Since it’s Easter, what do we know about Jesus’ perception of music?This is a personal research based on Jesus’ encounters with music.
What did Jesus think of music as an art form?
No, no. I’m not thinking about Webber’s Jesus Christ Superstar rock opera (amazing by the way). I was just curious, since we’re in Easter times and I love music so much, to learn about Jesus’ views on the topic. So here’s what I found out.
What does the Bible say?
So first let’s look at what our primary source says about music in general. Music has two functions in early Judeo-Christian society:
- Music was used as part of the mourning process.
Let’s illustrate it with a story from the Gospel of Matthew (9:23). A synagogue leader comes to ask Jesus to bring his daughter back to life (having died just a couple of hours ago). Jesus goes to his house and when he arrives, he sees a group of musicians and a “noisy” crowd inside the house.
These performers, flute players actually, seem to be softening the ambience while the people chit-chat around them. Maybe they’ll accompany the procession afterwards, but we won’t know for certain since Jesus stops the whole thing and tells them to leave. He will then go on to lift the girl from the dead and do yet another miracle.
The use of music, especially woodwinds, horns and trumpets, was a common practice among ancient Jews in times of loss. People would have these musicians along with professional wailing women. They would help the rest of the people enter this emotional field of sadness and connect them with the mourning process. This was expected, even in poor people’s funeral rituals: at least two musicians and one professional wailing woman (Samuel, 2012).
However, in current times Orthodox and Conservative Jews are reluctant to use music in funerals as they feel it will distract the people from mourning (Samuel, 2012). Things do change with time, right?
So coming from a jewish family, Jesus accepted music as both part of life and death rituals, which leads us to our second use of music.
2. Music’s role in celebrating life: weddings…Mazel tov!
Who doesn’t like to attend a Jewish wedding? Or if you haven’t go to at least one in your life! So much uplifting music, lovely melodies and group dancing. It says in the Bible that when people are cheerful they should sing (James 5:13), therefore music is used as a way of expressing joyful emotions. And what better life event than (consensual) marriage?
Jesus went at least to one wedding, at Cana in Galilee (John 2:1). That’s where the wine miracle happened. He must have had a good time with that additional wine he created. At least people were extra happy since usually the good wine was only served at the beginning of weddings. So imagine their cheerfulness when they got this literally god-sent wine.
My reasoning here is that if Jesus would’ve thought of music and dancing as something to be frowned upon, he would’ve stayed home. Or he would’ve made a mess of the place, like he did it in the Temple of Jerusalem infuriated by the merchants inside this sacred place (Matthew 21:12–17). We would expect him to take part in these circle dances at the wedding, right?
But the most significant moment in which we see Jesus’ perception of music is at the end of the Last Supper.
Jesus’ understanding of the powerful effect of music
“And when they had sung a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives”
This is right after telling them that the bread they ate was his own body and the wine they drank was his own blood. He knew everything that was going to happen so he felt the need to reinforce this sacred moment and their sense of community with music. An act where everybody participates with their own voices towards something greater than their individual selves.
And music helped them feel they belonged and acted as one. They will certainly need to remember that moment when things got tough afterwards, so what better way than filling the room with solemn music?
Music has at least three main goals here:
- Uplifting their spirit and making them feel united.
- Reinforcing Jesus’ words to be felt as profound as they were.
- Help them better recall those events.
(There’s a clear line of research on the memory-enhancing effects of emotion (Tyng, Amin, Saad & Malik, 2017))
Jesus marks the end of a ritual with music. It wraps up all what he’s been saying and it may well be the way to make his words feel much more sacred. As St.Agustin said “he who sings, prays twice”. Such is the power of music.
It is true that there’s not a lot of evidence on Jesus’ perception of music, but at least we can deduce some key points from the little we know.
There’s a cultural perception of the role of music in ancient jewish society, which Jesus was part of it: accompany and reinforce rituals of life and death. So he must’ve shared that portrayal of music.
The key element here is how Jesus embraced music in one of the most important moments of his life (and certainly of his disciples). It’s his final act before leading the way to all the suffering that was about to drop onto him. It’s a statement on how he wants to be remembered and he uses music to enhance his words, form a lasting memory in the minds of the Apostles and instill a sense of unity and purpose to all of them.
Here’s where I feel Jesus understood the power of music, and to this day that special event is remembered as one of the most important moments in Christian history.
Samuel, M. (2012). Is music at a funeral kosher? Retrieved from https://www.sdjewishworld.com/2012/05/18/is-music-at-a-funeral-kosher/ on the 9th of April of 2020
Tyng, C. M., Amin, H. U., Saad, M. N., & Malik, A. S. (2017). The influences of emotion on learning and memory. Frontiers in psychology, 8, 1454.
Online version of The Bible, retrieved from https://www.biblegateway.com/
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