was to become a globally loved genre of music – classical. Later in the classical and romantic periods, innovations in the ability to change the dynamics between loud and soft sounds quickly were introduced in instruments such as the piano.

Revolution in Music and American Culture

An entire volume of research can be written on the influence of African-American spirituals and their heavy influence on nearly all genres of American music, including blues and eventually big band jazz. However, in the 1920s, churches began to shun the big band jazz music of the time. They declared that it encouraged dancing, which was being used as a sexual mating ritual. This relatively “silent” period of Christian music is still evident in many hymnals used by Christian churches today, where there are very few popular Christian songs dating from the 1920s and beyond. However, shortly following the hippy revolution of the sixties, many believers found Jesus in their search for salvation. The Jesus Movement gave birth to an entirely new approach to Christian music, where worshipers started writing new music in their culturally familiar instruments such as acoustic guitars.

Modern Christian Music

As evangelical churches adapted to changing musical styles in order to appeal to more people, increasingly more modern musical styles were gradually adopted. While the Jesus Movement is often attributed with the invention of modern Christian music, some even earlier pioneers such as Larry Norman contributed controversial rock songs such as “Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music?” The “Jesus Freaks” continued to apply modern instruments and sounds to worship music, which became a multi-million dollar industry by the 1980s. Today, modern Christian music has entered nearly all forms and genres of popular music, and many churches host large “Praise Bands” that contain just about every instrument imaginable. However, vocals and chorus still remain a foundation for most Christian music today in order to allow worshipers to sing along in praise.

Having evolved later than most of the other major religions of the world, Christian music shows the various influences of other cultures and worship styles. Today, a multitude of different genres and instruments are used in worship and continues to evolve with popular trends in music. Continuing with our topic how music has been influenced by the major religions of the world, we will next explore the relationship between music and Hinduism.

The Relationship Between Music and Christianity Part 1

Throughout history, music has been inextricably linked to almost every religion across the globe. While the very definition and origin of music is hard to define, it is clear that music has been a part of the very earliest forms of worship. This is evident in each of the major religions of the world, with each having their own distinctions as well as similarities. Buddhist music has musical roots in both instruments and chanting, through flute-playing Japanese Zen Monks or Tibetan recitations of sacred texts. Although its inception does not date as far back as some of the other religions of the world, Christianity has also had ties to music since its origins. While an exhaustive chronicle of music in Christianity would fill volumes, there are some high points to mention.

Music and the Old Testament

An exploration of the relationship between music and Christianity would not be complete without starting with the Old Testament. The Bible early in the book of Genesis, describes a descendant of Cain, Jubal, as “the first of all who play the harp and flute.” When we reach the story of the Exodus Moses and all the people sing a song, the first written song mentioned in the Bible that mentions the use of tambourines and dancing to celebrate the victory at the Red Sea.

King Saul of Israel hired a young man named David to play music for him in this court. This David eventually became king of Israel, but also continued to express himself through song, writing more than 70 Psalms that are revered worship material in Judaism Throughout the Old Testament, temple worship included the use of choirs, ram horn blowers (often referred to as trumpets in the bible, but are actually the more rudimentary shofars), cymbals, tambourines, drums, and some strings instruments such as the lyre. Singing and musical instruments play an important role in Old Testament music, from Psalm 150 telling worshipers to “Praise Him” with the trumpet, harp, lyre and clashing cymbals to King David putting specific people in charge of worship music.

Music was integral to their worship.

Music and the New Testament

While as a boy, Jesus would have been exposed to the Jewish culture of his day including worship in daily life and at the festivals he attended. We do have a continuation of songs being written for worship and praise, much like the Old Testament, with Mary’s Song in the Gospel of Luke. Yet the only record of communal song in the Gospels is actually the last meeting of the disciples before the Crucifixion. Instruments are specifically mentioned in only a few places in the New Testament, such as flutes being played at Jairus’ daughter’s wake in Matthew, or trumpet that herald some end-time events including the rapture.

As Christians became persecuted after the death of Christ, they had to often worship in private, where loud instruments and praise music were not conducive to secrecy. But, this did not stop them from worshipping using music. In the book of Acts, the apostle Paul is arrested along with Silas, put in prison in Philippi, yet are still heard singing while imprisoned. Even with persecution many of the New Testament songs or hymns, such as the Benedictus, the Gloria, psalmody, and alleluias, endured and are still used in many Christian worship services today.

From praise music that was highly organized that incorporated singing, specific instrumentation and instructions for a large group to the simple act of two men singing while in prison, it is apparent that music plays an important role for worship throughout the Bible. Examples are too numerous to mention and would be hard to include in this format. In our next post we will explore the different types of worship music that have come about as Christianity spread.

The Influence Between Buddhism and Music

We began our exploration of music and religious history by discussing the difficulty to define music and its origins in history. The earliest cultures mimicked nature for functional reasons such as hunting, so when did the evolution to synchronized chanting and drumming actually become something more? And as humans began to ponder natural wonders around them and their existence within them, worship began to play a major role in developing societies. As a start, melody and written music offers some structure of how music as we know it today was born. Some of the very earliest known forms or music, such as Seikilos Epitaph is evidence of musical worship. In the following installments of this series, musical influence of each of the five major religions of the world – Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, and Judaism will be individually explored. Many of these traditional religious musical forms are used across the globe by early childhood music teachers even today.

The Contradiction of Music and Buddhism  

There are very few religious forms across the world that do not have some form of music in their sacred ceremonies. However, the very character of the original Buddhist message that contends things in life with no lasting significance distract from the quest for salvation seems contradictory to the evident influence of music in Buddhism. The association of music with earthly desires led early Buddhist monks and nuns to refrain from music practice and even the observation of musical performance. In Pure Land Buddhism, however, paradises are presented as profoundly musical places in which law takes the form of wonderful melodies. Most Buddhist practices involve some form of chanting, while some make use of instrumental music and even dancing. Music can be used in Buddhism as an offering to Buddha, a means of memorizing sacred texts, or cultivating meditation.

 Different Styles of Traditional Buddhist Music

Buddhist Music is considered part of Buddhist art and varies upon the different areas of the world it is practiced. Starting from the foothills of the Himalayas, Buddhism spread across Asia where, over time its original traditional practices became refined and regionally distinct. Historical Honkyoku are 36 collected pieces of music played by wandering, flute-playing Japanese Zen monks called Komosu in as early as the 13th century. Komosu temples were ordered destroyed in 1871, but the music honkyoku remains one of the most popular contemporary music styles in Japan today. Chanting is a part of most regional Buddhism, but is very prevalent in Tibetan Buddhism, where the chants are often complex recitations of sacred texts in Tibetan or Sanskirt. Some forms are accompanied by drums, while monasteries often maintain their own chant traditions. Shomyo, a style of Japanese Buddhist Chant, features both difficult (ryokyoku) and easy (rikkyoku) styles to remember.

Contemporary Buddhist Music   

Today, Buddhist influence can be heard in all different forms of contemporary music, from jazz, rap, and classical, to C-pop. Bibiladeniye Mahanama Thero is a Sri Lankan Buddhist Monk who is also a renown spiritual music composer. Li Na is a famous Chinese singer who became a nun in 1997 and went on to produce many popular Buddhist music albums under her new name Maser Chang Sheng. Several notable western musicians practiced Buddhism and cited it as a large influence on their music, such as David Bowie and Leonard Cohen. In 2009, Tina Turner and Buddhist musician Dechen Shak-Dagsay collaborated on an album combining Buddhist chants and Christian choral music called the Beyond Singing Project.

In some Buddhist teachings, music can be considered an earthly pleasure that distracts from the path of enlightenment. Yet music has always been a part of Buddhist religious traditions, as well as contemporary social forms. As we next explore the same kind of influences on Christianity, we will start to see a strong and undeniable bond between music and the major religions of the world. Children’s music educators may find this helpful in providing this influential context in the classroom while presenting sacred and even secular music.

Prehistoric Music and World Religion

Historians are often trying to answer the metaphorical question, “Which came first, the chicken or the egg?” Religious scholars are no exception in exploring when music and organized religion became forever linked. Over the next several months, we will explore this seemingly limitless topic. For the purposes of this series on religion and music, we will define religion as “a particular system of faith and worship.” Before we narrow the scope of this broad topic even more, however, we will try to define music and explore some of the earliest forms of music performed in a social context.  

What is Music?

Music is an art form often defined by a “combination of vocal or instrumental sounds for emotional expression.” It is further described through a cultural standard of rhythm and melody, although many different societies and cultures may have very different ideas of those characteristics. The two basic elements of music that define melody are pitch and rhythm in succession to form a sentence or clause called a melodic phrase. Most Western civilizations have also included harmony and tone color in the cultural standards of music, and claim that melody itself intrinsically includes the other three elements. As with all art forms, however, intention of the creator or the reception of those exposed may indeed be what defines it as music. Principles of good composition often apply, but when melody is mainly missing from a portion of a song or tune, more emphasis is often put on rhythm, chord progressions, and time signatures. Jazz musicians, along with rap artists, and other musicians know this very well.

Two West African men playing djembe.

Prehistoric Music and Worship

Prehistoric, or primitive music, often refers to that produced by preliterate cultures. Some Paleolithic archaeologists believed that Neanderthals used carving and piercing tools to construct crude musical instruments such as flutes, but recent discoveries have disputed that. However, the Aurignacian culture from the Swabian Alb region of Germany produced several flutes from vulture bones and mammoth ivory between 43,000 and 35,000 years ago. More advanced instruments, such as the seven holed flute and various stringed instruments appeared in India, and the largest collection of prehistoric musical instruments was found in China, dating back to 7000 and 6600 BCE. The discovery of prehistoric instruments does not necessarily establish the origins of music, as scientists hypothesize that Neanderthals may have made music by clapping their hands or slapping their bodies.

Prehistoric flutes.

The Big Problem with Music

At this point it should be stated that the use of the term music is problematic in prehistory because the concept of music is so different throughout history and across cultures. Many languages include other actions or contexts in words for music – such as dance or religion. Furthermore, some cultures have certain music that intends to imitate natural sounds, while others use it for more practical functions, such as luring animals in the hunt. Therefore, it can be argued that the very first instrument was the human voice itself, which can adeptly make a variation of sounds including clicking, humming, and whistling. The transition from Prehistoric Music to Ancient Music is attributed to when musical cultures and practices developed in the literal world.

The Oldest Known Song in History

As the relationship of music and melody become more complex and controversial, so do the historical records of the earliest songs. While many ancient musical styles have been preserved in oral traditions, the earliest forms of written music are relatively more recent. A 4000-year-old Sumerian clay tablet includes musical notation, instructions, and tunings for a hymn honoring the ruler Lipit-Ishtar. But for a historical song with a given title, most historians agree that Hurrian Hymn No. 6, an ode to the goddess Nikkai around the 14th century B.C., as the world’s earliest melody. However, the oldest surviving musical composition is a A.D. Greek tune known as the Seikilos Epitaph, found on an ancient gravesite in Turkey and including musical notation as well as a short set of lyrics. 

Music is art, and art is hard to define. While we debate the definitions of music and melody, tunes and songs, instruments and voice, what is agreed upon is that since written time, music has been a very important part of faith and worship. It has been engrained and used throughout time to express faith and teach parables and religious tenets. Over the next several months, we will explore how music became, and has remained, an important part of world religion. To narrow our scope throughout this endeavor even more, we will dedicate a separate discussion to each of the five major religions of the world – Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, and Judaism.