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.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Notify me of followup comments via e-mail. You can also subscribe without commenting.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.