Did Luther Endorse “Bar” Music for the Church?

Editor’s Note: Over on another string Ron Beck asked a great question about Luther and his musical reforms (comment #79). He asked:

I need your help. Will you explain for me the myth or the history about Luther using bar tunes for hymnody.

On that same string a reply came in, responded with the following helpful answer that puts this myth to rest once and for all.

Ron, here’s a very good answer to your question from Rev. Peter Berg, who posted this on the old “Motley Magpie” site a few years ago:

Myth: Luther used bar songs in his hymnody. Ergo it’s permissible, even advantageous, to use popular forms of music in the church today. (Note: One of our esteemed editors recently visited the web site of a WELS congregation where the church’s CCM group justified its existence based on the “fact” that Luther used bar songs.)

 Truth: Luther did not use bar songs but rather his own creations and the musical heritage of the church catholic. The term bar refers to the type of staff notation used in medieval musical composing*. Luther did wed one sacred text to a popular tune**but later regretted this dalliance with love ballads. The relatively new academic discipline called Sentics has demonstrated that music can independently generate two very different reactions and emotions, termed Dionysian and Apollonian. The first is emotive and turns one inward. It is self-gratifying and clearly anthropocentric. The second, while not denying the emotional impact of music, maintains control and gives room for the intellectual processing of the truth of the text. In the first type, the music dominates the text. In the second, the music is in service to the text.  Christian Contemporary Music, a bad clone of popular music, is clearly Dionysian. Luther called Dionysian music “carnal” and he wrote his music to wean people away from the love ballads of his day.

And now let me add two comments:

*The musical notation was simply a repeat sign, known in Luther’s day as a “bar”. Yes, believe it or not, some wacky American Lutherans saw Luther’s reference to “barred music” in German and changed the repeat sign into a pub!  Why did Luther write positively about “bar(red) music”?  Because it describes the musical form A A B.  He thought that the repetition of the music of the first phrase would help in learning, and then the B phrase would give the balance of variety.  Hence, many chorales are written in this way.  The reason “bars” were used for notating this form was  used to save ink & paper.  Today we simply call these “repeat signs”.  You see this even in 19th and early 20th-century hymnals: the music for the first line ends with a repeat sign, and then the second verse of the first stanza is written in.


First line of music (A)
Salvation unto us has come, by God’s free grace and favor (repeat sign)
Good works cannot avert our doom, they help and save us never.

SECOND line of music (B)
Faith looks to Jesus Christ alone, who did for all the world atone; He is our one Redeemer.

**The one instance to which Rev. Berg refers is “From Heaven Above to Earth I Come”.  It is critical to note that this exception proves the rule: the tune we sing to “From Heaven Above” (VON HIMMEL HOCH) is NOT the popular ballad Luther first used, but a “more churchly tune” of his construction that he wrote AFTER he realized that his hymn was going to be used in the church.   What happened was this:  he wrote the hymn as a Christmas gift for his children, using a tune that was a popular “guessing game” song used by masked suitors of the day.  The clever trick: change the “guessing game” from “who is courting you” to an angel playing the game of “Whose is this advent of which I proclaim?”  So it made sense to use the popular tune.  However, when others began singing the hymn, he quickly wrote, in his words, “a more churchly tune”, so that it would be musically appropriate for the Divine Service.

About Pastor Tim Rossow

Rev. Dr. Timothy Rossow is the Director of Development for Lutherans in Africa. He served Bethany Lutheran Church in Naperville, IL as the Sr. Pastor for 22 years (1994-2016) and was Sr. Pastor of Emmanuel Lutheran in Dearborn, MI prior to that. He is the founder of Brothers of John the Steadfast but handed off the Sr. Editor position to Rev. Joshua Scheer in 2015. He currently resides in Ocean Shores WA with his wife Phyllis. He regularly teaches in Africa. He also paints watercolors, reads philosophy and golfs. He is currently represented in two art galleries in the Pacific Northwest. His M Div is from Concordia, St. Louis and he has an MA in philosophy from St. Louis University and a D Min from Concordia, Fort Wayne.


Did Luther Endorse “Bar” Music for the Church? — 23 Comments

  1. … the following helpful answer that puts this myth to rest once and for all.

    It is certainly helpful, but I doubt it will put the myth to rest once and for all.

    There are posts on the Wittenberg List Archive going back to at least August 1996 pointing out the difference between the musical meaning of “bar” and the tavern meaning.

  2. The bogus quote ascribed to Luther is, “Why should the devil get [or keep] all the good tunes?” I haven’t done the research myself, but apparently, nobody has found that quote in his writing. I’m out on a limb here, but willing to take my chances.

    The problem with using these [bar or whatever] tunes is that the medium becomes the message.


  3. Cantor Magness, if you’re taking questions, would you mind giving the reference for Luther’s explanation of the second tune as a “more churchly tune”? That might come in handy.

  4. @Johannes #3

    I’ve looked for the “Why should the devil have all the good art?” quote by Luther…and can’t find it either. Perhaps it’s a variation on the good tunes quote…

  5. There is a great DVD on the Lutheran hymnody narrated by the Cantor from Fort Wayne that spends sometime on this myth. It gives the history of the hymnody and asserts that the myth is a myth. It is well done and worth watching.

  6. Both melodies for “Vom Himmel hoch” are found on page 17 of Robin A. Leaver, Luther’s Liturgical Music: Principles and Implications (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2007). Leaver’s section entitled “The ‘Secular’ Music Mythology” extends from pages 12-18 and is very helpful. In fact, the whole book is great reading–filled with insights and hugely relevant to current debates on worship and music in the twenty-first-century Lutheran church.

    Dan Zager
    Eastman School of Music

  7. I think that Martin Luther may be ashamed with just how dogmatic and inflexible some Lutherans have become with church music.

  8. Dr. Joseph Herl, Worship Wars in Early Lutheranism, p. 21 “Most often, when Luther wrote a hymn using a preexisting melody, the melody was a Gregorian chant.”

    Dr Herl points out that Luther based some hymns on popular religious songs and one hymn on a secular song (not a drinking song.)

    Ibid., p. 22 “Many of the models for these hymns had already been sung in churches before Luther’s time. In making use of the models, Luther was continuing a tradition, not breaking new ground. There is in any case no justification for the argument that Luther attempted to promote congregational singing by catering to the tastes of the masses.”

    Dr Herl is chair of the music department at Concordia Univeristy-Nebraska.

  9. How timely. I was just chatting with an E. Free pastor (raised Episcopalian, went through their charismatic movement), and he brought out this old canard about the “bar song.” I explained that “bar song” doesn’t mean saloon song, but it’s a reference to how the music was structured. He didn’t buy it. Funny, isn’t it. The E. Free guy doesn’t listen to a (collared and clearly “old-fashioned”, history-oriented) *Lutheran* about what *Luther* said or did.
    Went on to talk about how the music doesn’t matter.

    Where to begin with this!

    Hmm. Maybe I’ll just copy and paste this onto a Word doc and pass it along?

  10. And, krusty, the basis for your statement about what Luther would be ashamed of, taken from what Luther actually said and did regarding church music, is….?

  11. @Rev. David Mueller #17
    ” . . . the music doesn’t matter.” The proposition that the music doesn’t matter, that it’s the words–and only the words–that count, has been advanced with some frequency during the worship and music debates of the last three decades. Interesting that almost no one would advance that proposition outside of the church and its music. Think about music in advertising, music as composed and scored for films and television, processional music at secular ceremonies such as graduations. People often think very carefully about what music to use in those contexts–not just anything would do. But in the case of music for the church we hear that “the music doesn’t matter.” That is nonsense, of course, and Lutheran church musicians have long been well positioned to choose music purposefully, music that plays its part in proclaiming the Gospel. For Lutheran church musicians not just anything will do–the music matters.

  12. Christians overseas lose their lives and churches. Christians at home are losing their businesses and homes because they won’t take photos and bake cakes. God is being driven into a closet by government and society. And MUSIC in church is what we argue about? Thank heaven God wins in the end because leaving it up to you people would spell certain doom. Congrats on your little drum circle.

  13. I think at one time the only kind of music they used in the Catholic church was Gregorian Chant, and the sheet music for that looks very different from our music today. What is called a bar in music has nothing to do with drinking taverns, lol.

  14. Grendel007 :
    Christians overseas lose their lives and churches. Christians at home are losing their businesses and homes because they won’t take photos and bake cakes. God is being driven into a closet by government and society. And MUSIC in church is what we argue about? Thank heaven God wins in the end because leaving it up to you people would spell certain doom. Congrats on your little drum circle.

    … while others spend their time and spiritual energy in much more beneficial and Christian ways – such as digging up three year old debate threads to post sarcastic comments about those who think that worship matters matter.
    Good thing that there are people doing that – for obviously that would be how God wins in the end, as you say, and not because of stupid people wasting their time doing less important things on the internet …

    O, wait a minute – Nah, never mind …

  15. I don’t care if this story about Luther is true or not. Music, in and of itself, is not clean or unclean, sacred or secular. The idea that certain forms of music are off-limits to the church is patently absurd. Just because a secular artist first uses a form of music does not forever attach said form of music to the “world” and thus render it unusable for the church. If God can (and did) redeem humanity, why do people believe that forms of music are unredeemable? See I Tim. 4:4-5 for a pretty clear direction on this (and many other issues).

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