Make a Joyful Noise: How Christianity Has Shaped Culture Through Music

As a pastor who weekly participates in worship, I’m often struck by the sheer power of music to inspire awe, evoke emotion, and penetrate the soul. No wonder the average person now spends approximately twenty hours a week listening to music. It’s no surprise that researchers have discovered that music boosts a person’s mood, combats certain forms of mental illness, and protects against dementia and cognitive decline.

To explain the majesty of music, the best comparison might be an analogy with art. Varieties of music are like a diverse tapestry of colors, each representing a unique aspect of our experience. Just as an artist uses different shades to convey feelings on a canvas, musicians use melodies, rhythms, and harmonies to evoke specific emotions in the hearts of listeners, from the vibrant hues of joy to the deep shades of melancholy—in the hearts of listeners. Thus, music transcends the mundane aspects of life, taking us with it on its soulful journey.

In addition, I’ve often pondered the immense influence Christianity has had on the sphere of music and, subsequently, on culture at large. Although I’m no musicologist and there are historians of music who could develop this concept at length, I’m moved to offer a dozen ways that Christianity has influenced Western culture through music.

Varieties of music are like a diverse tapestry of colors, each representing a unique aspect of our experience.

  1. Early Christian Chant: Christianity’s influence on Western culture can be traced back to the early church, who developed “chant” as a form of worship. The most famous form of chant, Gregorian Chant, was named after Pope Gregory I and set the foundation for later developments in Western music.

  2. Development of Musical Notation: Christian monks were pioneers in the development of musical notation. The neumes used in Gregorian Chant gradually evolved into the modern musical notation system, which not only revolutionized the composition and performance of music, but enabled the hundreds of genres that exist today.

  3. Medieval Choral Music: During the medieval period, composers who are now considered obscure like Hildegard of Bingen and Guillaume de Machaut, created intricate choral music for Christian worship services and ceremonies. This development laid the groundwork for the polyphonic music that would develop in later centuries.

  4. Renaissance Polyphony: The Renaissance era saw the flourishing of polyphonic music in the form of “motets” and masses composed by the likes of now-obscure figures such as Josquin des Prez and Palestrina. Christian institutions and donors were the patrons of music during this period, providing the financial support that allowed musicians to develop their craft.

  5. Reformation Hymnody: The Protestant Reformation brought about an enormous shift in Christian music. Foremost among the influencers was the preacher-theologian Martin Luther, who composed gospel-centered hymns with congregational singing in mind. This marked the beginning of hymnody as we know it today, with hymns becoming an essential part of the life of most Christian churches.

  6. Baroque Sacred Music: On the heels of the Reformation, the Baroque era produced a wealth of sacred music, including the Handel’s oratorios (e.g., “Messiah”), Bach’s Passions (e.g., “St. Matthew Passion), and Vivaldi’s sacred compositions (e.g., “Magnificat”). These works often featured elaborate choral and instrumental arrangements.

  7. Classical and Romantic Periods: After the Baroque period, there arose some of the Western world’s most talented composers. Men such as Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, and Brahms composed richly meaningful music inspired by the Christian faith. For example: Haydn’s “Creation,” Mozart’s “Requiem Mass in D Minor,” and Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy.”

  8. Choral Music: Church choirs have been central to Christian worship for centuries. Their influence extends beyond religious settings, as choral music remains a significant part of Western classical and secular music traditions.

  9. Gospel Music: In the United States, the African American tradition of gospel music emerged in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Gospel music is deeply rooted in Christian spirituality and played a pivotal role in the development of various other genres, including soul, rock, and rhythm and blues.

  10. Contemporary Christian Music: During the last decades of twentieth century, Contemporary Christian Music (CCM) became a significant genre within Christian music. Earlier artists such as Larry Norman (Christian rock) and Amy Grant (Christian pop) helped birth the movement. Later artists such as Lauren Daigle (Christian pop/worship), The Ambassador (rap/hip hop), and The Gettys (modern hymns) have combined creative composition and powerful gospel-centered messages.

  11. Influence on Secular Songs: Even in secular Western music, Christian themes, motifs, and references can be found. Composers have often drawn on biblical stories and religious symbolism to create profound and emotional compositions.

  12. Inspiration for Secular Musicians: Many of the most influential secular musicians made their initial forays through gospel music. Consider, for example, the profound influence of Christian music on Elvis Presley and Aretha Franklin.

Composing music for Bach was not a mundane task, but a sacred calling and an act of worship; there was no such thing as a “secular” piece.

God is the Creator who speaks the world into existence. His image bearers are also enormously creative, in words and images and sounds. Unfortunately, many modern Christians join the secular world in banishing music to a realm outside the Kingdom of God. But the simple fact is that Jesus Christ is the source, the impetus, and the inspiration of the greatest music the world has ever known. He is Lord of all.

Western music, in particular, cannot be understood apart from the influence of Christianity and the Bible. As one historian said, “The Christian Church was born in song.” Consider the music of Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750), generally regarded as one of the greatest composers of all time. Bach, an orthodox German Lutheran, wrote church music, concertos, sonatas, quartets, toccatas, and fugues. Most of his works were signed “S.D.G.” which means “Soli Deo Gloria.” This was an expression of his sincere devotion to his God. As Bach was composing St. Matthew Passion, he wept as he contemplated the suffering and death of Christ on his behalf. Composing music for him was not a mundane task, but a sacred calling and an act of worship; there was no such thing as a “secular” piece. Bach’s ministry of music influenced the great artists of history—Beethoven, Haydn, Mendelssohn, Mozart, Chopin, Wagner, and Brahms. It is fair to say that without Christianity, Bach would been robbed of the inspiration that produced a wealth of music that has blessed the world throughout much of human history.

In essence, music has been a powerful vehicle through which Christianity has shaped culture, contributing to the development of various musical forms, inspiring some of the greatest compositions in history, and influencing contemporary music in ways that often go unnoticed. Christianity is, and will continue to be, a dynamic influence on one of God’s greatest gifts to the world—that wonderful, dynamic force that we know as “music.”


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