How Luther Changed His Mind about Music

by Carl Bear

The Martin Luther who posted the 95 Theses in 1517 was not the same Luther who in 1538 enthusiastically endorsed music as “the excellent gift of God.” In Luther’s writings shortly after 1517, we see a much more ambivalent attitude toward music, which contrasts strikingly with Luther’s unreserved praise of music in the 1530s.

This development in Luther’s later thought should not be surprising. Luther, like all of us, changed and developed his thoughts over time. In fact, scholars have frequently noted a significant difference between an early Luther and a later Luther. For example, Bryan Spinks, in his study of baptism in the Reformation labels these phases as “the Young (pre-1519) Luther, the Reformation or anti-Roman Luther, and the Mature or anti-Enthusiasts Luther” (Spinks, Reformation and Modern Rituals and Theologies of Baptism, 3).

“The whole pageantry of outward things”

We see Luther’s critique of music in one of his early, central Reformation texts, The Babylonian Captivity of the Church (1520). In this work Luther includes music among the external, ceremonial practices which he criticizes in late medieval liturgy:

“such things as vestments, ornaments, chants, prayers, organs, candles, and the whole pageantry of outward things” (LW 36, 36).

The reason that this “pageantry” was problematic for Luther is that they were additions to and distractions from Christ’s institution of the mass:

“Now, the more closely our mass resembles that first mass of all, which Christ performed at the Last Supper, the more Christian it will be. But Christ’s mass was most simple, without any display of vestments, gestures, chants, or other ceremonies. … No one should be deceived by the glamor of the ceremonies and entangled in the multitude of pompous forms, and thus lose the simplicity of the mass itself” (LW 36, 52).

Another work from this period is particularly striking in its criticism of liturgical music: Luther’s Commentary on the Magnificat (1521). He comments that for his contemporaries, “service of God” has come to mean ceremonial practices, including music. Luther then argues that,

“of such service God knows nothing at all, while we know nothing but this. We chant the Magnificat daily, to a special tone and with gorgeous pomp; and yet the oftener we sing it, the more we silence its true music and meaning” (LW 21, 350; WA 7).

For Luther, music is spiritually detrimental unless it is accompanied by understanding and faith.

These concerns about music as distracting or detrimental are repeated in many of Luther’s writings from this period, including Treatise on the New Testament (1520) and Judgment on Monastic Vows (1521).

Luther and Karlstadt

Luther was not alone in his suspicion of music’s use in the liturgy. Many other reformers voiced similar concerns. For example, Ulrich Zwingli is well known as having discouraged any use of music in Christian worship.

Closer to home for Luther were the perspectives of Andreas Karlstadt, Luther’s colleague in Wittenberg. Karlstadt’s writings on music and worship share much in common with Luther’s early writings. Like Luther, Karlstadt criticized external ceremony in worship, and in his 1521 disputation on Gregorian chant, Karlstadt made disparaging statements about liturgical music:

“The chant which we call Gregorian puts a distance between the mind and God,” and, “The church of which Gregory was head instituted these mumblings. But not the church of which Christ is head”

(Theses 7, 37-38; trans. in Garside, Zwingli and the Arts, 28-29).

Another example of such sentiments is found in a letter that Karlstadt wrote to Thomas Müntzer:

“I cannot at all believe that the people could be inspired by holy songs; rather it is a fact that excess in these matters acts as a deterrent to divine things” (trans. in Robinson-Hammerstein, Transmission of Ideas in the Lutheran Reformation, 147).

Luther and Karlstadt were initially in close agreement about music and other external ceremonies.

“Let the old practice continue, with chants and all the usual ceremonies”

But all of this changed at Wittenberg’s Christmas Day mass of 1521. Luther was still in exile at the Wartburg castle, and in his absence, Karlstadt introduced several liturgical reforms in Wittenberg. Taken as a whole, these changes represented a radical departure from the liturgical language and ritual practices of the late medieval mass.

Luther rejected these reforms, and upon his return to Wittenberg in March of 1522, he reversed all of the changes that Karlstadt had made. While Luther in theory agreed with the changes that were made, having vehemently criticized these same practices himself, in practice he disapproved of Karlstadt’s actions, which he found to be too abrupt and unpastoral in their implementation. Instead, he urged a more cautious approach to liturgical reform:

“The first step is to let the old practice continue. Let the mass be celebrated with consecrated vestments, with chants and all the usual ceremonies, in Latin, recognizing the fact that these are merely external matters which do not endanger the consciences of [people]” (Receiving Both Kinds in the Sacrament [1522], LW 36, 254).

Luther took a pastoral position with regard to conscience and recognized that it would take time and catechesis before people would be able to repudiate long-standing ceremonial traditions with a clear conscience.

“As many songs as possible in the vernacular”

Luther put these pastoral concerns into practice with his first step toward liturgical reform, the Fomula Missae of 1523. Luther took a conservative approach to his revision of the late medieval mass. He was primarily concerned about purging the service of sacrificial elements, rather than removing all of the external ceremonial practices. The traditional chants were largely retained.

Despite this conservatism, Luther left room for further reform and future omission of much of the ceremony of the mass. But at the same time, he was careful to emphasize that this order should never be binding, but rather that freedom in external matters should prevail.

Notably, the Formula Missae is also one of the first places that Luther spoke positively about including music in worship, specifically in the form of vernacular congregational songs:

“I also wish that we had as many songs as possible in the vernacular which the people could sing during mass.”

Specifically, these songs should be newly composed

“evangelical and spiritual songs” written in a “proper devotional style” (LW 53, 36-37).

Luther expressed a similar desire for vernacular hymnody in a 1523 letter to Georg Spalatin, and Luther followed his own advice and wrote numerous German-language hymns during the years 1523-1524. Many of these hymns by Luther and his associates were collected into songbooks, beginning in 1524.

One of these songbooks, the 1524 Geistliche Gesangbüchlein (Chorgesangbuch), includes a preface written by Luther. Again, we see one of the first instances of Luther’s unreserved praise of music:

“Nor am I of the opinion that the gospel should destroy and blight all the arts, as some of the pseudo-religious claim. But I would like to see all the arts, especially music, used in the service of [God] who gave and made them” (LW 53, 316).

The “pseudo-religious” is no doubt a reference to Karlstadt and other radical reformers. It seems that Luther’s parting of ways with Karlstadt in 1522 had an impact on Luther’s approach to the question of music in worship.

“No need of much and elaborate singing”

However, Luther had not entirely abandoned his ambivalence toward music at this time, as can be seen in his preface to the 1526 Deutsche Messe. The Deutsche Messe was Luther’s second step in his program of liturgical reform. In addition to further revision of the late medieval mass, the service’s most notable features included the use of German rather than Latin, and musical modifications to fit the changes in structure and the new language.

In the preface to this work, Luther outlined the steps in his liturgical reform, beginning with the Formula Missae and continuing in the Deutsche Messe. But Luther also outlined a third step in this process. Luther’s “third way” was a much more radical departure from the traditional mass, and here he once again expressed reservations about music, since there would be “no need of much and elaborate singing”:

“The third kind of service should be a truly evangelical order and should not be held in a public place for all sorts of people. But those who want to be Christians in earnest and who profess the gospel with hand and mouth should sign their names and meet alone in a house somewhere to pray, to read, to baptize, to receive the sacrament, and to do other Christian works. According to this order, those who do not lead Christian lives could be known, reproved, corrected, cast out, or excommunicated, according to the rule of Christ, Matthew 18. Here one could also solicit benevolent gifts to be willingly given and distributed to the poor, according to St. Paul’s example, II Corinthians 9. Here would be no need of much and elaborate singing. Here one could set up a brief and neat order for baptism and the sacrament and center everything on the Word, prayer, and love. Here one would need a good short catechism on the Creed, the Ten Commandments, and the Our Father” (LW 53, 63-64).

While such a service may have been Luther’s ideal, he had enough pastoral and pragmatic sense to realize that such a radical departure from traditional forms was impossible. There was no such thing as an ideal Christian, nor could there be an ideal liturgy.

“I would have everything ring that can make a sound”

In contrast, Luther was especially concerned for the weak Christians in his community who could not handle such radical revisions to the liturgy.

“We prepare such orders not for those who already are Christians; for they need none of them.” Rather, “they are essential especially for the immature and the young who must be trained and educated in the Scripture and God’s Word daily so that they may become familiar with the Bible, grounded, well versed, and skilled in it, ready to defend their faith and in due time to teach others and to increase the kingdom of Christ. For such, one must read, sing, preach, write, and compose. And if it would help matters along, I would have all the bells pealing, and all the organs playing, and have everything ring that can make a sound” (LW 53, 62).

Any musical device was acceptable if it were used to help strengthen and build up the faith of the congregation. Therefore, even though Luther still thought that music was not necessary for Christian worship, he preferred to overlook this for the sake of the weak.

“Music’s censure by fanatics does not please me”

Despite his lingering ambivalence about music’s role in worship, Luther soon left such ambiguity behind. In 1530, we see a pair of documents that express Luther’s wholehearted embrace of music. The first is a letter to the composer Ludwig Senfl praising music, and the second is a brief outline of an unwritten treatise on music with a Greek title, Peri tēs mousikēs. The outline begins,

“I love music. Its censure by fanatics does not please me, for [music] is a gift of God and not of [humans]” (trans. in Leaver, Luther’s Liturgical Music, 86).

Once again, Luther distanced himself from “fanatics” such as Karlstadt. According to Carlos Eire’s analysis, Luther’s rejection of Karstadt’s radical approach to liturgical reform stemmed from Luther’s more positive estimation of the body:

“The most important difference between Luther and Karlstadt remained their understanding of the relationship between the spiritual and the material in worship. Luther strongly rejected any inclination toward body-spirit dualism. For him, the spiritual life could never be totally disembodied” (Eire, War against the Idols, 72).

This positive approach to the body is particularly visible in Luther’s writings on music later in his life, such as his 1538 preface to Georg Rhau’s Symphoniae iuncundae:

“I would certainly like to praise music with all my heart as the excellent gift of God which it is and to commend it to everyone” (LW 53, 321).

Carl Bear is Director of Music at First United Methodist Church, South Bend, Indiana. He has master’s degrees from Arizona State and Yale University, and his doctorate in Liturgical Studies is from Graduate Theological Union.

All references are to Luther’s Works. Featured image: Deutsche Messe und Ordnung, 1526.


  1. “Christ’s mass was most simple, without any display of vestments, gestures, chants, or other ceremonies. …”
    It seems Luther forgot Matthew 26:30: “After the psalms had been sung, they went out to the Mount of Olives.”

  2. Thanks for this post, Carl.

    I think Luther gets an unfair rap sometimes as an absolutist, intolerant guy – no matter what the subject. I appreciate you showing us how, especially in regard to things that touched the spiritual lives of people most directly, he was actually thoughtful, sensitive, and pastoral—in the very best sense of that word. More than that, he was willing to change or nuance his viewpoint over the course of time.

  3. A series on the writings of Luther is an admirable idea in terms of highlighting the thoughts of a figure of obviously inestimable importance in the history of Christianity.

    One wonders if Pray Tell will be taking a look at Luther’s thoughts on the Jews? It strikes me that this is one aspect of the prolific Augustinian’s output that is curiously ignored in discussions of his alleged “witness” to the faith.

    1. Thanks for this comment.

      I’ve seriously considered taking this up this very negative aspect of Luther in the series, and decided against it. I think there is a place for being honest about the negative aspects of every Christian tradition, including our own. But my sense is that, for Martin Luther, it would have to come from a Lutheran. Otherwise it could seem as if a Catholic is trying to discredit Martin Luther, which of course would not be very Christian of us.

      And if we took up Luther’s awful anti-Semitism, there would have to be a place for being honest about the awful anti-Semitic things said by Roman Catholics in the 16th century, too. As I say, there could be a place for doing all this, and if done right it could contribute to reconciliation. But it couldn’t degenerate into an un-Christian exercise in each ‘side’ trying to make the other side look as bad as possible.


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