Music as a “Universal” Part of Worship

While music is now largely seen as a universal––and sometimes even fundamental––part of worship, this positive affiliation has not always been the widely accepted view. Writing and performing music has long been a source of debate regarding whether it is beneficial or corruptive to the mind.

In his writing about music, Plato makes strong claims about the importance of music in strengthening one’s mind; however, they only apply to the educated. He asserts that only people who know and appreciate good music should take part in it, because they are able to separate their desire for pleasure from their altruistic inclination toward learning and self-improvement. Aristotle writes with a more liberal view, accepting two separate approaches to music: one that is critiquing and using music for bettering the mind by the educated and one that accepts music as a pleasing and indulgent activity. These two great thinkers’ ideas about music both leave room for argument that music can be an asset in worship––if worship is considered a time to improve the mind.

Much later, St. Basil and St. John Chrysostom speak more specifically about the role of music in worship, addressing the immorality of instrumental music and attempting to justify related imagery in the psalms. These scholars describe a metaphorical understanding of music in relation to worship. However, Augustine feels much more conflicted about these ideas, as he finds music in worship to strongly enhance the experience. Weiss and Taruskin write that “the jubilus was the most mystically meaningful part of the chant for Augustine” (25). It is clear that early Christian thought had moved away from being so concerned with the mind, and was more interested in issues of morality and dedication to God. Therefore, music was viewed often as a distraction from the most important part of oneself: spiritual devotion––an evolution of Plato’s thinking. Augustine struggled to accept this because for him, music had a spiritual power that enabled him to actually feel closer to God.

Today, most religious people identify more with Augustine’s thoughts, which is why music is considered a universal part of worship. However, it is important to recognize that this debate is, in fact, still ongoing. There are many types of worship and worship services that do not use music, or even do not condone it. For example, in Quakerism, music has been traditionally viewed as trivial and inappropriate in worship, and while some may have a more modern and progressive ideas, the majority of Quakers still do not use music as a part of their worship. Thus, one might argue that although this debate has evolved and become much less important over time, music as “a universal part” of worship is still too broad to describe its presence and role in all traditions and religions.