Does Sacred Music Need Words?

Does Sacred Music Need Words? March 12, 2023

“Preach the Gospel at all times; when necessary, use words.”

This famous phrase is attributed to St. Francis of Assisi. Although there’s no proof the quote originated with him, its enduring legacy attests to its provocative power.

Some have embraced it. They agree with the sentiment at its core: that true witness to our faith comes principally from our actions. Many others have challenged it. For some, the idea of focusing on actions can keep us from learning how to articulate our faith. For those of a certain theological bent, this smacks of “works righteousness.” But this article echoes one of the most popular criticisms:

There is no question in my mind that selfless love is Christ-like and deeply attractive to others. But what kind of “gospel” would I take from actions alone? If you’ve ever observed people playing a game of charades, you’ll know there can be wild variations in the guesses team members make in response to a person’s actions. In the same way, non Christians might make all sorts of guesses and assumptions about what we believe when we do good works.

In essence, actions don’t speak louder than words, because actions can be misinterpreted. Instead, we need words to clarify the meaning of our faith.

Now, I don’t deny that we need to be able to articulate our beliefs using words. But I don’t agree that we always need words in order to describe our faith – or even understand it.  In fact, I think the same holds true for the Bible. And I’ve seen proof.

Biblical Music

I’ve spent years hosting events that use music as a resource for interpreting Scripture.  Like “musical Bible studies”, these are spiritual formation events that promote a deeper understanding of God’s word.

We start these sessions by reading a passage of Scripture – usually a psalm. But instead of turning immediately to discussion, we first hear a performance of a new piece of music inspired by the passage.  We then talk about how the music helps us understand the Scripture better. In essence, we use the piece as a lens through which to view the Bible, and we discuss what it allows us to “see.”

Having run dozens of these sessions –  live and online – around the world, I am continually amazed at the insights that emerge.   Time and again, participants say that the music has made them discover dimensions of the passage they had never noticed before. Again and again, they say that the music made them feel more connected to the word of God.  Not only that: they say that it has deepened their understanding of the Biblical text.

This may seem obvious. If you’ve every heard Handel’s Messiah, you know that a great piece of sacred music can bring the Bible to life in powerful and memorable ways.

But what’s unique about the projects I’ve been running is that they use pieces of music written for solo instruments, not for a choir or a singer. These sacred, Bible-inspired compositions don’t have any words at all.  Yet they lead to deeper understanding of the meaning of the Biblical text.

Try it Yourself

It may seem impossible that instrumental music can lead us into deeper understanding of Scripture. Or it may seem obvious. Either way, I invite you to try it yourself.

Listen to the piece below by the American composer Maria Thompson Corley. It’s a work for solo viola inspired by Psalm 121, premiered at an October 2022 Deus Ex Musica event in Boston which featured 12 new psalm-inspired works.

First: read the psalm. Think about it for a few moments. Then listen to the piece.

I ask you to treat the composition like a sermon – because that’s what it is: a musical interpretation of the psalm, written by a person of faith, that is intended to help you experience the Scripture in a spiritually meaningful way.


Music, Meaning, and the Word of God

Maria’s piece helps me understand the piece in new ways.  Of course, it doesn’t do so by literally emphasizing certain words, like a vocal setting might.   Instead, it seems to highlight dimensions of the psalm that is powerfully present, yet not always apparent: an element of the psalm that is hard to access when I read it, but – once evoked by the music – which seems palpable and even crucial to the psalm’s texture.

In essence, this piece points me toward a “meaning” of the psalm that is deeper than its literal meaning. This kind of meaning is only accessible when we experience the Scripture as something as something, special, something holy – that is, as the word of God.

If the words of the Bible are an exquisite painting, good sacred music – with or without words –  turns it into a sculpture: a three-dimensional rendering that makes it come alive, that makes it more real –allowing us to experience it as a spiritual or religious resource, not just an ancient text.

Of course, it’s only when we experience Scripture spiritually that we fully experience it the way God intended.

Don’t get me wrong.  We absolutely need words to help explain the Bible to us. But explanation, interpretation, and even literal “understanding” aren’t all we need when we approach Scripture. If we truly think that the Bible is a holy book – a religious book –  then those can’t be our ultimate goals.

Instead, we need to experience the Bible in ways that testify to the presence of the Living Word. We all know that the Word of God is deeper and richer than the literal words of God.  As inspired texts, we believe that the Spirit flows through, beyond, between above, below, and behind the words. And music can help us access that spiritual dimension.

Perhaps actions don’t speak louder than words.  But sometimes music does.


If you are intrigued by the music you heard, or if you’d like to hear more new psalm-inspired viola works, visit the website for Deus Ex Musica, You can also read more about Maria Thompson Corley and hear what she has to say about her own composition.

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