Thoughts on Music in the Church


Shortly after the organization of the Church in 1830, the Lord, through the Prophet Joseph Smith, commanded Emma Smith to make a selection of sacred hymns for the Saints. This was the first word of instruction concerning music in the restored church. In this revelation the Lord also made two significant statements about music: “… my soul delighteth in the song of the heart …” and “… the song of the righteous is a prayer unto me, and it shall be answered with a blessing upon their heads.” (D&C 25:12.) On the basis of these two statements, it is evident that music should have a great role in the Church.

The Prophet Joseph himself organized the first choir in the Church and consistently attended its practices. He maintained that man of himself is an instrument of music and that whether the music is produced by the human voice or an instrument, it arrests his attention and absorbs his whole being. He recommended that the Saints cultivate as high a state of perfection in their musical endeavors as possible.

But music is an art that takes much time, patience, and labor to cultivate, and it is not to be expected that we would find great performing artists or magnificent musical masterpieces created during the early years of the Church. The conditions of life on the frontier were simply not conducive to the development of music or musicians. It is thus remarkable that, in spite of the hardships of pioneer life, the Tabernacle and its magnificent pipe organ were built in the middle of the desert, fine choirs sang hymns and anthems by local composers, and instrumental groups flourished from time to time.

It was prophesied in a musical periodical in 1877 that the Church would have a music of its own and that it would be “universally cultivated as the highest branch of art.” (Utah Musical Times, vol. 2, no. 7 [October 1877], p. 105.) That day could come surprisingly soon if the musical development in the Church continues as certain present trends now seem to suggest.

Although there was a considerable decline in musical interest and performance practices during the early decades of the present century, it is encouraging to note that within the last two decades a number of active members have become nationally and internationally recognized in their art. In addition, with the rapid expansion through conversion, a continually increasing number of prominent musicians are coming into the Church.

A whole new generation of young, extremely talented music students has also added a new dimension to the musical potential. One finds them at virtually every major university and conservatory in the country and abroad—outstanding students in musicology and performance, composition and conducting. They are devoted to the gospel and are eager to utilize the unlimited possibilities of music in the Church to touch men’s hearts and uplift their souls. This may very well be the generation through which we can anticipate the fulfillment of the 1877 prophecy and by whom this people will be prepared to sing a new song unto the Lord.

Dr. Nibley is a professor of music at Brigham Young University and a member of the Church’s General Music Committee. Formerly a member of the Sunday School general board, he now serves as priesthood organist in Pleasant View First Ward, Sharon East Stake.