Why do the Orthodox not use instruments in worship? Part 05

KarasSample-with headerFather Orthoduck is happy to present a well-considered answer from another Orthodox reader, Mr. Nathan Speir. He is a chanter at my Orthodox parish, has a Bachelor of Music degree, and is also an instrumental composer. So, he is not against musical instruments, per se, but does consider that instruments do not belong in worship. Below is his considered reply.


I just caught this writing of yours this morning. I have a few cents to add. I believe the abstinence of instruments is actually very theological.

1) The voice is the only appropriate instrument for Church music because it is more than just and instrument. Albeit music is nothing more than movement, rhythm, and silence or stillness. Contribution of instruments to music dates to very ancient times. The analyses of instruments in Jewish worship does have some relevance to Church music today, but the qualities of instruments used has more relevance than their history. Before we look further into this lets briefly examine how a voice serves as an instrument in music.

The three aspects of music mentioned above can be incorporated into any facet of life; furthermore, the voice alone fulfills these aspects in Church music. The voice and the lack thereof fulfills movement, silence, and rhythm. The voice and the lack thereof fulfills the the cycle, or rhythm, that man approaches God in action, or movement, then in prayer, or stillness.

With this analogy in mind, the importance of action and prayer comes into play. A man made instrument is simply incapable of helping man to continuously synergize action and prayer because a man made instrument is not wholly integrated with the heart in the way that the human voice is. The voice was made by God, and it is a part of man.

Argumentatively, people claim to have very spiritual bands with their man made instruments, but I believe this to be very artificial compared to the natural bond the human voice has (as an instrument) to the rest of man’s carnal and spiritual anatomy. This leads to the second point concerning the voice as the only appropriate instrument for Church worship.

2) Keeping in mind that the Church is a hospital in which all people may receive a cure for their spiritual illness, the reason for no instruments in Church worship becomes more apparent in the writings of the Holy Fathers, the Ecumenical decisions of the Holy Fathers, and in Scripture itself. The music of the Church is supposed to be a contribution to man’s cure, and his deification. Really, all aspects of the Church are universal, especially in its method of cure for the soul. Music offers many things for the soul and body, but music of the Church always implements the characteristics of prayer, fasting, vigilance, thanksgiving, praise, repentance, and love. Prayer, especially, is a key to understanding the writings of the Holy Fathers and their Ecumenical decisions. St Gregory Palamas is one of the greatest contributors the Church has in understanding the relevance of prayer to our salvation; more importantly, the Saint has fought for and won the Church’s understanding of the proper method of prayer that all people in the Church should have, if they abide in the Orthodox Church.

3) The voice is a Catholic instrument. Their is no other man-made instrument that maintains a historical or cultural universality as the voice. Really, the creation of other man made instruments has many diverse mythologies, histories, and applications. Choosing additional instruments for the Church simply interrupts the Catholicity of the Church.

4) The view of man’s relationship with God changes when additional musical instruments are used in Church music. Concerning the ideology of man made instruments, there are several implications here concerning technology, western theology, and instant gratification. Without further explanation on these previous points, there is a universal instrument, the voice, by which the Church maintains its Catholicity. In short, man made musical instruments divert to a more impersonal Worship, to less focus on God in worship, to further focus on human reason and instant gratification. This kind of music with additional instruments in Church music opens the door to a more humanistic and existential ideology.

5) Additional instrument have never been added to music in God’s temple because the Holy Spirit has never led the Church to do so. The Saints are the pillars and victors of our Church. None of the Holy hymnographers of the Church have ever been led to write music for any other instrument than the human voice. This is a very obvious but important point to consider in any period of the Church’s history. Passages in Scripture concerning the shofar, or the harp have been used to argue that saints have indeed been inspired to use instruments for Church worship. However, such conclusions can only be arrived at when the Scriptures are taken out of context of the Church.

A summary of the five points listed above looks at the theological reasons for the Church’s exclusive use of the human voice for music. The voice is an intimate part of man created by God, and there is no other comparable instrument. The human voice is the only musical instrument that can be incorporated with the Church’s Tradition for man’s cure. The human voice is the most Catholic instrument of all instruments. The use of man made instruments in Church also lends to a very un-Orthodox ideology concerning man’s relationship with God. Finally, none of the Saints of the Church have been inspired by God to write for any other instrument than the human voice.


  1. Andrew Cvercko says

    In western countries, the study of Sacred Orthodox Christian Music has been bent towards prejudice because of the lack of knowledge about the cultures of Orthodox Sacred Music. Traditionally fulfilling its role as an inseparable aspect of church worship, Orthodox liturgical singing has never been fully recognized by western scholars of sacred music. In today’s American Music institutions, Eastern Orthodox Liturgical Music is rarely studied or performed. The Orthodox student of Sacred Music finds this prejudice incomprehensible and frustrating. As a result, the burden of serving as caretakers for the nearly thousand-year-long tradition of Orthodox liturgical singing has fallen on the shoulders of the ever shrinking Orthodox students of Music, which, except in a few cases, has proven to be academically and musically unprepared to fulfill such a task.

    Equally as important has been the establishment and growth of Orthodox Christianity on American soil; the parishes established by the “Mother Churches” of Greece, Antioch, Russia, Romania, Bulgarian, Serbian and others, have adopted choral “traditional ” and “nationalistic” singing brought to America in the memories of emigrants. There are some who believe that in time, these various ethnic groups will become welded into an American “protestant” Orthodox tradition of “liturgical singing”. This position is dangerous and misguided.

    There has already been a dangerous amount of protestant and eastern rite catholic influences perverting Orthodox Liturgical singing. And, far too many Orthodox laymen and clergy do not understand the difference. It is difficult enough just to have a modest parish choir properly singing the full Divine Liturgy without adding “protestant” and “catholic” tendencies which are being passed off as “Eastern Orthodox” music.

    One of the most common questions asked is ‘Why are there no instruments used in Orthodox Churches?” The Church fathers St. Basil the Great (296-373), and St. Ambrose (349-397), discouraged “casual speaking” and the use of instruments in Christian worship, and instead encouraged the singing of Psalms without elaboration. The Church Fathers felt that casual “speaking” and instruments created a festive excitement, and that attention was turned away from God to “self”.

    Instrumental music in Christian worship is purely an American protestant abomination and conveys no meaning whatsoever. Instrumentation is unable to render even the most ordinary to worship. Instrumental music has no vocabulary, only “emotion”; and to call sounding tones “words” is a useless allegory, for it lacks the characteristic properties of language. “The peaceful word of adoration is with voice, not harps, drums, pipes or trumpets…”said St Clement of Alexandria (200AD).
    As the Orthodox Church in American began its translation of services from ethnic languages into English, be it the harmonization of church music, it was in no way a reformation. The Divine Liturgy remained the same in ritual and proper; and the church strictly upheld the Eucharist as the heart of its Christian service.

    During the age of the Seven Ecumenical Councils (4th-8th centuries), music in the Church received its definitive structure and character. However, clever heretics expressed their false doctrines in lively, catchy melodies, which spread quickly among the people and clergy. And, in spite of, and in opposition to these heretics, the Church fathers formulated guidelines for the music to be used in Orthodox worship. Unfortunately and perhaps unknowingly, many churches, priest and cantors have fallen to the heresies of the past.

    First and most obviously, the Ecumenical Fathers made it clear that sacred music is purely vocal. The human voice alone glorifies God. There are a number of reasons for this. Most pointedly, the organ is associated with the “theater and circus”; for they evoked the whole atmosphere of pagan frivolity and licentiousness for the Christians.

    Besides the formal hymnology itself, everything else is “chanted” by a tonsured “reader” or “sung”-all psalms, readings, prayers, the Creed, and most importantly the intonations by the priest. This phenomena in American Orthodox Churches of reciting the “Creed” and/or “The Lord’s Prayer” during Divine Liturgy, are influences from charismatic protestant worship having absolutely “no basis” or precedent in the whole history of Orthodox corporate worship. This unfortunate development may be seen as a move towards the “secularization” of the Orthodox Church.

    Throughout the unbroken history of the Orthodox Church, whether or not these basic features of sacred music have been fulfilled in every local parish, the ideals stand as a guide for all to follow. No individual, no parish, no cantor, no choir director or priest has a right to abridge or ignore these canonical standards. Each generation must embrace the wisdom of the musical tradition so that church singing may continue to fulfill its proper and sacred role in corporate prayer. Such a fulfillment is a fulfillment of the very nature of music to draw mortals to the immortal Throne of God where all harmony and beauty have their beginning and end.

    The Christian practice of worship has always included sacred music from the very beginning. At the Lords’ Supper when Our Lord Jesus Christ instituted the Mystery of His precious Body and Blood, He and His disciples sang a hymn before they departed to the Mount of Olives (Mathew 26;30, Mark 14:26). At that time there was no choral or harmonized music. The Psalms were actually a continuation of the Judaic heritage of “chanting psalms”. Though much of the Liturgical music in use in Orthodox churches today is harmonized, the traditional Byzantine chants were monophonic (“single-voiced”) with the addition of the drone bass or holding note. In America today fewer cultures of the Mediterranean and Middle East have replaced all most of the Byzantine Chants with harmonized music. As time passed after the 16th century, harmonies became more sophisticated as professionally trained musicians harmonized the chants. Those who prefer harmonized music insist that there is the possibility of simple part-singing which is not theatrical and which has, moreover, the effect of highlighting and beautifying the chant and its text. Whether the services are “chanted” or “sung” by a choir and congregation , this should not be to much of a controversy with in the Orthodox Church. If there is any controversy, it is with the usage of instruments and “talking” the Creed and Lord’s Prayer.

    There is tremendous concern about the overall weakness of musical training in local parishes. there are too few accomplished “choir directors”. And, unless every Orthodox parishioner takes this decline seriously, Orthodoxy in America, regardless of jurisdiction and culture will fade the possibility of becoming completely engulfed by protestantism. Hopefully, every Orthodox Christian will take this possibility seriously enough before “processions” become “parades” and churches that should remain Holy Temples become “social hall”.

    Andrew J. Cvercko

    • JanKing says

      As far as the last comment made ..”Hopefully, every Orthodox Christian will take this possibility seriously enough before “processions” become “parades” and churches that should remain Holy Temples become “social hall”…I would rather attend a church where people are social and practice what they preach than attend a church that shuns outsiders and considers its religion to be the “only true religion”. In my experience, most people who attend the Orthodox church are nothing but hypocrites.

  2. says

    I hope I might be forgiven for pointing out that Bach’s Mass in Bminor was well before the “American protestant abominations” of instruments.

  3. says

    Or at least, it’s not American 😉 I guess having been written in 1749’ish, it might be around the same time.


  4. An Orthodox Christian from Egypt says

    Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ Jesus,
    I was very happy to read your comments. The Orthodox Church is the cotinuation of the Book of Acts (The authentic church of the Lord and the apostles), thus at the time of reading from the book of Acts during service, the deacon says” a chapter from the book of Acts……” hinting that the work of the Holy Spirit in the book of Acts still works until today in all aspects of the church and that every day of the church can be a new chapter with the Holy Spirit.

    The church should remain a holy temple for God is Holy and those who worship Him should do so in spirit and in holiness. What our Lord says “My house is a house of prayer and you have made it a den for theives” indicates the inappropriate use of God’s Holy house.

  5. Enquiring Musician says

    Hello. I am a musician who is a practising Roman Catholic but who is reading up on Orthodoxy and their beliefs. Now I understand the feelings re: the voice. I completely agree as I am also a singer. However, what I’d like to know is how can the Orthodox if they believe in the Bible deny music when it says right in Psalms 149 to praise God with instruments. There are several instruments listed there and in other places in the Bible. As interesting as the Orthodox beliefs are to me, I know that one thing that would keep me from crossing over completely would be having to give up guitar at the services.

    • says

      It is only in the services that we do not use instruments. Although, as I mentioned, the organ has made a bit of an entrance in at least one of the jurisdictions.

      There are Orthodox recording artists that write and record contemporary Christian music. You can go to http://www.myocn.net/images/player/ark-player/ark.html and listen to some of them. You will hear variety from acapella ancient, to folk, to pop, to modern rock. So, it is not that we are against modern music or against instruments per se. It is that in worship, from the beginning, there has been a feeling that God ought to be praised by human voices.

      Please do look over the series and notice that even in the West, there were those among the Reformers who agreed that music should not include instruments. Among the strict Calvinists, particularly in Scotland, and among the Puritans, it was believed that one should only sing the Psalms and should not sing anything in worship not found in the Scriptures.

      In passing, I play guitar and was a music/worship leader in a charismatic congregation for several years. And, yes, there are some things I still do miss. :) But, it has been worth it.

      • Enquiring Musician says

        Hello, again. Thank you for such a thorough answer. I’m going to check out your series as well as the web link you listed. I’ve been listening to the Ark radio station and am enjoying some of the contemporary Orthodox Christian musicians there.Last Sunday, I finally made it to a Divine Liturgy and it was wonderful, even without instruments.

      • Recent Orthodox says

        Hello Father,

        I was a Protestant “Worship Leader” for nearly 15 years. I remember the first time I entered an Orthodox Church (after having been convinced from history that the Orthodox Church was the one, the same and the unbroken continuation Church that we read about in Scripture), it blew my mind as I had never seen God Worshipped in such a way before nor since. No matter how hard I had previously tried, I failed to truly worship God and all I could lead my congregations into was an emotional goose bump experience that they liked to call annointing.

        Whether or not instruments can have a God glorifying part within the Orthodox Liturgy aside, there is no doubt that the Liturgy is complete as it is and anyone who sincerely participates will be as the hymn says, representing “the Cherubim” and laying “aside all earthly cares.”

        • Fr. Orthoduck says

          I like that way of phrasing it, “Whether or not instruments can have a God glorifying part . . . there is no doubt that the Liturgy is complete as it is . . . .” Thanks.

  6. Thomas says

    First of all, Fr. forgive me for my spelling mistakes, I’m sure they won’t bid you too much agony!
    Hmm… I am a musician and am looking for a better answer than this I’m afraid!!! Let it be said that I intensely love the Orthodox church; and while I am not a member yet, the days are very few until I am. With that being said, I have no intention of coaxing any change in the music of the Orthodox liturgy, I merely want an explanation of this aspect of orthodoxy, that satisfyes my thirst for the answer in the way that the other explanations of the Orthodox church satisfy my search for spiritual truth. These are my counter arguements to your statements:

    1.) While with these section, you clearly show how the human voice as both an instrument of melody and of prayer is suited wonderfully for the liturgy of the church; you fail however, to provide any scriptural support for your arguements against the use of instruments in the above described ways. “A man made instrument is simply incapable of helping man to continuously synergize action and prayer” You are forgeting Fr., that an Ikon is precisely a man made instrument that helps us synergize action and veneration! In what way does an instrument fail to depect the glory of God (which is in this case music) in the way that the Ikon succedes in depicting the glory of the Saints, who’s exact image is only relative to the Ikon? Again “people claim to have very spiritual bands with their man made” Ikon’s, who’se purpose serves both Liturgy and Veneration. But one could claim (and many protestant’s do,) that this bond, is “very artificial” as compared to the bond-value of the actual saint, which one could argue could more realistically be recieved by the Tradition surrounding the saint.

    2.) One could indeed argue, that the vocal said/sung prayers, accompanied by the instrumental music can and has expressed “the characteristics of prayer, fasting, vigilance, thanksgiving, praise, repentance, and love.” If those are the prescription that the “hospital” that is the church prescribes, then I don’t see the problem here.

    3.) One could also argue that the pre-christian philosophies known as Logos would interrupt the “Orthodoxy” of the church. And when the “Catholicity” simply means “Universiality” it becomes less clear how an instrument, which indeed has helped throughout history in the rifining of the music of man, would be a stumbling block to that end. You must not forget that the Pipe Organ, invented in the 3rd century under a simpler prototype called the Hydraulis, was immediately incorporated into the Catholic Church, for the soul purpose of supporting the chant, which is very tedious when unaccompanied. One could argue historicaly that the pipe organ is *the* instrument of the church, as it the only instrument that was developed by the church.


    • Thomas says


      4.) If “man made musical instruments divert to a more impersonal Worship, to less focus on God in worship, to further focus on human reason and instant gratification,” why did are God’s angels nearly allways depicted carrying Harps, Trumpets, Psalters, flutes etc…! If musical instruments were really just products of Man’s sinfullness and desire for “technology, western theology, and instant gratification,” then why would God, who is Orthodox after all, employ them, or permit them into his worship in heaven, which is the complete abscense of the secular?!

      5.) If the Holy Spirit did not inspire the use of instruments in the early church, then who did? And even if the Holy Spirit did inspire the Saints “to use instruments for Church worship” then it would be prevented from being carried out, as the church has handily anathymatized instruments. “such conclusions can only be arrived at when the Scriptures are taken out of context of the Church”??? Or has the church taken out of the context of it’self, some of the scriptures?

      Further, I find the fact that “another Orthodox reader, Mr. Nathan Speir… a chanter at [your’e] Orthodox parish, has a Bachelor of Music degree, and is also an instrumental composer” who likes the Idea of the exclusion of instruments in church completely irrelevant. Why don’t you ask you’re friend Mr. Nathan Speir, whether it is harder or easier to chant without accompanyment! For several years I was a cantor for a non-orthodox group who did the office of Vespers and Compline every week. They were rashly against accompaniment of the Greigorian Psalm tones. To put a long story short, I was never free to contemplate on the psalms, because as you do or do not know; without accompaniment, there is nothing to keep the congregation at the correct pitch. All I could think about, was how in just a few measures, the congregation would have slipped just below my range, and I would no longer be able to lead without virtually yelling the correct pitch, clashing terribly with the congregation. Every Psalm was like a seasaw, where I would start the psalm in a comfortable pitch, and then by the middle of the psalm, we had slipped below my range. Yes, the Ison in Byzantine chant, even though it is accompaniment, will droupe in the same manner.

      Which brings me to my next point. Why is there permitted an Ison for the accompaniment of the Chant? The singers who are preforming the Drone are not praying, or is there an exception to the rule in this point?

      Well Fr. that’s all for this comment. I hope you don’t take the tone of my comment to be harsh. It was necessary for me to write in this way in order to accurately state my standpoint on this matter.

      Thank you for your time!

  7. Chad says

    In Rev 14 and Rev 15 the saints are singing along with “The harps of God” (musical instruments) Are these being played by Protestants?

    • hansmartinkronback says

      The harps… Maybe the harps is not literal harps. So much in Revelation is symbolic. Jesus is “the Lamb” but not an animal and so on…

      Or, maybe it’s “ok” because it’s in HEAVEN? There is no “emotionalism” in heaven, only pure spiritual praise.

      On earth Christian worship can be turned into something similar to pagan ecstasy. That’s one of the reason why the Fathers were against it I suppose. I believe the modern pentecostal/”charismatic” movements are revivals of the old heresy of Montanism. It’s all about the excstasy…


  1. […] God, were transformed in Baptism into Temples of the ineffable Trinity, and our voices are the prime instrument of that Temple. As a friend of ours from Boston said (with a Baahstin accent) after […]

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