II. Music History
There is no doubt historically that the first century church used only vocal music.
“All the music employed in their early services was vocal,” Frank Landon Humphreys, Evolution of Church Music.
“[Early church music was] purely vocal,” Dr Frederic Louis Ritter, Director, School of Music, Vassar.
“While pagan melodies were always sung to instrumental accompaniment, the church chant was exclusively vocal. Clement says, ‘Only one instrument do we use, the word of peace…’ Chrysostom: ‘Our tongues are the strings of the lyre, with a different tone, indeed, but with a more accordant piety.’ Ambrose expresses his scorn for those who would play the lyre and psaltery instead of singing hymns and psalms…Augustine adjures believers not to turn their hearts to theatrical instruments. The[se] religious guides of the early Christians felt that there would be an incongruity, and even profanity, in the use of…instrumental sound in their…spiritual worship…the pure vocal utterance was the more proper expression of their faith.” Edward Dickinson, Professor of Music History, Conservatory of Music, Oberlin, Music in the History of the Western Church.
“[There was a time] when organs were very seldom found outside the Church of England. The Methodists and Baptists rarely had them, and by the Presbyterians they were strongly opposed…even in the Church of England itself, organs did not obtain admission without much controversy,” Johh Spencer Curwin, Royal Academy of Music.
From A History of Western Music by Donald Jay Grout: Early Christian music was monophonic, meaning it had no harmony or counterpoint—everyone sang the same tune.
Judaism had a huge influence on the singing in the early church. Psalms were sung almost exclusively in the beginning, in several different ways. Sometimes they sang in alternation between a soloist and the congregation. This was called RESPONSORIAL PSALMODY. Sometimes two parts of verses or alternate verses were sung by two groups. This was called ANTIIPHONAL PSALMODY. At still other times a SOLOIST sang a certain passage using melodic formulas which could be altered to suit the cadence of the text. Because he was doing it ad lib, it was simply impossible for anyone else to sing with him.
Early hymns were probably sung to folk tunes the people knew, and were eventually put into a book. The oldest piece of church music found was a hymn of praise. We have only the last few lines and it was so mutilated it could not be completely reconstructed. It was found in Oxyrhynchos, Egypt and dated from the end of the third century (200’s). It is known as the Oxyrhynchos fragment.
The emphasis of music in the early church was on ecstasy (Spirit-filled revelation) and individual liberty, 1 Cor 14:26. It can be established absolutely that the early church sang without instrumental accompaniment.
A capella does not mean unaccompanied music. A capella is Latin for “in the style of the church.” Everyone simply understood that sacred music in the church was to be sung without accompaniment because it always had been.
When instrumental music was first introduced in the Catholic Church, it was fought vehemently, and only fully accepted several hundred years later, around the 11th century. Even in the nineteenth century, some conservative denominations avoided it, calling it “Romanist,” as in Roman Catholic.”
The Greek Orthodox Church divided from the Roman Catholic Church in the 11th century. (Today it consists of 13 branches, including the Russian Orthodox, Bulgarian Orthodox, Slavic Orthodox, etc.) These native Greek speakers had two issues with the Romans, the use of the word baptizo and the word psallo. They understood the original language and therefore rejected the introduction of sprinkling as baptism, and instrumental music in the singing of hymns. They knew that the one word in the first century meant “immerse” and the other meant “sing” and nothing else. To this day, the Orthodox church still sings a cappella.
A Personal Note
Some of you might be surprised if I said, “Yes! The early church had music.” “They sang without music,” is a common error, and one of my pet peeves. If you sing without music, you are a mighty poor singer! Singing is music.
As someone who has been there, in college you study two types of music—instrumental or vocal. Under the vocal division, you can sing with accompaniment or without—a capella. So much for the piano being merely an incidental—it totally changes the type of music.
As a piano/vocal major, one of my music education professors reminded me not to be tempted to play the piano every time the children sang. “They will never learn to carry a tune in a bucket,” she said, speaking of the crutch the piano would be to their ear development. In fact, a capella choirs are considered the most elite because their singers must have a good ear to stay on pitch. Any voice students I have had who were raised in the church singing a capella always had better aural capability than their friends in the denominations. And I have always considered it a little presumptuous to think that a manmade instrument can improve on the one God made.