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Martin Luther and “pop music”

Hymnologist Paul Westermeyer comments on Martin Luther’s hymn tune sources:

Luther’s sources were Gregorian chant, medieval vernacular hymns, and two secular folk melodies that didn’t have staying power and themselves were abandoned for new tunes. Luther did not use “popular music.” The distinction between sacred and secular was not nearly so strong for him as for us, but he did distinguish what was appropriate to worship. The tune Luther wrote for his metrical version of the Sanctus, for example, is adapted from Gregorian chant and is neither easy nor “popular,” though I have heard some Lutheran congregations sing it with love and incredible force.

He then cites hymnologist Eric Routley’s agreement:

The very last thing Luther was, or could have been, was what we now call an adapter of popular styles. He had no use for the “popular” in the sense of the careless, or the standards of ignorance. His melodies are the kind of melody which would appear in a pre-Reformation polyphonic motet, their mixture of basic measure with syncopation being what that style generated. The Minnesinger songs were of the same kind, and it is far removed from the popular music, the carol music.

How does this differ from common arguments using Luther today, and what implications does this have for the relationship between the church’s song and pop culture?

Scott Aniol

About Scott Aniol

Scott Aniol is the founder and Executive Director of Religious Affections Ministries. He is Chair of the Worship Ministry Department at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he teaches courses in ministry, worship, hymnology, aesthetics, culture, and philosophy. He is the author of Worship in Song: A Biblical Approach to Music and Worship, Sound Worship: A Guide to Making Musical Choices in a Noisy World, and By the Waters of Babylon: Worship in a Post-Christian Culture, and speaks around the country in churches and conferences. He is an elder in his church in Fort Worth, TX where he resides with his wife and four children. Views posted here are his own and not necessarily those of his employer.

31 Responses to Martin Luther and “pop music”

  1. A common misconception about Luther’s hymn tunes comes from a misunderstanding about the word ‘barform’. I have heard it said that Luther used a bar(pub) tune for A Mighty Fortress Is Our God. This is a small example of modern musical ignorance. People admire and respect Luther and if they think that he used popular tunes for his worship music, then that is a justification for them to do the same thing. I do not think it is right to take a popular song and put Christian lyrics to it. I think there is room for debate about the appropriateness of original music for the church in a more popular style. This requires discernment on the part of the worship leader.

  2. Like Debbie, I too have heard the story of Martin Luther using a song from the local tavern/bar for his text “A Mighty Fortress is Our God.” This misconception is largely contributed to the misunderstanding of the “bar-form” of the hymn (harkening to the repeated A section where repeat symbols that are characterized by bars could be utilized).

    Coming out of Christendom, Luther lived in a time that we cannot completely comprehend today: a time where the entire culture was heavily influenced by Christians. The folk culture Luther used as tune sources were not the same as popular culture today. We now live in a time where the roles of influence have been reversed (church influenced BY popular culture).

    I would agree with Debbie that it would be wrong to put Christian lyrics to a popular song. The intrinsic association would be too much for a congregation to handle, as it would harken to a text that (most likely) does not honor God or follow His Scriptures. However, I am still figuring out how I feel about new texts being set to original music in the style of pop-culture.

  3. I am so pleased to learn the distinction about Luther’s “A Mighty Fortress is Our God,” in that it is “barform” in form, not that the melody was taken from a bar room! In fact, someone used this misconception as an arguing point with me just the other day. I was able to gently go back and clarify the misconception. Interestingly, the person with whom I was speaking is a musician as well. I do not ever remember this being clarified to me before this class. Because of Martin Luther’s reputation as a great theologian, one can see how much “weight” people give to his practice in worship. We really must keep seriously evaluating everything we do musically in worship. Another solid reminder is that “pop culture” is a relatively new concept.

  4. I, too, had been told that Martin Luther set Christian texts, like “A Mighty Fortress is Our God,” to popular tunes sung in bars. (Almost comical, if it weren’t for the destructive implications.) Before starting grad school, I had never thought about the fact that pop culture did not exist before the Industrial Revolution or that sacred and secular cultures were not all that different from one another throughout Christendom. This makes a big difference in the argument that, “Luther did it so we can, too.” This is not a parallel comparison with our day and age. A better comparison would be to look at the early church fathers, as Stapert did, and see how they responded to the secular culture in which they lived. As we learned, they rejected the pagan practices, including their music for good reason. We would be wise to take heed and carefully consider any worldly messages our songs may be infusing into our worship.

  5. Should we style our worship songs after pop music? Does it even matter? Are associations really that big of a deal or can we move beyond them and embrace pop styles as a type of worship music all their own?

    Like most of you all, I am still working through my own views on worship music, but here is where I am right now: I do not reject the use of pop styles altogether, but I think the church needs to be much more discerning in which pop styles it uses. As Luther found, a love ballad, for example, has very strong associations. In today’s worship, the use of the love ballad style (which permeated my early church experience) conjures up ooey-gooey “romantically-in-love-with-Jesus” feelings in the worshiper that I no longer believe are appropriate for the worship of our God. Even apart from that, associations with pop culture can often be hard to overcome. Here are three examples from my recent experience:

    1) An old gospel tune (which I first encountered in a Catholic song book) “Here’s my cup, Lord; fill it up, Lord.” This tune is so similar to the theme song from the Brady Bunch (Here’s a story of a lovely lady…), I can’t NOT think of the Brady family. It shares much of the melody and even the rhythm of the text is similar. (Although, I noticed on YouTube that soloist tend to embellish so much that the written tune is obscured.

    2) This past week in chapel we sang a song that was almost directly lifted from a very popular ballad from the late 80s/early 90s. The harmonic structure, the rhythm, the riffs, and the melody were all so similar, that even though I was supposed to be playing it, all I could think of was the original group (who did it much better anyway).

    3) I saved the worst one for last. One Sunday, in my former church, between services, I heard background music playing as usual, but this time I was appalled. Someone had set Christian words to the exact tune and style of the pop song “Voulez-vous Coucher Avec Moi (ce soir)?” Translation: Do you want to go to bed with me tonight? (and it gets worse than that!) !!!! What on earth was someone thinking and how did that get approved by a song-writer, singer, publicist, producer, and everyone else? Such a foul song should never, ever find its way into the house of God, even with holy lyrics! The unholy associations are MUCH too strong.

    So, in conclusion, we have got to be MUCH more discerning about what we let into the church by way of music, especially if we conclude that using pop styles is okay. We cannot be ignorant of their associations. We cannot say that it doesn’t matter. Music DOES shape our affections and as church musicians, we bear a heavy responsibility before God to help shape our congregation’s affections rightly. We cannot take this burden lightly.

  6. I as well am still working through my philosophy of worship. The whole “Luther using bar tunes” argument is not as valid as most give it credit. The sacred and secular distinction was not nearly as strong during that time, thus the music Luther chose was appropriate for Christian worship. I do think what we can gather from Luther’s argument is that it is not the “style” of the music that is the issue but rather the appropriateness of that style for worship. There is no sacred “style” that is commanded for us to use in scripture. With that said, there are guildlines in Scripture as to how worship should be carried out and we have to make sure our music portrays that. So is using pop styles wrong in worship? Not necesarrily, as long as the music reflects the values appropriate to Christian worship. Some would argue that none of pop music is appropriate. I am not completely convicted that is case.

  7. Interesting discussion! I did not know about Luther’s story that is discussed above until now. Like, Sarah, I did not even think about the history of sacred and secular music before worship class.
    If I would comment on using popular music tune in CCM based on Luther’s story, I would say NO. Growing up singing traditional chinese folk tunes, Bahasa Malaysia or Indonesian folk tune, and translated English folk tunes, these folk tunes are totally different from today pop music. Folk tune lyric is all about education; on the other hand, many but not all, today pop music lyric mainly has immoral meaning. Therefore, I agree with Debbie, using pop music tune in worship is inappropriate.

  8. I agree with Sarah in that if we’re going to look major church leaders, Luther wouldn’t be appropriate because the time he lived in wasn’t a time like ours. As Sarah also mentions, we need to look to the early church fathers as Stapert did because they’re time was similar to ours.

    As far as the church and pop music goes, I don’t think it’s wrong to use it, as long as we exercise discernment and wisdom in what we choose to use. Obviously, we don’t want to use any music that has bad implications or that twists the Gospel into something it’s not. If we want to use pop music, we need to choose carefully.

  9. I agree with Megan. In A New Song for an Old world, Stapert has given us clear explanation about how we should discern the use of popular culture in church. Since culture is human behavior, that means not all popular culture is bad. Today, many churches are using musical drama during Easter and Christmas celebration, even in VBS and the result, many convert to christ, has shown this pop culture work.

  10. I also agree with Sarah, ai-chin, and those who views that using pop music tune in worship is inappropriate. Just like Sarah said “Luther did it so we can, too. This is not a parallel comparison with our day and age.” We lives in a different time period than Luther, so we cannot simply apply luther’s way directly to how we are going to do today. Sometimes when I hear a familiar pop music tune, I just immediately think of the lyric of the song. If it change to a Christian text using in the church it easily grabs my attention to think of the original lyrics.

  11. Yes, I agree with Sarah “the church needs to be much more discerning in which pop styles it uses.” Luther used folk music for hymn tune, but he did not use “popular music”. I believe there is difference between folk music and popular music, there was no “pop music” back then. A lot of today’s pop music are for commercial and without any biblical foundation or even against the biblical truth. Those pop music tune are not appropriate for worship. But we can’t say all pop music tune are inappropriate to use in worship. Only God can judge.

  12. Martin Luther sought for how the congregation could do true worship to God. He did not exactly follow Catholic worship style. Instead, he reformed Catholic style into a reformed style so that congregation could have a proper worship style. There is one point that claims my attention in the Paul Westermeyer’s comment, “he [Luther] did distinguish what was appropriate to worship.” Luther did not accept the secular music into sacred music thoughtlessly. I believe he carefully considered what was the true worship.
    Nowadays, we should be careful when we choose songs and instruments in the worship. Sometimes a worship band, which is made for helping a worship service, could disrupt for the congregation to praise the Lord. Like as Luther, we need to seek what is the way to worship to God truly.

  13. This postmodern culture is much more complicate than Martin Luther’s culture.
    Our sons and daughters will need much more wisdom and cultural discernments from the word and understanding other cultures in the world.

  14. According to what we learned from “Worship” last semester, at Luther’ time, there is no such thing called “pop culture” yet. Therefore, there is no way to reference Luther as the one who confirms pop music for worship. I have heard many pastors saying that we need to be connected with the culture and be “real” in worship. The strong point, they have is that when people sing hymns, it just boring and “dead”, but with the “pop music” undernith it, the music is “live” and “interesting”. I think in some way, it is true, the text in hymns are usually poems, which has deeper meaning and some times take a long time to understand. On the other hand the pop song’s texts are usually more conversational and easy to understand. I think it is very easy for people to choose something easy over the difficult one. As a seminary student who learned the importance of congregational song, I would pray for the church leaders would take this seriously and protect the church from following the pop culture.

  15. One of the biggest mistakes about Luther and his hymns is that they were taken from bar songs. Truthfully he used bar form. He did use some secular tunes, that fit the text he was trying to use. The question is can we compare the situation Luther was in during his time to now. He was fine with using secular music that fit the text, but would he be fine with music today? We are then only left to our own thought on the issue. Today this seems to be a strong argument for contemporary music, but the time was totally different. The question is would those like Walter change their musical philosophy if they heard music from today (would any form of pop music be acceptable, we know folk music was). My personal philosophy bids me to think that genres of music is not the question, but spirit and truth are. I also do believe the tune should fit the text and should be reverent(this does have some subjectivity). we truly have no way of knowing with 100 percent confidence if Luther would use modern genres to carry forth the gospel message, but it is a interesting thought.

  16. We can’t understand today about Luther’s lived in a time completely. Luther used as tune sorces were not the same as pop music today. I agree it shouldn’t put Christian lyyrcs to a popular song.
    we need to look to the early church fathers because they’re time was similar to ours. We need wisdom and pray when we choose the song.

  17. Using pop music in worship has been a highly debated issue especially with the rise of seeker friendly worship. Whatever we do we must be careful. People can sing along to tunes they know, but what is the real spirit behind the tune that is what we must look at.

  18. In worship class we learned at Luther’s time, there is no so called “pop culture”, and the surrounding culture at that is more influenced by catholic culture. So choosing folk tune for worship at that time has a lot different with we choose pop song tune for worship. I believe Luther knows what is appropriate for congregational worship before he choose that song, that is the key point. As today’s worship leader, we need to know what is appropriate before we choose a song for congregational worship.

  19. These are all great comments about appropriate styles being used in congregational worship. For me, I am interested in trying to determine what everyone means by music of pop culture. Today, the “style” of music used in pop culture is very different. There are various musical influences that dominate pop culture thus it cannot be confined to any specific style of music. Would pop culture be any style of music that is not “classical” in nature? Regardless of this question, the truth remains the same that, because music carries meaning, it is vital to choose music appropriate to worship.

  20. The question that Brandon raised that is pop music any type of music that is not classical in nature, I would say no. We use general terms like pop and classical, but the gospel songs which would have been a pop song. I agree with Brandon we must choose music appropriate for worship.

  21. I have the same concern with Brandon H. I think when we talk about “pop” culture, we all have our own definition of what the “pop” culture actually is. Without drawing a clear line, it will be difficult to share all this discussion with the pastors and church leaders that we are trying to convince to agree with us. Some source of “pop” music style is evil, some source of “pop” music style may be good and bright. Do we just reject them all? Or can we make it more specific that what the “pop” music” that we should reject?

  22. I really appreciate the process we are working through as a class and individually to determine which music is and which music is not appropriate for worship of our God. The question Brandon raised regarding the definition of “pop culture” is an interesting one. Perhaps one would need to do research following the changes in music of the culture over time and see who “composed” each style first. I am inclined to think that the church at large has clearly followed the world in all of life, not just in music, and not vice versa. Just as in the OT days, God even warns us in the NT about keeping our lives set apart from the world. Yes, we are living in it, but we are not to be “of it.” John 17:15-19 records part of Jesus’ prayer for His own, “I do not ask Thee to take them out of the world, but to keep them from the evil one. They are not of the world, even as I am not of the world. Sanctify them in the truth; Thy word is truth.” And in Romans 12:1,2 Paul writes, “I urge you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship. And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect.”

  23. Great discussion this week! It’s apparent that we all see that there must be much discernment and prayer used in selecting music for worship. Should all of pop style be rejected? No! Should all hymns or sacred songs be used? No (as we saw with examples of some pretty awful hymn-writing today in class)! Use discernment and pray without ceasing, especially when leading the people of God in worship

  24. I agree wholeheartedly with Sarah’s insights into our popular sounding worship music today and I am appalled with her at the examples she shared. I think about the same things every week that I have to play the newest song from the top 25 on CCLI. Some of them are ok, but others just grate on my ears and make me wonder what God really thinks about this ‘worship’. I question this constantly. My church went through a lot of turmoil to institute ‘modern worship’ but I would love to see a return to more solemn and respectful worship.

  25. Ben, you bring up an interesting point! Yes, there is some pop music that needs to be rejected while some can be used, but also, we shouldn’t be undiscerning when it comes to all hymns. The hymn that was an example of bad hymn writing was pretty horrible… The fact that it is a hymn and not “pop” music doesn’t justify it either. We can’t forget that as we’re choosing our songs for worship, we must practice discernment with all types of music, not just with what’s popular today.

  26. I agree with that Luther knows what is appropriate for congregational worship before he choose the song. we need to know what is appropriate before we choose a song for congregational worship. Church leaders should have a cosciousness for congregational worship. I think it is very important thing in contemporary worship.

  27. Ben, interesting point. The music pastor must use wisdom in the song selections he uses. He must not choose songs that have any form of bad doctrine or theology, and he must use songs that contain truth. A hymn, psalm or spiritual song also must be done with the right heart. If someone’s inner man is not led by the spirit, then it is not worship. I also believe that every aspect of worship should be done in reverence. I believe using this criteria one can know what to reject and what to accept (this does not mean a certain genre).

  28. As John mentioned, we need to consider not only about genres of music, but also “spirit and truth.” Luther tried to find what kind of musical styles were fit for the congregation to praise to the Lord with the spirit and truth. Worship leaders need to find a proper medium between traditional and contemporary music.

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