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What Is Secular Music?

By Gregory Hanson
Updated May 23, 2024
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Secular music is simply music that is not affiliated with any religious practice or tradition. The vast majority of music in the modern world is secular. Intent and lyrical content are usually more important than musical style when determining whether music is or is not secular. Historically, the balance between religious and secular music tended to tilt in the other direction, especially during the Middle Ages.

The ancient world featured both secular and religious music. Greeks, Romans, and Egyptians all made use of music for religious purposes. They also, however, all had a tradition of using music for pure entertainment and celebration. In some cases, such as the music associated with the Greek theater, these traditions blended together in ways that mixed secular and religious elements.

After the rise of Christianity, this music became somewhat less common in the European world, but the precise ratio between secular and religious music is impossible to determine. The first modern western systems of rigorous musical notation were devised by monks. These monks made written copies of religious music but generally not of medieval secular tunes, meaning that modern scholars have only snippets of information about secular music in the earlier part of the medieval period.

Secular music gradually became more important. Troubadours made use of the lute, an instrument imported to Europe during the Crusades, to compose and perform many popular secular songs, and copies of some of these were made. During the Renaissance, Europe’s focus shifted farther away from religion, and more secular tunes were composed and preserved in writing for posterity.

The Reformation saw a drop in the popularity of secular music throughout much of Europe. In time, however, secular cultural currents re-appeared, and operas, symphonies, and other pieces of familiar classical music were composed on secular themes. Religious music was still composed using the same techniques but did not dominate musical production during the Baroque era and after.

Secular music is common throughout the modern world. From jazz to opera, rock to disco, Soviet propaganda to Bollywood musical, most modern forms of popular music tend to be secular in nature. This division is not necessarily a product of the structure of modern musical forms, however. Music may be composed and performed in a predominantly secular style but designed to convey a religious message. Christian rock music, for example, draws on the musical traditions of rock and roll, but blends them with themes and lyrics drawn from Christian scripture and doctrine.

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Discussion Comments
By shell4life — On Jan 05, 2012

I like Christian music that uses a secular music style. I would much rather listen to praise lyrics sung over drums and guitars than lutes and orchestras.

I grew up listening to secular music and gospel music, and it wasn't until the early nineties that I discovered bands who blended elements of the two. They quickly became my favorite bands.

I had always loved the lyrics of Christian music, but the beat and energy seemed to be lacking. Christian contemporary music was what I had been waiting for all along.

By seag47 — On Jan 04, 2012

I listen to mostly secular music. I love pop and dance rhythms, and that is mostly why I listen to secular radio.

However, I do find a lot of the lyrics offensive. In the past twenty years, the floodgate has been opened, and secular music is inundated with vulgar and sometimes hateful lyrics. Artists can get away with just about anything these days, and they take advantage of that.

Often, I block out the words in my mind and just dance to the beat. If I sing along, I make up my own words to replace the offensive parts.

By cloudel — On Jan 04, 2012

@lighth0se33 – Some Christians even go so far as to ban the musical style of secular music when paired with Christian lyrics. I have heard some older people say that there is no such thing as Christian rock, because rock music is of the devil.

I don't see how they can say that any sound a musical instrument makes is of the devil. A guitar doesn't have a soul. It only expresses the feelings of the one playing it, and if that person is a Christian, how can they say the music is evil?

My wish for people with this extreme view is that they will open their hearts and minds and think about the love of God and the love they should have for each other. I hope that they can stop judging each other and placing so many restrictions on their young people.

By lighth0se33 — On Jan 03, 2012

Many worldly things are offensive to some -- not all -- Christians, and secular music is one of them. There are Christians who refuse to listen to it, because they believe it is evil.

A couple of my favorite Christian musicians decided to do albums later in their careers that included some secular songs. This caused an uproar in the Christian music community, resulting in some Christian radio stations banning their music.

To me, this was truly sad. The secular music on their albums was in no way offensive, and the lyrics were still positive and uplifting. I hate that their own community turned on them for wanting to try something new.

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