A cappella music was originally used in religious music, especially church music as well as anasheed and zemirot. Gregorian chant is an example of a cappella singing, as is the majority of secular vocal music from the Renaissance. The madrigal, up until its development in the early Baroque into an instrumentally-accompanied form, is also usually in a cappella form. Jewish and Christian music were originally a cappella, and this practice has continued in both of these religions as well as in Islam.
The polyphony of Christian a cappella music began to develop in Europe around the late 15th century AD, with compositions by Josquin des Prez. The early a cappella polyphonies may have had an accompanying instrument, although this instrument would merely double the singers' parts and was not independent. By the 16th century, a cappella polyphony had further developed, but gradually, the cantata began to take the place of a cappella forms. 16th century a cappella polyphony, nonetheless, continued to influence church composers throughout this period and to the present day. Recent evidence has shown that some of the early pieces by Palestrina, such as what was written for the Sistine Chapel was intended to be accompanied by an organ "doubling" some or all of the voices. Such is seen in the life of Palestrina becoming a major influence on Bach, most notably in the Mass in B Minor.
Other composers that utilized the a cappella style, if only for the occasional piece, were Claudio Monteverdi and his masterpiece, Lagrime d'amante al sepolcro dell'amata (A lover's tears at his beloved's grave), which was composed in 1610, and Andrea Gabrieli when upon his death it was discovered many choral pieces, one of which was in the unaccompanied style. Learning from the preceding two composeres, Heinrich Schütz utilized the a cappella style in numerous pieces, chief among these were the pieces in the oratorio style, which were traditionally performed during the Easter week and dealt with the religious subject matter of that week, such as Christ's suffering and the Passion. Five of Schutz's Historien were Easter pieces, and of these the latter three, which dealt with the passion from three different viewpoints, those of Matthew, Luke and John, were all done a cappella style. This was a near requirement for this type of piece, and the parts of the crowd were sung while the solo parts which were the quoted parts from either Christ or the authors were performed in a plainchant.
In the Byzantine Rite of the Eastern Orthodox Church and the Eastern Catholic Churches, the music performed in the liturgies is exclusively sung without instrumental accompaniment. Bishop Kallistos Ware says, "The service is sung, even though there may be no choir... In the Orthodox Church today, as in the early Church, singing is unaccompanied and instrumental music is not found." This a cappella behavior arises from strict interpretation of Psalms 150, which states, Let every thing that hath breath praise the Lord. Praise ye the Lord. In keeping with this philosophy, early Russian musika which started appearing in the late 17th century, in what was known as khorovïye kontsertï (choral concertos) made a cappella adaptations of Venetian-styled pieces, such as the treatise, Grammatika musikiyskaya (1675), by Nikolai Diletsky. Divine Liturgies and Western Rite masses composed by famous composers such as Peter Tchaikovsky, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Alexander Arkhangelsky, and Mykola Leontovych are fine examples of this.
Opposition to instruments in worship
Present-day Christian religious bodies known for conducting their worship services without musical accompaniment include some Presbyterian churches devoted to the regulative principle of worship, Old Regular Baptists, Primitive Baptists, Plymouth Brethren, Churches of Christ, Church of God (Guthrie, Oklahoma), the Old German Baptist Brethren, Doukhobors the Byzantine Rite and the Amish, Old Order Mennonites and Conservative Mennonites. Certain high church services and other musical events in liturgical churches (such as the Roman Catholic Mass and the Lutheran Divine Service) may be a cappella, a practice remaining from apostolic times. Many Mennonites also conduct some or all of their services without instruments. Sacred Harp, a type of folk music, is an a cappella style of religious singing with shape notes, usually sung at singing conventions.
Opponents of Matthew 26:30; Acts 16:25; Romans 15:9; 1 Corinthians 14:15; Ephesians 5:19; Colossians 3:16; Hebrews 2:12, 13:15; James 5:13, which show examples and exhortations for Christians to sing.
There is no reference to instrumental music in early church worship in the New Testament, or in the worship of churches for the first six centuries. Several reasons have been posited throughout church history for the absence of instrumental music in church worship.[nb 1]
Christians who believe in a cappella music today believe that in the Israelite worship assembly during Temple worship only the Priests of Levi sang, played, and offered animal sacrifices, whereas in the church era, all Christians are commanded to sing praises to God. They believe that if God wanted instrumental music in New Testament worship, He would have commanded not just singing, but singing and playing like he did in the Hebrew scriptures.
The first recorded example of a musical instrument in Roman Catholic worship was a pipe organ introduced by Pope Vitalian into a cathedral in Rome around 670.[nb 2]
Instruments have divided Christendom since their introduction into worship. They were considered a Catholic innovation, not widely practiced until the 18th century, and were opposed vigorously in worship by a number of Protestant Reformers, including Martin Luther (1483–1546), Ulrich Zwingli, John Calvin (1509–1564) and John Wesley (1703–1791). Alexander Campbell referred to the use of an instrument in worship as "a cow bell in a concert". In Sir Walter Scott's The Heart of Midlothian, the heroine, Jeanie Deans, a Scottish Presbyterian, writes to her father about the church situation she has found in England (bold added):
- The folk here are civil, and, like the barbarians unto the holy apostle, have shown me much kindness; and there are a sort of chosen people in the land, for they have some kirks without organs that are like ours, and are called meeting-houses, where the minister preaches without a gown.
Acceptance of instruments in worship
Those who do not adhere to the regulative principle of interpreting Christian scripture, believe that limiting praise to the unaccompanied chant of the early church is not commanded in scripture, and that churches in any age are free to offer their songs with or without musical instruments.
Those who subscribe to this interpretation believe that since the Christian scriptures never counter instrumental language with any negative judgment on instruments, opposition to instruments instead comes from an interpretation of history. There is no written opposition to musical instruments in any setting in the first century and a half of Christian churches (AD 33 to 180). The use of instruments for Christian worship during this period is also undocumented. Toward the end of the 2nd century, Christians began condemning the instruments themselves. Those who oppose instruments today believe these Church Fathers had a better understanding of God's desire for the church, but there are significant differences between the teachings of these Church Fathers and Christian opposition to instruments today.
- Modern Christians typically believe it is acceptable to play instruments or to attend weddings, funerals, banquets, etc., where instruments are heard playing religious music. The Church Fathers made no exceptions. Since the New Testament never condemns instruments themselves, much less in any of these settings, it is believed that "the church Fathers go beyond the New Testament in pronouncing a negative judgment on musical instruments."
- Written opposition to instruments in worship began near the turn of the 5th century. Modern opponents of instruments typically do not make the same assessment of instruments as these writers,[nb 3] who argued that God had allowed David the "evil" of using musical instruments in praise. While the Old Testament teaches that God specifically asked for musical instruments, modern concern is for worship based on the New Testament.
Since "a cappella" singing brought a new polyphony (more than one note at a time) with instrumental accompaniment, it is not surprising that Protestant reformers who opposed the instruments (such as Calvin and Zwingli) also opposed the polyphony. While Zwingli was destroying organs in Switzerland – Luther called him a fanatic – the Church of England was burning books of polyphony.
Some Holiness Churches such as the Free Methodist Church opposed the use of musical instruments in church worship until the mid-20th century. The Free Methodist Church allowed for local church decision on the use of either an organ or piano in the 1943 Conference before lifting the ban entirely in 1955.
While worship in the 2 Chronicles 29:25–29:27), traditional Jewish religious services in the Synagogue, both before and after the last destruction of the Temple, did not include musical instruments given the practice of scriptural cantillation. The use of musical instruments is traditionally forbidden on the Sabbath out of concern that players would be tempted to repair (or tune) their instruments, which is forbidden on those days. (This prohibition has been relaxed in many Reform and some Conservative congregations.) Similarly, when Jewish families and larger groups sing traditional Sabbath songs known as zemirot outside the context of formal religious services, they usually do so a cappella, and Bar and Bat Mitzvah celebrations on the Sabbath sometimes feature entertainment by a cappella ensembles. During the Three Weeks musical instruments are prohibited. Many Jews consider a portion of the 49-day period of the counting of the omer between Passover and Shavuot to be a time of semi-mourning and instrumental music is not allowed during that time. This has led to a tradition of a cappella singing sometimes known as sefirah music.
The popularization of the Jewish chant may be found in the writings of the Jewish philosopher Philo, born 20 BC. Weaving together Jewish and Greek thought, Philo promoted praise without instruments, and taught that "silent singing" (without even vocal chords) was better still. This view parted with the Jewish scriptures, where Israel offered praise with instruments by God's own command (2 Chronicles 29:25). The shofar is the only temple instrument still being used today in the synagogue, and it is only used from Rosh Chodesh Elul through the end of Yom Kippur. The shofar is used by itself, without any vocal accompaniment, and is limited to a very strictly defined set of sounds and specific places in the synagogue service. However, silver Numbers 10:1-10, have been made in recent years and used in prayer services at the Western Wall.