Question: "What does the Bible say about music?"
Answer: Music is an inherent part of every society. The unearthly sounds of throat-singing in Mongolia and Siberia are as important to their cultures as Bach is to European cultures or drum-driven song and dance are to Native American cultures. Since music is such an important part of life, it should not be surprising that the Bible says much about it; in fact, the longest book in the Bible is its song book—Psalms.
Psalms accounts for over 7 percent of the Old Testament. In addition to the Psalms are other song- and poetry-focused books such as Song of Solomon, Ecclesiastes, and others. In the New Testament, we have song lyrics recorded in Revelation 5, 7, and 15; the mention of Jesus and the disciples singing in Matthew 26:30; and the example of the apostles’ singing in Acts 16:25. Many people also consider Mary’s Magnificat in Luke 1:46–55 and the angels’ announcement in Luke 2:14 to be songs. The church is commanded to communicate with each other “with psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit. Sing and make music from your heart to the Lord” (Ephesians 5:19).
Recorded musicians and music in the Old Testament:
The first reference to a musician in the Bible is in Genesis 4:21. Jubal was the fourth generation from Adam through Cain and is recorded as “the father of all those who play the lyre and pipe.” Other early references to music include Exodus 15, which records Moses and the Israelites singing a song of victory after the overthrow of the Egyptian army in the Red Sea. At that time, Moses’ sister, Miriam, led the Israelite women “with tambourines and dancing” as she sang. When Jephthah returned from battle, Jephthah’s daughter met him with timbrels and dance in Judges 11:34. David’s victories were also celebrated in song in 1 Samuel 18:6–7.
Two of the Old Testament’s most important figures wrote songs: Moses and David. Moses has three songs recorded in the Bible: the song sung after the destruction of Pharaoh’s army (Exodus 15:1–18); a song recounting the faithfulness of God and the rebelliousness of Israel, which he sang before all the people just before his death (Deuteronomy 32:1–43); and a prayer recorded in Psalm 90.
David, “the sweet psalmist of Israel” (2 Samuel 23:1), is credited with writing about half of the 150 songs recorded in Psalms, along with some in the historical books. He was the official musician in Saul’s court (1 Samuel 16:14–23). During David’s own reign, he organized the Levitical musicians, and 1 Chronicles 15:16 and 23:5 record that more than one in ten Levites in temple service were musicians.
Other musicians include Asaph (twelve psalms), the sons of Korah (ten psalms), Solomon (two psalms and 1,005 other songs [1 Kings 4:32] and the Song of Solomon), Heman (one psalm), and Ethan (one psalm).
Music was used in conjunction with all manner of activities (Genesis 31:27; Exodus 32:17–18; Numbers 27:17; Judges 11:34, 35; Isaiah 16:10; Jeremiah 48:33). Music was used at coronations (1 Kings 1:39–40; 2 Kings 11:14; 2 Chronicles 13:14; 20:28), events in the royal court (2 Samuel 19:35; Ecclesiastes 2:8), and feasts (Isaiah 5:12; 24:8–9). It is interesting to note the connection between music and the supernatural: trumpets sounded when the walls of Jericho fell down (Joshua 6:1–20); and David played his harp to soothe Saul during demonic attacks (1 Samuel 16:14–23).
For more technical information about Hebrew music, we recommend books by Eric Werner and Abraham Zevi Idelsohn, both excellent scholars on the subject.
Recorded musicians and music in the New Testament:
Two of the Gospels mention the fact that Jesus and His disciples sang a hymn at the end of the Last Supper (Matthew 26:30 and Mark 14:26). Elsewhere in the Gospels, music is seen as part of mourning (Matthew 9:23) and celebration (Luke 15:25).
Paul gave instructions regarding the use of music during Christian gatherings in Ephesians 5:19 and Colossians 3:16. In Ephesians we see that addressing each other with hymns and songs is an indication of being Spirit-filled. In Colossians the same is an indication of being filled with the Word of Christ, and the songs come “from the Spirit.” In James 5:13 we have this command: “Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing praise.”
Music in the Bible - Conclusion:
Both the Old and New Testaments address music and strongly support its use in worship. The extensive anthology of actual songs found in the Old Testament indicates the importance and value God places on creative musical expression. Music’s use in worship in the church today is valuable and can honor God in a special way. Music is a communication tool. There are no New Testament instructions on the type of instruments to be used (or not used), and no particular “style” of music is recommended or forbidden. The simple command is to sing “to God with gratitude in your hearts” (Colossians 3:16).