Martin Luther on Music

My favorite excerpt from this writing of Martin Luther is this:

“A person who gives this some thought and yet does not regard music as a marvelous creation of God, must be a clodhopper indeed and does not deserve to be called a human being; he should be permitted to hear nothing but the braying of asses and the grunting of hogs.” – Martin Luther

As quoted by Carl F. Schalk in “Luther on Music”. More thoughts on Martin Luther’s views on music and the quoted text in context follows:


Martin Luther was exposed to church music at an early age, giving him reasonable skill and a deep love for music. He referred to music, as quoted by Carl F. Schalk in Luther on Music, as a “wonderful creation and gift of God.” Unlike previous Catholic thought, Luther felt that devotion to the beauty of music positively influenced moral or ethical development. He said, as quoted in A Compend of Luther’s Theology (edited by Hugh Thomson Kerr, Jr., Ph.D.), originally taken from his “Spiritual Hymn Booklet” (Works of Martin Luther), “I am not of the opinion that all arts are to be cast down and destroyed on account of the Gospel, as some fanatics protest; on the other hand I would gladly see all arts, especially music, in the service of Him who has given and created them.” Luther believed that music had strong educational and ethical power, so he wanted the entire congregation to participate in the music of the services. In addition, according to Luther, music was one of the primary methods of counteracting the Devil’s work. Perhaps, as suggested by Joyce L. Irwin in Neither Voice nor Heart Alone, Luther connected music so strongly to theology because of the Gospel’s need to be communicated orally–a function that could be accomplished successfully through sung text.

Luther’s views on education were greatly influenced by his devotion to music. For example, he believed that teachers who were unable to sing were not worthy of teaching. Luther also felt that schoolboys should be instructed in singing each day after lunch. In this way, he felt, as stated by John Butt in Music Education and the Art of Performance in the German Baroque, that the students’ “moral, devotional, temperamental, and intellectual disposition” would be improved.

Another major belief that Luther held about music was the importance of balance between strict adherence to rules and freedom in composition. He felt that standard compositional practices should not inhibit creativeness or musical expression. He did not, however, support the idea of random composition or, in essence, complete musical freedom. He strongly encouraged a balance between the two.

Foreword to Georg Rhau’s Collection, “Symphoniae iucundae”.

“I, Doctor Martin Luther, wish all lovers of the unshackled art of music grace and peace from God the Father and from our Lord Jesus Christ!

I truly desire that all Christians would love and regard as worthy the lovely gift of music, which is a precious, worthy, and costly treasure given to mankind by God.

The riches of music are so excellent and so precious that words fail me whenever I attempt to discuss and describe them…. In summa, next to the Word of God, the noble art of music is the greatest treasure in the world. It controls our thoughts, minds, hearts, and spirits…

Our dear fathers and prophets did not desire without reason that music be always used in the churches. Hence, we have so many songs and psalms.

This precious gift has been given to man alone that he might thereby remind himself that God has created man for the express purpose of praising and extolling God.

However, when man’s natural musical ability is whetted and polished to the extent that it becomes an art, then do we note with great surprise the great and perfect wisdom of God in music, which is, after all, His product and His gift; we marvel when we hear music in which one voice sings a simple melody, while three, four, or five other voices play and trip lustily around the voice that sings its simple melody and adorn this simple melody wonderfully with artistic musical effects, thus reminding us of a heavenly dance, where all meet in a spirit of friendliness, caress and embrace.

A person who gives this some thought and yet does not regard music as a marvelous creation of God, must be a clodhopper indeed and does not deserve to be called a human being; he should be permitted to hear nothing but the braying of asses and the grunting of hogs.”

– Martin Luther


Martin Luther not only exerted a powerful influence on religious and cultural life in the 16th Century. Luther also revolutionized music (then dominated by the Church) in his time. Essentially, the modern Christian hymn was created by Luther with the assistance of coworkers in order to bring the message of the Scriptures home to congregations. Luther was an ardent music lover who played the lute, flute, and sang with an accurate if not very powerful tenor voice. After his challenge to Pope Leo (” 95 Theses”), during his enforced hiding in the Wartburg Castle, Luther completed his German vernacular translation of the New Testament in 1521. He returned to Wittenberg, overseeing mass publication of this work (the Old Testament was completed in succeeding years). By 1523 Luther had translated parts of the Latin Mass into German (“Deudsche Messe”). He also composed melodies and limited harmonizations for these German translations, but recognized that these could not have the same effect as new works conceived in German (he referred to his efforts as somewhat mechanical, “as though done by apes”, a typical bit of self-ironic humor). Therefore, he composed new hymn texts, providing about half with melodies (the exact number is still controversial). He brought in a skilled professional musician, Johann Walter, to harmonize them and urged his friends to compose new hymns. The first congregational hymn book, “Geystliche Gesangkbuchlein”, was already brought out in a mass printing in 1524. This hymn book was commissioned by Luther in four-part harmony “in order to give the young men something in place of their drinking and fleshly songs”. In other words, from now on, the congregation members themselves were to participate musically in the church service; young would-be pastors were not accepted for training before they could demonstrate musical competence. Just as the mass publications of the Bible for individual study brought about expansion of literacy in the Reformation areas (which at first included France, Netherlands, Poland and Hungary, besides Scandinavia) , so did the mass distribution of hymnbooks foster musical literacy among all strata of society. Congregational part singing retained its hold even in areas that were subsequently won back to the Roman Catholic Church, such as Bavaria. Luther exerted other powerful musical influences: opening up the use of instruments, as well as melodies of all origins in church music, and careful matching of music to simple and understandable texts (instead of the polyphonic music and often interwoven Latin texts previously characteristic of the church services.) Thus was born the relatively short and pungent thematic construction of German music, in contrast with the longer more cantabile Italian lines, and the complex Russian melodic structures. Luther remained musically active to the end. One year before he died Luther supervised and wrote the introduction to Johann Walter’s hymnbook of 1545.

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