When thinking about music, it could be easy to just write it off as mere entertainment, but the reality is that music is an incredible gift from God, one that humanity has been utilizing as a unique form of expression since the beginning of time. Music has the ability to profoundly affect a person by capturing the essence of their heart in ways that could never be completely expressed in words. It is a way to unite body, mind and soul. Countless research has found that listening to music can reduce anxiety, blood pressure and pain as well as improve sleep quality, mood, mental alertness and memory. How wise, then, is our Church to have beautifully welded together music with our spiritual lives! What science has recently discovered about music, our Church has known for thousands of years. The Bible is constantly referencing music as an integral part of worship. In Ephesians 5:19 we are called to speak to and worship God by “singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord.”
Knowing the spiritual and health benefits, it is so important that we make music, especially Church music, an integral part of family life. As a child I grew up listening to primarily chanting and other Church music. I honestly thought Eikona was a pop group for the longest time! Even as I started to discover different kinds of music as I went through middle and high school, chanting was still one of my favorite things to listen to. My sister and I knew practically all of the hymns of the Church by heart simply from hearing them growing up and I’m convinced that is one of the reasons why we both continue to chant in church today. Having the beautiful music of the Church as the foundation for my musical experience is something that I am incredibly grateful for and something I am determined to continue with my children.
Something that is so special about our Church music is that it is meant to be communal; we are all called to chant “with one voice and one heart” together in the Liturgy. Every Sunday, we are not just chanting with our immediate church community, but we are also chanting together in one voice with our global community of Orthodox Christians. This is why it is so important for our children to be immersed in our hymnography at church and at home, so that they can be excited to be a part of our communal Christian worship and life. As a mother, I already see what an impact music in general has on my four-month-old son, but even more amazing to see is the effect of Byzantine chant. When I was pregnant I listened to a lot of chanting by the monks on Mt. Athos, and when my Samuel was born, if he became fussy or upset, when we would play these hymns he would instantly calm. It was amazing … even a small babe could recognize and understand the power and peace of our hymnography! Should Samuel go to visit Mt. Athos—God willing—when he is older, he will have even more familiarity and comfort there because of this early connection with the music.
Not only are the melodies and tones of our Church music soothing to our souls and beautiful to listen to, but the words also speak to us many things about our theology and saints:
“Some hymns unequivocally declare the great dogmatic truths, others the love of God, and others place our pain, problems and aspirations before God and His Saints. They have survived because they express Truth, therefore, their messages are always timely and eternal. They are also messages of victory and the resurrection” (Fr. George D. Konstantopoulos, “The Purpose of Orthodox Christian Hymnography”)
But why is it so important that our dogma and theology be committed to music? Setting words to music makes them even more memorable. It is no coincidence that we can remember perfectly all of the lyrics to our favorite song even if we haven’t heard it in years. This is a huge reason why music in the Church is so powerful and so important. Every time we sing or listen to a hymn we are engraining the story of the saint, the history of the Church, or theology and dogma into our minds. Listening to and singing just a few hymns a day ensures that our families will be continually reflecting and remembering the beauty of our Church history … what a gift this is!
Luckily for us, there are so many easy ways to learn and incorporate our Church hymns into our daily life. One of the things that my family does is sing each of our patron saint’s apolytikia (dismissal hymns) together every morning. It is such a special way to feel close to our saints when we sing to them every day! If you do not know your saint’s apolytikon, St. Anthony’s Monastery in Florence, Arizona, has compiled a digital Menaion with saint apolytikia available for every single day of the year in Western and Byzantine notation, and in English. Most of them have an auditory example as well. You can access them here: stanthonysmonastery.org/music/Menaion.htm.
Another thing we do together is sing the hymns of the day or the hymns of the feast period we are in, depending on the time of year. An easy way to access the scores to these hymns is through AGES Initiatives (agesinitiatives.com), where they have compiled the words and music to daily services for most of the days of the year. If you cannot read music, simply listening to hymns is just as valuable, especially considering that oral tradition was the original way to learn and pass down our Church hymnography! You can find multiple recordings of many Church services and special hymns, like the Paraklesis (one of my family’s favorites) on the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese website: goarch.org/chapel/chant.
As a musician, I am so thankful that the arts are truly blessed by God and that music is such an integral and important part of our worship, both in the Church and at home. One of my most fervent prayers as a mother is that my child grows up firmly planted in our Orthodox Church with a sense of community and personal connection to Christ. Using music as a tool for nurturing our family’s spiritual life, singing and making melody together, we will continue our walk toward the Lord!
This article originally appeared in PRAXIS Volume 17: Issue 3, “Faith and Art.” To learn more about PRAXIS, including how to subscribe, visit praxis.goarch.org.