Christian Music Through the Ages

by Anthony Freddura

I participate in the Life Community Through Worship program run by Grace Chapel in Lexington, Massachusetts. In addition to traditional Bible study, we engage in music making, performing timeless songs by well-known Christian musicians. Since the dawn of their religion, Christians have employed music in their worship, and many of the world’s most longstanding musical styles evolved in a Christian context.

Historians don’t know much about the music of the first Christians, but there are references to music in three of the four Gospels. Most likely, early Christian music resembled the music of the ancient Greeks, of which we have a few surviving examples; and the music of the Jews, Romans, and other groups from the area. The fact that many Church hymns have roots in the Old Testament Psalms lends credence to this theory. By the sixth century A.D., Christianity had developed its own distinct styles of singing, forming in Western Europe the roots of what we know today as soothing Gregorian chant. Complementary types of chant also appeared in Eastern Christian traditions. Sung as part of Church services, Gregorian chant continued to evolve for centuries.

In the middle of the 1100s, a French composer named Leonin, working for the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, invented what would later evolve into harmony. Before that time, music always consisted of a melody only, perhaps accompanied by drums. After Leonin, musicians quickly began stacking melodies on top of each other, but harmony (or more correctly, polyphony) is a Christian invention, created for worship. Not everyone loved harmony right away. As with rock music in the 1950s and 1960s, many Christians of the time felt the new style was too flashy and didn’t respect the Christian message behind the words. This controversy continued until the Renaissance, when an Italian composer named Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina developed an intricate harmonic style of composition that won over the Church, which deemed the music beautiful and Christian. Church choirs still sing his music today.

Other European composers continued to advance Christian music over the subsequent ages, including J.S. Bach, considered by many the greatest composer to have ever lived. However, other musical traditions began to have an effect on Christian music as well. Spirituals, invented by African-American slaves, played a major role in the development of what would become Gospel, Soul, and Rhythm & Blues in the United States. At first confined to African-American churches, these new styles gained increasingly mainstream acceptance from the 1960s onward. Today, Christian music encompasses everything from the diverse traditions of the European masters to the lively styles developed in America and around the world.