Darrow Miller and Friends

Is Harmony a Christian Invention?

If you enjoy harmony in music, you should probably thank the people who brought us the Bible.

Christian Overman writes about harmonyThat’s one way to restate the message of a recent blog post by our friend, Christian Overman.

Westerners take melody and harmony for granted. But “Western” music did not spring from a vacuum. It came from a Christian motivation that viewed music as a way of worshiping the Almighty God who dresses flowers with more colors than a King’s robe. It came out of a worldview of hope and joy, which produced harmony and melody as a means of praise, thanksgiving and celebration.

Yes, “Western” music came out of Christian worship. Worship that birthed single-voice melody called “Plainsong” [which later developed into Gregorian Chant] starting in the 3rd century, then in the 9thcentury developing into two-voice melody, and eventually polyphony [multi-voice music]. Out of this came Handel, Bach, Beethoven, and that remarkable phenomenon we now call “Western” music

Dr. Overman speaks of the richness of polyphony, i.e. multiple-voiced music. He’s careful not to label it superior, but says, for example, “from a musician’s point of view, using one’s gifts to make music as full and rich as possible is good.”

Yes. And I would suggest that even most non-musical listeners will prefer polyphony (other things being equal, of course).

a bedecked waffle is like harmonyThe culinary world provides a crude analogy. Everybody likes a waffle. With butter it’s even better. Add maple syrup for a scrumptious result. Finally, smother it all with whipped cream. Almost all the time, almost everybody will choose the “polyculinary” over the “monotaste.”

After reading Christian’s post, and some of the comments, I became curious about the idea of non-Western harmony. So I poked around a little bit and found the following (offered here with the disclaimer that an amateur with an internet connection does not an expert make).

Musical harmony probably came from Western civilization

At his blog, The Music Salon, Bryan Townsend wrote a post entitled, “Non-Western Harmony.” He suggests that Mongolian throat singing (i.e. the remarkable technique of one singer issuing two simultaneous tones) may be the only example outside the West of polyphonic singing. Then he says

The Mongolian music aside … we may be forced to the conclusion that, like accurate music notation, harmony and polyphony were invented exactly once in music history. Even more astonishing, they were both invented at roughly the same time in roughly the same place: southern France, northern Italy around 1000 AD. Nailing down the details of notating rhythms took until about 1500.

Could it be that harmony, counterpoint and the ability to write them down were unique discoveries? It seems a lot of other things were only discovered once and then spread to the rest of the world: paper-making, gunpowder and printing come to mind. But we usually don’t think of things like harmony in that category. It just seems that any group of singers getting together would invent harmony out of pure instinct. But no. Pure instinct seems to get you to everyone singing the same thing: monophony. Polyphony doesn’t seem to come by instinct.

Townsend’s premise doesn’t comprise a one-to-one correlation with Dr. Overman’s, but certainly it supports Christian’s message.

Go here to read Christian’s post.

  • Gary Brumbelow


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Gary is the Disciple Nations Alliance editorial manager. He manages Darrow Miller and Friends and serves as editor and co-writer on various book projects. For eight years Gary served as a cross-cultural church planting missionary among First Nations people of Canada. His career also includes 14 years as executive director of InterAct Ministries, an Oregon-based church-planting organization in Canada, Alaska, and Siberia. Gary is a graduate of Grace University, earned an MA from Wheaton College and a Graduate Studies Diploma from Western Seminary. He lives near Portland, Oregon with his wife, Valerie. They have two married sons and twelve grandchildren. In addition to his work with the DNA, Gary serves as the pastor of Troutdale Community Church.