How do we use, and understand, instrumental music in worship?

Last night, I had the opportunity to present my graduate research to the campus and the Nashville community through a lecture recital. I feel so blessed by the support of family and friends, and the ministries with which I’m involved, and I loved being able to share what I’ve been studying. I wanted to share a summary of my research here, because I have several friends and church families that aren’t in Nashville and couldn’t be there. Through this research process, I’ve come to a broader understanding of the role of music in worship, its ability to connect the spirit to the theological truths of the church, and its power to facilitate a more profound experience of the fundamental tenets of Christian faith.

My research over the past year has been focused on the use of instrumental music in worship. When worship music has lyrics, or a text is associated with the tune (like hymn arrangements), the decision about its use in worship is fairly direct. However, when there is no text associated with the music, it’s difficult to evaluate the music’s theological and liturgical appropriateness on the same level.

How can today’s church take as much care with instrumental music as they do with texted music, moving beyond superficial stylistic judgments into a discussion of how the music contributes meaningfully to worship? There are three steps that can help us answer this question: the context of the piece, an analysis of the music, and what these tell us about the piece’s use in our liturgy.

The first step is to discover the context of the work: historical, liturgical, scriptural, and doctrinal. Context colors how musicians understand and convey the work, and an understanding of the context will lead to a truer conveyance of the music to the congregation.

The Choral Varié sur le theme du Veni Creator by Maurice Duruflé (1902-1986) is a beautiful piece of music, but it has an historical and liturgical context that is essential to fully understanding the work. The chant upon which the work is based was likely composed for the 809 Aachen Synod at which the Carolingians (the aristocratic dynasty of the eighth- and ninth-century Franco-German Empire) decided that “the belief that the Holy Spirit proceeds from both the Father and the Son (‘filioque’) is necessary for salvation.”[i] Many years later in the second half of the nineteenth century, the plainchant revival was beginning in France, while the Vatican was working to unify the stubbornly independent French Gallican Catholic tradition with the Roman Catholic tradition. The Church used the plainchant revival, with a push for the establishment of an authoritative set of plainchant texts, to help bring the French tradition into line.[ii]

All the while the Church was seeking unification, it was putting itself in opposition to the secularist government. Plainchant was seen as anti-government, counter-cultural, free of the clichés of modern music and uniquely sacred, which burdened Duruflé’s extensive use of plainchant with even more political implications. Understanding this musical and political history is the key to understanding Duruflé’s music.

Scriptural and doctrinal context comes into play with the instrumental works of other composers, such as Renaissance composer Girolamo Frescobaldi or twentieth-century organist Larry King. Frescobaldi (1583-1643) was trained in the late-seventeenth-century Roman Catholic Church of Italy. At that time the church observed a Latin Mass that was, in both language and doctrine, inaccessible to the uneducated laity, and not intended to be participatory. The laity were encouraged to their own individual prayers and rosaries while the priests performed the Mass on their behalf. This is a far cry from the church we expect to find today: worship in a common language, understandable doctrines, and encouraged, even expected, participation. Frescobaldi’s music needs to be considered with an awareness of the evolution of worship doctrine and practices in the church.[iii]

Larry King (1932-1990), by contrast, was a paradigm of the twentieth-century church musician. He lived fully within the historical liturgy and music of the church, while at the same time wholly embracing the revelations of the twentieth-century compositional world. He felt a pressing responsibility to convey the compassionate ministry of Jesus Christ through his music, in the hopes that today’s world would come to a reflection of Christ’s love, life, and resurrection.[iv] His instrumental music is heavily informed by scripture, so scriptural interpretation is vital to a contextual understanding of his music.

The next step to incorporating instrumental music in worship is a solid musical analysis. Context is only half the battle; musical comprehension is needed to apply the aforementioned context and gain a full understanding of the work.

Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992) not only used his own system called “the modes of limited transposition,” but he was a full-blown part of the twentieth-century compositional movement, moving beyond tonality in an attempt to more precisely convey the divine truths of his Roman Catholic faith. The scriptural and doctrinal context of Messiaen’s works is important, but without a translation of his musical symbolism and methods, the music itself is difficult to understand, and his message is lost.

Though composed two hundred years before Messiaen, the music of J.S. Bach (1685-1750) needs to be understood in the same way. Musical analysis of Bach’s instrumental works illuminates its scriptural, liturgical, and doctrinal context, allowing the music to become a vehicle upon which Bach conveyed his German Lutheran faith tradition.[v]

Finally, perhaps the most critical step of all is to let this contextual and musical understanding inform the inclusion of instrumental music in the worship of the church. Church music at its best provides an avenue to understanding theology, it ministers to the congregation, and it facilitates a more profound understanding of the presence of God in worship. This is possible only with the thorough contextual and musical understandings of the music being used in worship. The judicious use of instrumental music in worship can help the congregation engage with the liturgy in a fundamentally deeper level than they would be able to otherwise, by infusing the cognitive with a spiritual and emotional awareness and opening the heart and mind to experience the presence and work of God in more meaningful way.

If you’d like to learn more about incorporating instrumental music in today’s worship, some excellent resources are Maeve Louise Heaney’s Music As Theology: What Music Has to Say about the Word; Music in Christian Worship: At the Service of the Liturgy, edited by Charlotte Kroeker; and Resonant Witness: Conversations Between Music and Theology edited by Jeremy Begbie and Steve Guthrie.

[i] “Veni creator spiritus.” The Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology. Canterbury Press, accessed January 9, 2015,

[ii] For more on the plainchant revival in France, see The Politics of Plainchant in fin-de-siecle France. Ellis, Katharine. 2013, Ashgate Publishing Limited. For more about Duruflé, see Maurice Duruflé: The Man and His Music. Frazier, James E. 2007, University of Rochester Press

[iii] To learn more about the evolution of worship practices, see Word, Water, Wine, and Bread: How Worship Has Changed Over the Years. Willimon, William H. 1980, Judson Press.

[iv] For more information on Larry King, see the biographical preface in Larry King: The Organ Music, for solo organ and organ and tape (CD). Rhodes, Cherry and James Simms, eds. 2014, Wayne Leopold Editions, Inc.

[v] For more, see Peter Williams’ The Organ Music of J.S. Bach. 2003, Cambridge University Press.


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