Music and Theology[1]

       Dr. Patrick J. DiVietri, Ph.D., MA, CPC, OCDS


In light of the place given to music by the philosophers of Greece we might also consider for a moment the role of music in Judeo-Christian history as expressed in the writings of the early fathers of the Church.

The Christian tradition considers itself a fulfillment of Jewish heritage since it considers Jesus Christ to be the fulfillment of the Father’s love and covenant with the Jewish people. It is not surprising, therefore, to find the richness of that heritage enhanced through by music. The Church fathers commented on the aid that music brought to the ascetical practice of virtue, religion and prayer, and contemplation. Thus, Basil the Great wrote:

“He mixed sweetness of melody with doctrine so that inadvertently we would absorb the benefit of the words through gentleness and ease of hearing, just as clever physicians frequently smear the cup with honey when giving the fastidious some rather bitter medicine to drink. Thus he contrived for us these harmonious psalm tunes, so that those who are children in actual age as well as those who are young in behavior, while appearing only to sing would in reality be training their souls. For not one of these many indifferent people ever leaves church easily retaining in memory some maxim of either the Apostles or the Prophets, but they do sing the texts of the Psalms at home and circulate them in the marketplace.”[2]

Ambrose comments on music in that it softens anger and brings release from anxiety.[3] Augustine speaks of the “beata vita” of voice and strings when he says that the “truth poured into my heart.”[4] Plotinus said that music makes us attentive to truth[5] for universal truths are embodied in proportioned sound.[6] It can also bring the human person into a more harmonious relationship with God and transport the soul to the society of the angels.[7] As St. Albert the Great said, “lyrics lead to contemplation.”[8]


[1] DiVietri, Patrick J. Ph.d., A COMMENTARY ON THE CANTATA CARMELITUM, Dissertation presented to the Graduate School of the Humanities, American Commonwealth University, San Diego, 1997, Pp. 14-15.

[2]Homolia in psalmum,i., James McKinnon, Music in Early Christian Literature., cited by Cole, p. 54.

[3]Explanatio psalmi i, 7, ibid., cited by, Cole, pp. 126-127.

[4] De utilitate hymnorum,5, ibid., cited by, Cole, pp. 135-136.

[5] The Essence of Plotinus, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1934) compiled by Grace H. Turnbull from the translation of Stephen MacKenna’s The Enneads (London: Faber & Faber, 1956.) (First publication 1917-1930), p. 60.

[6] The New Encyclopedia Britannica, 15th Edition, ed. by Philip W. Goetz, Chicago, 1986), p. 63

[7] John of Salisbury, De nugis curialiam, Robert Hayborn, Papal Legislation on Sacred Music, 95 AD to 1977, (Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 1979), p. 18.

[8] Cole, Basil OP. Music and Morals. (New York: Alba House, 1993,) p. 66.