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What is Secular Music? Sacred vs. Secular Explained

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The easiest way to explain secular music is to say that it’s just any kind that isn’t sacred. For the most part, all that means is that it isn’t religious, but more specifically, it isn’t worship music of any kind. Secular music can still deal with philosophy or incorporate religious elements. It just usually does so in an indirect and (forgive me) non-churchy manner. You’ll most often see the term secular music used to describe music from The Middle Ages, the Renaissance, and subsequent eras. All of those periods tend to be classified as classical music for us today, and calling them secular works simply meant they were not commissioned by or composed for the church.

In this article, we’ll delve into exactly what secular music is, explain the main differences between secular and sacred music, and discuss some of the greatest secular musicians in history. 

Secular Versus Sacred Music, The History

To really understand the difference between secular and sacred music, we need to have a bit of a history lesson (sorry in advance, it won’t be boring, I promise). To get this out of the way, all of the music we’ll be covering is considered Western music; secular and sacred music aren’t terms describing our Eastern brethren’s musical choices.

Musical Eras You Need To Understand

Prior to 1400, there just wasn’t much music being played. It was something reserved mostly for church services to help instill a sense of belonging, portray the magnificence of God, and just generally inspire awe-struck churchgoers. While humans have made music for themselves and sung songs for most of our history as a species, organized music was almost entirely tied to organized religion in the “civilized” world. 

Starting in 1400, the curtains finally began to pull back a little bit and music became more of a common thing for people to think about and enjoy. It wasn’t just found within the walls of a cathedral, and composers were allowed to think outside of those walls. Choral music, stringed instruments, organs, and harpsichords all stepped onto the stage and inspired composers who used anything and everything as inspiration. It also finally allowed people to spread music, as printing was invented so everything didn’t have to be copied by hand. Before printing was around, most writings were controlled by the church, and handmade copies of books were made in monasteries, so all of the written content was controlled by the church and incredibly valuable. For the most part, the church tried to suppress secular music during the Middle Ages, as it only cared for the spread of holy sacred works. 

The Baroque period began roughly around 1600 and was the first chance musicians really got to show off. The era is defined by being ornate, grandiose, excessive, and virtuosic. A lot of things you think of as classical music were composed or created during the Baroque era, including symphonies, operas, orchestras, and concertos.

The Best of Baroque Music

The Classical era followed the Baroque period and began around 1750. It stripped down a lot of the complex workings of the Baroque period and focused more on a minimalist approach. Instruments evolved into forms we would mostly recognize today, including the entirety of the brass section. 

Classical Music: The Classical Period (Mozart, Beethoven, Haydn...)

From 1830 until 1900, though, we had the Romantic era. Drama, expression, poetry, and fiction all lent musical works more meaning than simple notes ever could. Composers were putting messages into their music and telling stories with their instruments. Music became more accessible to middle-class workers, and opera and ballet found a boom unheard of in previous eras.

The Romantic Period | Music History Video Lesson

Finally, the 20th century dawned and we entered a whole new era of music. Music became a response to conflict and political oppression. People were able to listen to music at home or on the radio with less censorship than ever before. Technology sped up to an incredible pace and allowed not only for new instruments to be designed but also for information to spread faster around the world. 

Now I say all that because a basic understanding of musical eras is necessary for the discussion of sacred versus secular music. Typically, the terms are used for what we know of as classical music, which extends roughly through the Romantic period. Yes, classical music still exists today and the 20th century saw plenty of amazing classical composers. But by that time, there was less of a kerfuffle when it came to the church controlling the music scene. 

When we look back at recorded history, the church has always been one of the most powerful entities in the world. The Catholic Church in particular had a hand in almost everything from around the year 1050 onwards. Little was done in the Western World without their approval, be it the crowning of a new king or two countries going to war. Almost all the historical writings we have today were written by a monk in some monastery somewhere. 

It mostly stayed this way until monarchies went out of fashion per se. As the world got smaller with technology, so did the influence of the church. Writings were more common, music became more accessible outside of church services, and cultures evolved beyond their religious ties. That isn’t saying anything bad about the church, by the way. It’s simply how things were. The church, for much of history, was the greatest patron of the arts, all in the name of the glory of God. This is why many early music compositions are defined as sacred works. The church commissioned, paid for, and sued them in houses of worship.

So with all that in mind, what exactly is secular music, and what’s the difference between it and sacred music?

Secular Versus Sacred, What’s The Difference?

During the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, there were really only two genres of music: secular and sacred. Sacred music was by far the one we have the most surviving works of today, and were likely the most often heard songs of their times. During this period, secular music was mainly songs about heroic deeds, sung by traveling troubadours and minstrels in taverns and on the roadsides. Love songs, satire, and dances were common types of secular music this early. 

Slowly but surely, secular music became more widespread and historically relevant as the eras went on. You have to remember, much of secular music at the time wasn’t written down and distributed around. There were likely a lot of folk songs out there, but they were passed down through oral tradition rather than written and kept safe like sacred music.

Outside of the church, there was little music education until well into the Romantic era. Composers learned to play and compose under the church, with many finding positions as instrumentalists in cathedrals and houses of worship. With this being their job, much of their work was composed directly for the church. 

Sacred music is mainly defined as music composed or performed for religious use or by religious influence. In many cases, it was used to augment worship services or help keep time during a service. Numerous compositions have been made for Mass services, taking churchgoers through a period of worship. Sometimes compositions were even used as background music to sermons or religious poetry. To keep it simple, just think of sacred music as religious music. Many sacred works lifted lyrics directly from the Bible.

Secular music differs from sacred music simply because it wasn’t used or commissioned for religious activity. In the earlier periods, it was most likely just lost folk songs. As time went on and artists were freer to express themselves, our catalog of surviving secular works grows. The simplest way to define secular music is just that it wasn’t religious or meant for religious activity. 

When you think about it, remember that modern music doesn’t fit into the categories of sacred and secular like we’re discussing here. Sure, you can slap a sacred label on gospel music and hymns while labeling almost everything else as secular, but that doesn’t do a lot of good. In this article, we’re almost exclusively discussing earlier music eras because it just makes more sense to do it that way. 

So why and how did music shift away from sacred music and how did secular music get its real start? 

It can get a bit confusing discussing what was secular and what wasn’t during the earlier periods. In the Medieval era, composers still included religious themes in their music, but it wasn’t something that could be performed at church. Styles constantly shifted in secular music, making its one defining element as a genre that it wasn’t worship music, and that’s the quintessential difference between the two that can be nailed down. 

Examples Of Secular Music and Secular Composers

Next, we’ll go over some examples of secular music in history and discuss the styles incorporated into them. 

Sumer is Icumen in

Sumer is Icumen in (The Hilliard Ensemble)

An amazing example of polyphony, Sumer is Icumen In (which I read as Summer Is a’ Comin’ in) is one of the earliest works of secular music we have today. The song keeps a steady rhythm with the bass singer while adding extra rhythms and layers as each new singer joins in. They stagger their lines so that they can sing at different times but always sing the same line. The composer of the song is unknown and lost to time, though it was likely copied between 1261 and 1264. 

The Boar’s Head Carol

The Boar's Head Carol

A Christmas song that wasn’t about Christ was very ahead of its time in the fifteenth century. The Boar’s Head Carol is a poem painting a vivid picture of a Christmas day, but instead of taking a religious angle, it focuses on eating and drinking. It was first published in 1521 by Wynkyn de Worde in England, but it was likely around for quite a while before being officially published.

John Dunstable

John Dunstable - Veni Creator Spiritus

An English composer who lived from around 1390 until 1453, John Dunstable was one of the earliest secular composers we know of. A leading composer of his time, his work stands up with Henry Purcell and William Byrd as defining the era of English music. All of the music we have from him today is exclusively vocal works, but he was a pioneer when it came to adding thirds and sixths as parts to his harmonies. 

While most composers of the time were clerics, he likely was not. Instead of being patronized by the church, Dunstable found work through several different royal family members. While we have no surviving work from him that is secular music, his inclusion of those additional parts would shape music forever going forward and would become an integral part of secular harmonies. 

Francesco Landini

Francesco Landini - Ecco la primavera

Landini was a blind composer from Italy. Most of his work is what’s called a madrigal, a medieval style of poetry known for its strict poetic form and short lyrics. Almost all of his pieces were based on secular poems of the time and set to some very simple melodies. 

Next: Greatest blind musicians ever

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart - Piano Concerto No. 21 - Andante

While I’m sure you know of Mozart as one of the greatest composers of all time, there’s a lot to learn from this classical-era composer. Many of his most famous works were indeed sacred compositions, including his Requiem. He was a child prodigy and spent quite a bit of time at the Salzburg court laying symphonies, sonatas, masses, and a few minor operas. 

His most famous secular compositions include The Magic Flute, Piano Sonata No. 11 in A Major, and Eine Kleine Nachtmusik. All of his music was archetypal classical-era music, with him being one of the main contributors to the new moderate new forms of music after the ornamental Baroque era. 

Mozart wrote a great deal of masses and religious music, but he was equally as well-known for his dances, serenades, and light entertainment music. One of the most versatile composers in history, Mozart dabbled in every major genre of music, including opera, symphony, concerto, chamber music, and the piano sonata.

Next: Our list of Mozart’s greatest works

Johann Sebastian Bach

The Best of Bach

A german composer of the late Baroque period, Bach served as one of the main bridges between the Baroque and classical eras. Much of his work is revered today, making him one of the greatest composers to ever live, His cello suites are still played today, and work like the Toccata and Fugue in D minor have been used in films like Disney’s Fantasia. Bach mastered counterpoint, harmonics, and motivic organization while helping evolve forms and rhythms in Italy and France. 

Like many of the greatest composers, Bach spent time employed by the church, serving as a musician in Protestant churches and at court. He would even go on to compose music for the Lutheran churches in Leipzig. All of this time meant that Bach composed and performed hundreds of church cantatas during his career. 

In addition to those very numerous works, Johann Sebastian Bach would write secular cantatas for members of the Royal Polish family and others. While a lot of them were lost, some were rediscovered when Picander published the libretto of the pieces. The Bach website lists 50 secular cantatas by Bach, but it’s likely less than half of his secular cantatas survive today.

In case you’re wondering what a cantata is… A cantata is a musical composition that’s intended to be sung, the opposite of a sonata that’s meant to be played instrumentally. You could loosely describe a cantata as a song for vocals and instruments, but the vocal part is the defining feature that matters. Bach’s cantatas took after the traditionally secular Italian cantatas that were usually sung in Italian. 

One funny thing about Bach, he often overlapped his secular and sacred music, parodying secular cantatas into church music or adapting church cantatas into secular works. 

Ludwig van Beethoven

The Best of Beethoven

Beethoven developed the styles of Mozart and Haydn to become one of the greatest composers to ever live. His life spanned the gap between the Classical and Romantic eras of music and he was an integral part of the shift. 

Like everyone else, Beethoven composed a lot of pieces for the church, with some astonishingly beautiful contributions like Christ on the Mount of Olives and Mass in C major. For much of his life though, Beethoven was thought of as a man of the Enlightenment, regarded as a freethinking individualist who was more of a Deist than a man of an established faith. 

With his philosophy came quite a lot of secular music. Perhaps his best-known piece, Symphony No. 3 in E flat, op. 55 Eroica was one of the most brilliant orchestral compositions in history. He realized the full potential of the sonata in the piece and it would go on to influence composers for more than a century. 

His Symphony No. 9 in D minor, op. 125–Choral Symphony would sound a lot like church music but wasn’t a sacred composition at all. It’s a choral symphony unmatched through most of history, with a finale featuring four solo vocalists singing a setting from the poem An Die Freude (Ode To Joy). You’ve absolutely heard this one, it’s been used everywhere, I’ll assume the “Ode To Joy” part gave it away. 

Next: Our list of Beethoven’s greatest works

Is Secular Music Relevant Today?

This seems like a loaded question, mostly because it is. In some ways, secular music is almost the only kind of music we have today. There’s still worship music, gospel, hymns, and all those historical works of sacred music, but not much on the radio seems like those. In that way, you could say that secular music is wildly relevant today, from catchy songs like Baby Shark to classics like Johnny B. Goode.

The better way to look at it (in my opinion at least), is that the labels of secular and sacred are both mostly irrelevant when you look at modern works. The two labels are amazing tools when looking into the history of Renaissance, Medieval, Classical, and Baroque pieces, but they don’t hold up today. Back then, there wasn’t a stylistically diverse world of music out there for people to access. Both sacred and secular are just genre titles when it comes down to it. I don’t think using them now and placing other genres like rock, jazz, hip hop, or country music inside them is efficient. It certainly could get confusing when looking at music with religious themes included. 

For the most part, it’s best to limit the scope of sacred and secular music to the time periods when they were the only two genres of music. While their use is still relevant when looking back in history, it probably isn’t worth our time to apply them to most of the music we listen to today. 

Secular Versus Sacred Music Final Thoughts

Secular music is best defined as music that doesn’t include religious themes and wasn’t composed for religious purposes like church services. It’s also important to remember that the term is mainly used for a time period when the only two genres of music were church music and other. There’s no way to decide whether sacred or secular music is better either, both typically contained the same elements that were relevant during their time period. While secular music has always been around, much of the music we have was historically preserved by the church, which is why there seems to be so much more sacred music in history than secular music.

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