Religion and Music

Figure 1.--Of all the great relgious traditions, Christianity has the richest musical tradition. The glories of classical music developed out of the Church. And here the boy choir tradition played a central role in the development, although there were significant variation among denominations. Non other religion has a musical tradition so conneced with the boy voice.

Music plays a major role in the Christian religion. The Christioan Church from an early point in its development incorporated music in religious celebrations. This seems to be, however, rather unique. Music appears to play a minor role or is completely absent in other religions. Several religions use various forms of chanting, but actual music seems rare. We also do not know why Christianity is unique in this regard. This is, however, a topic that we know very little about. Hopefully HBC readers will provide some useful insights. estern music emerged primarily from Church music at the end if the mdieval era. This was a complicated process because the different Chriti denomintions had different visions as to role and aceptl fotmats and venues for music.


We know of no Buddhist musical tradition.. Buddhism does have a tradition of chanting. We know little about it. I am not aware of boys being involved in any of this in the same sense of a Christian boys' choir. We do not that boys become involved as monks at an early age.


Music came to play an important part in Christian religious services. We are not entirely sure about the historical process in which this developed. It does not appear to have Jewish roots. We are less sure about the musical tradition in the various religions with which Christianity competed within the Roman Empire. Boy choirs are noted at an early stage in the development of the Christian Church, at least by the 5th century. The Church has in turn played a role in the development of music. Just as much of medieval art focused on religious themes so did music focus on religious themes. The Church during the Dark ages was one of the few European institutions with the wealth to support both art and music. While music is important in most Christian faiths, the use of music has varied widely among the different denominations. Many boy choirs are associated with the Catholic Church. The Anglican Church in England is especially noted for its magnificent cathedral choirs. Protestant churches have also sponsored boy chours. Christianity is the religion with the strongest musical tradition. Many other religions seem to largely ignore music.


Hindu music encompased both classical Indian music and Kirtan Bhajan as well as otherlesser musical genres. Traditional Indian classical music iss based on ragas and tala (rhythmic beat patterns). The primary instruments are Veena (or Been), Sarangi Venu (flute), Mridanga(or Tabla)). The Sikh Scripture contains 31 ragas and 17 talas which form the basis for kirtan music compositions. A kirtan is a communal, call-and-response chanting of mantras. This often include musical accompymrnt as well as dance. Kirtans are deeply rooted in the HHindu Vedic tradition. the oldest Hindu scriptures. Samaveda, one of the four Vedas, describes music at length. A bhajan is a Hindu devotional song, commonly of ancient origin. They tend to be simple songs in lyrical language expressing love for the Divine which can be somewhat complicated given the Hindu panoply of gods. It can be a single God/Goddess or a multiplicity of divinities. And a further complication is that there are often several names for the same god. Hindu sahasranamas list a divinity's 1008 names. Hindus stress that singing bhajans must be done with Bhakti (loving devotion). The most popular bhajan in northern India is "Om Jai Jagdish Hare." The bhajans are religiously chanted to nclude Vishnu and his incarnations, Shiva and the Goddess (Parvati, Shakti, Vaishnodevi). The most common scale in Hindu music is 1 2 3 4 5 6 7. This can be harmonized into a chord progression. There are noted music-saints (Sant Tyagaraja) and poet-saints (Sant Ravidas).


We know of no Islamic musical tradition. One reader writes, "I was of the understanding that Islam has no place for music beyond the Call to Prayer wailing from minarets." In the same way that Islamic artists are not allowed to depict any living creature, although some Islamic traditions are flexible on this. As with depictions of human form, the Islamic ban on music does not appear to be abolute. A reader writes, "In Indonesia for example Muhammedan prayers are often accompanied by instrumental music and some muezzin are good singers. When I lived in Indonesia in the 1970s I stayed next to a mosque both in Jakarta and in the South Sumatra Highlands and prayers were sung from the minaret five times a day . Waking up at half past five with the muezzin's ethereal sholat suhud is a cherished memory."


The Jewish musical tradition is very important generally in Western music. This includes both classical and popular music. Many of the great Jewish composers came from religious families whose fathers were rabbis. One of the most beloved American composers, Irving Berlin, was the son of an itinerant cantor. Music became a documented factor in the Jewish tradition with David. His voice and lyre helped charm King Saul. The leaders of Judah assigning two choirs to offer thanks in some translations. [Nehemiah Chapter 12, verse 31] The Jerusalem Temple Cult in Judaism led to the formation of specialized musicians. This was reserved for the men from the tribe of Levi. The Talmud refers augmenting singing with a few boys’ voices to that of the men “to add sweetness”. This does not mean a there were Jewish boy choirs or formalized choirs of any kind. It does suggest, however, that in the Jewish culture tradition that there was a recognition of the special aethetic value of boys' voices. A reader writes, "The Jewish musical tradition did not influence Western music that much. You mention Irving Berlin who was first of all an American composer, There is very little "Jewishness" in his music. The same can be said of Felix Mendelssohn and Gustav Mahler who's works are steeped in the German classical tradition. They even composed some 'Christian' music after they were converted to Protestantism (Mendelssohn) and Catholicism (Mahler) On the other hand, the Catholic Max Bruch (1838-1920) composed a Kol Nidre for Yom Kippur services." t seems to be that Jews are more proiment in music than one would expect from their general distribution in the population. My thought on the matter was that exposure to music in the Syngogue had some lasting impact as well as parents encourging children to learn an instrument, but these are just musings. Our reade writes, "It is a fact that there were hardly any Jews among the most famous composers. Mendelssohn and Mahler are the exception. As I mentioned before Mendelssohn became a Protestant (he was from Hamburg in northern Germany) and Mahler converted to Catholicism, always living in the South (Austria, Bavaria, etc.) Mendelssohn wrote three oratorios with a Christian biblical text (translated into German), while Mahler wrote a lot of Lie-der (songs) in the German romantic style. Other Jewish composers were Meyerbeer and Offenbach, both living in Paris, but born in Germany. Their music also showed no trace of Judaism. It is also a fact that among performers, soloists, singers, conductors, etc. there are a disproportional amount of Jews compared to other groups. They are very talented people. The Jews love do the Germans."


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Created: 5:36 AM 12/24/2004
Last updated: 10:35 PM 11/25/2012