Coptic Singing and Instruments

Origen attests to the wide use of singing in early Christian churches by the middle 3rd century. It is thought that the form of the original Christian services was taken from the Jewish synagogue, where the only music is that of the cantor’s voice. In the early 3rd century, St Clement of Alexandria apparently did not approve of instruments and tried to simplify the psalms, banning the over-elaborate chromatic and non-diatonic scales. As a consequence, the Alexandrian style of singing became renowned for its ‘severity’. Later the music seems to have become more melodic and antiphonal, a style known as ‘Syrian’. Similarly, in the monasteries springing up in the Egyptian desert, psalms and hymns were well-established by the time of St Antony but were later banned as they were not thought to accord with the ascetic life; the 4th century Abbot Sylvanus from Sinai is reported as believing that singing hardened the heart and was an act of pride.

In the early Coptic Church, singing was performed by the male cantors, who were often blind, as this was supposed to confer greater sensitivity of hearing. A cantor was not a priest but, as in Jewish synagogues, it was a recognised profession and in later times they were trained and employed by the Coptic Church to be responsible for the correct delivery of hymns and responses in all the services. Cantors in the Coptic Church are allowed a certain degree of improvisation, although whether this was always the case is impossible to say.

Despite debate over the use of instruments, some were known in the early church, many of which have been observed on Pharaonic and Ptolemaic frescoes and papyri. Writings from the 1st century identify a harpist and a cymbal player, while in the early 3rd century St Clement’s objections to instruments revealed that the psaltery, trumpet, timbrel/tympanon and pipe were in current use, although he tolerated the lyre and kithara because King David allegedly played them.

Origen in the 3rd century attributed spiritual qualities to certain instruments: the trumpet represented the power of God’s word while the tympanon depicted the destruction of lust.

At some point, instruments were brought back into use in Coptic services; Arabic manuscripts in St Catherine’s Monastery, Sinai, from the 11th and 12th centuries name drums, chordophones (a vibrating string that bowed or plucked) and rattles, all of which were suitable for church services. A bell, struck from the outside with a rod, was also in use during the 14th century to designate the beginning of services, although is no longer seen today. Flutes and clarinets were introduced later. Today, Coptic services use only small hand cymbals (mentioned in both the Old and New Testaments) and a metal triangle, played by the cantor or a deacon, to provide a rhythmic accompaniment to hymns and responses.