An Orthodox Philosophy of Music by Daniel Marchant

Can there be said to be an Orthodox philosophy of music? What is the purpose of music in the life of the Orthodox Church? What would make one form of music appropriate for worship in an Orthodox context and another inappropriate? Orthodox seminarian and musicology student Daniel Marchant tackles these and other related questions relative to his studies and personal experiences in this fascinating essay.

Adapted from
A Commencement Speech
St. Stephen’s Program
Byzantine Musicology Track
Antiochian House of Studies
28 August 2014

Daniel L. Marchant

Music has played an important role in my life and in the story of my journey into Orthodoxy. Having grown up in various Evangelical Protestant denominations, I have seen almost every style of music imaginable used in churches: from classical music and traditional hymns, to country music, and even rock and roll—complete with smoke machines and flashing strobe lights. I sang in choirs, played the guitar (both acoustic and electric) on various worship teams, listened to the latest CCM (Contemporary Christian Music), and frequented Christian music festivals. My first exposure to the music of the Orthodox Church came when I was a teenager. A family friend who had recently converted to Orthodoxy invited us to a concert. My father and I went, even though at the time, I had very little interest. I didn’t think the music would be “relevant” or “speak to me.” After all, it was just a small choir from some monastery in Russia called Valaam…

From the moment the choir started singing, I found myself transported to a different place. Even though I couldn’t understand the words being sung, I was struck by the reverence and prayerfulness of the hymns and knew that what I was experiencing was something otherworldly. It was as if the presence of God was manifested through the beauty of the music. I couldn’t explain it at the time, but there was something special about the music I heard that night, and I will never forget that experience.

Several years later, while a student at Liberty University (the world’s largest Evangelical Christian university), I found myself attending a weekday Matins service at Holy Trinity Orthodox Church in Lynchburg, VA (after an encounter with Fr. Peter Gillquist, of blessed memory). My wife and I were at the time still Evangelical Protestants on a long journey that eventually led us into the fold of the Orthodox Church. We were struck by the beauty and reverence of the services and found in them a fulfilment of something we had been searching for our entire lives. After Matins concluded, we went to a required weekday chapel service at the University. The difference was day and night. After the order and reverence of the Matins service, our eyes were opened to the disorder, laxity, and casualness of what we had come to accept as normal as Evangelical Protestants. The lack of order, beauty, and reverence, stood in stark contrast to what we had just witnessed at the Orthodox Church. That experience did much to hasten our journey towards Orthodoxy.

Over the course of my time in the Orthodox Church, I have come to gain not just more knowledge about the liturgical music of the Church but also an understanding of my previous life experiences as an Evangelical Protestant. In worship, there was a sense in which I approached God on my own terms, a notion that I should have found disturbing, since I grew up reading the Scriptures. The New Testament has plenty to say about orderly and reverent worship of God, but reading the Old Testament in particular should leave little doubt as to the propriety of approaching God on one’s own terms. To confidently reject millennia of Christian practice and tradition—which has been guided by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit—in favor of “contemporary” music pleasing to modern tastes seems prideful to me. It is an attitude in stark contrast to humbly receiving the Church’s sacred tradition and allowing it to develop and evolve within the Church over time, as the Holy Spirit works and inspires.

The problem as I now understand it is that as an Evangelical Protestant, I had no developed “philosophy of music.” I viewed music as a fundamentally neutral medium, used only to accompany the text of a song and attract the listener. Having seen the true light and having found the true faith, I have now come to understand that the music of the Church’s worship is capable of so much more. It can affect the emotional and spiritual state of a person, bringing him or her into an attitude of reverent worship. Further, it can reflect to the Church the unceasing worship of the heavenly hosts and elevate the worshipper into heaven itself to join in song with the bodiless powers. Finally, its beauty can transmit the glory of the Divine to those who await His great and rich mercy. This philosophy of music is the theoretical basis for the entire Byzantine principle of musical composition, which patterns new hymns not just on existing scriptural and hymnographic texts but also on their archetypical melodic patterns. It is the reason that we have automela and prosomia. It is not only the texts of the Church’s hymns that are inspired by God or the heavenly powers and therefore reflections of the divine glory but also their melodies.

The conservatism of Orthodox liturgical music is not evidence of traditionalism—the lifeless repetition of elements from an older and irrelevant age—but the operation of this philosophy of music in the life of the Church. The Church does not preserve its ancient chant forms out of a desire to reject interacting with the modern age but rather because its music is in some sense inspired by God and has a redemptive and deifying purpose that transcends aesthetic pleasure. This of course does not imply that the Church’s musical tradition will never evolve or change over time. The Church in modern times admits the legitimate use of various forms of liturgical chant: Byzantine, Russian, Georgian, Serbian, Bulgarian, and even Gregorian (in the Western Rite tradition). It can be documented that outside influence exerted itself on several of these forms. Turkish music almost certainly contributed to an increased use of chromaticism in Byzantine chant. Western polyphonic music heavily influenced the development of Russian chant. Even native folk singing played a role in the evolution of Russian, Bulgarian, and Georgian chant. These influences external to the Church’s liturgical tradition, coupled with natural internal and local development, led to the appearance of diverse chant traditions within the Church. None of these developments, however, constituted a sudden or radical break with the previous tradition. Their evolution was slow and gradual, within the bounds of the Church’s tradition, guided by the Holy Spirit. Furthermore, these chant traditions retained a stylistic unity with one another and with the past and were all shaped around this principle of conservatism—this philosophy of music.

In conclusion, the Orthodox liturgical tradition includes a philosophy of music absent from much of contemporary heterodox Christianity. Among many outside of the Orthodox Church, the purpose of liturgical/worship music is purely aesthetic. Its function is to mimic popular styles of secular music in the hope of attracting the “lost” and to appeal to the musical tastes of the worshipper. Worship thus becomes centered on the aesthetic preferences of the worshipper, and the worshipper in some sense approaches God in worship on his or her own terms. Music is at best, therefore, a fundamentally neutral medium. It is neither good nor bad but is judged based on its effectiveness at attracting worshippers and replicating their favorite styles of music. By contrast, the liturgical tradition of the Orthodox Church preserves a well-developed philosophy of music, one which acknowledges the influence of music on the emotional and even spiritual state of the worshipper and the heavenly source of the Church’s hymnography. The Church’s hymns can be therapeutic and sanctifying through their melodies in addition to didactic in their texts. Liturgical music can transport the worshipper to heaven and join him or her in worship with the ranks of the angels and saints. It can also reflect the beauty and glory of the Divine. Orthodox worship manifests the Kingdom of God on earth, and this is tied in an important way to the Church’s music. Having received such a rich and purposeful living tradition, let us humbly seek the guidance of the Holy Spirit as we learn how to live out the ancient Christian faith in the midst of the modern world.