Let Music Take the First Chair in Your Lutheran School

Jun 23rd, 2020 | Category: Faith/Learning, Research in Education
By Jeffrey E. Burkart

Editor’s Note: This article is taken from in the Spring issue of Shaping the Future. It is reprinted by permission and with its original formatting. Because the original article contained several footnotes that extended the information of the article itself, LEJ has retained those footnotes as endnotes here.

Music – A Gift of God

      To Martin Luther, music was a gift of God that worked hand in hand with theology. He believed in the power of music to express the gospel and encouraged the vigorous teaching of music in schools. Luther had much to say about music’s importance in the life of the church, its relationship to theology, and its support. The Luther quotes that follow are a small sampling of his love for music and its value:

“Music is an outstanding gift of God and next to theology. I would not want to give up my slight knowledge of music for a great consideration. And youth should be taught this art; for it makes fine, skillful people.”

“Those with prodigious skill in music are better suited for all things.”

“Music is a very fine art. The notes can make the words come alive…. Princes and kings must support music and the other arts too; for although private people love them, they cannot support them.”

“I have no use for cranks who despise music, because it is a gift of God.
Music drives away the Devil and makes people joyful; they forget thereby all wrath, unchastity, arrogance, and the like.” (Luther/Plass, 1986, p, 979-980)

Recent Research on Music Education

      I’m sure that Luther would be gratified to know that research supports his beliefs regarding music as an art form and its ability to make people “fine and skillful” and “better suited for all things.” Numerous studies have shown that music education and appreciation, private music lessons (both vocal and instrumental), and participation in musical ensembles of all kinds, do the following:

  1. Develop the areas of the brain related to language and reasoning;
  2. Increase one’s ability to memorize;
  3. Keep students engaged in school activities throughout the day;
  4. Shape character and develop sensitivity to other cultures;
  5. Increase one’s ability to empathize with others and develops teamwork skills;
  6. Increase verbal and mathematical understanding (one study showed that students who had music appreciation courses scored 63 points higher on verbal and 44 points higher on math on their SAT than those who did not have music appreciation);
  7. Increase eye-hand coordination, motor skills, and spatial intelligence that helps children perceive the world more accurately (spatial intelligence is important for learning higher mathematics as well);
  8. Develop creative thinking, reasonable risk taking, and self-confidence;
  9. Promote “craftsmanship” i.e., the desire to produce high quality work across the curriculum;
  10. Enhance children’s spiritual development.1

      The above summary demonstrates the importance of music education and its significant role in the social, intellectual, emotional, and spiritual development of children. Studies also show that music has beneficial effects on the mental health of adults who suffer from illnesses related to aging. Moreover, music and music therapy have shown positive health benefits for children and adults with serious health concerns such as depression, anxiety, and pain. Is it any wonder that David (one of the earliest music therapists) was called to play the lyre for King Saul to calm him when “a harmful spirit” was upon him (1 Samuel 16:14-23)?

Music in Lutheran Schools

      Because of Luther’s emphasis on music as a gift of God, Lutheran congregations and schools have traditionally stressed the study of music in general, and the specific use of music to teach doctrine, the liturgy, psalms, and Bible stories through hymns and spiritual songs.2 In other words, Luther championed singing of the Good News; that’s why the Lutheran Church is known as the “Singing Church.”

      Luther wrote many liturgical hymns such as:

  • Kyrie – “God Father in Heaven Above” – LSB 942;
  • Gloria – “All Glory be to God on High” – LSB 947;
  • The Creed – “We all Believe in One True God” – LSB 954;
  • Sanctus – “Isaiah, Mighty Seer in Days of Old” – LSB 960;
  • The Lord’s Prayer – “Our Father, Who from Heaven Above” – LSB 766;
  • The post-communion canticle, “O Lord, We Praise Thee” – LSB 617.

      These are catechetical hymns that serve both a spiritual and educational purpose. They teach biblical truths to both children and adults through poetry and music. This combination of music and text makes it easier to remember the theological meaning behind the biblical texts and to tell the story of salvation in ways that people of all ages can understand.3

Other important “teaching the scripture” hymns are:

  • “These are the Holy Ten Commandments” – LSB 581;
  • “To Jordan Came the Christ, Our Lord” – the Story of Jesus’ baptism –
        LSB 406;
  • “From Heaven Above to Earth I Come” – a poetical rendering of the
        Christmas story as written in Luke 2:10-20 – LSB 358,
  • The story of the manifestation to the shepherds from Luke 2: 10-11 –
    “To Shepherds as They watched by Night” – TLH 103.4

 In addition, Luther composed metrical paraphrases of the Psalms such as:

  • “A Mighty Fortress is Our God” (Ps. 46) – LSB 656 & 657;
  • “From Depths of Woe I Cry to Thee” (Ps. 130) – LSB 607;
  • “If God Had Not Been on Our Side” (Ps. 124) – TLH 267;
  • May God Bestow on Us His Grace (Ps. 67) – LSB 823 & 824;
  • “O Lord, Look Down from Heaven, Behold” (Ps. 12) – TLH 260.

      The above hymns are a few samples of what Luther composed to teach the Christian faith to the people of Germany in the 16th century. This Lutheran singing tradition continued through the subsequent centuries and is alive today as musicians and poets mingle melody and words to create new songs that articulate the Gospel in our age, to all ages.5

What Does This Mean?

      “What does this mean?” should be a Lutheran teacher’s most-asked question. What, in this case, does music mean for those of us who teach in Lutheran schools? I think it means that we need to put music as a high priority in all our schools. This is not to say we should denigrate the other arts. Far from it!6 All the fine arts need emphasis in our schools. However, in this article I want to encourage every teacher to make intentional efforts to ensure that all students are exposed to our great Lutheran musical heritage through the singing of hymns and spiritual songs that teach the biblical truths that we hold dear. Moreover, we should make it possible for all our students to read notes, play musical instruments, sing music in parts, know and appreciate music from various cultures and eras, listen to music of the great masters, attend orchestral and choral concerts, and learn about music history and those who compose music both ancient and modern. That is a tall order!

      Some Lutheran schools have the capability to do some or all of these things and more; however, many of our schools do not have the resources necessary to provide such a robust music education experience. In spite of this, there are many ways teachers, even those with limited musical expertise, can address music in their classrooms.

Every Teacher A Music Teacher in Lutheran Schools

      Every time children sing a hymn, there is an opportunity to teach both music and poetry. Not only the “mechanics” of music –3/4 or 4/4 time, musical notation, sharps and flats, musical scales, etc., but also the way music supports and amplifies the meaning of the words. In addition to teaching children to sing, we can teach them the stories behind the hymns, how and why they were written, and by whom. The story behind a hymn’s composition is, more often than not, as significant as the hymn itself. Here are a few examples:

Now Thank We All Our God – LSB 895

Text by Martin Rinckart (1586-1649).

English translation by Katherine Winkworth (1827-1878).7

      Martin Rinckart was a pastor in Eilenburg, Saxony (Germany), during the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648). At that time, Christians were killing Christians in a prolonged series of conflicts throughout central Europe in which over 8 million lives were lost in battles, associated violence, and plague!

      Swedish mercenaries held Rinckart’s city of Eilenburg under siege demanding a ransom payment from the city. Since it was a fortified city, people from surrounding villages sought refuge behinds Eilenburg’s walls. If the siege were not enough, famine took many lives and, to make things worse, plague struck as well. Eight thousand people died from starvation and plague, including Rinckart’s wife and every pastor in the city, save Rinckart. He presided over as many as 70 funerals a day, and, when all hope seemed lost, he went to the commander of the invading army to negotiate a deal to save the city and its people. Impressed by Rinckart’s faith and courage, the commander lowered his ransom demand.

      Shortly thereafter, Rinckart wrote “Now Thank We All Our God” for a worship service to celebrate the end of the Thirty Years’ War (hymnary.org). That is a story worth knowing! Understanding the historical context in which a hymn was written gives us insight into the deeper meaning behind the text, and allows us to “sing with spirit and understanding.” (1 Corinthians 14:15).8

      This hymn is often sung at Thanksgiving services, but can be taught, and memorized, so that children can sing or pray it with zeal at any time throughout their lives. They can, like Rinckart, raise their “hearts, hands, and voices” in praise to God who has done “wondrous things” and “blest” them, even in times of trouble, because of His “countless gifts of love” given to them by His Son, Jesus.

      Question: Would it make a difference to your understanding of a hymn text if you knew that…

  1. “Abide with Me” was written by a pastor who knew he was close to death;
  2.  “Eternal Father, Strong to Save” was written by a music teacher at the request a young school boy who was terrified about to traveling across the Atlantic Ocean to the United States in 1860
  3. “When Peace, Like a River,” was written by a man who had lost his business, his fortune, and his two-year-old son in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, and shortly thereafter lost his four daughters in a ship collision at sea? (hymnary.org).

      Furthermore, we can help students learn about the music that accompanies the hymn texts and serves to augment the meaning of the words and leads to a confident hope in the resurrection of the dead and the eternal life that we shall inherit by grace through the Spirit’s gift of faith.

To do this, I would suggest the following strategies:

  1. Adopt a “Hymn of the Month” study by all grades. Choose one hymn a month that can be sung by everyone in school. The hymn’s origin, music, poetry, and composer(s) can be studied in age appropriate ways at each grade level, The hymns can be memorized, sung at weekly chapel services, used in daily devotions, and during weekly chapel services by a children’s choir (perhaps as an offertory). The text can be orally interpreted as a poem, illustrated with artwork, dramatized, or explained in oral reports.
  2. Use the vast music resources available on the internet to listen to hymns, spiritual songs, and other great Christian choral and instrumental music. For example, Google “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.”9 You will find more information, YouTube videos, biographical information, etc. than you expect. You can do this with virtually any hymn in almost any hymnal. There are also print and online resources that you can use to find out about the stories behind a hymn’s composition.10 See the following:

Print Resources:

  • Osbeck, Kenneth W. (1982) 101 Hymn Stories. Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications. (Also see: Osbeck’s two other 101 More Hymn Stories books (three volumes in all in paperback covering traditional and contemporary hymns.)
  • Petersen, William J. (2006) The Complete Book of Hymns: Inspiring Stories of 600 Hymns and Praise Songs. Carol Stream, Illinois: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc.
  • Polack, W.G. (1942) The Handbook to the Lutheran Hymnal. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House.
  • Precht, Fred L. (1992) Lutheran Worship Hymnal Companion. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House.
  • Stulken, Marilyn Kay. (1981) Hymnal Companion to the Lutheran Book of Worship. Philadelphia: Fortress Press..
  • Westerhoff, Paul. (2010) Hymnal Companion to Evangelical Lutheran Worship. Augsburg Fortress.
  • Hymnal Supplement 98 Handbook. (1998) LCMS Commission on Worship. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House.

And the recently published…

      Lutheran Service Book: Companion to the Hymns – 2 Volume Set (2,624 pages). Edited by Joseph Herl, Peter C. Reske & Jon D. Vieker. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House (2019).11

      Online Resources:

  • http://www.hymntime.com/tch/ – A.K.A. The Cyber Hymnal. Don’t know how to play the piano? No problem. This site has recordings of thousands of hymns. They are very simple recordings, but the melody and accompaniment will play at the touch of a button, and you will find resources on virtually any hymn. Lyrics for hymns in public domain can be copied into PowerPoint presentations or duplicated for vocabulary study or for the study of hymn composers.
  • https://hymnary.org/ – A comprehensive index of over 1 million hymn texts, hymn tunes, and hymnals, with information on authors and composers, lyrics and scores, etc. An excellent resource!
  • https://songsandhymns.org/ from The Center for Church Music Songs and Hymns. Easily search this database for 56 common hymns – not a large resource, but a useful one. Site has excellent MP3 arrangements of hymns sung by singers who can really sing, resources on composers and lyricists, sheet music (hymns are in the public domain), and articles on music.
  • https://www.cuchicago.edu/about-concordia/center-for-church-music/ – Concordia University Chicago’s Center for Church Music (not to be confused with the web site immediately above), is an excellent resource for learning about hymnody and church music from a Lutheran perspective. One of the site’s most useful classroom resources is the “Devotions on the Hymn of the Day”: https://www.cuchicago.edu/about-concordia/center-for-church-music/devotions-on-the-hymn-of-the-day/. This robust set of devotions on some of the greatest hymns ever written is a must read for Lutheran teachers and musicians. Hymns and devotions are keyed to the church year and can be used as weekly devotions in classrooms. Highly recommended.

      For singing techniques, try the following sites:

  • Posture: https://musicaroo.com/correct-singing-posture/
  • Breathing: http://www.bbc.co.uk/sing/learning/breathing.shtml (Exercises to help students breathe correctly. These could be be done as part of a P.E. class.

      Protecting Children’s Voices:

  • http://www.voiceteacher.com/children_article/children.html\
  • Sing Better: https://musicaroo.com/learn-how-to-sing-better/
  • http://www.jenevorawilliams.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/11/Inside-the-book1.pdf

                (The above contains a 214-page book about the teaching of singing.)

Moving in the Right Musical Direction

      If you do not have someone in your school who shepherds your music education goals, or if you are uncomfortable leading singing in your classroom, call in a music consultant to do a workshop to help everyone make music part of the day-to-day classroom experience.12 No judgment here – music can be intimidating to teach for any number of reasons.

      Find or create a music curriculum that meets the objectives you would like to have your students achieve. Perhaps you can have someone consult with your faculty as to how to best implement music in your classroom, or ask your district education conference committee to have several music workshops available for you to attend.

      I highly recommend the following LCMS blog and its description of a significant music curriculum at: https://blogs.lcms.org/2019/nurturing-singing-and-faith-through-music-education/ and feierabendmusic.org/curriculum – Feierabend Association for Music Education (FAME). The “Nurturing Singing and Faith through Music Education” blog has an excellent article about a
workshop in “Conversational Solfege™” that was developed by Dr. John Feierabend of the Hartt School of Music at the University of Hartford, Connecticut. It is an excellent place to start a conversation regarding how music and faith can be taught in Lutheran schools. Please take the time to explore the article and the curriculum. It may change dramatically the way you teach music.13

Heirs of a Rich and Spiritually Powerful Musical Tradition

      Here’s a final word of encouragement regarding music taking a first chair in your Lutheran school.

      We are the heirs of a rich musical tradition that has had, and continues to have, significant impact on the spiritual life of the Church. We are charged with the important and joyful task of transmitting our musical heritage to future generations of children so that they will be able to appreciate and sing the Church’s songs of grace to each other and to the world. As St. Paul wrote to the Ephesians

“…be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart, giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ…” Ephesians 5:18-20 (ESV)

      May your teaching be blessed as you help children to be “filled with the Spirit” through the gift of music in your Lutheran Schools.


Luther, M. (1986). Plass, E.M. (Ed.). What Luther says: An anthology. (Vol.2). Concordia Publishing House

Jeffrey E. Burkart, Ph.D. former faculty and administrator at Concordia University St Paul, MN, where he now serves as Emeritus Professor of Education and Artist in Residence. He has over 200 publications including 12 books, numerous professional journal articles, book reviews, chancel dramas, Christian musicals, hymns, poems, CD recordings, films and videos.

1 Also see: The Benefits of Music Education – From the Public Broadcasting System (PBS), 2012: https://www.pbs.org/parents/thrive/the-benefits-of-music-education

How Children Benefit from Music Education in Schools – NAMM (National Association of Music Merchants) Foundation – Research based summary, 2014: https://www.nammfoundation.org/articles/2014-06-09/How-Children-Benefit-Music-Education-Schools; Also see NAMM research categorized by age levels from toddlers through senior citizens (2019): https://www.nammfoundation.org/what-we-do/music-research. For further reading on the benefits of music see:

The National Association for Music Education’s (NAfME), Journal of Research in Music Education.

2 See Carl Schalk’s, Singing the Church’s Song: Essays and Occasional Writings on Church Music (2015). Lutheran University Press: Minneapolis, pp: 23-24. “One of the persistent models that has shaped the relationship between music and worship presents music as a Christian teacher or pedagogue. Closely tied to this paradigm is the didactic view that turns songs into weapons of argument. Virtually from the beginning, Christians have recognized that psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs can be enlisted in the battle to refute heresies. The early Church faced a largely hostile, pagan culture that threatened it from within. Education, indoctrination, and teaching became the crucial means for carrying on the Church’s mission. The song of the Church was an important tool in that task…. Christians readily perceived that truth more easily impresses itself upon the hearts of the faithful when it is sung. (pp: 23 & 24).” Emphasis mine. The times we live in are often hostile to the Church, are they not? There still seems to be “nothing new under the sun” Ecclesiastes 1:9.

3 It is interesting to note that the words in the hymnal are all syllabicated. This helps young readers to sound out words and to understand the text better. Consider providing a hymnal to every student in your school. It is a treasury of biblical proportions.

4 The Lutheran Hymnal, a.k.a, TLH, contains hymns that are not in later hymnals such as Lutheran Worship (LW) and the Lutheran Service Book (LSB). There are probably copies of TLH somewhere in your church or school. Copy public domain hymns such as “To Shepherds as They watched by Night” and teach them to your students. To them they will be brand new.

5 See: Robin Leaver, Luther’s Liturgical Music (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007), p. 144. Luther, writing in the fall of 1523 to his friend, Georg Spalatin, says: “Following this example of the prophets and fathers of the church, I intend to make vernacular psalms for the people, that is, spiritual songs so that the word of God even by means of song may live among the people.” Luther goes on to say that he is looking for poets who can write hymns (in German) that avoid the use of “new-fangled” words for congregational singing that are “simple and common enough for the people to understand yet pure and fitting.”

6 See my Shaping the Future articles: “The State of the Arts in Lutheran Schools,” – Summer 2007 Volume 4, Issue 2, pp: 6-9; “Drama: A Life Changing Experience” – Winter 2009, Vol. 6, Issue 4, pp: 21-24. “Encouraging the Fine and Performing Arts in Lutheran Schools” at: http://stf.lea.org/winter2019/ETnet.html.

7 Catherine Winkworth is one of the most prolific translators of German hymns. I counted 46 of her hymn translations in the LSB (see page 1002 in the Index of Author, Translators, and Sources of Hymns and Songs – LSB pp: 998-1002). Go to the following sites and learn about the extraordinary life of this significant 19th century translator, hymn writer, educator, and women’s activist: https://hymnary.org/person/Winkworth_C (This site has a comprehensive listing of Winkworth translations and hymns. It is a useful place to find out about hymns, their authors, and composers.); https://www.encyclopedia.com/women/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/winkworth-catherine-1827-1878 (This is another of the many sites that give a brief biography of Winkworth. Simply type her name into your search engine and you will find all sorts of articles on the “Queen of Translators.”

8 The last stanza of “Now Thank We All Our God” is a doxology that was eventually said or sung as a table prayer (Tischgebetlein) throughout Germany. It might have been as common then as our “Come, Lord Jesus” table prayer is today.

9 Try Googling “Away in a Manger” and see all of the resources you get. I just did it, and the first thing that popped up was a YouTube video that had a children’s choir singing the hymn with lyrics projected. You will have to skip the ad at the start of the video, as usual, but, if you haven’t done it before, you’ll be surprised at how much information you can access online.

10 DISCLAIMER: What one finds on the internet is not always “scholarly” in the best sense of the word. Use good judgment when researching hymns online and get a second or third source confirmation on information that looks suspicious. The hymnal companions mentioned in the print resources section above are the best resources to do some checking. Remember: When on the internet you are surfing on, what is sometimes, a slippery electronic surfboard.

11 The Lutheran Service Book: Companion to the Hymns (2 Volumes) has a hefty price tag at $179.95, however, it is a robust resource that every church should consider purchasing as a reference book. See: https://www.cph.org/p-33586-Lutheran-Service-Book-Companion-to-the-Hymns-2-Volume-Set.aspx for a complete description of its contents. It would make a great gift to your pastor or church musician(s).

12 I recently spoke with an early childhood educator who said, “I know I should be doing more with music with my kindergartners, but I’m just not comfortable with it. I don’t play the piano and I’m not happy with how I sing. Can you help me?” I said that I’d be happy to help, but it reminded me of how some, and I suspect many, teachers may be afraid of teaching music. Hence this article.

13 The article also contains endorsements from: Emily Woock, cantor at Redeemer Lutheran Church & School, Elmhurst, IL and FAME certified instructor; Kathy May, Director of Parish Music, Peace Lutheran Church and Academy, Sussex, WI; Miguel Ruiz, Director of Parish Music at Messiah Lutheran Church, Keller, TX; Nathan Beethe, Kantor at Grace Lutheran Church, Auburn, MI; and Andrew Himelick FAME-endorsed teacher/trainer and elementary school teacher in Carmel, IN and Assistant Director of the Indianapolis Children’s Choir.