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