Here’s a whistle stop tour of why Christians sing in church:
A History of Christian Worship
The early church was comprised of Jews who had accepted Jesus as the promised Messiah. Therefore, to understand what contemporary Christian worship is and why it is there, one must look at historical Jewish worship, as this is the foundation that modern Christian worship is based on.
The beginnings of Jewish music are not known, what is not shrouded in mystery is known by what the Bible tells us (Barton 2014, p.7). The book of Psalms is full of many musical directions of how to worship God, however, as there are no sound recordings or musical notation related to the musical directions in the psalms, we can only speculate as to how they would have sounded. The first mention in the Bible of music, a musical instrument and a musician is when a woman called Adah gives birth to her son whom she named Jubal, in Genesis 4:20-22:
“ Adah gave birth to Jabal, who was the first of those who raise livestock and live in tents.  His brother’s name was Jubal, the first of all who play the harp and flute.  Lamech’s other wife, Zillah, gave birth to a son named Tubal-cain. He became an expert in forging tools of bronze and iron. Tubal-cain had a sister named Naamah.” (Genesis 4:20-22 NLT)
Here, we are introduced to three primary professions on earth, apart from tending the Garden of Eden, like Adam. Those who work with livestock (v.20), the musician (v.21) and the craftsman in bronze and iron (v.22) (Barton 2014, p.9).
The Hebrews, (as they were known before they arrived in Israel), were given instructions to worship God in the books of the Law, which, at the time, also involved animal sacrifice. They were told what to sacrifice and when but no specifics was given regarding worship (Williams 2018, Origins of Christian Worship).
There are a few examples describing how worship was lead in the Bible but again we do not know how it sounded. We read early on in the Bible that after leaving Egypt, Miriam, the sister of Moses, took a timbrel and led the other women, who also had timbrels and to praise God in Exodus 15; 20 and 21. In Leviticus, we are introduced to the Shofar, this is a Rams horn which was blown by a priest on feast days. The Shofar is still played today and sounds like a trumpet or horn. In Numbers 10:1-10, we are introduced to another kind of horn, the silver trumpet, like the Shofar, this is not strictly a musical instrument but is also only used by the priests who blew it to signal to the Hewbrew’s that they were moving the camp.
Fast-forward many generations to the book of Samuel we discover that there were prophets who were also musicians. Saul met them following an encounter with Samuel:
“When you arrive at Gibeah of God, where the garrison of the Philistines is located, you will meet a band of prophets coming down from the place of worship. They will be playing a harp, a tambourine, a flute, and a lyre, and they will be prophesying. (1 Samuel 10:5 NLT)
Music was also used for therapeutic reasons, David played the harp for King Saul, conducted under what has become known as the Psalmist anointing, which is “…the power coming from God in the music to drive evil spirits away” (Barton 2014, p.9):
And whenever the tormenting spirit from God troubled Saul, David would play the harp. Then Saul would feel better, and the tormenting spirit would go away. (1 Samuel 16:23 NLT).
Later, once David became king and he brought the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem there was dancing; singing; they were playing lyres; harps; tambourines and other percussive instruments (2 Samuel 6:5) and Rams horn’s were played in 2 Samuel 6.15. David also assigned men from the Levite clans to sing and play music in worship to God in the tabernacle, (which at the time was a tent), 24 hours a day and they did so until his heir and son Solomon built a temple made of brick (1 Chronicles 6:31-32). In fact, the whole of 1 Chronicles 25 also shows us that David appointed entire families from the Levite clans to play music, this would have amounted to several thousand singers and musicians (Barton 2014, p.9). David also appointed a choir leader, who functioned, I imagine, much in the same way as a modern choir leader (1 Chronicles 15:16) (Nehemiah 12:46). When David established the Ark of the Covenant in the Tabernacle, he personally paid for musicians out of his treasury:
“ David appointed the following Levites to lead the people in worship before the Ark of the LORD–to invoke his blessings, to give thanks, and to praise the LORD, the God of Israel.  Asaph, the leader of this group, sounded the cymbals. Second to him was Zechariah, followed by Jeiel, Shemiramoth, Jehiel, Mattithiah, Eliab, Benaiah, Obed-edom, and Jeiel. They played the harps and lyres.  The priests, Benaiah and Jahaziel, played the trumpets regularly before the Ark of God’s Covenant.” (1 Chronicles 16:4-6 NLT)
Before David’s Tabernacle (tent) was erected worship was quite solemn, as directed by Moses and involved animal sacrifice. In David’s Tabernacle worship livened up. This could have been because David was quite a creative and passionate person. The Bible tells us that he was a poet, harpist and singer, as well as a shepherd, King and warrior. The Bible also tells us that David also appeared to enjoy dancing as well, see 2 Samuel 16:14 (Barton 2014, p.15).
Once, Solomon, David’s son and heir had built the Temple of the Lord, he celebrated this with music, 120 priests playing trumpets and God responded to this by filling the Temple with His presence:
“ And the Levites who were musicians–Asaph, Heman, Jeduthun, and all their sons and brothers–were dressed in fine linen robes and stood at the east side of the altar playing cymbals, lyres, and harps. They were joined by 120 priests who were playing trumpets.  The trumpeters and singers performed together in unison to praise and give thanks to the LORD. Accompanied by trumpets, cymbals, and other instruments, they raised their voices and praised the LORD with these words: “He is good! His faithful love endures forever!” At that moment a thick cloud filled the Temple of the LORD.  The priests could not continue their service because of the cloud, for the glorious presence of the LORD filled the Temple of God.” (2 Chronicles 5:12-14 NLT) (Barton 2014, p.9).
The instruments used in the Temple worship in King Solomon’s times were:
Kinnor – A Harp or Lyre – a plucked string instrument probably with 12 strings. It is the national instrument of Israel still today.
Ugav – a flute or shawm – a wood instrument
Tof – a small tambourine-type instrument often played by women
Machalat – The nature of this instrument cannot be established
Shofar – Ram’s horn
Pa’amon – Bells
Chatzotzerah – The Silver trumpet which God told Moses to make and used to signal the onward movement of the Hebrews in the wilderness and at other festival times – blown only by priests.
The tabret (or trimbrel) – was probably a small hand held percussion instrument (Rothmüller 1967) (Barton 2014, p. 16).
Following the destruction of this temple and the exile and return of the Israelites to Israel, worship changed slightly but the basic elements remained the same and there were still many musicians, Ezra records that 128 singers returned from exile with him (Ezra 2:41), later there were 200 women and men singers (Ezra 2:65). Nehemiah records in Nehemiah 7:67 that the singers were so numerous that they built villages around the capital to accommodate them and they were given a quota of food each day (Nehemiah 11:23) (Barton 2014, pp.17-18). What changed was the tone of worship during the exile of the Israelites from their own country to Babylon by the Babylonians. Singing in the synagogues was briefly banned, possibly due to the sorrow of exile as well as the rise of emphasis on the law by the Pharisee’s Some things were added, like the formalized order of public prayers, still used in Synagogues today, was established by the Great Assembly of Jewish leaders. This is known as the synagogue system (Barton 2014, p.19).
Historical Liturgical Synagogue Worship
The following are institutionalised liturgical practices from the synagogue system:
The Cantor was the leader of chanting prayers, psalms and scriptures in the synagogue, which became the dominant form of music in the synagogues for many centuries, following the lifting of the ban on singing in the synagogues. The chant was a liturgical practice that involved a number of syllables being sung to each note of a short melodic line that is repeated throughout the passage being read/sung. The cantor would take contemporaneous melodic patters or compose his own melodies. Chanting of Psalms was often done antiphonally with two choirs groups to lead the congregation. Rabbis did not allow women to sing, so all music was male led by men and boys and chanting was monophonic. The scales differed depending on the spatio-temporal location of the synagogue as the local folk music culture often influenced the Cantor’s musical creations (Barton 2014, p.21).
In the Cantillation the cantor or leader singer of a synagogue sings the declamatory form of the weekly text of the Torah, and the Prophets (Nevi’im) using pre-existing musical phrases. The musical phrases are chosen according to the text and book of the Bible being cantillated. There is no rhythm as different musical motives are combined together. Although there is reason to believe that cantillation goes back as far as Ezra in the Bible times – about 2,500 years ago – most melodies used today are no older that about the 15th or 16th century (Rubin and Baron 2006, pp.67-69) (Barton 2014, pp.21-22).
Jewish Liturgical Modes
A set of musical modes are called ‘Nusach’ which can refer either to a set of modes, melodies and also a set text or prayer. These modes or melodies link the prayer to a time of year or day and also indicate what prayer is to be sing or recited. These melodies became standardized, as did the prayers associated with the melodies. The Three main modes are: Ahavah Rabbah, Magein Avot and Adonai Malach. Today they are improvised from time to time) (Barton 2014, p.22).
The prayers of the Synagogues were chanted usually led by a Cantor and a male choir (if available). The Cantors usually sang in a florid and melodious style that was either of their own devising (before the modes became formalized) or influence by the local culture’s melodic lines. After the formalizing of the prayers the following forms emerged and remain until this day in the modern synagogues:
Piyyut: – a Jewish liturgical poem that is sung, chanted or spoken. A lot of Piyytim are poetic in character and often follow the order of an acrostic poem using the Hebrew Alphabet in order at the beginning of each line.
Zemiros: Jewish Hymns sung in Hebrew, Aramaic, Yiddish or Ladino, sung at holidays, the Shabbat meal on Fridays or any other day.
Nigun: religious songs sung by groups that involve voice and with no formal words; syllables such as bim-bim-bam or ai-ai-ai are sung.
Pizmonim: Traditional Jewish songs associated with Middle Eastern Sephardic Jews – but are also among the North African and Mizrahi Jews. Texts may come from the Old Testament or by poets. They are composed to praise God and contain traditional teaching. They are often sung at religious rituals or festivities such as circumcisions, weddings Bar Mitzvahs or other ceremonies.
Baqashot: a collection of songs and prayers sung by Sephardic Jewish communities during Shabbat, but also may be recited during the long weeks of winter) (Barton 2014, pp.22-23).
That’s all folks!
Barton, B. 2014. The Music of the Jews: An Overview. Fellowship Diploma dissertation. National College of Music, London.
Rothmüller, A. M. 1967. The Music of the Jews; an Historical Appreciation. South Brunswick: T. Yoseloff.
Rubin, E. and J. H. Baron. 2006. Music in Jewish History and Culture. Sterling Heights. MI: Harmonie Park.
Williams, B. ‘Origins of Christian Worship’ Academia Web site, at: <https://www.academia.edu/26562401/Origins_of_Christian_Worship > 15 October 2018