In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Jews and Music

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works/Indices
  • Periodicals
  • Primary Sources: Liturgical
  • Ancient Period
  • Middle Ages/Troubadours
  • Late Medieval Period to 1840
  • Music in Russia, 1880–1950
  • Music in Central Europe, 1820–1939
  • Holocaust/Nazi Era
  • Israel/Palestine: Major Narratives
  • Ethnic Communities: East and West
  • Sephardic Music
  • Judeo-Spanish Song
  • Hasidism
  • United States: Art and Liturgical Music
  • Yiddish Music and Klezmer
  • Popular Music
  • Ethnographies
  • Jewish Modal Theory
  • The Cantor
  • Composers and Jewish Identity
  • Music and Anti-Judaism

Jewish Studies Jews and Music
Judah M. Cohen
  • LAST REVIEWED: 18 August 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 February 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199840731-0063


The term “Jewish music” encompasses a complicated and multifaceted relationship between Judaism and sound from ancient times to the present day. People have used music to accompany liturgical and biblical texts, to define spaces and leisure activities, to characterize adherence to Jewish law and/or heritage, to denote Jews and Judaism in contrast to other cultural groups, to define one group of Jews against another, to reinforce specific ideas of Jewish communal history and identity, and to characterize local Jewish experiences. Music, in turn, has been used to define both sacred time and leisure time in Judaism, and has played a key role in ideological debates about tradition and innovation. One central reason for this wide application is music’s fundamentally variable nature: as organized collections of sounds that both accept and resist fixed notated forms, music easily acquires, communicates, and negotiates meaning long after the sounds themselves have faded. In Jewish life, these unique qualities have led to lines of specialists—such as the hazzan or cantor in liturgical music, or the klezmer in music of dance and celebration—while at the same time giving music a marginal role in logocentric disciplines such as philosophy and history. Research on this topic has covered a broad range of practices, including chant and ritual fulfillment, the works of Jewish-affiliated composers, communal performance within Jewish communities, and participation in popular musical, stage, and concert forms. Such breadth emphasizes the difficulty in defining the field, particularly when attempting to apply an appropriate overarching term. Musicologist Curt Sachs’ reported 1950s definition of “Jewish music” as “music by Jews, for Jews, as Jews,” has been celebrated for its brevity and criticized for its inaccuracy. Jewish seminaries, meanwhile, have sought to institutionalize the concept by investing it with a broad sense of durable tradition, as exemplified by their musical training programs. The term has also carried expectations of authenticity, sometimes leading to heated debates in the evaluation of musical artists, works, and scholars. Nonetheless, “Jewish music” remains the term of record in scholarship, the synagogue, and the communal world, best viewed as shorthand for an expansive and disparate series of conversations.

General Overviews

Scholarship on Jewish music began in the mid-late 19th century, roughly concurrent with the development of Wissenschaft movements in both music and Judaism. Jewish liturgical music practitioners, seeking to improve their scientific legitimacy, authored most of these early studies using synagogue music to represent Jewish tradition. Ackermann 1894 presents the emergence of this discussion into broader academic conversation, linking synagogue music to the ancient, medieval, and modern eras established by the Wissenschaft model. Starting around the turn of the 20th century, music became a part of scholarly efforts to promote a distinctive Jewish ethnic culture that could stand on its own alongside other cultures. Idelsohn 1929, authored by a key figure in this transition, retains the primacy of religious music, but places the story within a broader cultural milieu, thereby setting the agenda for the field. Broad overviews of the subject have appeared regularly since then: Gradenwitz 1949 represents a view of the field from the new state of Israel, with the narrative adjusted accordingly. The work of Peter Gradenwitz, as well as Eric Werner’s entry on Jewish music in the 1954 edition of Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians (New York: St. Martin’s, 1954), continued to view the field through a moral lens that evaluated music based on its adherence to each author’s definition of Jewish musical tradition. Overviews since then have sought increasingly scholarly paradigms. Shiloah 1992, following Israeli social science trends, emphasizes the musical traditions of ethnic communities in Israel. Avenary, et al. 2007; Seroussi, et al. 2001; and Seroussi 2009 show successive attempts to interrogate the concept of Jewish music itself, distancing the narrative from religious or communal ideology in an effort to connect more effectively with the standards of the larger fields to which they contributed. And Shelemay 1995, while not a comprehensive overview, provides a central idea in parsing the complicated relationship between scholarship and Jewish identity in music.

  • Ackermann, Aron. ‪Der synagogale Gesang in seiner historischen Entwicklung. Berlin: M. Poppelauer, 1894.

    Written by a rabbi rather than a synagogue musician, and therefore in a relatively classic Wissenschaft style, this study uses a paradigm of melodic retention and Judaism’s conservative nature to trace synagogue music a succession of biblical, rabbinic, and modern sources.

  • Avenary, Hanoch, Bathja Bayer, Amnon Shiloah, Jehoash Hirshberg, Dushan Mihalek, and Gila Flam. “Music.” In Encyclopedia Judaica. Edited by Fred Skolnik. Detroit: Macmillan, 2007.

    DOI: 10.1002/9783527600441.oe003

    An effective and serviceable entry on Jewish music that reflects the state of the field as of the Encyclopedia Judaica’s first edition in 1971; although the 2007 edition includes several new short sections on art music, the Holocaust, and folk music, the core narrative has changed little. Retains an emphasis on religious music while largely avoiding the myth of Jewish melodic conservation.

  • Gradenwitz, Peter. The Music of Israel: Its Rise and Growth Through 5000 Years. New York: W. W. Norton, 1949.

    A romanticized and widely available treatment of music in Jewish history. Gradenwitz orients his story toward Zionist redemption in the State of Israel. Issued in a German edition in 1961. A second edition in 1996, with the new subtitle From the Biblical Era Through Modern Times, had a much smaller impact.

  • Idelsohn, Abraham Z. Jewish Music in its Historical Development. New York: Henry Holt, 1929.

    Widely credited with creating the field of Jewish music research. A semi-adaptation of Idelsohn’s Hebrew-language study Toldot HaNeginah HaIvrit (Berlin: Dvir, 1924; see Ethnic Communities) this work shifts emphasis from defining a Hebrew paradigm in Palestine to creating a paradigm centered on Reform Judaism for a general American audience.

  • Seroussi, Edwin. “Music: The ‘Jew’ of Jewish Studies.” Jewish Studies: Journal of the World Congress of Jewish Studies 46 (2009): 3–84.

    A majestic critical overview of the field from the 19th century through the start of the 21st. Seroussi’s work argues for a reconsideration of the field as a “musicology of the Jewish” and seeks a new integrative paradigm for future research.

  • Seroussi, Edwin, Philip V. Bohlman, Uri Sharvit, et al. “Jewish Music.” In The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians. 2d ed. Edited by Stanley Sadie and John Tyrrell. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.

    Presents a new paradigm for the field that marks a change in emphasis away from religious and/or nation-based self-interest to an avowedly non-sectarian approach.

  • Shelemay, Kay K. “Mythologies and Realities in the Study of Jewish Music.” The World of Music 37.1 (1995): 24–38.

    A concise, foundational article that addresses the tension between music’s role as a vessel of communal Jewish identity (mythology) and its resistance to a simple communal definition (reality).

  • Shiloah, Amnon. Jewish Musical Traditions. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1992.

    A difficult read, but nonetheless important as the topic- and ethnicity-based approach of this work to Jewish music differs significantly from the time-based paradigm used everywhere else.

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