I am often asked why the Orthodox Church doesn’t use musical instruments in its worship. After all, we seem to be the odd man out: classic Roman Catholic and Protestant churches used the organ in their services, more modern Evangelical churches used the piano as well, and thoroughly modern Evangelical services now feature the work of “praise bands” with guitars, drums, and amplifiers. So: what’s with the Orthodox? Why doesn’t the Orthodox Church use musical instruments in its worship?
One is tempted to turn the question around and retort, “Why do you?” After all, the first distinctly Christian worship in the upper room at the time of the Last Supper didn’t use musical instruments, since such instruments were never used at Passover meals, nor in the synagogue services. When the Eucharistic meal was held from house to house after the day of Pentecost, this tradition continued, and worship did not include instrumental musical accompaniment. Nor were musical instruments used in worship when the Church spread into Gentile territory: the Christians met for the Eucharist in various people’s houses, but they seem to have left whatever musical instruments they had at home. The prayed, chanted, and sang (compare the pagan description of our worship as involving “singing a hymn to Christ as if to a god” in the Letter of Pliny), but using only the human voice.
When the Christians began to build temples for worship in earnest after the Constantinian peace of the Church, they didn’t change their worship, just their location. They still didn’t use musical instruments, but continued to chant, read, and sing just as they had always done when they were worshipping in people’s homes.
Moreover, musical instruments such as the flute and the cithara were routinely used at pagan sacrifices, and the Church was keen to exclude such pagan elements from its own worship. Since these instruments tended to stir up emotion, the Church also felt that its use could lead to unseemly excess. Thus we find Clement of Alexandria (d. ca. 215) writing, “If people occupy their time with pipes and psalteries and choirs and dances and Egyptian clapping of hands and such disorderly frivolities, they become quite immodest and intractable” (from The Instructor, 2.4).
For these reasons—both the Church’s continuity with its apostolic Jewish heritage and its determination to differentiate itself from paganism—musical instruments were rigorously excluded from Christian worship. This continued to be the Church’s universal practice for centuries to come. So, one might ask, what makes anyone today imagine that they could change what was the practice of the apostles and that of the Church after them for hundreds of years? Isn’t that a bit nervy?
Some suggest that the Psalter offers justification for the use of musical instruments, since it bids us to praise God with trumpet sound, with lute and harp, with timbrel and dance, with strings and pipe and sounding cymbals (e.g. Psalm 150). And didn’t David use a stringed instrument to accompany his psalms (e.g. Psalm 4)?
Two or three replies are in order.
First of all, accepting such proof-texting would have us overthrow the practice of the apostles and the Church after them—east and west—for centuries. On the basis of these verses, are we really prepared to do this? Were the apostles and the early Church after them that misled about something as basic as how to worship? After all, they could read the Psalter as well as anyone else.
Secondly, the worship of the Church is not the worship of the Temple. Temple worship involved worship in the open air, and included the killing, skinning, and butchering of animals, the pouring out of their blood upon an altar, and the burning of their carcases so that the smoke of the sacrifice ascended on high (hence the necessity of the open air). Loud music in the open air is a different thing than music indoors.
Also, as we have noted above, musical instruments accompanied animal sacrifices at pagan sacrifices, so that their use in Temple worship was not that much different in this respect. In the ancient world, instrumental music seems to have accompanied animal sacrifices all the time. This would explain both the presence of such instruments at the Temple, as well as their absence from the synagogue and from Jewish homes at Passover time—as well as their absence from the indoor services of the Church, since in these latter places, no animals were slaughtered. In short, the verses of the Psalter exulting in instrumental music in the Temple has little relevance to the domestic worship outside the Temple.
Finally, we note that the stringed instruments which David assumed would accompany the chanting of his psalms bore little resemblance to the organs, pianos, guitars, and drums of today’s church with their praise bands. These last are quite loud. It was otherwise with the stringed instruments that accompanied psalmic recitation in the ancient world. These instruments did not overwhelm the recitation, but were gentle and quiet adornments. For an example of what such music might have sounded like, the reader is invited to listen here and here. As one can see (or hear), no real comparison can be made between the ancient music and our modern music. David’s use of a stringed instrument when chanting the psalms is therefore irrelevant to our modern discussion.
We conclude by asking what is the purpose of such modern loud instrumental accompaniment. The answer: to stir up emotion (no surprise to Clement of Alexandria and the Fathers). Indeed, all good musicians are aware of how music can be used to rouse and to soothe, to quicken the heartbeat or to pacify—or, in a word, to manipulate one’s emotions and responses. That is why such instruments were always used on the battlefield: the drum, the trumpet, and the bagpipe would galvanize the advancing troops, make their blood flow faster, and to stir them to action. Manipulation through music works.
And that is why the Church has always felt that it has no place in its worship. Emotion should not be artificially stirred up by organs, flutes, pianos, drums, or guitars. If emotion comes, it should come as a result of the Holy Spirit working upon the human heart. The Church has therefore always subordinated music to word, and melody to message. It is the Word of God, the message of the Gospel, which should stir the heart, not the musical noise accompanying it.