If you’ve ever wondered what secular music is, today you’re in luck. In this article we’ll explore the characteristics, top songs, best musicians and the genre’s history.
Without further ado, let’s look at what secular music is.
Definition: What Is Secular Music?
When talking about music, most musicologists make a distinction between secular and sacred music. Sacred music is religious, but what is secular music?
The definition of secular music is anything irreligious. If it’s not about God, it’s not sacred. That’s a wide-ranging definition.
Because secular music is such an all-encompassing category, it’s hard to talk about its characteristics the same way we can talk about the musical signatures of jazz or the Romantic Era.
For instance, Medieval secular music isn’t always secular. Confused? Sometimes medieval composers wrote secular music that had a religious subject. What made it secular was that there was no possible way you could perform this music in church.
Pinning down one specific secular music definition that helps give it specific characteristics is complicated by the fact that music is a lot like fashion. It has styles and trends that go in and out of favor depending on the period.
Secular music includes:
All of these fit our secular music definition, but they also have significantly different characteristics. So, to understand what defines secular music beyond its irreligiosity, let’s look at some examples.
Secular music, like its musicians, ranges wildly across time and genre. Here are some examples of secular music through the ages.
Summer Is Icummen In by the Hilliard Ensemble
Summer is Icummen In is one of the oldest examples of secular music we have. It’s also an excellent example of polyphony. Notice how the bass singer keeps a steady, almost drum-like rhythm. While overtop, the tenor sings a more lilting, dance-like melody.
As the song progresses, it adds extra rhythms and layers with each new singer. Underneath all these competing rhythms, Summer Is Icummen In is a round or canon. The singers on the melody line stagger their entries so that even though they all move at different times, they all sing the same line.
The juxtaposition of these multiple lines creates consonant-sounding harmonies.
Now is the Month of Maying by The King’s Singers
Thomas Morley wrote Now is the Month of Maying in 1595, and it’s an excellent example of a ballette. It’s bright and sparkling with a dance-like rhythm. Unlike the polyphonic madrigal, it relies on homophony to create its harmonies.
To better understand what this means, compare this recording to the previous one. In Summer Is Icummen In, no one is in the same place at the same time. Often singers have different lyrics.
In Now Is the Month of Maying, there is one rhythmic line, and the singers move through it in unison.
It’s also full of what medievalist scholars think was an early form of censorship. Composers couldn’t talk openly about lovers’ courtships, so when they needed to sidestep the kisses and hand-holding, they wrote nonsense like fa-la-la-la-la.
Largo al Factotum by Peter Mattei
Rossini wrote his share of sacred music, but he also composed many operas with secular themes. Il Barbiere de Saviglia was one of them.
In it, Figaro rattles off this tour-de-force patter-song. It’s an excellent example of 19th-century secular music, especially the operatic. It’s demanding, it’s show-stopping, and the harmonies are sumptuous.
Famously, at least one performer had to sing this aria while riding a bicycle, but even without acrobatic stunts, it’s an impressive song.
Rossini wrote it to showcase his lead, and while it’s supposed to be comic, the singer has to work overtime to spit out all those words and be understood by the audience.
Unhelpfully, at least from Figaro’s perspective, the piece accelerates as it goes so that by the time it races towards its grand conclusion, he can only sing nonsense syllables. There’s no censorship here – Figaro loves a bawdy joke – just healthy regard from Rossini for how to make the aria easier to sing.
Song to the Moon by Luccia Popp
Dvorak's Song to the Moon is another operatic show-stopper, but a very different one. Tempo plays a part. This particular example of early 20th-century secular music is much slower than Rossini.
It’s also the precursor to another secular music staple, Somewhere Over the Rainbow. You can hear this in the singular combination of falling sixths and rising octaves.
But one thing Rossini and Dvorak share is a deeply romantic sensibility. Dvorjack is slightly late to the Romantic Era. It ended in 1910, and he writes on the cusp of what becomes the early 20th-century transition into crooning and jazz.
But that doesn’t stop Dvorak’s opera featuring indulgent and abrupt emotional about-faces that typify the secular music from the Romantic Era.
Listen to the way Popp goes from tremulous water-nymph to ecstasy on a dime. It’s Romantic writing at its finest.
Fever by Peggy Lee
While lots of classical music is secular, not all secular music is classical.
By the mid-twentieth century, the styles popular in secular music had shifted dramatically, and jazz conventions had a lot to do with that.
Fever began life as an R&B song. But in Peggy Lee’s hands, it became a cool jazz classic with a steady, snapping rhythm. Lee swapped the piano for finger snapping and new lyrics that gave listeners a crash course in the great loves of history.
Lee’s take on the song took its cue from Ray Peterson, but not as a replica or even a quote. Lee dialed back the Sturm und Drang of Peterson and recontextualized the song as a piece, not about immature adolescent love but the feelings of a cool, worldly adult.
Lee’s rendition of Fever didn’t just reinvent the wheel. It made her relevant to contemporary audiences again. The swing music she had sung was no longer the kind of mainstream secular music that appealed. But her cool jazzy reworking of Fever became her signature piece.
Sweetheart Like You by Bob Dylan
Bob Dylan is among a handful of composers who wrote secular music until he was inspired to write and sing sacred music.
This started when Dylan caught a silver cross that went flying across the stage mid-concert. The experience was conversionary, and Dylan went from writing secular folk music to recording several gospel albums.
The move looked permanent, but then in 1983, Dylan released Infidels, and suddenly, he was back to secular music again.
Godly or not, the album features some of Dylan’s best singing. It’s engaging, inviting, and very different from the rough-edged timbre so many listeners find alienating.
Dylan had refined the lyrics over the years, and the version released in 1983 had gone through several revisions. Say what you like about his vocal color, but Dylan was a poet as much as a singer, and never is this more apparent.
Call Me Maybe by Carly Ray Jepsen
For a song that started as a story about nerves and anxiety, Call Me Maybe is another piece of secular music that took the world by storm. Everyone covered it. Katy Perry sang a version, then-president Obama sang it – the song was everywhere.
And because the year was 2012 and social media was also everywhere, the song quickly spawned memes, gifs, and tweets. Secular music was no longer trendy, provided everyone knew the song. It needed an internet following, and Jepsen’s song had one.
As you’ll see, secular music varies wildly from age to age. Sometimes you see changes from decade to decade.
But, all this secular music comes from somewhere. So, who are the top secular musicians?
No list would be complete without Mozart. He’s famous for his sacred music and especially his Requiem, but Mozart also wrote a considerable volume of secular music.
Partly, that was because his work as court composer for the Austrian Empire required him to keep them in carnival music and dances.
It ran the gamut from the instrumental to the operatic, and some of Mozart’s most famous works are pieces of secular music, including:
- Eine Kleine Nachtmusik
- The Magic Flute
- Piano Sonata No. 11 in A Major
Sometimes, famous secular musicians come in pairs. This is one such instance. Folk-rock duo were some of the most successful secular musicians there were in the 1960s.
The relationship struggled, however, and they parted ways in the 1970s. But not before their album Bridge Over Troubled Water became one of the most popular releases of the year.
While Simon continued producing albums, they never achieved the same heights as had his collaborations with Garfunkel. Together they won over 10 Grammy Awards and were recognized in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Their best-known songs include:
- Bridge Over Troubled Water
- Sound of Silence
- Scarborough Fair
John Dunstable isn’t a name that gets batted around most households these days. However, without him, secular music would sound very different.
One of the primary distinctions between secular and sacred music in the 1400s was that sacred music was modal. In other words, it didn’t have keys the way we think of them, and it made heavy use of perfect intervals like the fourth and fifth.
John Dunstable changed all that. He introduced sixths and thirds as the chorded intervals that cemented secular harmony.
This secular musician made her debut at 16. The secular music she produced was a singular fusion of jazz, pop, soul, and R&B. She moved fluidly between these styles with the elasticity of youth, but also a remarkable technique for her age.
However, she struggled with substance abuse problems, and various personal setbacks meant that she produced less music than she otherwise might have. She died in 2007 of alcohol poisoning.
The Liverpool-born quartet of singer-songwriters was an unlikely choice for success. And in the early days, their name shifted while they settled into their musical grove.
But they quickly became a hit with audiences, and at the height of their career, Lennon described himself and the others as ‘more popular than Jesus.’
So, undoubtedly secular then. That said, The Beatles’ songs drew on religious imagery where it made sense but were never overtly religious. Instead, like Medievalists before them, they wrote secular music with a sacred slant that you most definitely wouldn’t be singing at the altar.
Whereas church music was modal, Medieval secular music was syllabic and less rhythmically precise.
But the Troubadours are another kind of Medieval secular music, and they were not only rhythmic but lyrical.
Moving forward, we find that secular music, like church music, shares an appreciation for the interval of the third. There’s also much more musical variety available now that composers have moved on from modal music and started experimenting with harmonies.
Polyphony, the practice of using multiple rhythms across multiple musical lines, becomes increasingly popular, and that becomes the defining characteristic of Renaissance secular music, particularly the madrigal.
If we skip forward in time again, you’ll notice that the practice of polyphony in secular music has almost completely died out by the 1800s. Instead, choirs and orchestras use homophony. And while occasionally harmonic lines have staggered entries, there is never the same degree of intricate overlap at play that you get from a composer like Palestrina.
By the time you arrive in the 1900s, secular music changes so fast, it’s hard to keep up. It’s possible to sort some of that secular music by genre and decade, but there’s still room for overlap as bebop grows out of jazz, which itself draws on the baroque predilection for ornamentation.
But music has fashions, so as the times change, so does secular music. While that makes it nigh impossible to characterize and nebulous to define, it gives it a rich and colorful history.
Secular music is non-religious music. How it sounds and what styles it includes varies depending on who the artist is and when they lived.
While there were clear harmonic differences between sacred and secular music, our understanding of harmony and music theory has evolved so that even the old harmonic rules set out by Dunstable and Bach aren’t guaranteed.
One thing we can say for sure, though; If you can’t sing it in church, it’s secular music.