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. - 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.)

403 A.D. - St. John Chrysostom speaks of “the excellence of the art” of playing stringed instruments: “[In] the case of [stringed instruments,] when the tones are weak and relaxed, and not well arranged, the excellence of the art is also destroyed, being obliged to serve the ill condition of the strings.” (Homily 29 Paragraph 5)

Before 524 A.D. - St. Boethius - “[T]here is no greater path whereby instruction comes to the mind than through the ear. Therefore when rhythms and modes enter the mind by this path, there can be no doubt that they affect and remold the mind into their own character. ... [T]oday the human race is lascivious and effeminate, and thus it is entertained totally by the representational and theatrical modes. Music was prudent and modest when it was performed on simple instruments… [Today] it preserves almost nothing of its ancient splendor.” (De Institutione Musica Book 1)

And: “Is it not clearly evident that the morale of soldiers is built up by the music of trumpets? … [F]rom all these examples it appears to be beyond doubt that music is so naturally a part of us that we cannot be without it, even if we so wished. … For this reason the power of the mind ought to be directed toward fully understanding by knowledge what is inherent in us through nature. Thus just as erudite scholars are not satisfied by merely seeing colors and forms without also investigating their properties, so musicians should not be satisfied by merely finding pleasure in music without knowing by what musical proportions these sounds are put together.” (ibid.)

~550 A.D. - Cassiodorus - “The discipline of music...extends through all acts of our life… [H]eaven [and] earth...do not lack the discipline of music… Religion itself is tied to music, for example {there is} the decachord of the Ten Commandments, the twang of the harp, the drums, the melody of the organ, and the sound of cymbals. The Psalter itself also is certainly named [after a] musical instrument, because it contains the sweet and pleasing harmony of heavenly excellence.” (Institutes of Divine and Secular Learning Book 2 Chapter 5)

And: “There are three kinds of musical instruments: percussion--strings--wind. Percussion instruments include bronze and silver hand-bells, and other types that give forth sweet tinkling sound when struck by a rigid piece of metal. Stringed instruments are those that have skillfully tied strings which {will} sweetly delight the ears when struck with [an] {applied} plectrum. Among these are different kinds of harps. Wind instruments are those which are set in motion to create the sound when filled with breath. Among these are trumpets, reeds, organ, bagpipes, etc.” (ibid.)

And: “Leaving aside as fictions the lyre of Orpheus and the song of the Sirens, what shall we say of David? By the knowledge of the most salutary harmonies he drew unclean spirits from Saul and in a novel way through his hearing restored sanity, an achievement the doctors were unable to accomplish with herbal cures. … As we mentioned above, the heaven itself is said to revolve in sweet harmony. In short, according to the economy of the Creator, all heavenly and earthly events are subject to this discipline. This pleasing and useful knowledge raises our understanding to the heights and pleases our ear {with sweet harmony}.” (ibid.)

636 A.D. - St. Isidore of Seville - “Moses says that Tubal, who was of the stock of Cain before the Flood, was the discoverer of the musical art. ... [Later], this discipline especially was regulated and augmented in many ways, and it became as shameful to be ignorant of music as it was shameful not to be able to read and write. Moreover, music was introduced not only in sacred rites, but also in all celebrations, and in all joyful or sorrowful occasions. … So it is that without music, no other discipline can be perfected, for nothing is without music.” (Etymologies Book 3 Chapters 15-16)

And: “Music rouses emotions, and it calls the senses to a different state. In battle, too, the sounding of the trumpet inflames the fighters... Music also calms excited spirits, just as one reads about David, who rescued Saul from the unclean spirit by the art of modulation.” (ibid. Chapter 16)

And: “Delicate voices are those that have [little] breath, like the voices of infants, women, and sick people, and like plucking on strings. Indeed, the most delicate are the strings of musical instruments, which emit light, refined sounds.” (ibid. Chapter 19)

And: “[A] second [kind of sound]...is produced by those instruments that, when they are filled with the breath that is blown into them, are animated with the sound of a voice, like trumpets, reed pipes, pipes, organs, pandoria, and instruments similar to these. … The third division of music...pertains to strings and percussion. Different types of cithara belong to this division, and also drums, cymbals, rattles, and bronze and silver vessels, and others that when struck produce a sweet ringing sound from the hardness of their metal, as well as other instruments of this sort.” (ibid. Chapters 20-21)