Department home

Music and the Reformer

By Johannes Schroeder - October 2nd, 2017

Johannes Schroeder discusses the role of music for Martin Luther and what we can learn from his appreciation and emphasis on the importance of music for Christians.

“Greetings in Christ! I would certainly like to praise music with all my heart as the excellent Gift of God which it is to commend it to everyone.”1 Lofty words like these Luther often found when addressing one of his favorite topics — music. An accomplished musician himself, trained in old and contemporary styles, music, to Luther, had equal standing to the preached Word of God. The Reformation itself was a singing movement.2 Song was used to teach and to worship, and songs spread the word of the gospel faster than any spoken word. Through song every ordinary person could make sense of their faith and give voice to their devotion. Luther’s theses and sermons brought the Reformation into the churches and courts, but songs brought it into the hearts of the people. The Reformation ignited a revival of song with Martin Luther at its epicenter who clearly articulated spiritual intentions for music in worship.

The Songs of the Reformation

The Reformation that started in 1517 gave to the people of Germany the gospel, and it a afforded them the freedom to hear it with understanding and to believe it with eternal consequence. Luther did not reinvent the worship service, but rather reformed it, building on known liturgies. His first order of worship, the Formula Missae (1523), included mixed languages with Gregorian Chants as the basis for music, but also used German songs and the Psalms. Later the Deutsche Messe (1526) was completely translated into German. For it, many old Catholic melodies were simplified to better fit the German syllabic stress patterns, and in it we find devotional songs, and school, children’s and folk-songs. Some existing songs were theologically adjusted, secular songs were completely rewritten, and new songs were composed.

The Reformation ignited a revival of song. The holy soundtrack of new song accompanied the proclamation of the word and the responses of believers. In fact, music and song is almost the only definitive art that arose from the Lutheran Reformation. We do not find distinctly protestant architecture, painting or sculpting, but there is an immense treasure of evangelical sacred music giving testimony to the fact that the reformation truly was a singing movement.3

The Music of the Reformer

Much has been written on Luther’s theology of music, and there is certainly much to be said. Even a perfunctory interaction with it reveals, that the reformer did not merely emphasize cognitive understanding, but strongly believed in the personal experience of the things known and believed. This conviction can be viewed as the foundation of his theology of music.

Luther’s musical biography helps to understand his almost existential hermeneutical view of music. He likely grew up listening to rugged mining songs that connected music with the reality and harshness of life. The stringent education of his youth influenced his understanding of music as a moral power. While studying in Eisenach he probably was inspired to begin writing his own songs as he encountered a musical-poetic student circle. In church, he likely sang in liturgical boy’s choirs, in which the Dom of Magdeburg must have left a deep impression on young Luther. He studied music theory in Erfurt where he also developed his tenor voice and learned to play the lute. At the Augustinian Monastery in Erfurt he entered an environment saturated with music. Here he learned the Gregorian Chants, which would accompany him for the rest of his life, but also Psalms and other liturgical expressions of music. Since 1517 he publicly contributed to music through original compositions.4

The Reformers Intentions with Music

Luther had little patience with bad musicianship, but found even harsher words for music in the church applied without spiritual understanding. Accordingly, music for pleasure had no place in Christian worship, for the song of the redeemed must serve a higher purpose. He criticized pompous presentations of Masses as well as mindless mutterings of Psalms. To him, music always had a spiritual intention, and without it became blubbering and bellowing. An extensive testimony of his theology of music is found in the preface to a hymnbook.5 When listening to the Reformer’s own words on his high view of sacred music, we see his intention to use it for the purposes of identity, theology, morality, understanding, and response.

The Identity Intention

“After all, the gift of language combined with the gift of song was only given to man to let him know that he should praise God with both word and music, namely, by proclaiming [the Word of God] through music and by providing sweet melodies with words.”6 

Music is a gift of God, instilled into every created thing. Through the capacity of music, we understand a portion of what it means to be created in the Imago Dei. Music that emanated from the existence of the creator becomes part of humanity’s own existence, which also sets it apart from the rest of creation and gives it an eternal purpose of singing praises to God.

The Theological Intention

“Next to the Word of God, music deserves the highest praise.”7

“The Holy Ghost himself honors her as an instrument for his proper work.”8

The gospel message hinged on the five soli which Dr. Luther and his companions tirelessly emphasized. It is remarkable to note that for Luther, music applied to each of these doctrinal pillars upon which he rested the theological bulwark of his reformation. Music proclaims the gospel of grace — Sola Gratia — that leads to receiving it by faith — Sola Fide. Through song comes understanding of the Word as the believer is seized by truth — Sola Scriptura — and confesses in song that righteousness is only found in Jesus — Solus Christus. And through their raised voices in praise God alone is glorified — Soli Deo Gloria.

The Moral Intention

“For whether you wish to comfort the sad, to terrify the happy, to encourage the despairing, to humble the proud, to calm the passionate, or to appease those full of hate – and who could number all these masters of the heart, namely, the emotions, inclinations, and affections that impel men to evil or good? – what more effective means than music could you find.”9

For Luther, music could develop the moral orientation of a person, especially in their youth. “And you, my young friend, let this noble, wholesome, and cheerful creation of God be commended to you. By it you may escape the shameful desires and bad company. At the same time, you may by this creation accustom yourself to recognize and praise the Creator.”10

Luther understood that the moral force of music can be used for good or ill. The ill being music which elicits a self-centered emotion and which encourages an experience of an anthropocentric nature. This music he considered “fleischlich” [carnal] and his music literature sought to counteract it. The good use of music would encourage enjoyable emotions while retaining cognitive control so that the attention is directed towards God and Christ.11

The Response Intention

“Therefore, my dear brother, learn Christ as crucified, learn to sing to him in the face of your desperation over yourself and say: You, Lord Jesus, are my righteousness.”12

These words were penned in a letter to George Spenlein, and they show how Luther naturally includes the believer’s song as his testimony of faith. Elsewhere Luther encouraged every believer to “accustom yourself to recognize and praise the Creator.”13

Luther had a kerygmatic view of the worship service, which is to say that the “Word” was at the center of a conversational exchange. In his sermon at the inauguration of the Torgauer Schlosskapelle in 1544 he laid the foundation for this understanding of worship in terms of “Wort” (word) and “Antwort” (reply). He explained that in the worship service, God speaks through the Scriptures and the believers answer through prayers and songs of praise.

The Understanding Intention

“No one speaks or listens to a Scripture adequately, unless he is seized by it so that he feels on the inside what he speaks or listens on the outside.”14

Luther believed that music in and of itself, regardless of lyrics or other influences, is a force that aids the cognitive understanding of the listener or music maker. Understanding, on the vehicle of the vox musicae, not only informs but seizes the person.15 And this being seized by the music then becomes part of the hermeneutic process by which truth is understood, believed, and applied. In other words, understanding is not just an intellectual enterprise but involves a knowing with the heart. In the preface of the Wittenberger Chorgesangbuch (1524) he asserted the church should, “sing spiritual songs and psalms from their heart, so that the Word of God and Christian doctrine may be driven and practiced in manifold ways.”16


The song of the reformation emphasizes the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers. Next to the proclamation of the Gospel, and the believers’ testimony of faith, the song in worship also is an invitation for all believers to participate in the praises of God. As a holy priesthood without need of a mediator the Levitical privilege of singing praises to Almighty is now a joyful duty of each saint. Music was an intentional spiritual force of the Reformation that Luther joyfully applied and forcefully defended, for after all, he was leading a singing movement.



1. Martin Luther, "Preface to Georg Rhau's Symphoniae Lucundae: 1538," in Liturgy and Hymns, ed. Ulrich S. Leupod, Luther's Works (1979; repr., Philadelphia, PA: Fortress Press, 1965), 321.

2. Johannes Block, Verstehen Durch Musik: Das Gesungene Wort in Der eologie (Tübingen, Germany: A. Franke Verlag, 2002), 13-15.

3. Sören omas Ho mann, "Vom Geistlichen Singen Und Spielen," in Mennonitisches Jahrbuch 1995 (Lahr, Germany: St.-Johannis-Drukerei, 1995).

4. Block, 33-6.

5. Luther, Liturgy and Hymns, 321-4.

6. Ibid., 323-4.

7. Ibid., 323.

8. Ibid.

9. Luther, Liturgy and Hymns, 323.

10. Ibid., 324.

11. Daniel Reuning, "Luther and Music," Concordia Theological Quarterly 48, no. 1 (1984), 18-19.

12. Block, 49.13 Luther, Liturgy and Hymns, 324. 14 Block, 99.

15. The term “vox musicae“ (the voice of music) is often used in the literature on Luther’s theology of music to convey the concept of the effect of “in and of itself“, in contrast to the effect of music “because of lyrics, context, etc.” In this case, the “vox musicae” aids in the processof understanding since it not only carries information but touches (e.g. seizes – a term Luther emphasized in this context) the person deeply, which leads to true understanding that has an effect in thought, life, and action.

16. Personal translation.


Music Reformation