This post is going to discuss the influence of the early Christian church on Western music. To that end, it's important to mention this article is not meant to negatively influence anyone's opinion on religion. Our article is merely to share some details that some might find interesting. With a rock twist...
From the 2nd century C.E. (Common Era) the Catholic church held dominance as the prime Christian religion, although others existed. The word Catholic comes from the Latin word 'catholicos' meaning 'universal'. In other words, the universally proscribed Christian religion. We won't get into church and state here. It just happens that thanks to the expansion of the Roman empire this religion spread into Europe.
Music is a notable part of worship for many religions. The Catholic church drew its music and songs from the Hebrew scriptures, notably, the Psalms. Most of these were songs that were originally sung in ancient Hebrew and set to music. The Catholic church adopted these songs and began to ordain it's own new music.
However... there was trouble brewing! The 'Universal' church forbade any secular music, that is music not associated with the church. Like, music you might hear being played down at the local tavern by medieval versions of Nirvana, The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan or Christina Aguelira. For one thing, the church insisted that all music should be in ¾ timing. Because of their interpretation of the concept of “the father, the son and the holy spirit” existing as three beings music should only ever be played in three beats per bar. Any music not played in ¾ time was considered the Devil's music.
What about inside the church itself? Well, there was a bit of discrepancy there too. Not with the words or timing, but with the instruments. Which instruments could be used? Three factions argued over this. First were the ones who felt that no instruments at all should be played in the church – that the only acceptable instrument was the human voice. This was considered the perfect and only way to praise God and express musical holiness. At the other extreme were those who felt that all instruments were acceptable. Then, staunchly in the middle were those who stated that only the instruments specifically mentioned in the scriptures could be used.
For example, the last Psalm, Psalm 150 mentions, “Praise [God] with the sounding of the horn. Praise him with the stringed instrument and the harp. Praise him with the tambourine... with strings and the flute... with ringing cymbals... with crashing cymbals.” Sounds like quite the occasion! Medieval James Brown probably loved a good horn section. As we mentioned, there were those in the church who insisted that instruments mentioned in the scriptures could be used as part of sacred music.
What about vocals? The ancient Hebrew scriptures (which a substantial portion of the bible is translated from, therefore used by early Christians and church, and also modern) do mention vocal accompaniment to instruments. Based on this some of the religious authorities thought that vocal accompaniment was quite fine. But, accapella often reigned supreme.
So, we have the classic retinue of monks wandering around sacred halls richly filling the chambers with layered hymns in Latin. Everything was in Latin, because the common folk couldn't understand the words, leaving them kind of lost to know when to join in for the chorus or at which point the lead singer would yell "break it down." Or what they were even singing about. Which is a pretty good way to repress the masses. And, the timing for all of these accapella songs? You guessed it – three/four timing.
But, that's not all. The monks didn't randomly walk around the blessed grounds as they sang those enigmatic chants (anyone get the reference just there?). The monks either travelled in a figure 8 motion, reminiscent of the shape of infinity. Because God is eternal, from time infinite to time infinite. Or they would walk from here (1) to there (2) to there (3) and back again (1). A triangle shape. Yep, there's that number three again.