Church Fathers on Musical Instruments

This page is intended to collect positive statements from the Church Fathers about musical instruments. I wanted to make this article because I’ve seen some articles about Fathers who had a negative attitude toward musical instruments, and I think there’s another, more positive side to the story. BTW I’m confident this list can be added to; what do you think, readers? Do you know any other Church Fathers who made positive comments about musical instruments?

Church Fathers on Musical Instruments

180 A.D. - St. Irenaeus - “[The] virtue[s], [which] are laborious, glorious, and skilful, which also are approved universally as being good…[include] the arts…as, for example, every kind of music.” (Against Heresies Book 2 Chapter 32 Paragraph 2)

~247 A.D. - Origen - “[T]here are indeed among musical sounds some accordant and others discordant. … [It] was fitting that when the [prodigal] son…came by penitence into concord with his father a symphony should be heard on the occasion of the joyous mirth of the house. [Luke 15:25] … [Akin] to the symphony of this nature is…[the fact that] David and his son played before the Lord on instruments artistically fitted with might and with songs…for the instruments thus fitted with might and with songs, had in themselves the musical symphony which is [very] powerful… [W]hen two [people]…[bring a prayer] along with the symphony which has relation to the music that is divine and spiritual…the Father grants the request to those who ask along with the symphony on earth—which is most miraculous—those things which those who have made the symphony spoken of may have asked.” (Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew Book 14 Chapter 1)

~304 A.D. - St. Lactantius - “[W]hat account can we give of the voice? … [W]hen [the breath] has struck against the…throat, [it] forces out the sound of the voice: [even so] when we send down [our] breath into an open hemlock stalk, having applied it to [our] lips, [our] breath, reverberating from the hollow of the stalk, and rolled back from the bottom…produces a sound… [And consider that] harmony [exists] in the case of the lyre. For musicians call the stretching and sounding of the strings…harmony. … [A] harmonious modulation exists on the lyre…[when] well-stretched [strings] produce harmonious sound. … [In] the lyre, when anything has been interrupted or relaxed, the whole method of the strain is disturbed and destroyed… For the lyre cannot of its own accord send forth a sound…it [must be] moved by a blow from without…by the hands; [and] without the handling of the artificer, and the stroke of [his] fingers, [it lies] mute and motionless.” (On the Workmanship of God Chapters 15-16)

Before 373 A.D. - Yaqub of Serug writes: “[St.] Ephraem [the Syrian] arose against the games and the dances of the young people, and he gathered the daughters of the covenant and he taught them songs, both refrain-songs and alternative songs [antiphons]. … And each time the daughters of the covenant gathered in the Churches on the Festivals and Sundays…he, like a father, stood in their midst, accompanying them with the kithara, teaching them the various kinds of song and the change of songs, until the entire city gathered about him, and the crowd of his opponents disbanded.” (Yaqub of Serug in Bedjan, Acta Martyrum et Sanctorum, III, 665 ff; also A. Hahn, in Kirchenhistorisches Archiv, fasc. III, p. 63. source)

380 A.D. - St. Gregory of Nyssa - “[A] skilled musician, who may have been deprived by some affection of his own voice, [who] yet wish[es] to make his skill known, might make melody with [the] voices of others, and publish his art by the aid of flutes or of the lyre… Now the music of the human [voice] is a sort of compound of flute and lyre, sounding together in combination as in a concerted piece of music. For the breath…strikes against the [vocal chords]…which divide [the] flute-like passage [of the throat] in a circular arrangement, [and] imitates in a way the sound uttered through a flute…and the opening and closing of the lips has the same effect as players produce when they check the breath of the flute with their fingers according to the measure of the tune.” (On the Making of Man Chapter 9)

397 A.D. - St. Augustine - “[All] sound, which is the material of song, is by nature of three kinds. For it is either produced by the voice, as in the case of those who sing with the mouth without an instrument; or by blowing, as in the case of trumpets and flutes; or by striking, as in the case of harps and drums, and all other instruments that give their sound when struck. … [We] ought not to give up music because of the superstition of the heathen, if we can derive anything from it that is of use for the understanding of Holy Scripture.” (On Christian Doctrine Book 2 Chapters 17-18)

And: “[If] we enter upon an investigation about harps and other instruments, [it] may help us to lay hold upon spiritual things. For we ought not to refuse to learn letters because they say that Mercury discovered them; nor because they have dedicated temples to Justice and Virtue, and prefer to worship in the form of stones things that ought to have their place in the heart, ought we on that account to forsake justice and virtue. Nay, but let every good and true Christian understand that wherever truth may be found, it belongs to his Master; and while he recognizes and acknowledges the truth, even in their religious literature, let him reject the figments of superstition.” (ibid.)


I think that the Eastern Orthodox Church is against the use of musical instruments during Church services and relies on the human voice only. The one exception is the use of bells, which are sometimes allowed. Also, I think I read somewhere that before Vatican II, the use of the guitar at Catholic church services was condemned together with “profane” music.

I’ve heard that too, though I think some of them use drums. St. Tikphon Monastery uses bells in this video clip from a Divine Liturgy, and they are in communion with all the mainstream Orthodox communions since they are part of the Orthodox Church in America. Coptic Orthodox churches in Ethiopia also use a drum called a Kebero, according to Wikipedia.

The one exception is the use of bells, which are sometimes allowed.

Oh, I guess you knew that. :o

Also, I think I read somewhere that before Vatican II, the use of the guitar at Catholic church services was condemned together with “profane” music.

I’m not aware of the history of the guitar in liturgy, though I do see that the organ wasn’t allowed in some churches until modern times. In 1749 A.D., Pope Benedict XIV said: “The use of the organ and other musical instruments, has not yet [been] received in the whole Christian world. In fact…Our Pontifical Chapel, as everyone knows, while admitting singing music, provided it is serious, decent and devoted, [has] never [admitted] the organ… [And] the famous Church of Lyon, always contrary to the novelties, following to this day the example of the Pontifical Chapel, [has] never wanted to introduce the use of the organ.” (Annus Qui Hunc 3)

When Pope St. Pius 10 released his 1903 Motu Proprio on Sacred Music, he said that modern musical instruments can be permitted, but also stressed a point related to the one you made: “Although the music proper to the Church is purely vocal music, music with the accompaniment of the organ is also permitted. In some special cases, within due limits and with proper safeguards, other instruments may be allowed, but never without the special permission of the [bishop of the diocese].” source

Here’s how Pope Pius 12 put it in his 1947 encyclical Mediator Dei: “It cannot be said that modem music and singing should be entirely excluded from Catholic worship. For, if they are not profane nor unbecoming to the sacredness of the place and function…then our churches must admit them…”

And in his 1955 encyclical Musicae Sacrae: “Among the musical instruments that have a place in church the organ rightly holds the principal position… Besides the organ, other instruments can be called upon…so long as they play nothing profane [and] nothing clamorous or strident and nothing at variance with the sacred services… Among these the violin and other musical instruments that use the bow are outstanding…[especially] when they are played…with other stringed instruments or with the organ.”

Since the use of musical instruments has changed over time, it seems to fall into the category of disciplines rather than doctrines. The Church Fathers were clear that disciplines can differ in various times and places, but doctrines cannot. See Church Fathers on Doctrine versus Discipline for more info on that.

Thanks for the discussion so far.

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