Nigerian Church Music: Reform

By Segun Akinfenwa

Unlike the early years of worship in the Church of Nigeria, where each music setting – Canticles, Psalms, Chants, Hymns, Versicles and Responses – has a different part, the present day way of worship is not so. My experience playing in the Anglican church in the Nigerian city of Ibadan summed up the problem. I was teaching our choir the canticle, psalm and chant in preparation for a visit to the Diocesan Bishop for annual anniversary. One of my choristers approached me and asked, “Why must we sing this ‘ORIN ARO’ on a day like this” ORIN ARO – Yoruba language meaning “Mourning song”.


A Canticle (from the Latin Canticulum) is a hymn-psalm or other song of praise. In the Church of England, morning and evening prayers according to the Book of Common Prayer were extensively used in Canticles.

At the Morning Prayer

  • Venite (Psalm 95)
  • Te Deum (not biblical) or Benedicite (Daniel 3 :57 -88 on the Aporcypha)
  • Benedictus (Luke 1 : 68 – 79) or Jubilate Deo (Psalm 100)

At evening prayer

  • Magnificat (Luke 1: 46 – 55) or Cantate Domino (Psalm 98)
  • Nunc Dimittis (Luke2 : 29 – 32) or Deus Misereatur (Psalm 67)


Chant (from French Chanter) is the rhythmic speaking or singing of words or sounds often on one or two pitches called reciting tones. Chants can range from a simple melody involving a limited set of notes to highly complex musical structures. These often include a great deal repetition of musical sub-phrases, such as great Responsories and Offertories of Gregorian chant.


In early Temple worship, the psalms occupied a central place in temple liturgy. For example: there is an appropriate psalm for each day of the week. Day 1 (Ps. 24), Day 2 (Ps.48), Day 3 (Ps. 82), Day 4 (Ps. 93), Day 5 (Ps. 81), Day 6 (Ps. 93) and on Sabbath.

The book of all 150 psalms was compiled over a long period of time, and its present form was well established after the exile and the rebuilding of the Temple. In the early church, chanting of Psalms remained central to worship.

The 16th Century Reformation

The 16th century reformation in England brought sweeping changes into the form of worship in the church. The principal of which was the compression of daily worship into services. Mattins and Evensong.

Mattins was based on the Roman Mattins of Salisbury Cathedral – the Sarum rite. Its canticles were VENITE (Ps. 95), the Te Deum, the Benedictus – Zechriah’s song found in Luke’s gospel chapter 1, sometimes the Quicumque vult (The Athanasian creed), which was a part of prime, Jubilate Deo (Ps. 100), Benedicib Omnia Opera.

The evening song canticles were the Magnificat, the Nunc Dimittis (The song of Simeon in Luke’s Gospel chapter 2).

John Merbecke in 1550 published his book of common prayer, noted and provided simple music for the ordinary texts for communion, and for the Versicles and Responses, psalms, canticles and prayers of Mattins and Evensong.

From the 150 psalms of David, various chants have been composed by several composers throughout the ages. These chants reflect the moods and themes of the psalms. There are:

Psalm of exultation – Ps 8

Psalms of thanksgiving – Ps 9, 136

Psalm of adoration – Ps 19

Psalm of penitence – Ps 51

Psalm of deliverance – Ps 20

Psalms of praise – Ps 148 and 150

There is no situation in life that does not have a corresponding psalm.

In the Book of Common Prayer, there is a psalm for each day, Mattins and Evensong, and for each psalm day, there are appropriate chants. Very many composers have worked tirelessly through the ages.

For example: F.A.G. Ouseley, George A. Macfarren, Edward J. Hopkins, Joseph Sarnby, T.A. Walmisley, James Ture, g. J. Elvey, C.V. Stanford, John Foster, George Thalben-Ball, Henry Purcell, John Wesley, S.S. Wesley, S. Mathews, J.J. Ransome-Kuti, T.K.E Philips, Fela Sowande, Ayo Bankole and Olaolu Omideyi can be included in this list.

Influence of Psalms, Chant and Canticles in early church worship in Nigeria

The influence of psalms, Chant and canticles for early churches for worshipping was so great that any service (Mattins, evensong e.t.c) without chants and canticles was not considered complete. At first, the chants and canticles were usually performed in English language; this is because most of the services were conducted mainly in English, but the emergence of the “Doyen of Nigerian music” T. K. E. Phillips, was very instrumental in worships across the Yoruba nation.

Phillips wrote several chants in four part polyphony to sing various psalms of David in Yoruba language. Some psalms are chanted, while others are set as choral anthems for the choir only, to sing. The combination of these, no doubt brings God’s glory

Emergence of Contemporary Churches

The emergence of contemporary churches has greatly influenced the way of worship in Anglican Communion and other orthodox churches in Nigeria. The dwindling nature of musically inclined priest (This is a topic for another day) in the church of Nigeria has also impacted negatively.

Chants and Canticles are now being replaced with short choruses, ideally, Chant cannot play the role of the hymn, and choruses cannot replace the spiritual role of canticles and psalms in sacred worship.

All of this music plays a different role in the worship, but this understanding is getting lost gradually, and what is alarming now is that the “Contemporary churches” are embracing the idea of chanting during sacred worship.

Now is the time to go back to the days when Psalms, chants and Canticles were much part of worship in the service for glorifying God.