Praising God in music

Like Music, for us the present reality of the Risen Christ works on many different levels:  music is one reality that seems to transcend earth-bound matters.  We experience music in our time on earth, though it is ephemeral.  But, paradoxically, it also seems to exist in the Kingdom of God.  In the book of Revelations, the ‘Living Creatures’ in Heaven, “each of them with 6 wings are full of eyes all round and within, and day and night they never cease to sing, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come!”.... And the twenty four elders fall down before Him who is seated on the throne and worship him who lives for ever and ever; they cast their crowns before the throne, singing “Worthy art thou, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honour and power, for thou didst create all things, and by thy will they existed and were created.” (Revelation 4:8 - 10).  The paradox here is that music inevitably works with time and timing, whereas the Kingdom of Heaven is said to exist outside of time.  Perhaps the music of Praise to God is in fact a bridge between this place and Heaven, just like the Mass?

“Sacred Art is true and beautiful when its form corresponds to its particular vocation: evoking and glorifying, in faith and adoration, the transcendent mystery of God - the surpassing invisible beauty of truth and love visible in Christ, who ‘reflects the glory of God and bears the very stamp of his nature’, in whom ‘the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily.’... Genuine sacred art draws man to adoration, to prayer and to the love of God, Creator and Saviour, the Holy One and Sanctifier.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, para. 2502).

A gift from God

 “Arising from talent given by the Creator and from man’s own effort, art is a form of practical wisdom, uniting knowledge and skill, to give form to the truth of reality in a language accessible to sight or hearing”. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, para 2501).  Like love and like prayer, which originate in the heart of God and are given to us as a means of expression to Him, the gift of music by God to people may be understood as a gift both of expression of emotions and of discipline.

Discipline of practising

The discipline which is necessary to produce music (and not just noise), is a gift which is not resented because it’s benefits outweigh the irritations of having to practice regularly.  For certain musicians, practising is so natural that it is hardly felt as a discipline. There is a parallel with loving God in the liturgy which can be so natural that it is never felt as a discipline.

Discipline of self-abnegation

This is not just the discipline of practising so as to improve one’s performance, but music also involves the discipline of allowing the teacher to instruct, allowing the other performers to play their part, allowing silence in specific places, allowing the composer to organise their musical themes and ideas, and allowing the lyricist to speak through the music.  In other words, the discipline of music, especially liturgical music, also includes the discipline of self-abnegation.

Emotions, imagination and the life of the soul

Music is a dimension of life which is related to the emotions.  It is, like the emotions, unseen though felt.  Just as our emotions are a product of our hormones, brain chemistry, reactions to other people and places and to what we do - all physical things - music comes about in the physical world by actual physical action and physical instruments.  In those two ways, it reflects the life of the soul which is unseen though felt - but affected by actual physical action.  

The source of emotions and music in the mind is the imagination - which is often where God speaks to us.  (“In the last days it shall be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams; yea, and on my menservants and my maidservants in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy.” Acts 2:17 - 18.) 

“To the extent that it is inspired by truth and love of beings, art bears a certain likeness to God’s activity in what he has created.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, para. 2501)

Connection with God

“Enter His gates with thanksgiving and His Courts with Praise”, says the Psalmist (Psalm 100).  This is surely an indication of how best to connect with God.  It implies that we are humble enough to give Him thanks and praise.

For some people, music is their best connection with God - the thing which brings them closest to God.  This is very much like, for some others, being on the top of a hill or a mountain, or being overwhelmed with love while feeding a newborn baby.  These are times when the emotion gained from the music or the view or whatever it is, brings such joy that one wants to praise.  It may seem strange that love of something created could make one feel joy and gratitude towards God the uncreated being, but God is Love and Love is His domain. He understands love and is keen for us, created beings, to feel it too, and the joy of pure love.  Everything good comes from God. God only gives good gifts.  ( “As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you; abide in my love.  If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love… These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full.”John 15:9-11)

The Purpose of music in Christian life


One of the great examples, in the Bible, of a whole people stopping and praising God with music - tambourines and song - is after the crossing of the red sea by the people of Israel.   After the Israelites had all reached the other shore and safety, they realised that, while Yahweh had caused the waters to part into cliffs and allow them through the sea on dry land,  their enemies had been swallowed up by the same cliffs of water falling down on them. It is a song of praise, relief and rejoicing.  (Exodus 15:1-21)

Bringing Peace and Restoring Health

Another use for music is recalled in 1 Samuel 16: 14 - 23, where we see that David was sent for by Saul to play the lyre to him when Saul was troubled by an evil spirit.  David played so well that he soothed Saul and the evil spirit left him.  As David was also the most prolific author of the Psalms, we can be sure that he also shared his faith in his songs.  (“The Lord is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.” Psalm 103 - a psalm of David). This shows how important music was held in the ancient world, for giving peace and restoring health to souls.  

Music reflects the goodness of God. This is because the discipline inherent in music reflects the order that God’s Presence brings to our lives, as well as His provision of goodness for us.  Very much like the sight of a pond or an oasis in a barren landscape, gentle music enters our soul and reflects the peacefulness of abandonment to God.  The wholeness of ‘Shalom’ (meaning ‘peace and completeness’ in Hebrew) is what is promised by God to those who follow Him, and the first word said by the archangel to Mary, the mother of Jesus, at the annunciation. This is the contentment which leads to praise to God.

Music, particularly liturgical music, reminds us that the Great Musician, the One who created the stars in the Heavens, is the God who watches over us and counts the hairs on our heads.  There is a reassurance there, very much like when we watch or read a good detective story, that there is Someone in control, just like when a good musician plays an instrument well.  But, more than that, our Someone, our Musician is God Almighty Himself. “The Lord has established his throne in the heavens, and his kingdom rules over all.” (Psalm 103); “The heavens sing of the wonderful things you do..” (Psalm 89)  

Reflecting and ennobling emotions

The first writer of Isaiah gives us a clue: “Let me sing for my beloved a love song concerning his vineyard…” (Isaiah 5:1).

David himself was known as the sweet psalmist of Israel (2 Samuel 23:1), and beside playing the lyre, he composed most of the psalms that we find in the book of psalms.  His words, and presumably his music too, reflected his emotions - fears and delight - during his life.  In the same way, the music we sing to the Lord, in delighted praise or as a kind of weapon against the ‘terrors of the night’, for instance, reflects our emotions and enhances them and our hopes and fears.  

More than that, it can induce us to be less fearful, more bold, more determined thanks to some rhythms, such as marches.  It can calm our spirits by rendering to God what is God’s (which is gratitude and praise) such as in meditative worship.  It can also help us to express our delight and joy at the Lord when a miracle has happened as a result of prayer or our spirits are lifted when, previously, they were downcast, etc.  In fact, music can have such a strong effect on us that some of the highly enthusiastic demonstrations in some services may be, at least in part, resulting from the effect of the music.  

There is a sense in which music ennobles the emotions by giving them a disciplined voice which is wider than and different from the narrow discipline of words and grammar, and drags words into poetry, as they try to resemble music.

Learning hymns and Bible stories

“Song and music fulfil their function as signs in a manner all the more significant when they are ‘more closely connected… with the liturgical action’, according to three principal criteria:  beauty expressive of prayer, the unanimous participation of the assembly at the designated moments, and the solemn character of the celebration.  In this way they participate in the purpose of the liturgical words and actions:  the glory of God and the sanctification of the faithful.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, para 1157.)

This is why, in the Church, learning of hymns, including their melodies, has been an important part of our life as Christians.  Our straightforward familiarity with certain tunes and words will help put us at ease, and eventually we grow to love the old hymns because of the memory of emotions which we have felt while hearing and singing them, as well as because of the meaning of their words.  Think of “All creatures of our God and King” by St Francis of Assisi, (1220s) in German “Lasst uns erfreuen”; “Amazing Grace” by John Newton (1980s), or “How great thou art” by Carl Boberg (1880s) in German “Wie Gross du bist”; “Thine be the Glory” by Edmond Budry, (late 19th Century), known in French as “A toi la gloire O Ressuscité”, sung to the same tune as the advent song “Tochter Zion, freue dich” (Daughter Zion, rejoice) in German; “Praise to the Lord, the Almighty, the King of creation” by Joachim Neander (1660s) known in French as “Peuples, criez de joie”.  

There are also certain types of music which immediately bring to our minds a holy place, a reverent situation. I refer to liturgical chant.  One example is the choral liturgical singing used in the Eastern Churches, such as the Russian Orthodox Church and the Armenian Church.  Others are those used predominantly in the Roman Catholic Church such as Gregorian Chant as well as certain chants of the medieval period, such as St Hildegard of Bingen’s liturgical chants.  The associations with these are always to do with singing to God.  Saint Augustine, in his Confessions said “How I wept, deeply moved by your hymns, songs and the voices that echoed through your Church!  What emotion I experience in them!  Those sounds flowed into my ears, distilling the truth in my heart.  A feeling of devotion surged within me, and tears streamed down my face - tears that did me good”.

Association with Love

It is now known that, for people who suffer from Dementia and Alzheimer’s the memory goes but the emotions remain; and the two emotions on which the sufferers lives hinge are fear and love.  So, to a certain extent, for us all both at the beginning and at the end of our lives.  The pleasure that older people often take in hearing the old hymns of their youth recalls the high points of their lives when the God of Love and the presence of their family coloured their worship services.  

But for all of us, expanding our lungs and sounding out a controlled and often beautiful sound in praise of our Almighty Father God, (in part because it makes use of the power of the muscles near our heart perhaps), feels at least as worthwhile as any spoken prayer. (Psalm 94:9 “He who planted the ear, does he not hear?”) And when it is associated with the scent of incense, for instance, and the sight of burning candles on an altar, and the feeling of rising from a kneeling position, it all contributes to a memory of something which is not part of our ordinary lives, but which is set apart, hallowed.  This can produce gladness which one will associate with the old hymns.  The Lord works with our imagination and with our memories.

Praying - twice or more - praising God

Singing, by reminding us of the lyrics, can help us to recall them.  Some people have argued that in the learning of a hymn we pray it several times : once in the learning, once each time we sing it.  It is possible to sing praise to God even without understanding the words, by intending the expression of praise to God.  Also, praising God can happen if a person sings a tune which they associate with words they understand, as one might in Latin or in a foreign language.  Singing the Kyrie Eleison is one example.  Also, a tune can be sung without lyrics as a song of praise to God, if the singer intends to praise God, because music is a language of its own.

 Music is like Prophecy.  Prophecy involves listening to God speaking in one’s heart and then perhaps speaking out what one hears, so that word of God brings about what it says.  Music composed for the Love of God at the same time speaks praise and peace to our hearts and brings forth the thing it has spoken, and builds up the Body of Christ - the Church. Both are praying twice - once in the listening and once in the repeating of what one has heard.

Christian Liturgical music

For most Christians, one of the high points of life is worshipping God with other people.  The place this is generally done is during a Christian service, through the liturgy.  The various denominations have very different musical liturgical traditions, depending a great deal on the time in history in which their Church was founded.  Liturgical music ranges from only sung to organ playing to choral accompanied works to spontaneous congregational singing.  The Roman Catholic Church has incorporated all these in various different styles of service.  

Non-liturgical praise songs

Just as King David danced spontaneously before the tabernacle of the Lord as it was being brought to a resting spot, spontaneous - or at least music from the heart - is a large part of our heritage, as Christians.  We sing to God out of sheer joy, out of desire to praise Him, out of a need to have our spirits raised.  However, it is true that the sheer pleasure of hearing music - whichever music is most to our taste - can be directed towards listening to Christian religious music because almost all genres are adaptable to the Christian message.

Examples of contemporary Christian praise-rock are: “Even unto Death” (by Audrey Assad), “A thousand reasons.. Bless the Lord, O my soul” (by Matt Redman), “Raise a Hallelujah”, (Jonathan and Melissa Helser - Bethel Music), “Lord I need you” (Matt Maher), “Upon Him”(Matt Redman), “Praise you in this storm” (Casting Crowns), “Hosanna” (Hillsong United), “You raised me up” (Josh Groban), “How great is our God” (Chris Tomlin, Jesse Reeves and Ed Cash)...  

There are, of course, many Christian “soul” songs, (like Adrianne Archie, and Elizabeth with her album “God Me”, Yolanda Adams “Be Blessed”) and American Gospel songs (like Whitney Houston’s “I look to you”; Mary Mary, “Can’t Give up now”; Marvin Sapp’s “Never Would’ve Made It”) whose musical tradition digs deep in the sounds of black african Churches of the Southern belt of North America, and which are often performed by a solo singer, sometimes accompanied by a backing choir. The display of feeling used by such singers is part of what enthuses the listener, which is very different to a solo singer who might sing a classical rendition of the “Ave Maria” during Holy Communion, for instance - where the feeling is channelled into the disciplined voice, and during which the singer might be in the organ loft and therefore not visible to the congregation. 

Without the human voice, one finds contemporary Christian instrumental music directed to praising God, which is usually an instrumental version of a hymn such as The Piano Guys’ “Nearer My God to Thee (for 9 Cellos)”, but can be a less specific piece such as “Gabriel’s Oboe” from Enzo Moricone’s film “The Mission”; and “Terre Vue du Ciel (Te Amo)” by Armand Amar, or more traditionally, an organ piece played in a Church, such as Daniel Roth’s improvisation on “Praise to the Lord” played at the organ in Saint-Sulpice, Paris.

One also finds choral versions of favourite hymns, which are not sung in a Church but are meant for private enjoyment.  An example of this is BYU Men’s Chorus with “Abide with Me”; West Coast Baptist College Choir “Because He Lives ” and “Panis Angelicus” performed by Sissel and the Tabernacle Choir.  There are also beautiful choral works such as Tchaikovsky’s “Hymn of the Cherubim from the Liturgy of St John Chrysostom” (a Saint Catholics share with the Orthodox); and “O Sanctissima” by Libera.

Can music be sinful or just wrong?

The answer is given in Isaiah 5:11,12: “Woe to those who rise early in the morning that they may run after strong drink… They have lyre and harp, timbrel and flute and wine at their feasts; but do not regard the deeds of the Lord, or see the work of his hands.”  It is not the music which is sinful but the intention of the person involved in the music, composer, player or hearer.  

Certain types of music seem too heavy and loud to be used in praise of God: the voice of the Lord is gentle as a soft breeze :  “Finally, [after a strong wind, an earthquake and a fire] there was a gentle breeze and when Elijah heard it, he covered his face with his coat.  He went out and stood at the entrance to the cave.” and there the Lord spoke to him (1 Kings 19:10-18).  However, for those that love those sounds, it can mean a great release which is a gift from God.  Who can say how God speaks to another?  After all, God hears our wailing and whimpering, so He will not be put off by loud noise, so long as it is intended for Him.

There has been some talk about rock music not being “Christian”.  This is probably because of the words of many rock songs being very secular in direction.  The lyrics account here for the sinfulness, since they talk about the sinful lifestyle of their subjects, and frequently are either about strong desire for something other than God, or about great sadness (possibly as a result of putting hopes in the wrong thing).

 It is possible for music makers to be so intent on leading a service that they forget that their purpose is to serve the liturgy. 

Some people in Congregations simply do not sing because they fear their voice is inadequate and will not produce a sound that would give glory to God.  But God Himself is not a snob.  The power of sound  - even ugly sounds - was shown by God to Joshua, the great Israelite military leader who followed Moses, in the book of Joshua, chapter 6, when He tells Joshua how the walls of Jericho will fall down simply after the priests have blown some ram’s horns and marched around the city with the Ark of the Covenant.  Who you follow is more important than how beautiful the sound you make is.  The Lord hears your heart with more attention than your vocal chords.  But He also shows us that making a “glad sound to the Lord” is important and good. (Psalm 98: “Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth..”)

Praise God with the help of Hozana.

Hozana offers many opportunities to grow closer to the Lord through prayer.  Join our prayer communities and receive reminders, Bible quotes, prayers and edifying words to help you along.  Try meditating on the beatitudes with The Beatitudes: A Vision of Gospel Joy; Look into the life of Blessed Pio Giorgio Frassati as an example to inspire you with FrassatiUSA; Or meditate on the Way of the Cross with Pope Francis through The Way of the Cross led by Pope Francis.