A musical setting of the Cruxifixion story as recorded in the Gospels.

At an early date special lesson tones were developed for reciting the Passion. From the 13th century it became usual to divide them among three singers and in the 15th century the practice began of setting polyphonically some or all of the turba sections (passages of speech by groups or individuals, except Christ), resulting in the responsorial Passion (also known as the 'choral' or 'dramatic' Passion). The earliest extant examples, of English origin, date from circa 1440; the most famous 15th-century example is by Richard Davy (circa 1490). The responsorial Passion is widespread in 16th-century Italy, often with the words of Christ in the polyphonic sections (e.g. in the settings of Asola and Soriano); outside Italy the responsorial type is represented by the Passions of Lassus, Victoria and Guerrero. In the through-composed (or 'motet') Passion the complete text, including the narration (Evangelist), was set polyphonically. Examples include the St. Matthew Passion of Nasco and the St. John Passions of Rore and Ruffo; settings based on all four Gospels were composed by Longeuval, Handl and Regnart.

In Lutheran Germany both types are found. There are responsorial Passions by Luther's friend Johannes Walter, with simple homophony in the polyphonic sections. Scandello's St. John Passion (before 1561) was the first in German to include Christ's words: only the narrative was monophonic. There are settings based on all four Gospels and also through-composed works based on single Gospels with shortened Latin text, such as the Passions of Resinarius (1543) and Daser (1578). Lechner's St. John Passion (1594) is representative of the German 16th-century Passion. Others are based on the German Passion by Joachim a Burck, an abridged version of St. John's Gospel, which abandons the old Passion tone; among these, Machold's St. Matthew Passion begins the tradition of inserting hymn verses into the Passion.

The most vital development of the Passion in the 17th and 18th centuries was in Lutheran Germany, where both types were followed though the strongest tradition in the early 17th century was based on Walter. The composer remained responsible only for the polyphonic sections, the traditional recitation tone being used for the narrative; but Schütz in his three Dresden Passions (circa 1665) created his own highly expressive recitations.

About 1650, north German composers began to insert sinfonias, new madrigalian verse and hymns into their settings. The earliest of these 'oratorio Passions' were those by Selle, which included continuo and other instruments. Other composers of this type include Theile, who replaced the recitation tone with recitative.

In the 18th century there were basically four types. The old type without instruments was largely ignored. The oratorio Passion, closer to Lutheran devotional requirements, is the commonest in the first third of the century; the genre reached its height in Bach's St. John Passion (1724) and the St. Matthew Passion (1727 or 1729). The Passion oratorio, usually without narrator and with a poetic text, belongs to the Oratorio. Fourthly, the lyrical Passion meditation is represented in Italy and elsewhere by Metastasio's La Passione di Gesù Cristo (set by Caldara, Jommelli, Paisiello and others) and in Germany by C.H. Graun's Der Tod Jesu. Classification of the 18th-century Passion is, however, made difficult by hybrid works (such as Telemann's St. Luke Passion, 1728) and 18th-century parody and pasticcio practices.

Works of the 19th and 20th centuries dealing with the Passion belong mainly to the oratorio and to the concert hall rather than the church. Exceptions include Hugo Distler's Choral passion (1933) and Eberhard Wenzel's liturgical Passion of 1968.