What is Liturgical Music?

A Bit of History About the Development of Religious Music

choir in a church, Paris
Owen Franken Getty Images

Liturgical music, or church music, is music performed during worship or a religious rite. The earliest music known in the world was probably associated with religious rites and played on flutes—the oldest flute dates to a Neanderthal site in Slovenia, from 43,000 years ago.

Jewish Roots

Modern Christian liturgical music evolved from music played in the Mediterranean Bronze Age, specifically Hebrew music.

Many instances of music are recorded in the Hebrew Bible, the oldest stories of which likely date to ca. 1000 BCE. Music is mentioned in the book of Exodus, when Moses sings a hymn of triumph after parting the Red Sea, and Miriam and the Hebrew women sing a refrain or responsive text; in Judges, in which Deborah and her military adjunct Barak together sing her battle hymn of praise and thanksgiving; and in Samuel, when after David slew Goliath and defeated the Philistines, multitudes of women sang his praises. And of course, the book of Psalms could be described as nothing but liturgical texts.

Early musical instruments used in the Bronze Age Mediterranean include a large harp (the never or nebel); a lyre (the kinnor) and a double oboe called a halil. The shofar or ram's horn has maintained its importance in Hebrew ritual even today. Individual composers are not known from this period, and it is likely that the songs sung were passed down via a much older oral tradition.

Middle Ages

The pipe organ was first invented in the 3rd century BCE, although its complexity was not developed until the 12th century CE. The 12th century also saw an upsurge in liturgical music, which adapted a polyphonic style. Polyphony, also known as counterpoint, refers to music that has two or more independent melodies woven together.

Medieval period composers such as Leonel Power, Guillaume Dufay and John Dunstable wrote liturgical music that was mostly performed in court ceremonies rather than the cathedral.

Liturgical music was a large part of the late Medieval Protestant Reformation. After suffering plagues which killed half the population, the European church saw a rise in the importance of private devotion, and a more personalized view of religious life, which emphasized individual emotional and spiritual fulfillment. The Devotio Moderna (Modern Devout) was a late-medieval religious movement that included more broadly accessible music with texts in languages of the era rather than Latin.

Renaissance Changes

Vocal soloists were replaced by small choirs accompanied by instruments during the Renaissance. Composers such as Johannes Ockeghem, Jacob Obrecht, Orlando Lassus, Tomas Luis de Victoria and William Byrd contributed to this musical form.

Other forms of liturgical music emerged such as organ music by composers including César Franck), motets by Johannes Brahms and others, requiems by Giuseppe Verdi, and masses, such as those by Franz Schubert.

Modern Liturgical Music

Modern liturgical music includes a wide ecumenism, an increasing desire for music that nurtures and challenges the singer and listener with meaningful, thoughtful texts.

New 20th century composers such as Igor Stravinsky and Oliver Messiaen created new forms of liturgical music. By the 21st century, composers such as Austin Lovelace, Josiah Conder, and Robert Lau continue to develop new forms, but still maintaining traditional sacred music, including the revival of the Gregorian chant.

Sources: