Musical instruments (for holy purposes)

Angels playing musical instruments

I suspect we get most of our ideas about holy musical instruments from pictures rather than from the Bible or devotional literature. Christmas card pictures show trumpeting angels, sometimes angels with lyres, occasionally a shepherd with a pipe in the crowd scenes. Scenes of heaven in altar pieces and illuminated manuscripts show orchestras of angels as well as the usual choirs, and some angels clearly have very good flying muscles, as they are supporting little organs which must be quite heavy (perhaps there are a couple of cherubs round the back helping, like the organ blowers in Victorian church pictures).

Real angels, real instruments

There are a couple of really encouraging things about this. One is that music is seen as such an integral part of the Kingdom. Another is that they are using real instruments most of the time. The lyres can look a bit ethereal, but the trumpets and the lutes, trombones and serpents must be drawn from life and they aren’t instruments to make quiet little polite noises but a group that would make you pay attention.  And a third thing is that singing is an integral part of all this, which is very encouraging for all singers.  It should be encouraging for non-singers too : just as I look forward to eyes and ears that work properly when I get to heaven, so someone who has always been afraid or ashamed to sing will be given a most beautiful voice so that they will really enjoy using it to praise God.

Instruments in the psalms

There aren’t any illustrations in the Bible, so where do painters and illuminators get their information from?  The answer of course is mostly the Psalms, the original hymn book for the people of God.  We have a different musical culture from that of the countries where the Bible was written, so we don’t sing them the way they were originally sung, but we do have many of the same instruments.

Some time ago I started keeping a list of instruments in the psalms as they were mentioned. This is not an exhaustive list, but it is quite extensive.  I’m not going to give the references because they come up repeatedly, and also it varies between Bible translations, but we have mentions of harps, lyres, ten-stringed lutes, ordinary lutes, trumpets, horn, pipe, viols, psaltery, tambourines and cymbals (those are in the Judith Canticle, but I’m including it because we sing it as a psalm), timbrels and tabrets.  I had to look the last two up, but as you might expect they are percussion, versions of mini-drums and tambourines.  One of the sources of information says sniffily ‘popular with women’, which I think means light enough to play while dancing.  I am slightly sorry to have to let go of my mental image of a timbrel as a small musical cart, but there you are, sometimes knowledge comes at a price.

Human voices ever singing

As well as all these, the psalms give pride of place to the human voice. ‘Melodious song’ is an expression used as another instrument, and quite right too.  Singing a new song was the way to celebrate a victory or an achievement, and that’s why so many psalm start with a call to ‘sing a new song’, and feel so fresh.  There are shouts of victory included as part of the musical offering, and if they were rhythmic like the British three cheers, you can see how that would work.

More unusual instruments

There isn’t a mention of drums as such in the Bible (not in the King James version, anyway; I was so surprised that I checked in Cruden’s Concordance and it’s not there).  I still think they are probably the oldest instrument, but I think they don’t qualify as a holy instrument because big drums sound bellicose and/or were used in other cultures for worship of idols or for orgies.  They aren’t seen as a desirable accompaniment to the psalms!  But you do need rhythm instruments, especially if you are dancing, and we know David danced and sang at the same time, so we can think of his psalm tunes as also dances.  So this is why we have the tabrets and the timbrels: they are rhythm instruments, but smaller ones with no martial overtones.

However, there’s no shortage of big instruments with a deep sound.  ‘The mountains and the trees of the fields shall clap their hands’ and the rivers too, and it’s wonderful to think what that would sound like if we had ears to hear.  The Lord can send out thunder and the mighty winds from his treasuries whenever he needs them as part of the chorus.  It’s not just in the psalms, too;  you can hear, in the account of God coming to talk to Elijah in his still small voice, that the whole sequence is built up like a film score.  God knows how deeply music affects our nature because he made us to be like him; and music would not be so fundamental to us if it were not to him.  We can’t hear the music of the spheres (one of the great disappointments of my life when some scientist pointed out that there’s no atmosphere to transmit the sound), but I bet God can.

What about harps?

I don’t think any instrument is intrinsically holy, any more than any language, but most people would reckon on the harp as the quintessential instrument for holy purposes.  I think we can blame St John for the emphasis on harps and heaven, because it’s in Revelation, but I’m not sure how musical he was because the songs he offers us (also in Revelation) would be extremely difficult actually to sing (which is why Handel only took little bits of them for Messiah).   These would be small hand-held harps, so a bit more like ukuleles, really, rather than those enormous concert harps that you see in nineteenth-century orchestras (usually women playing those too, but you absolutely couldn’t dance carrying one of those!).

I think it’s interesting that the picture of utter desolation involves hanging up your harps and refusing to sing (Psalm 136/137) ; this would be unthinkable unless all hope were gone, and that is why it is so poignant.  I’ve never been that keen on harps myself, so I’m hoping there will actually be a choice in Heaven.  If we have a choice of a stringed instrument,  I’d like a theorbo (and the ability to play it).

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Author: Kate Keefe

Kate Keefe composes music for responsorial psalms, gospel acclamations and the Mass for English speaking Catholic congregations all over the world, using the local lectionary for UK, Ireland, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the US and the Philippines. She writes about what comes up in the process, and blogs for The Tablet.

2 thoughts on “Musical instruments (for holy purposes)”

  1. Great post – thanks for making the list and sharing it.

    There are some church musicians who think that the pipe organ is the greatest instrument ever invented – and that it is the only one which is fit-for-purpose for worshiping God. Your list clearly shows otherwise. I wonder – are there any items on the list which could be seen as the ancestor of the pipe organ?

    1. This is such a fascinating topic (I discovered as I was checking something) that I will probably have to do another post on it. The short answer is no, although the organ is pretty ancient; but it wasn’t used in churches/synagogues until later. I always thought the legend was that St Cecilia invented the organ under heavenly inspiration at the seaside (air and waves going into caves or something), but apparently not. The link between organs and church music I think is mainly due to the sheer size of the organ as an instrument, which means it gets built into only big buildings like concert halls and churches, but I don’t think that means that God likes organs best! You use what you happen to have available – that’s why some of my settings have a part for horn or flute. Musicians come and go in the usual parish, and I don’t write a part unless I know it’s going to be played. But I will do another blog on the organ, and thank you for making me think more about it.

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