What Is Secular Music?

Music that is not associated with any religious practice or tradition is referred to as secular music. In today’s world, the vast majority of music is secular. When determining whether music is secular or not, intent and lyrical content are usually more important than musical style. Historically, especially during the Middle Ages, the balance between religious and secular music tended to tilt in the opposite direction.

Both secular and religious music existed in the ancient world. Music was used for religious purposes the Greeks, Romans, and Egyptians. They all had a tradition of using music for pure entertainment and celebration, however. These traditions blended together in ways that mixed secular and religious elements in some cases, such as the music associated with Greek theater.

This music became less popular in Europe after the rise of Christianity, but the precise ratio between secular and religious music is impossible to determine. Monks invented the first modern western systems of strict musical notation. These monks copied religious music but not secular tunes, so modern scholars only have snippets of information about secular music in the early medieval period.

The importance of secular music grew over time. Troubadours composed and performed many popular secular songs on the lute, an instrument brought to Europe during the Crusades, and copies of some of these were made. Europe’s focus shifted away from religion during the Renaissance, and more secular tunes were composed and preserved in writing for posterity.

The popularity of secular music in much of Europe fell after the Reformation. Secular cultural currents resurfaced over time, and operas, symphonies, and other familiar classical works were composed on secular themes. Religious music was still composed using the same techniques during the Baroque era and after, but it did not dominate musical production.

Secular music is very popular in today’s world. Most modern forms of popular music, from jazz to opera, rock to disco, Soviet propaganda to Bollywood musicals, are secular in nature. However, this division is not always a result of the structure of modern musical forms. Music that is predominantly secular in style but intended to convey a religious message can be composed and performed. Christian rock music, for example, draws on rock and roll’s musical traditions while incorporating themes and lyrics from Christian scripture and doctrine.