One of the gifts of God by which man can render praise and thanksgiving to his Creator as well as give expression to his emotions, his sorrows and joys. Especially has singing been prominent in the worship of Jehovah God, but instrumental music, too, has played a vital role. It has served not only to accompany the vocalists but also to complement their singing. So it is not surprising that references to both vocal and instrumental music abound in the Bible from beginning to end, in association with true worship and otherwise.—Ge 4:21; 31:27; 1Ch 25:1; Re 18:22.
History. The Bible’s first reference to music is before the Flood, in the seventh generation following Adam: “[Jubal] proved to be the founder of all those who handle the harp and the pipe.” This may describe the invention of the first musical instruments or perhaps even the establishment of some kind of musical profession.—Ge 4:21.
In patriarchal times music seems to have been an integral part of life, judging from Laban’s desire to give Jacob and his own daughters a musical farewell. (Ge 31:27) Song and instrumental accompaniment marked the celebration of the deliverance at the Red Sea and the victorious returns from battle of Jephthah, David, and Saul.—Ex 15:20, 21; Jg 11:34; 1Sa 18:6, 7.
On each of the two occasions that were involved in transporting the Ark to Jerusalem, vocalists and instrumentalists were present. (1Ch 13:8; 15:16) In the later years of David’s life, Jehovah, through his prophets Nathan and Gad, directed the establishment of the music organization for the sanctuary.—1Ch 23:1-5; 2Ch 29:25, 26.
The music organization begun by David was fully realized at Solomon’s temple. The grandeur and magnitude of the music at the dedication of the temple can be appreciated from the fact that the trumpeters alone numbered 120. (2Ch 5:12, 13) But as the nation grew lax in its faithfulness to Jehovah, all features of true worship suffered, including the music. However, when Kings Hezekiah and Josiah instituted their reforms, as well as when the Jews returned from the Babylonian exile, efforts were made to reestablish the arrangement of music that Jehovah had indicated he desired. (2Ch 29:25-28; 35:15; Ezr 3:10) Later, when Nehemiah inaugurated the wall of Jerusalem, the Levite singers, with full instrumental accompaniment, contributed greatly to the joy of the occasion. (Ne 12:27-42) While the Scriptures say nothing more about music in connection with temple worship after Nehemiah’s time, other records, such as the Talmud, tell of music being used there until the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 C.E.
How extensive was the musical staff at the temple in Jerusalem?
In conjunction with the preparations for Jehovah’s temple, David set aside 4,000 Levites for musical service. (1Ch 23:4, 5) Of these, 288 were “trained in song to Jehovah, all experts.” (1Ch 25:7) The whole arrangement was under the direction of three accomplished musicians, Asaph, Heman, and Jeduthun (apparently also named Ethan). Since each of these men was a descendant of one of Levi’s three sons, Gershom, Kohath, and Merari, respectively, the three chief Levite families were thus represented in the temple music organization. (1Ch 6:16, 31-33, 39-44; 25:1-6) The sons of these three men totaled 24, all of whom were among the aforementioned 288 skilled musicians. Each son was appointed by lot to be the head of one division of musicians. Under his direction were 11 more “experts,” selected from his own sons as well as other Levites. In this manner the 288 ([1 + 11] × 24 = 288) expert Levite musicians, like the priests, were separated into 24 courses. If all the remaining 3,712 ‘learners’ were thus divided, it would average about 155 more men to each of the 24 divisions, meaning there were about 13 Levites in various stages of musical education and training to each expert. (1Ch 25:1-31) Since the trumpeters were priests, they would be in addition to the Levite musicians.—2Ch 5:12; compare Nu 10:8.
Instrumental Music. The Bible gives very little information concerning the shape or construction of the more than a dozen different musical instruments that it mentions. Hence, most scholars draw heavily on what archaeologists have discovered about the instruments used by contemporary surrounding nations. However, this may not always be a reliable guide, since it appears that Israel excelled in music in comparison with her neighbors. Additionally, some have linked various instruments of Scripture to instruments used in modern times in the Middle East, which are supposed to have an ancient background. This, too, is conjectural.
The musical instruments of the Bible may be classified as follows:
String: harp, lute, zither.
Wind: bagpipe, flute, horn, pipe, trumpet, (possibly) nehiloth.
Percussion: cymbals, sistrum, tambourine.
See individual articles on the above instruments for further information.
There is no reason to believe that the musical instruments of Israel were crude in design, construction, or sound production. The Bible notes that the harps and stringed instruments for temple use were of the choicest imported algum wood; the trumpets of silver. (1Ki 10:11, 12; Nu 10:2) Undoubtedly, in the manufacture of the temple instruments, the most skilled craftsmen were employed.
Both the Scriptures and non-Biblical manuscripts dating from before the Common Era testify to the quality of the instruments as well as the competence of the Israelite musicians. The Dead Sea Scrolls state that a number of trumpets were assigned various complicated signals to be executed “as with one mouth.” This would require not only skilled musicians but also instruments so constructed that the pitch might be regulated in order to bring them all into tune with one another. Freedom from dissonance is indicated by the inspired account of the music at the inauguration of Solomon’s temple: “The [one hundred and twenty] trumpeters and the singers were as one in causing one sound to be heard.”—2Ch 5:12, 13.
The Bible lists but four instruments as definitely being in the temple orchestra: trumpets, harps, stringed instruments (Heb., neva·limʹ), and cymbals. While this may not seem to be a complete orchestra by modern standards, it was never intended to be a symphony orchestra, but only to provide accompaniment for the singing at the temple. Such a combination of instruments would serve this purpose excellently.—2Ch 29:25, 26; Ne 12:27, 41, 42.
As to the times when the sacred instruments performed, the Scriptures enumerate the following in connection with the trumpets: “In the day of your rejoicing and in your festal seasons and at the commencements of your months, you must blow on the trumpets over your burnt offerings and your communion sacrifices.” (Nu 10:10) After the temple music organization was established, it is likely that the rest of the instruments joined the trumpets on these and other special occasions. This conclusion, as well as the musical procedure followed, seems to be indicated by the order of events described as taking place when sacred services were revived by King Hezekiah after he had cleansed the temple: “At the time that the burnt offering started, the song of Jehovah started and also the trumpets, even under the direction of the instruments of David the king of Israel. And all the congregation were bowing down while the song was resounding and the trumpets were blaring—all this until the burnt offering was finished.” (2Ch 29:27, 28) The trumpets’ being “under the direction of the instruments of David” seems to denote that the trumpeters played in such a manner as to complement the other instruments rather than to overshadow them. The position of the entire body of musicians was “to the east of the altar.”—2Ch 5:12.
Vocal Music. The singers at the temple were Levite males. Nowhere do the Scriptures speak of female vocalists at the temple. One of the Targums (on Ec 2:8) clearly indicates that they were not present in the chorus. The fact that women were prohibited from even entering certain areas of the temple would seem to preclude their occupying any official position there.—2Ch 5:12; Ne 10:39; 12:27-29.
Considerable importance was attached to the singing at the temple. This is evident from the many Scriptural references to the singers as well as from the fact that they were “set free from duty” common to other Levites in order to devote themselves wholly to their service. (1Ch 9:33) Their continuance as a special group of Levites is emphasized by their being listed separately among those returning from Babylon. (Ezr 2:40, 41) Even the authority of the Persian king Artaxerxes (Longimanus) was brought to bear in their behalf, exempting them, along with other special groups, from ‘tax, tribute, and toll.’ (Ezr 7:24) Later, the king commanded that there was to be “a fixed provision for the singers as each day required.” Although Artaxerxes is credited with this order, most likely it was issued by Ezra on the basis of the power granted to him by Artaxerxes. (Ne 11:23; Ezr 7:18-26) Thus, it is understandable that, although the singers were all Levites, the Bible makes reference to them as a special body, speaking of “the singers and the Levites.”—Ne 7:1; 13:10.
Apart from temple worship, other singers, men and women, are spoken of in Scripture. Examples of these are the male and female singers maintained by Solomon in his court; also, about 200 singers of both sexes who, in addition to the Levite musicians, returned from Babylon. (Ec 2:8; Ezr 2:65; Ne 7:67) These non-Levite singers, common in Israel, were employed not only to enhance various festive occasions but also to chant dirges in times of sorrow. (2Sa 19:35; 2Ch 35:25; Jer 9:17, 20) The custom of hiring professional musicians at times of joy and of sadness appears to have continued into the time when Jesus was on earth.—Mt 11:16, 17.
Although not as prominent as in the Hebrew Scriptures, music is not ignored or overlooked in the Christian Greek Scriptures. Instrumental music in connection with true worship is mentioned only in a figurative sense in the Greek Scriptures (Re 14:2); yet singing seems to have been quite common among God’s servants. Jesus and his apostles sang praises after the Lord’s Evening Meal. (Mr 14:26) Luke tells of Paul and Silas singing when in prison, and Paul’s encouragement to fellow believers was to sing songs of praise to Jehovah. (Ac 16:25; Eph 5:18, 19; Col 3:16) Paul’s statement at 1 Corinthians 14:15 concerning singing appears to indicate that it was a regular feature of Christian worship. In recording his inspired vision, John tells of various heavenly creatures singing to God and Christ.—Re 5:8-10; 14:3; 15:2-4.
Nature of Biblical Music. The Israelites’ higher plane of morality and their superior literature, as exemplified by the poetry and prose of the Hebrew Scriptures, suggest that the music of ancient Israel most likely transcended that of her contemporaries. Certainly the inspiration for the music of Israel was far loftier than that of neighboring nations. Of interest is an Assyrian bas-relief in which King Sennacherib is represented as demanding that King Hezekiah pay him as tribute both male and female musicians.—Ancient Near Eastern Texts, edited by J. Pritchard, 1974, p. 288.
It has long been held by some that Hebrew music was all melody, without harmony. However, the prominence alone of the harp and other stringed instruments in Israel weighs heavily against this assumption. It is almost inconceivable that a musician would play a multistringed instrument and fail to notice that a combination of certain tones was quite pleasing or that a specific series of notes as in an arpeggio produced a pleasant sound. An informed source on the history of music, Curt Sachs, states: “The deep-rooted prejudice that harmony and polyphony [two or more musical parts or voices combined] have been a prerogative of the medieval and modern West does not hold water.” He goes on to say that even among primitive cultures there are many examples of music running in fifths, fourths, thirds as well as in octaves, and that among these peoples, including certain Pygmy tribes, there was a development of overlapping antiphony (alternate singing by two divisions of vocalists) into regular canon singing.
Based on worldwide research Sachs presents the conclusion that “the choruses and orchestras connected with the Temple in Jerusalem suggest a high standard of musical education, skill, and knowledge.” He continues: “It is important to realize that the ancient Western Orient had a music quite different from what historians of the nineteenth century conceded it. . . . Though we do not know how that ancient music sounded, we have sufficient evidence of its power, dignity, and mastership.”—The Rise of Music in the Ancient World: East and West, 1943, pp. 48, 101, 102.
The Scriptures intimate a similar conclusion. For instance, over 30 times the expression “To [For] the director” (NW; AT) appears in the superscriptions of the Psalms. (Ps 11, and others) Other translations read “choirmaster” (Kx; JB; Mo; RS), “Chief Musician” (AS; KJ; Le; Ro), and “Bandmaster” (Fn). The Hebrew term seems to refer to one who in some way gave direction to the execution of the song, in arranging it, in rehearsing and training the Levite singers, or in its official performance. Perhaps the chief one of each of the 24 courses of sanctuary musicians is being addressed, or it may have been another one of the accomplished musicians, since the record says that they were “to act as directors.” (1Ch 15:21; 25:1, 7-31) In some 20 other Psalms the superscriptions are even more specific in their reference to the “directors”: “To the director on stringed instruments,” “To the director on the lower octave,” and so on. (Ps 4, 12, and others; see SHEMINITH.) Additionally, there are Scriptural references to the “heads of the singers,” to the “experts,” and to the ‘learners.’ All of this testifies to a high standard of music.—Ne 12:46; 1Ch 25:7, 8.
Much of the group singing in Israel appears to have been antiphonal, either two half choruses alternating in singing parallel lines, or a soloist and an answering chorus alternating. In the Scriptures this apparently is referred to as “responding.” (Ex 15:21; 1Sa 18:6, 7) This type of singing is indicated by the very way some of the psalms are written, such as Psalm 136. The description of the two large thanksgiving choirs in Nehemiah’s time and of their part in the inauguration of the wall of Jerusalem implies that they sang in this style.—Ne 12:31, 38, 40-42; see SONG.
Chanting might be said to be halfway between singing and speaking. In pitch it is rather monotonous and repetitious, with the emphasis being on rhythm. While chanting continues to be quite popular in some of the world’s leading religions, its use in the Bible appears to be limited to dirges, as in the case of David chanting a dirge over the deaths of his friend Jonathan and of King Saul. (2Sa 1:17; 2Ch 35:25; Eze 27:32; 32:16) Only in a dirge or lamentation would the chanting style be preferable to either the melody of music or the modulation and oral emphasis of pure speech.—See DIRGE.