Why Doesn’t the Orthodox Church Use Musical Instruments in its Worship?

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.

14 comments:

  1. And yet the Church was able to baptize so many other pagan elements into its life and liturgy (i.e. crowns and thrones for the bishops, the vestments of the Roman court, the celebrations of the winter solstice), but not those emotional noise makers! Does this place Hillsong on par with Hendrix?

    1. Joe: I can appreciate your snark here. In a world where music and instruments are just a fact of life, it does seem peculiar that instruments would be excluded from the “baptism” mindset of Orthodox Christianity. I, for one, would much rather my kids listen to Hillsong than Hendrix, despite occasional theological problems. The matter of not wanting to rouse emotions with instruments seems rather abrupt in its analysis. There are many styles, many instruments, many cultural aspects of this, and one can see why the West would adopt them into their liturgical discipline as they evangelized the world. It would seem to follow that if God created music, he would not object to its fullness being reoriented in praise toward Him.

  2. It’s great reading more about the history of music in the Church. I understand the reasons given for why the Orthodox Church does not use instruments and would not want them to change, but a couple questions came to mind from the article:
    1. How is the emotional impact of an Orthodox church’s ornate sanctuary different from that of sacred instrumental music?
    2. Don’t Orthodox styles of chanting and choral music have a strong emotional impact as well?

    1. Yes, but neither can be compared to the use of musical instruments in a praise band, nor is their purpose to stir up emotion.

      1. A Methodist here:
        I personally agree with you when it comes to the praise bands. I hate hearing them wearing out Jesus’ name (as pronounced in English) and whining it as though they can’t tell whether to burst into tears or into climax.
        I care more for the type of emotion stirred.
        Now I could argue that neigher the chapel organ nor the piano with the hymnal are meant to stir up emotion somuchas to keep the congregation in beat and somewhat in tune;
        I could also argue that the unspoken purpose of any iconography which isn’t presented to convey a specific statement (like a comic strip laying out a series of motions) is also wholly meant to stir up emotion.
        But I’m happy to compromise custom while retaining the truth.
        The organist’s offertory, the beautifully painted dome, or the stained glass, what are they here for? What is ultimately the difference among them? The early house-churches had none of these. I’m partly glad we retain them each despite the violence that brought my tradition where it is.

  3. I have a related question: of all the world’s religions of which I am aware Christianity (not just Orthodox) has no sacred dance. Why?

    My mother was a professional dancer and my first intimation of sacrament came from studying and attending Native American ritual dances. Even David danced with joy before the Throne of God.
    My mother even used dance to help autistic children learn to communicate.

    Dance need not have instruments it can easily be done in silence or perhaps with an ison like chant.

    1. Michael,

      This a good point. However, is not the Liturgy a form of ‘dance’? I recall some saying that learning how to celebrate the Liturgy well is akin to learning to dance.

      Another though that occurs to me is that David danced (as do most of us – though some more than others). But though he himself ordered the temple worship, he prescribed no dance therein, and his dance did not occur in the temple (or his his case, the tabernacle).

      I have no idea why this was so. These are only observational thoughts..

      I myself was once part of a group that attempted (for a time) to incorporate liturgical dance. To be honest, it always struck me as contrived.

      1. Brian, yes I think the Divine Liturgy can be a form of dance. Therein lies the best reason NOT to have pews. Pews prevent the natural movement of the worshippers and tends to turn us into audience rather than full participants. Even with my old bones, I would rather there be chairs on the perimeter frankly.

        I think too that dance can be subject to the same problems as musical instruments. It is quite easy to become self-absorbed.
        But other than the prohibition against priests dancing, I know of no prohibition.

          1. Also, Fr. Lawrence, it should be noted that that video is showing the parishioners after the liturgy has concluded when they receive the blessed bread from the priest; it is not taking place during liturgy, the worship service.

            Thank you for your answer to a question I have had for sometime. I am a convert coming from the Roman Catholic church, and I found it disturbing and distracting for the purposes of worship when Catholic churches began to have prominent soloists and band instruments being used – Then, the parishioners even applauding when finished! But, I did wonder because of King David’s use of and promotion of instruments.

          1. Brian, fear not each person has a rythmn that is intrinsic. The Native Americans of the southwest US used drums. Their rythmn was that of the human heart. Many of their dances were also founded on that rythmn.
            There was a great artist, dancer and musician, Geoffrey Holder from Trinidad. I once was part of a master class he gave at a convention of dancers. He was a large man with a deep, powerful voice. He took stage and pronounced with great authority in his musically deep voice: “I have seen God, baby and He is right here (pointing to his spiritual/physical center). Everytime He wants to talk to me, He starts my body moving.! ” He then launched into a series of character dances, almost mimes of people he knew from his native Trinidad.

            I believed then back in 1969 and I believe now that there is truth in what he said. So our prostrations and veneration are much more than they seem and our worship becomes a holy dance of praise. Yet we shy away from calling it that.

  4. Plain Chant in the West was usual Here is one https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sqwV9l-U8ds
    Ambrose and Augustine will have written the words but the chant was later. at the time of Gregory the Great perhaps. The name gregorian chant is linked with him and the name ambrosian chant with Ambrose of Milan as a matter of music history convenience,it seems

    Organs are a very late invention and are not suitable for early music. because they introduce harmony I suppose. The music and not the words then become the interest of the listener. as in this
    https://www.youtube.com/results?search_query=giovanni+vianini+canto+gregoriano

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