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Sacred vs. Secular Music-What's the Difference? Ellington's "Come Sunday"

Have you ever wondered why some music is considered Sacred while other music is called Secular?

In this article, you'll learn basic difference between Sacred and Secular Music. More importantly you'll see that when music is performed in different contexts, it takes on a different identity.

When you understand the power of context, you'll see how one piece of music can work effectively as both both types of music.

Furthermore, you'll also gain insight for your own piano performances from the quintessential model: Duke Ellington's Come Sunday played in the video below.

What Is Sacred Music?

Sacred Music is music that is played or sung in church or used as an alternative to/in addition to spoken prayer. In the Middle Ages, Gregorian chant was used as part of the Roman Catholic Mass. This single line of vocal music gradually evolved and reached a high point during the Renaissance with music that was polyphonic in style (many voices/multiple musical lines). The choirs in some churches still sing pieces by Renaissance composers as well as choral pieces composed in that style. By the time J.S. Bach and Handel come along in the 18th century, sacred music not had not only evolved to include instruments, but it also incorporated the tonality of music that we have today.

I've played a great deal of sacred music in my 40+ years as Music Director for the Hartford Street Presbyterian Church. This has included playing of hymns, Christmas carols, choir anthems, sung responses, organ preludes and solo piano arrangements of hymns , spirituals. and chants which are musical readings of text or scripture.

What Is Secular Music?

Secular Music is basically music meant to sung or played for celebrations, dancing, concerts, entertainment, accompanying shows, etc. In the Middle Ages, secular (usually instrumental) music was played for the court, for dancing and for theater. Clearly, this type of music was not considered sacred and thus it was not played in church. In Bach's time, his Cantatas were sacred music for church, while his Brandenberg Concertos were secular music for the the court. So there was a distinction in the composer's mind between the two genres.

What Is the Effect of Context on Sacred vs. Secular Music?

Handel's most well-know piece, The Messiah, is music set to texts directly from the Bible. You can't get more sacred than that. However, The Messiah was an Oratorio performed in a concert that was to be a fundraiser for the poor in Dublin. Here we have context defining the Messiah as a secular piece of music composed on sacred themes (words/ideas) yet not performed during a church service. Even today, this magnificent work is presented in concert halls around the world, while parts of it are played during church services.

40 years ago, I composed a piece called On the Road to Emmaus. Although it started out a a selection for some jazz worship services that I was conducting, and it was played right after Easter at my church on several occasions. This composition found its way onto many of my jazz gigs in concerts and clubs. Thus the context though mainly sacred also worked very well in a secular context.

Thus, secular music CAN be performed in a church, but that's usually only when the church sanctuary is used for concerts. Secular Music actually identifies most music that we hear outside of a religious service of worship. Any music, including songs from a Broadway Show, jazz standards, selections from the Great American Songbook or a folk, blues, rock or classical pieces, are considered secular music.

Can a Piece of Music Be Both Sacred and Secular? Duke Ellington's Come Sunday Shows You How

When people think of the music of Duke Ellington , songs like Satin Doll, Solitude, In a Sentimental Mood and Take the A Train come to mind. However, Come Sunday was different. It started out as an instrumental piece of secular music as the first movement of Black, Brown and Beige performed at Carnegie Hall in 1943, and then took on its sacred music identity in 1958 when Gospel singer Mahalia Jackson recorded a vocal version with newly composed lyrics.

The Lyrics of Come Sunday Turned a Secular Piece into a Sacred One

Lord, dear Lord I've loved, God almighty God of love, please look down and see my people through

Lord, dear Lord I've loved, God almighty God of love, please look down and see my people through

I believe that sun and moon up in the sky When the day is gray I know it, clouds passing by

He'll give peace and comfort To every troubled mind Come Sunday, oh come Sunday That's the day

Often we feel weary But he knows our every care Go to him in secret He will hear your every prayer

Lillies of the valley They neither toll nor spin And flowers bloom in spring time Birds sing

Often we feel weary But he knows our every care Go to him in secret He will hear your every prayer

Up from dawn till sunset Man work hard all the day Come Sunday, oh come Sunday That's the day

In reality, there are many instrumental recordings of Come Sunday by some great jazz players; thus putting it in the context of secular music. Yet, this piece continues to stand out as an excellent example of sacred music played in church or in any prayerful or religious setting with or without Ellington's wonderful lyrics.

My Recording of Duke Ellington's Come Sunday Combining Its Sacred and Secular Characteristics


Need Help Learning to Identify & Play Sacred or Secular Music?

You can learn to do this when you take one-on-one piano lessons with Diana Mascari in our Flexible Schedule Lesson Program


Diana Mascari has taught piano to hundreds of adults and children for more than 40 years. She holds two Masters of Music degrees from New England Conservatory and taught keyboard harmony to music majors while pursuing doctoral studies at Boston University. Her work as music director for a multi-cultural Presbyterian Church has continued for four decades, and her jazz and classical compositions have been performed worldwide. Diana has been performing for more than 50 years. From solo jazz piano (her first love) to commercial groups touring the East Coast to leading her own jazz ensembles at many colleges and jazz clubs throughout New England.



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