The Church and the Development of Music

church interior Although music has no doubt been an important part of life for many cultures since antiquity, it was in the hands of the Western Christian Church that music underwent important developments that were to send it on a series of courses leading ultimately to classical forms and then on to influence today's myriad musical styles. An example of early religious music is unaccompanied plainsong, which under its alternative name of Gregorian Chant has made something of a comeback in recent times. While very different in sound from music as we know it today, it obeys early rules of form which were later to develop into important musical concepts. A well-known example of Gregorian Chant is the Dies Irae (or Day of Wrath) associated with Judgement Day and used for centuries by the Church during Requiem Massess.

Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris A number of significant factors contributed to the church's being the natural incubator nurturing music in this way. Firstly the early church was in several ways like the universities of today, educating its members in many subjects, fostering further research and documenting findings, retaining libraries of its knowledge to pass on to future generations. Secondly music (perhaps because of its ability to heighten emotional experience - see What is Music?) has always been an integral part of the process of worship, and much energy was dedicated to this pursuit and developing those musical skills in order to perfect that means of worship. These two factors combined not simply to pass on existing musical traditions, but to further develop them in various directions.

Example of Early Music Notation, held in Florence Italy - photo by Aaron Siirila It was in the hands of the church that our current form of music notation was invented and then refined. Prior to this music was learned by example, and other than deductions which can be made from pictures and engravings of musicians on the one hand, and descriptions recorded in literature on the other, we know very little about how music really sounded before the invention of music notation. At the right is an example of early music notation, and the recognisable features include a stave of horizontal lines with blobs for the notes. However the stave has 4 instead of 5 lines and, although the blobs vary in spacing, the rhythm is not particularly clear and not divided into bars.

Pivotal Composers in the history of the church

Hildegard von Bingen - from a self-portrait One reasonably well-documented case of an early composer flourishing in a religious setting was Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179) who became a nun attached to a monastery in Germany and later founded her own convent. Well educated, well-read and intelligent, she engaged the greatest thinkers and most influential people of the day in all manner of correspondence on a wide range of topics. On the creative side, she wrote poetry and set this and liturgical texts to music, writing hymns and religious songs. Since her music was recorded on paper and preserved by the order, it represents some of the earliest known examples of such music.

photo of a white church visible through tall trees Over the course of many years music was nurtured in this environment, different forms were developed, the concept of harmony evolved from simple rules of accompaniment based on intervals, and melodies were combined in different ways to form polyphony. At the time of the reformation, the church underwent substantial change and this had knock on effects on the use of music. Two composers closely involved in such developments in England were Thomas Tallis and William Byrd. The pace of development continued right up to the Baroque and Classical periods, where important composers were still frequently employed by the church such as Antonio Vivaldi and Johann Sebastian Bach. It was not until the time of Beethoven that composers were relatively independent artists but traditions continue, and even Beethoven and later composers have composed Masses and Requiems. Many other classical composers have contributed to the repertoire of hymn tunes used in church including Mendelssohn, Sullivan and Gounod to name a few.

Saint Cecilia - the Patron Saint of Music

Saint Cecilia, Virgin and Martyr - Portrait Saint Cecilia, Patron Saint of Music - Portrait Saint Cecilia is the Patron Saint of Musicians, Music in general, and Church Music in particular. She lived in Roman Times and was martyred for her beliefs. As the accompanying portraits show, Saint Cecilia is usually depicted holding a musical instrument and she is said to guide composers and musicians in their Art. A number of composers have paid tribute to the Saint, including Henry Purcell and George Frideric Handel, both of whom have written Odes in her memory. Her Feast Day is on 22nd November. In Rome, one of the oldest music conservatories is named after the Saint - the "Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia" or "National Academy of Saint Cecilia", which is also one of Rome's more famous classical music venues whose website is at A number of well-known Italian composers, conductors and musicians have studied there including Ennio Morricone and Nino Rota. The city of Edinburgh near mfiles' location also has a St. Cecilia's Hall which is a Concert Room and Music Museum attached to Edinburgh University.

The Nature of Church Music today

Organ Console at St. Patrick's Cathedral in Dublin Today, the Christian and other Churches use a wide variety of music in their services and rituals. Christianity has several different religions with differences in their beliefs, their services and their music. Even within a single religion there can be wide variations between different countries, or depending on the size of the church and the personal preferences of those involved in the services. Musically, some churches will have choirs ranging from informal gatherings to highly trained singers. The main instrument used to accompany church choirs has traditionally been the organ, with some cathedrals having very grand built-in organs and smaller churches perhaps having stand-alone organs either of the acoustic type using bellows or nowadays of the electronic type. However many other instruments can be used in churches, so organs do not have exclusivity. Nevertheless organ or keyboard music is fairly standard, and the sheet music we have included below is arranged in a traditional way suitable for keyboard, organ or piano.

Gospel Choir Different types of services are performed in churches, and sometimes events are performed externally with church involvement. There are masses and other religious services, and there are services for special occasions with a strong family or social element including Weddings, Funerals and Baptisms. There are some special events throughout the year on the church calendar, including Easter, Christmas and also services such as Remembrance Day. All of these events have varying demands for music, and many are associated with their own traditional and popular pieces of music. Some of these events may accommodate incidental music played in the background, and some may feature special performances like at a concert. One of the main forms of music universal to many churches and services is the hymn.

Church Hymnal resting on a keyboard A hymn is a simple religious poem set to music and often very similar to popular song forms being made up of verses frequently of 4 lines (and occasionally followed by four lines of chorus). A hymnal is a book of hymns containing the sheet music and/or the lyrics for a number of hymns. Many hymnals in use today use a notation consisting of a string of numbers or "meter". These numbers show the number of syllables in each line of the hymn, and in theory enable verses to be sung to different tunes provided they have the same "meter" or metrical form. For example the meter of the tune "Eventide" is "10 10 10 10" meaning that it consists of 4 phrases or lines each of 10 syllables, and therefore it is a suitable tune for singing the hymn "Abide With Me" whose meter is also "10 10 10 10". Such hymnals typically include a "Metrical Index" to allow organists to quickly locate a melody which might be suitable for the lyrics of a hymn.

Church music today and Hymns

Many hymns familiar today were written during the 19th century, but others are far older than this and some are more recent. A number of classical composers have been involved in writing hymns, or have had their music adapted as hymns. Here we include a few examples of hymns. Each hymn is presented with keyboard sheet music, midi and mp3 files, and these can be downloaded for non-commercial use:

Some of the hymn melodies above are also used to sing Patriotic Songs, and other hymn tunes have served or continue to serve as the National Anthems of certain countries or unions:

Then we have occasional music for events and special occasions such as Weddings and Funerals. Here are the most popular choices, but a wider selection is available from our Wedding Music and Funeral Music pages.

At mfiles you all these hymns are available as printable Sheet Music, or as MIDI files or MP3 files in the appropriate section.

Some online stores have a specific category with a large selection of Christian Music, such as Sheet Music Plus - Christian Sheet Music.

Christmas Carols

And of course we mustn't forget the particular occasion of Christmas which has its own special kind of Hymns and Songs known universally as Christmas Carols. Some of these are very well-known due to their frequent playing during the months of November and December, on television and in stores, and some might more accurately be called secular Christmas Songs rather than religious Carols. The following list shows the piano sheet music for the Christmas Carols here on mfiles. If you want sheet music for different instruments or midi or mp3 files then first go to our Christmas Music page.

Alphabetical List of Hymn Tunes

Since our catalogue of Hymn Music has been steadily increasing in size, we have now added the following alphabetical list of Hymn Tunes as an aid to visitors searching for particular melodies. Each Hymn Tune's name may be a word or short phrase (sometimes in Latin or other languages) associated in some way with the hymn. Saints' names are quite common and hymn tunes are also frequently named after towns or places associated with the composer. Please note however that some hymns do not have separate names for their tunes, possibly because they are universally sung to the same tune. Also some tunes may be known by different names in different hymnals.

Biographical Note

As a boy, I was the organist for a few years at my local church (in Kennoway, Fife). I played for normal Sunday services, weddings and special occasions such as Carol services at Christmas. I played lots of hymns, Christmas carols and also classical, traditional and sometimes folk or popular music. Those early experiences have influenced the music provided here.