The future of music

What Is Secular Music? 8 Best Examples & History

August 4, 2023
what is secular music

Secular music refers to music that is not associated with any religious or spiritual traditions or purposes.

It is music that is produced for enjoyment, artistic expression, and cultural value, and it spans a variety of musical genres, including rock, pop, hip-hop, electronic, and classical.

Contrary to religious music, which frequently serves specific purposes related to worship or ritual, secular music is primarily created for enjoyment or monetary gain.

Importance of secular music in cultural expression and entertainment

Since ancient times, music has been an integral part of human society, and secular music, in particular, has always had a significant impact on cultural expression and entertainment.

Below are a few reasons why:

1. Cultural expression

The cultural norms and values of a specific society or community can be expressed through secular music.

Secular music frequently reflects the cultural experiences and worldviews of its creators in terms of lyrics, rhythms, and sounds.

People can develop a deeper awareness of other people’s cultural experiences by listening to secular music, which can promote more understanding and empathy between those from various backgrounds.

In addition, listening to secular music can foster a sense of belonging and connection among those who have similar cultural backgrounds or life experiences.

2. Entertainment

One of the main purposes of secular music is to entertain. 

Secular music may invoke emotional responses in listeners and can be used to improve feelings, create atmosphere, and bring people together for social events and gatherings.

It can be enjoyed in many settings, from big concerts and music festivals to small-scale performances in private spaces.

Secular music has become an important part of modern culture, with music videos, live streaming services, and social media platforms allowing people to discover and enjoy their favorite songs and artists from around the world at any time.

3. Creativity

Through secular music, musicians can take part in artistic expression that allows them to express their creativity and originality.

To create new and cutting-edge musical genres that push the boundaries of what’s possible, musicians can experiment with a variety of sounds, rhythms, and lyrics.

Secular music is continually developing, which keeps it interesting for both musicians and audiences while also ensuring that it continues to reflect society’s shifting cultural and technical trends.

Secular music can also give potential musicians a place to express their own originality and advance the genre by serving as a source of encouragement and inspiration.

History of Secular Music

Secular music has a rich history that spans thousands of years and has undergone significant changes and transformations throughout time. 

Below are some key highlights of the history of secular music.

1. Ancient Greece and secular music in social and cultural life

Secular music was a significant part of social and cultural life in ancient Greece.

Along with subjects like philosophy, mathematics, and sports, music was taught in schools because it was regarded as an essential component of education.

Musicians were well-respected members of society who were frequently hired to play music at various gatherings.

The ode was among the most prominent genres of ancient Greek secular music.

The ode was a style of music that was played at public gatherings, such as sporting events, festivals, and religious rituals.

Dance was frequently used in odes, which were used to honor the achievements of heroes and mark significant occasions.

The epinikion was an important secular musical genre in ancient Greece performed to honor victory in athletic competitions.

These epinikion songs were written by well-known poets and were considered a great honor for the winning participants.

Ancient Greek secular music also consisted of folk songs, drinking songs, and love songs in addition to odes and epinikia. 

People used to sing these songs during private meetings as a way to connect and convey their emotions.

Ancient Greek music left a lasting impression on Western civilization and still influences modern music.

2. Renaissance and transformation of secular music

The Renaissance era saw an immense shift in secular music, with the creation of fresh musical forms and methods that served as the foundation for modern music.

The introduction of music printing during the Renaissance was one of the most significant changes to secular music. 

Before the Renaissance period, music used to be handwritten and copied by scribes which made it expensive and challenging to make widely available. 

After the invention of the printing press mass, the production of music sheets was possible making music more accessible to the general public.

During the Renaissance, brand-new secular musical genres were created, such as the madrigal. 

For small groups of singers, the madrigal was a style of secular song with sophisticated wordplay and harmonies. 

Other types of chamber music, including the sonata and the concerto, were also created during the Renaissance period.

In addition, instrumental music flourished during the Renaissance, with composers like Giovanni Gabrieli and William Byrd penning pieces for several instruments like the viola da gamba and the lute.

These instrumental compositions were frequently played as interludes between vocal parts and served to highlight the singers’ technical prowess.

3. The emergence of opera as a new form of secular music

A turning point in the history of secular music was when opera first appeared in the late Renaissance and early Baroque era.

Using singing, acting, and instrumental music to tell a dramatic tale, opera was a new kind of musical theater.

“Dafne”, the first opera, was written in 1597 by Italian composer Jacopo Peri. 

Opera swiftly became a major form of entertainment for the wealthy and elite in Italy and throughout Europe.

Recitative, a singing technique that mimics dialogue and improves the plot of the opera, was one of the main characteristics of opera performance. 

Opera also made extensive use of arias, a melody- and expression-focused singing style.

Intricate set and costume design, as well as complicated sets and special effects, were common in opera. 

Opera is a deeply engrossing and compelling type of entertainment because it combines drama, music, and spectacle.

Opera became a platform for political and social commentary as it gained in popularity. 

Opera was a medium used by composers like Giuseppe Verdi and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart to express and criticize the political and social systems of the era and questions of power, politics, and social justice.

4. Evolution of secular music in the 20th century

The secular music industry underwent an enormous change in the 20th century, as new genres and styles emerged that questioned long-held beliefs about music and its social function.

Jazz, which had its roots in African American communities in the South of the United States, began to gain popularity in the early 20th century. 

Jazz was distinguished by its use of brass and woodwind instruments, irregular rhythms, and improvisation. 

Swing, bebop, and fusion all developed as a result of the rapid globalization of jazz, which also influenced other musical genres.

In the 1950s and 1960s, rock and roll emerged as a new form of popular music that combined elements of rhythm and blues, country, and other musical genres. 

Rock and roll was associated with rebellion and youth culture and became a defining feature of the counterculture movement of the 1960s.

Electronic music became a new genre of secular music in the 20th century. 

Drum machines, synthesizers, and other electronic instruments were used to create electronic music, which was often linked to dance and club culture.

In the 1970s, hip-hop also developed as a fresh genre of secular music, and it swiftly took over American popular culture. 

DJing, Rapping, and sampling were key components of hip hop, which was a youth culture popular among African Americans and Latinos.

The 20th century not only witnessed the emergence of these new musical subgenres but also made major advances in music technology, including the development of the synthesizer, electric guitar, and computer-based music creation.

The Globalization of Secular Music

Secular music has long played a significant role in various cultures throughout the world, and in recent years, globalization has made secular music’s impact and reach even more prominent.

The emergence of new technologies, such as the internet and social media, has increased accessibility to and global importance of secular music.

The growth of music streaming services is a significant aspect that has aided in the globalization of secular music. 

Listeners have access to a vast catalog of secular music from musicians all around the world thanks to services like Spotify, Apple Music, and Tidal. 

These services have not only made it simpler for listeners to find and enjoy music from many cultures, but they have also made it simpler for musicians to connect with a worldwide audience.

Music festivals are another way that secular music has become popular all around the world. 

Coachella, Glastonbury, and Tomorrowland are just a few of the big cultural events that draw people from all over the world to their festivals. 

These festivals provide emerging artists a chance to be seen and create a fanbase in addition to giving veteran musicians a stage on which to play for a large international audience.

The spread of social media has been a major factor in the globalization of secular music. 

With the help of websites like YouTube, Instagram, and TikTok, artists can now display their skills and earn fans from all over the world. 

Additionally, social media has made it simpler for musicians to collaborate with musicians from other cultures to produce fresh, original sounds that mash up various musical genres.

The spread of secular music around the globe is expected to continue as it develops and reaches new listeners.

The potential for secular music to unite people from all over the world is infinite, especially given the rapid development of new technology and platforms.

8 Best Examples of Secular Music

There are countless examples of secular music from various periods and genres. 

Here are eight of the best examples.

1. “Bohemian Rhapsody” by Queen

The British rock group Queen recorded the secular song “Bohemian Rhapsody” in 1975. 

The song is a fantastic illustration of secular music. 

Due to its unique structure, intricate harmonies, and catchy lyrics, “Bohemian Rhapsody” has grown to be one of the most famous and iconic songs in the history of rock music.

Bohemian Rhapsody was an odd choice for a single at the time of its release because it was almost six minutes long, yet it went on to become a huge financial success and peaked at number one on the charts in many different countries. 

The success of the song might be partly ascribed to its distinctive fusion of genres, which includes rock, opera, and ballad.

The operatic section of the song has gained special fame and has been the subject of several pop culture homages and parodies. 

It has multi-layered vocal harmonies and complicated orchestral parts.

The words of the song, which describe a tale of love, grief, and redemption, have also struck a chord with listeners all around the world.

2. “Like a Rolling Stone” by Bob Dylan

This song was included in Bob Dylan’s seminal album Highway 61 Revisited and was released as a single in 1965. 

“Like a Rolling Stone”, is hailed among the best in rock music history, marked a break for Dylan from his previous, more conventional folk music approach and contributed to his rise to prominence in the 1960s counterculture movement.

With their intricate imagery, poetic language, and strong emotional impact, the song’s lyrics are frequently recognized as some of the best in rock music history. 

The lyrics provide a vivid image of both individual hardship and social disappointment as they tell the tale of a woman who has fallen from grace and is now battling to live in a harsh and cruel society.

Dylan’s raw, impassioned vocals and the song’s iconic opening guitar riff and rhythm section combine to create an unforgettable piece of secular music that has inspired numerous musicians in the decades since its debut.

3. “Smells Like Teen Spirit” by Nirvana

American rock band Nirvana was founded in Seattle, Washington, in 1987. 

Kurt Cobain, a vocalist, and guitarist, was in the band with Dave Grohl, a bassist, and Krist Novoselic, a drummer. 

With Kurt Cobain’s reflective and sometimes melancholy lyrics, Nirvana created alternative rock and punk music.

Nevermind, the band’s debut album, which featured the international hits “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, “Come As You Are”, and “Lithium”, was released in 1991.

Because of Nirvana’s popularity, the grunge and punk underground cultures entered the mainstream and continue to influence culture today. 

Nirvana was disbanded after Kurt Cobain’s sad death in 1994, yet their music is still praised for its unadulterated emotional impact and capacity to communicate to a generation.

A turning point for Nirvana and the grunge movement as a whole was “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” 

One of the most recognizable rock songs of all time, its explosive sound and anti-establishment lyrics connected with disenchanted youth throughout the globe. 

The song continues to be hailed as a classic of contemporary secular music, as seen by the innumerable imitators and fans who have followed in Nirvana’s footsteps.

4. “Imagine” by John Lennon

After quitting the Beatles, John Lennon launched his solo career in 1971 with the publication of this timeless song. 

It is recognized by many as a masterpiece of composition and has grown to be one of the most well-known and lasting songs of the 20th century.

The words of the song demand a world without boundaries, conflict, and distinctions based on religion and country.

 It promotes harmony and peace among all people, and its upbeat message has long found favor with listeners all across the world.

Over the years, numerous artists have covered “Imagine”, and its influence on popular culture is immeasurable. 

It has served as a peace and unity sign in protests, political rallies, and social movements all across the world.

The song “Imagine” is evidence of John Lennon’s continuing impact as a musician, artist, and fighter for peace and justice. 

John Lennon’s sad death in 1980 solidified his standing as a cultural icon.

5. “Billie Jean” by Michael Jackson

American singer, songwriter, and dancer Michael Jackson is recognized as one of music’s most influential and commercially successful artists ever. 

He started his musical career as a young boy with the Jackson 5, a group that also featured his brothers.

Michael Jackson was born in Gary, Indiana, in 1958.

Jackson continued to enjoy tremendous solo success, recording several top singles and albums in the 1980s and 1990s. 

He was renowned for his distinctive singing voice, exhilarating dance movements, and ground-breaking music videos that broke new ground in the industry.

In 1982 “Billie Jean” was released as a part of Michael Jackson’s album Thriller

One of Jackson’s most well-known and recognizable tracks, the song was written and recorded by Jackson himself.

A staple of the 1980s pop music period, “Billie Jean” topped the charts in several nations, including the UK and the US. 

Numerous artists have covered and tried it over the years, and you can hear the influence of this song in many current pop and hip-hop songs.

The song has a strong, lively rhythm, a catchy bassline, Jackson’s distinctive vocal delivery, and well-written lyrics that describe romantic intrigue and betrayal. 

The song’s music video, in which Jackson dances in his trademark style, contributed to his stature as a cultural icon.

6. “Now Is The Month of Maying” by The King’s Singers

In the 16th century, Thomas Morley wrote the secular ballad “Now is the Month of Maying.” 

The song is a classic example of a madrigal, a type of secular vocal music that was quite common in the Renaissance in Europe.

The English acappella group included this song on their 1971 album Madrigal History Tour. 

The group’s performance demonstrates their excellent vocal talent with its complex harmonies and fun vocal runs.

The song “Now is the Month of Maying” features lyrics like “Each with his bonny lass/ Upon the greeny grass” and “Fa la la la la la la” that celebrate springtime and courtship. 

The bright and vivacious melody of the song admirably encapsulates the joyous atmosphere of May Day celebrations in Renaissance England.

“Now is the Month of Maying” by The King’s Singers has established itself as a beloved classic and has found a home in the repertoires of numerous choral ensembles all over the world. 

Its continuing appeal is proof of both the beauty of masterfully produced vocal harmonies and the timeless allure of Renaissance music.

7. “I Will Always Love You” by Whitney Houston

Dolly Parton, a pioneer of country music, wrote and released the secular song “I Will Always Love You” in 1974.

But the song’s rendition made its mark on history as one of the best-selling singles of all time thanks to Whitney Houston. 

The song was released as a part of the soundtrack for “The Bodyguard”, a 1992 movie starring Whitney Houston.

This power ballad in which Houston displays her vocal range and emotional delivery.

It has soaring lyrics and a strong chorus that develops to a dramatic conclusion. 

The song’s lyrics, which describe a love that persists despite the distance, have struck a chord with listeners for many years.

American singer and actress Whitney Houston became well-known in the 1980s because of singles such as “Saving All My Love for You” and “How Will I Know”. 

She was one of the most popular music artists of her time, selling over 200 million albums worldwide. 

Houston’s tremendous voice and dramatic stage presence made her a renowned figure in the music business. 

She nonetheless struggled with personal issues throughout her career and unfortunately died in 2012 at the age of 48.

8. “Largo Al Factotum” by Peter Mattei

The aria “Largo al Factotum” comes from the 1816 premiere of Gioachino Rossini’s opera “The Barber of Seville”. 

The song is a lively and humorous tune in which the main character Figaro, a barber, brags about his abilities and popularity with women. 

The words are in Italian, and the song has become a popular and iconic piece of secular music.

Peter Mattei, a Swedish baritone opera singer, has sung “Largo al Factotum” in several international performances of “The Barber of Seville”.

He has won appreciation from the critics for his performances as well as for his strong and passionate voice.

Additionally, Mattei has appeared in notable operas like Verdi’s “Rigoletto” and Mozart’s “Don Giovanni”. 

What Is Secular Music? – Final Thoughts

Secular music has mirrored the ideals, beliefs, and experiences of individuals across numerous cultures and historical times, from its beginnings in ancient Greece through its metamorphosis during the Renaissance to its birth as a unique genre in the 20th century.

Since secular music has become more universal, people from all over the world can now connect and enjoy one another’s musical tastes.

The importance of secular music in contemporary society is demonstrated by its impact on popular music, movies, and other media.

The eight examples of secular music included in this article are some of the genre’s most well-known and important songs, displaying the special traits and attributes that have distinguished them in the music industry. 

Each song’s study highlights the various components that contribute to its value and influence on music and culture. 

You may also like: What Is R&B Music?

Will Fenton

Will, the founder of MIDDER, is a multifaceted individual with a deep passion for music and personal finance. As a self-proclaimed music and personal finance geek, he has a keen eye for futuristic technologies, especially those that empower creators and the public.

view profile

Best Janis Joplin Songs
Previous Story

14 Best Janis Joplin Songs of All Time (Greatest Hits)

what is r&b music
Next Story

What Is R&B Music? 8 Best Examples & History

Latest from Music Industry