We don’t know anything about the use of musical instruments in the early Church, so we cannot state anything for a fact. On the one hand, it is beyond controversy that the Church of Christ developed Her worship based on ancient Jewish traditions of worship in the Temple and in synagogues. Therefore, the ancient Christians could have borrowed the traditions of using musical instruments from the synagogue and especially the Temple. In addition, there were many Christians who had been raised as pagans, so they could adopt musical instruments as one of the simplest ways to express religious feelings. On the other hand, it could be that the ex-pagans, remembering the religious dances and music of their past religions, which were accompanied by rituals unacceptable for Christians, did not want to bring that dubious tradition in the Church. In any case, we don’t have facts to either prove or disprove the use of musical instruments during early Christian worship.
We have accounts of church authors and Holy Fathers who paid extensive attention to issues of worship and expressed their opinions about the use of various musical instruments, albeit indirectly. Based on the quotations below, we can conclude that the Church Fathers weren’t unanimous in the issue of using musical instruments in church, although most of them opposed that practice, especially as a way of fighting pagan influence.
That is what St. Clement of Alexandria writes in The Instructor, “Leave the pipe to the shepherd, the flute to the men who are in fear of gods and are intent on their idol-worshipping. Such musical instruments must be excluded from our wineless feasts, for they are more suited for beasts and for the class of men that is least capable of reason than for men… In general, we must completely eliminate every such base sight or sound – in a word, everything immodest that strikes the senses (for this is an abuse of the senses) – if we would avoid pleasures that merely fascinate the eye or ear, and emasculate.” Clement spearheaded the Alexandrian school of theology, which preferred allegorical method of Scripture interpretation. That was why, interpreting the famous Psalm 151, which exhorts all people to praise the Lord using various musical instruments, Clement writes, “The Spirit, distinguishing from such revelry the divine service, sings, Praise Him with the sound of trumpet; for with sound of trumpet He shall raise the dead. Praise Him on the psaltery; for the tongue is the psaltery of the Lord. And praise Him on the lyre. By the lyre is meant the mouth struck by the Spirit, as it were by a plectrum. Praise with the timbrel and the dance, refers to the Church meditating on the resurrection of the dead in the resounding skin. Praise Him on the chords and organ. Our body He calls an organ, and its nerves are the strings, by which it has received harmonious tension, and when struck by the Spirit, it gives forth human voices. Praise Him on the clashing cymbals. He calls the tongue the cymbal of the mouth, which resounds with the pulsation of the lips” (Instructor 2:4).
And still, the bishop of Alexandria did not perceive the use of certain musical instruments as inherently bad, provided that they didn’t bring to mind pagan feasts, “And even if you wish to sing and play to the harp or lyre, there is no blame. You shall imitate the righteous Hebrew king in his thanksgiving to God” (Instructor 2:4).
Eusebius of Caesarea, the notable Church historian, says that the use of psaltery was permissible in the Old Testament era but now that instrument is no longer used, “Of old at the time those of the circumcision were worshiping with symbols and types it was not inappropriate to send up hymns to God with the psalterion and cithara and to do this on Sabbath days… We render our hymn with a living psalterion and a living cithara with spiritual songs. The unison voices of Christians would be more acceptable to God than any musical instrument. Accordingly in all the churches of God, united in soul and attitude, with one mind and in agreement of faith and piety we send up a unison melody in the words of the Psalms” (Commentary on Psalms 91).
Saint Basil the Great claimed that, “Of useless arts there is harp playing, dancing, flute playing, of which, when the operation ceases, the result disappears with it. And, indeed, according to the word of the apostle, the result of these is destruction” (Commentary on Isaiah 5). St. Ambrose of Milan, in turn, was worried that if Christians turned to playing the instruments instead of chanting Psalms, they risked losing their salvation. St. John Chrysostom, the great ascetic and preacher, instructed his flock, “David formerly sang songs, also today we sing hymns. He had a lyre with lifeless strings, the church has a lyre with living strings. Our tongues are the strings of the lyre with a different tone indeed but much more in accordance with piety. Here there is no need for the cithara, or for stretched strings, or for the plectrum, or for art, or for any instrument; but, if you like, you may yourself become a cithara, mortifying the members of the flesh and making a full harmony of mind and body. For when the flesh no longer lusts against the Spirit, but has submitted to its orders and has been led at length into the best and most admirable path, then will you create a spiritual melody” (John Chrysostom, Exposition of Psalms 41).
Blessed Augustine of Hippo said that “Musical instruments were not used. The pipe, tabret, and harp here associate so intimately with the sensual heathen cults, as well as with the wild revelries and shameless performances of the degenerate theater and circus, it is easy to understand the prejudices against their use in the worship.” Interestingly enough, St. Augustine said so while describing the worship practice of the Alexandrian Church. Judging by his exegesis of the Psalms, St. Hilary of Poitiers is far from banning all musical instruments altogether. He lists four kinds of music in worship, including instrumental music and antiphons. According to him, the psaltery is “the most appropriate of all musical instruments.”
There is also a ban of the Council of Laodicea (364), aimed at music that was too pleasing to the human ear and too sensual. The council forbids to use folk melodies for church chants. Aside from instrumental music, the Council banned the laity from singing in the church, save for the choir. It prohibited the use of non-biblical texts, as well as secular tunes.
The only musical instrument that has remained in the Church are church bells that became widespread in the Christian East, in spite of their Western origins. Although bells normally summon the faithful to the church, they are also used to highlight the most important moments during the service, e.g., reading of the Gospel at Sunday Matins, as well as singing of It Is Truly Meet that signals to the people that the Sacrament of Consecration of the Holy Gifts has just occurred.
It is noteworthy that, in spite of almost complete absence of musical instruments in the Orthodox Church, there are local customs that encourage their use in the parishes of the Patriarchate of Alexandria in Africa, where people are noted for their love of music. The existence of the local customs is explained by active Orthodox missionary work in African countries and enriches the Orthodox liturgical tradition, while at the same time bringing the local cultures closer to the Church and reflecting the variety of ways of worshiping God that are typical of Orthodox Tradition.
The Orthodox Church also approves of music outside of worship, remembering that the Lord Jesus Christ went to the wedding in Cana of Galilee and didn’t object to music and dance, which can always be heard and seen at weddings throughout the world. We should always make sure that everything we do benefits us, improves our taste and develops our God-given talents that we can use to serve the Lord and his people.