The most significant survival of the music of biblical times is its lyrical material. The Bible gives no indication of the actual melodies used in ancient times by singers for the rendition of the lyrical and only random reference to the range and character of music, musical instruments, and musical patterns. In the Hebrew Bible, however, there are a variety of musical expressions during the monarchic period and a treasure house of hymns after the exile, and the New Testament contains several examples of hymns as well.

The musical tradition of Israel began in the premonarchic period. Israel's ancestors are depicted as seminomads, traveling long distances within their territorial boundaries in search of grazing land and watering places for their herds of sheep and goats. The Song of the Well (Num. 21.17–18), for example, reveals their constant search for water, and disputes over territory are reflected in their war songs, ranging from shouts associated with the banner (Exod. 17.16) and with the ark (Num. 10.35–36) to the skillfully composed Song of Deborah (Judg. 5); note also the reference to the lost “Book of Wars of the Lord” mentioned in Numbers 21.14–15, where a few lines are quoted. The purpose of the brief war shouts was to enable members of a tribe to identify themselves with their own group, and that of the Song of Lamech (Gen. 4.23–24) to incite them to execute the law of blood vengeance. In the case of Miriam's brief song of triumph (Exod. 15.21) the biblical author reports that women in her entourage danced and beat their tambourines. This suggests a sharp, strident, staccato rendering of brief war refrains. In the case of longer war odes it seems likely that they had a more elaborate instrumental setting, and, as Genesis 4.21 suggests, such instruments as harps and pipes were used from an early time. In fact the reference in Genesis 4.21 to Jubal as the “father of all who play” these instruments is particularly important for its implication of organized guilds of professional musicians in the premonarchic period.

The centralization of the monarchy brought about changes in Israel's social, economic, and cultural life. Court musicians were remembered for their participation in such functions as coronations, weddings, funerals, and banquets; note, for example, 2 Samuel 19.35. The coronation of a king was a joyous occasion: a trumpet's blast gave the signal for the crowd's acclamation (2 Kings 1.34), and the noise of pipes and trumpets was so great that “the earth quaked” (1 Kings 1.40). For celebrations of his enthronement, musicians sang odes of praise for his just rule and victory over the nation's enemies (1 Sam. 18.7; Pss. 2; 21; 72; 110). They also sang laments for slain warriors (2. Sam. 1.19–27). Court musicians performed at royal weddings (Ps. 45; Amos 6.4–6). The summoning of David to the court to calm Saul's violent temper by playing the lyre (1 Sam. 16.14–23; 18.10; 19.9) was an exceptional command performance. By the time of Hezekiah's reign, court singers and instrumentalists had been so widely acclaimed that they had the unfortunate honor of being included among the royal treasures taken from the palace of Jerusalem by Sennacherib to his capital at Nineveh (701 BCE).

During the monarchic period the second important center for the development of Hebrew music was the Temple at Jerusalem. Familiar in this connection are the stories of how David brought the ark to Jerusalem in a religious procession with dancing, shouts of joy, and the sound of the ram's horn (2 Sam. 6.12–19) and how Solomon dedicated the sanctuary in which it was housed (1 Kings 8; 2 Chron. 5.2–14). Although the music of the Temple was undoubtedly not as elaborate in Solomonic times as the later, postexilic Chronicler imagined, it is likely that the king had a major role in organizing the musical elements of the service. The blowing of the silver trumpets both summoned the congregation to the Temple and indicated the times for the offering of sacrifice (Num. 1.1–3, 10; Ps. 98.6). To the accompaniment of stringed instruments (Ps. 98.5) the priestly choir sang hymns, which were probably the familiar ones of praise (Pss. 145–150), petition (Pss. 44; 74; 79; 80; 83), and thanksgiving (Pss. 30; 66; 106–108).

Hymns were composed according to the metrical scheme of traditional Hebrew poetry: that is, in couplets of two lines having an accentual rhythm of three or four beats to each line and exhibiting a “parallelism of members,” whether synonymous, antithetical, or progressive (step‐parallelism). A much‐used variation of this metrical scheme is the extension of the three‐beat line by two beats, which gives the structural unit a limping or elegiac character. The 3:3 accentual pattern of a single structural unit whose lines express an idea in synonymous parallelism may be illustrated by the passage:

The heavens are telling the glory of God,

and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.

[Ps. 19.1]

In Psalm 150 the lyricist lists many, but not all, instruments used by musicians: among the strings, the lyre (kinnôr) and the harp with ten strings (nēbel); among the wind instruments, the ram's horn (šōpār) and the flute (ʿûgāb), but not the metal trumpet (ḥă⊡ō⊡ĕrâ) and the double oboe (ḥālîl); and among the percussion instruments, the tambourine (tōp) and cymbals (⊡el⊡ĕlîm), but not the sistrum (mĕnaʿanʿîm).

Prophecy and the prophetic movement give us two interesting sidelights on the development of music that occurred apart from the king's patronage: first, on the association of religion and music, and second, on the use of secular music. In the early years of the monarchy, guilds of prophets found that the playing of such instruments as harps, lyres, tambourines, and flutes induced a trancelike state during which individuals were seized by God's spirit and prophesied ecstatically (1 Sam. 10.5–7, 11–13; 2 Kings 3.14–20); in the later period none of the prophets whose oracles are recorded is known to have used music for this purpose. This did not deter them from using effectively metrical forms of lyrics for their pronouncements. Amos, for example, used the qînâ meter of professional musicians for his lament over the imminent destruction of Israel:

Fállen no móre to ríseis maíden ísrael;fórsaken ón her lándwith nóne to upraíse her.

[Amos 5.2]

These later prophets also allude to secular music of urban and rural communities: songs associated with agricultural life (Isa. 9.3; 16.10; Jer. 25.30), wedding songs (Jer. 7.34) and songs for feasts that were accompanied by such instruments as harps, lyres, tambourines, and flutes (Isa. 23.16). An example of a harvest song is Isaiah's famous Song of the Vineyard (Isa. 5.1–4).

We hear next of the development of music two centuries after the destruction of the Temple, the fall of the monarchy, and the taking captive of its leaders to Babylon. In the Persian period, exiles returning to Jerusalem were given permission to rebuild the Temple and organize their corporate life under the leadership of the high priest. It is natural, therefore, that the Temple and the Law became the two foci of Jewish existence. For the development of music during this period the two outstanding sources are the books of Chronicles and Psalms, the latter sometimes called the “hymn book of the Second Temple.”

According to these two sources it seems that from the fourth century BCE on music became an even more important feature of worship at the Temple than in the earlier period. Vocal and instrumental music was performed by guilds of professional musicians who associated themselves by descent with Heman, Asaph, and Jeduthan (and Korah), and thus ultimately with Levi, and claimed that they had been commissioned by David himself (1 Chron. 6.16–32). They apparently collected psalms (e.g., Pss. 73–82 attributed to Asaph) and added musical and liturgical notations, some of which are obscure, like, for example, the term selah, which probably indicates a pause in the singing of a psalm for a brief instrumental interlude. Titles to the psalms were also added to indicate how the lyrics were to be performed and used. Some psalms were to be sung with the accompaniment of stringed instruments (Ps. 4) or flutes (Ps. 5); others sung to known tunes (e.g., “The Deer of the Dawn,” Ps. 22); and still others for religious occasions (for pilgrimages, Pss. 120–134; for the dedication of the Temple, Ps. 30; for the Sabbath, Ps. 92). So well established is the relation of Temple worship and music that the psalmists associated the act of coming to the place of God's presence with that of making “a joyful noise to him with songs of praise” (Ps. 95.2) and of “making melody to him with tambourine and lyre” (Ps. 149.3).

The development of music and its use in early Christianity can be reconstructed only tentatively from materials in the New Testament, which, in comparison with those of the Hebrew Bible, cover a very short span of time and are so closely associated with the purposes of Christian missionary activity that they contain little information about the subject. In general, it seems that the music of early Christians, like that of the synagogue, was entirely vocal (Mark 14.26; Acts 16.25) and consisted of psalms (1 Cor. 14.26; cf. the frequent quotations from the Psalter in the New Testament) and of their own lyrics, especially those to be used for baptismal and eucharistic rites.

Examples of Christian lyrics appear to represent three types of hymnody that originated in the churches of Palestine or of the Greek world beyond Palestinian borders. For the first, we have five hymnic passages that probably came from the Jewish Christian churches, having been translated into Greek from Aramaic and exhibiting the characteristics of biblical psalmody. Two are preserved in the infancy narrative of Luke (1.46–55; 2.29–32; cf. 1.68–79, probably sung at one time by disciples of John the Baptist). Three in the book of Revelation are a song of thanksgiving (Rev. 5.3–4), a song in praise of the slain Lamb (Rev. 5.9–10), and hymnic material in Revelation 19.1–7, which used responses of “Hallelujah” and “Amen” and is about the marriage of the Lamb. The last two were probably used during the eucharistic rite.

From the churches of the Greek world there are no examples in New Testament literature of a hymn using the quantitative metric form of the Greeks, but there is hymnic material that seems to reflect mixed forms developed from the fusion of biblical and Hellenistic elements. An example that may have been translated from Aramaic but departs slightly from Jewish tradition is the fragment of a confessional hymn preserved in 1 Timothy 3.16. Here the structure is still biblical, as probably was the music, but the parallelism is that of Hellenistic rhetorical construction.

The third type of hymn is found in lyrics in praise of Christ as Lord (Phil. 2.6–11), as the image of God (Col. 1.15–20), and as the eternal Logos (John 1.1–18). These hymns seem to be even more remote from Jewish psalmody, for they are characterized by the absence of parallelism, the brevity and equality of the lines, and the stanza‐form. These hymns come from the Christian community in its formative years.

See also Music and the Bible


Lucetta Mowry