Why is Music an Important Spiritual Discipline?

Cover, A Christian Guide to Spirituality

Then Moses and the people of Israel sang this song to the LORD, saying, “I will sing to the LORD, for he has triumphed gloriously; the horse and his rider he has thrown into the sea.” (Exod 15:1)

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

Why does scripture’s account of salvation history often sound like a music video? One reason is that they mark important transitions in the narrative of scripture. Songs of praise accompany, for example, both the salvation of Israel from the Egyptians after crossing the Red Sea, and their entrance into the Promised Land [1]. Hannah’s song marks the birth of the prophet, Samuel, (Sam 2:1–10). Songs also begin and end the New Testament [2].

Music is special as a spiritual discipline because it helps unite our hearts and minds [3], and uniquely expresses Christian joy. God has sovereignly created and saved us. We respond in praise. Accordingly, our minds know that our debt is beyond repayment and our hearts rejoice from the depths of our being. We are loved by the King of kings and we want to tell the whole world! Words alone are not enough. Holy songs bind our hearts and minds together. Choral music is special, in particular, because it binds our hearts and minds in unity seldom seen elsewhere.

This unity of heart and mind in music is so complete that it does not allow us to choose one over the other [4]. Even instrumental music communicates complex forms and themes with deep emotion [5]. Because all of us have songs that we have memorized, music is a form of meditation practiced by virtually everyone. We repeat and memorize holy songs that then define who we are, who we were, and who we will be [6].

Holy music is a special gifting from God that draws our hearts and minds to him.


[1] Exod 15:1–21; Deut 32:1–43

[2] Mary’s song marks her pregnancy (Luke 1:46–45); angels announce the birth of the baby Jesus with heavenly praise (Luke 2:14); and, of course, the songs of praise in the Book of Revelation remind us of Christ’s second coming and eternal reign (e.g. Rev 19:5–8).

[3] Dietrich Bonhoeffer once reportedly told his students (all good German intellectuals): “If you want to be pastors, then you must sing Christmas carols!” (Metaxas 2010, 129).

[4] Elliott (2006, 86) writes: “Love is linked to knowledge. To love God you learn about him and rehearse his words constantly. This knowledge will fuel your emotions.”

[5] Playing a musical score functions as a kind of subliminal message which reminds of song lyrics and touches different channels in our brains.

[6] I caution my students to be careful about the music that they listen to: when Alzheimer’s claims most of your mind, do you really want the last thing you remember to be the Oscar Mayer Wiener commercial or some heavy metal lyric?


Elliott, Matthew A. 2006. Faithful Feelings: Rethinking Emotion in the New Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel.

Metaxas, Eric. 2010. Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy—A Righteous Gentile Versus The Third Reich. Nashville: Thomas Nelson.

Why is Music an Important Spiritual Discipline?

Also see:

Preface to A Christian Guide to Spirituality

Other ways to engage online:

Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net

Purchase Book: http://www.T2Pneuma.com


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