How does one define “religious” music?

How does one define “religious” music?

During the early days of the COVID pandemic, and subsequent transfer of worship services over to the Zoom platform, your UUCC staff began to realize that we needed some listening music as people were checking in. This became a standard practice of about 15 minutes gathering and postlude music, based upon or inspired by that particular Sunday’s thematic content. It’s been a unique opportunity to select and include music that we wouldn’t normally share during in-person worship services in our building. I consider this one of the silver linings during the pandemic. About 90% of the time, I select these pieces myself, with some assistance from our Director of Youth & Young Adult Ministries, Valerie Hsu, and various other congregational members who occasionally make suggestions. On the Sundays when I don’t play, either the worship presenter or pianist/musician has the responsibility of choosing this music. For the most part, it has been a fun challengelistening and researching various possible options that reflect our service theme, while attempting to make sure that there is a great variety of style and genre, as well as songs that reflect a diverse body of performers and artists of color. Some Sundays I “hit the mark” better than others. But, by and large, most of the congregation seem to really enjoy these gathering selections. The comments have been mostly enthusiastic and appreciative… and our youth really seem to enjoy it when current music of their generation is presented.

Also during this time, there have been a few politely-received critical comments in the chat feature that suggest our selections aren’t always “religious” or appropriately “meditative” enough for a Sunday morning. This is partially true—while sometimes the songs are purposefully quiet and reflective, I intentionally also include rock, dance, rap, and various other genres of popular music. This got me thinking about what really constitutes “religious” music. When attempting to locate a formal dictionary definition of religious music, one is puzzled, and even somewhat stymied by the many various definitions. Religious music can differ from formal church or liturgical music, which by its definition is mostly sacred, and performed specifically for religious rites and/or rituals within a worship service. As Unitarian Universalists, we are accustomed to a broad definition of religion as a social-cultural system of behaviors, moral practices, and ethical texts that relate and connect humanity in some transcendental or spiritual way. Given this definition, I myself operate under the assumption that something simply “religious” (as opposed to strictly liturgical) can be ANY kind of sacred OR secular music that evokes the spiritual and/or inspires us in some way. Music has the power to move, to uplifteven instruct… and often expresses the inexpressible, as it can rise above the limitations of mere words. Most of us are moved and inspired by a wide variety of music, which makes my job in selecting gathering music on any given Sunday morning challenging, as I want to make sure that I include as many different tastes, styles, and genres as I can. In reference to our general musical offerings at UUCC, I often remark: “if you didn’t hear any music that spoke to you personally TODAY, wait a week or two, and you most certainly will”as we try and give everyone a turn to experience what might move them the most. Ours is a quite diverse congregation of obviously varying musical tastes and preferences.

There is a figure of speech/expression used among some musicians and artists (as well as in the LGBTQ+ culture): going to church, and sometimes take me to church or even that took me to church. While there are various urban slang meanings of these expressions (some even sexual or profane), mostly they refer to a performance of something that deserves and demands your undivided attention, in a profound spiritual way, dare I say “religious.” Also, some cultures use the word church to express agreement, like saying amen or preach when listening to a speaker of some kind. Here are some examples of music and musical performances that can “take ME to church”, depending on the song and/or particular performance:

  • An inspiring hymn of congregational singing
  • A great organ fugue of J.S. Bach, or keyboard work like the Goldberg Variations
  • A requiem or large choral piece by a great composer
  • A quiet string quartet movement of Beethoven
  • A symphony of Brahms
  • A beautiful lied of Franz Schubert
  • A dramatic recitative or opera aria
  • A classic and memorable folk song
  • A harmonious barbershop quartet, or a cappella song
  • A brilliant brass fanfare
  • A moving spiritual or gospel tune
  • A song of political protest or change
  • A popular top 20 song by any well-known artist
  • A classic country or bluegrass vocal/guitar tune
  • A contemporary tune by a folk performer in a coffeehouse setting
  • A rock and roll standard or rock ballad
  • A drum solo or classic guitar riff
  • A song about loving, embracing, and accepting marginalized communities
  • A compelling disco-dance tune from the 70s
  • A great and wonderfully belted Broadway song
  • A simple shaker song or hymn from the shape-note tradition of singing
  • A song shared as a part of ritual from another culture’s oral tradition
  • A song from the soul or rhythm & blues musical genre
  • A rap or hip-hop tune from the 20th or 21st centuries

As you can see, the list is endless. What are yours? Is it possible every piece on this list is in some way “religious,” in the broad meaning of something that inspires, teaches, motivates, moves, compelsis spiritual? I would argue YES. Let’s hear and celebrate all of it, whenever possible.

In community and song,



    • Michael Adcock

      THAT voice (Davone) is extraordinary. Ever heard of Will Liverman? If not, check him out. He’s pretty special as well.

  1. Gail M Thompson

    Good thoughts for us to chew on while you are away.
    I remember asking Ed’s sister to play at our wedding. She was a pianist for two churches. She delayed giving us an answer, until we explained that we could find someone else if she didn’t wish to do it. She replied that she only played “church” music. It made me laugh as I thought what on earth is “church” music. Even if she meant Christian liturgical pieces, what of those haunting melodies of the far or mid east? If it moves me, it works. And I love songs that tell stories.

  2. Scott Beck

    Michael, I’ve enjoyed experiencing and reacting to all the music you’ve selected for the ‘check in’. True, it’s unapologetically diverse and perhaps outside what some might feel is appropriate. But for me, it opens portals to a wide range of feelings, emotionally and spiritually, that ‘church’ music will never do.

  3. Carol Zika

    So well expressed and written. Thank you for your music and dedication to UUCC. Rest up and rejuvenate. We will miss you.

  4. Betty Myers

    Thank you, Michael, for enlightening us with the music you, staff, members and worship leaders select to inspire our spiritual journeys. I agree that the options for spiritual music is endless, and welcome your suggestion to “wait a week” in the event that one is not particularly moved on any given week.
    Your insights about music always increase my enjoyment.

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