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How William Byrd’s ‘Reasons… to Sing’ are inspiring young singers today

Updated: Sep 18, 2023


In 1588 as England faced the Spanish Armada Tudor composer William Byrd was fighting his own artistic battle: to persuade a country in which the value of music was increasingly questioned and challenged of the benefit of learning to sing. Many of Byrd’s reasons to sing still resonate today and form the inspiration for our schools’ project celebrating the 400th anniversary of his death.

In the aftermath of the English Reformation, polemicists waged moral battles against what they saw as societal vices. In 1583, for example, Philip Stubbes, warned his readers that:


If you would have your daughter whorish, bawdy, and unclean, and a filthy speaker, and such like, bring her up in music and dancing, and my life for yours, you have won the goal.

Others sprung to music’s defence including the anonymous essay In Praise of Music (1586) and John Case’s Latin Apology for Music (1588). Both used classical and biblical stories of music’s powers and the opinions of revered ancient Greek philosophers to defend music’s value to individuals and society.


In the midst of such moral and philosophical debates, William Byrd made a more practical contribution to the discussion by publishing his first collection of English songs for singing together in the home. Psalms, Sonnets and Songs of Sadness and Piety (1588) was one of the first printed collections for recreational singing in England. William Byrd described its contents as ‘music of sundry sorts’ (or various moods) providing psalms for prayer, musical sonnets for being merry, or songs of sadness and piety for lamenting one’s sins.


Byrd also prefaced the collection by setting out his own case for music, his ‘Reasons briefly set down … to persuade every one to learn to sing’:

Image of Byrd's Reasons to Sing from 1588 print.
William Byrd, Psalms, Sonnets and Songs of Sadness and Piety (London, 1588), The Huntington Library, San Marino, California.

Firstly – and surely drawing on his own experiences of music teaching – Byrd argues that singing is ‘easily taught and quickly learnt’. This was an important point to make. Professional singers, including Byrd himself, would spend years in training to reach the highest echelons of the art. Those with other professions, political offices, or estates and households to run needed to be assured that they could expect to become sufficiently proficient to be able to sing with ease and for pleasure without such training.


Byrd’s view of singing is inclusive: he wants everyone to learn to sing. While he also acknowledges that some singers will be especially talented, ‘where nature hath bestowed the benefit of a good voice’, such individual cans only be identified and trained to use their gift if all are given the opportunity to learn in the first place.


Secondly, Byrd stresses the health benefits of singing, describing the art as ‘delightful to Nature, and food to preserve the health of Man’. In Byrd’s time, good health was the natural balance of four bodily humours (blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile). Imbalances of the humours affected both the physical workings of the body and a person’s moods and behaviours. Music was recognised as a means of balancing these humours and thereby regulating physical and mental health.


Byrd also noted the ability of singing to ‘strengthen all parts of the breast and open the pipes’. This brought not only health benefits but also assisted with speech and oratory. He suggests singing as a remedy for stammering, but also as a way of acquiring perfect pronunciation and persuasive speech. Oratory, or the art of making persuasive speeches, had a central role in Tudor education and was especially crucial for those who would aspire to positions in law, local government, court, or parliament.


Byrd’s final reasons are perhaps more controversial. First he argues that song is better than music for instruments. Here Byrd reflects contemporary attitudes that music words was more powerful because the combination of text and music would appeal to both the mind and the senses to move the emotions. Nevertheless, Byrd did also compose significant amounts of wonderful music for keyboard and viol consort, so he surely saw value in instrumental music too.


Finally, for Byrd the chief end of music is ‘to honour and serve God’. The better one’s singing voice, the better one will be able to sing God’s praises. This chimes with Byrd’s own strong religious convictions which saw him simultaneously furnishing music for the royal court and its Protestant chapel, while providing illegal printed music for the clandestine liturgical celebrations of his fellow Catholics.


With a few possible exceptions, much of Byrd’s case for singing has stood the test of time. Still widely recognised today are the benefits of singing for mental health, lung health and speech disorders; the ability of music to support broader educational and personal development; and the inseparable connection between inclusive, recreational music-making open to all, alongside professional and high-level musical training.

Byrd practised what he preached: at the Chapel Royal he worked with the most distinguished English singers of his day, yet as a pioneer in music publishing, he also provided music to be sung at home by the growing numbers of recreational singers in Tudor England. As professional musicians in even the most esteemed church and political institutions simultaneously supporting learning and singing together in the home, the economy of music-making in early modern England meant that amateur and professional music making were symbiotic and inseparable.


It seemed apt therefore to mark the 400th anniversary of Byrd’s anniversary by continuing his mission. With generous funding from Arts Council England, the Stile Antico Foundation, and the Society for Renaissance Studies, a schools’ project led by Horizon Voices in collaboration with music researchers Katie Bank (University of Birmingham) and Katherine Butler (Northumbria University) will see year 8 pupils in schools in Birmingham, Leeds and the North East learning about Byrd’s life and music, and reflecting on the value of music and singing in their own lives. The project will culminate in local family concerts with Byrd’s songs performed by leading early music ensemble, Stile Antico, and the performance of a new commission by composer Kerry Andrew based on the text of Byrd’s reasons to sing, enabling the school children to sing alongside Stile Antico.


And so we continue Byrd’s mission for a new generation:


Since singing is so good a thing,

We wish all people would learn to sing.

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