Synagogue & Religious Music

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As early as the fifth century, Jewish authors--many of them cantors--introduced metered poetry called piyyutim into the synagogue service. In piyyutim, both the words themselves and the rhythm of the words are important, so these poems naturally lend themselves to structured, rhythmic singing. The texts of piyyutim are often set in the musical idioms of the host country. In the 16th century, the Italian composer Salamone Rossi composed settings of these poems similar to contemporaneous secular madrigals and church music, and it is clear that they were used in actual synagogue services.

In the past two centuries, synagogue music has changed dramatically. In the early 20th century, Abraham Idelsohn attempted to codify the nusah of the entire Jewish community; his concordance  of Jewish melodies disseminated in print a tradition which had until then been almost entirely oral. Congregations in the early Reform movement in 19th-century Germany reintroduced the use of instruments such as organs in the Sabbath service, and even some traditional communities began to allow the use of instruments in non-Sabbath worship.

More recently, other instruments have been added to services; for example, folk-influenced cantors have incorporated guitars into their prayer. In the past few decades, Reform cantors and song-leaders such as Debbie Friedman have introduced new music, both in Hebrew and English, into the liturgy. The Orthodox community has largely drifted away from the employment of a professional hazzan, choosing instead to encourage the active participation of congregants. Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, influenced by the populist musical tradition of the Hasidic movement, composed hundreds of niggunim (melodies) for use both in and out of the synagogue, and communities of all denominations use his music to enhance the prayer experience.

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