Music has been used to worship a deity for over a millennium and in Christianity from its inception around 30 AD. The music used in the first churches was likely simple chants, using only the voices of the adherents, though instruments have been used for music in general since 4000 BC or earlier. Indeed, the author of many of the earliest songs used in worship – the Psalms – played stringed instruments, and historians say that King Solomon’s temple included choral groups. Much worship music began based on the earliest music offered to God with voice and simple instruments and evolved to include multiple voices and instruments to offer praise and worship to the Holy One, the God of Heaven and earth.
Music was used in Christianity for several reasons. The most common is, of course, worship. Whether or not this music was accompanied by instruments in the earliest uses is unknown; however, both accompanied and unaccompanied worship music is documented in the early years of Christianity, though unaccompanied was much more common. Some early church leaders declared instruments to be a part of pagan worship that had no place in a Christian church.
Similar, but not the same as worship, is praise. While praise can be a form of worship, it can also be separated from it. Psalm 22:3 states, “But Thou art holy, O Thou that inhabitest the praises of Israel.” Many songs have been written that praise the God of Heaven, and this includes many of the Psalms.
The third reason for music in Christianity is to aid in memorization of Scripture. Because people tend to remember things better when they are set to music, singing Scripture allows people to more easily learn the passages in Scripture.
In the same way, many doctrines and theological views are also incorporated into songs used in churches around the globe for worship and edification.
While many early Christian churches preferred using only vocal music for their worship services, there were some instruments that appeared often in Christian circles. These included a variety of categories of instruments, and often several specific instruments within that category.
Stringed instruments were one of the most common. The harp – especially the smaller, portable type – was most often used by David, for example, although it is also mentioned that he used a lute, as well. A lute is usually an instrument with a pear-shaped body and a neck similar to a banjo or a dulcimer. Larger harps were also used in the temple. Some lutes were triangle shaped and had only three strings; it is said they were not used in the temple’s orchestra, but they were common otherwise. Lyres were another stringed instrument often mentioned, which seems to have been played similarly to a guitar. The psaltery is similar to today’s harpsichord, though shaped differently and often played with a bow rather than plucking. These are the most common stringed instruments used in worship in the earliest history of Christianity.
Percussion instruments included cymbals, which were similar to the same instrument now, timbrels, which was similar to a tambourine, and what we would call a gong, usually made of brass (“sounding brass” in I Corinthians 13:1).
Wind instruments also featured prominently. Instruments in this category include:
- trumpets, which were more like bugles,
- flutes, which may have been similar to a clarinet,
- pipes, which was another type of flute, and
- shofar, which is a trumpet-type instrument usually made from a horn, and is the one most often related to early Christian worship, although it is mostly used as a call rather than for song.
The style most often associated with early Christian music is that of the chant. While often denoted as a “Gregorian chant,” Gregory was actually rather late on the scene, as these chants were already being used long before he lent his name to them. This involved a layered recitation based on a scale pattern and hexachords.
However, the psalms were likely more musical, as the writers were known to use instruments, and several of the psalms themselves specify the instrument for which they were written. This would indicate the use of melody, which surely carried through to the early worshippers.
It is important to note, that by the early years of the Common Era, before 300 AD, many musical instruments were considered to be linked to “sensual heathen cults” and therefore were forbidden in churches of the time.
This was said to be quoted by Paul the Apostle in I Timothy 3:16. The hymn is a beautiful example of an early hymn.
This Byzantine chant is an excellent example of the more common form of early worship, which depended on human voices and chose to have no instrumental accompaniment whatsoever.
This ancient Greek Christian hymn is said to originate possibly as early as fifth century B.C. It may have been still used during the early years of the Common Era.
This is a group of early selections, including some psalms, from the First Century. These do include instruments as well as voices. These selections cover a range of history from early Hebrew through medieval times but also include the first centuries.