Thursday, July 8, 2010

What Makes Good Church Music?

In my family we have three choir members, a pianist, some who have studied music history, a professional liturgist, a number of amateur liturgists, and a whole bunch of people who are just trying to pray during Mass. What that all boils down to is an ongoing discussion about church music. What is appropriate, what's bad, what instruments are welcome and which should be banned, what aides prayer and what distracts from it. What part does personal preference play in the discussion? Amateur musicians or professional? Organ or tambourine? Music we hear on Christian radio or music specifically set apart for liturgy?

This past week Fr. Longenecker has been posting thought-provoking essays on church music. If you're interested in this topic at all, please follow the links. I've only included a few snippets here; he presents a well-developed case.

In part one, he lists general criteria for choosing good hymns:
What people don't seem to realize is that there are actually some criteria for choosing good hymns. The fact that so many of the hymns in our Catholic hymnals are terrible musically, heterodox theologically, contain execrable poetry, maudlin sentiments and trashy pop psychology doesn't help. People need to learn that just because a hymn is published doesn't make it good. Furthermore, just because it's popular doesn't make it good.
In part two, Father explains the importance of the words in a hymn:
The reason a fully orthodox theology in hymns is so important is because so many Catholics receive little or no catechesis. The only place they are likely to confront Catholic theology is in the hymns they sing at Mass. If the hymns do not express Catholic eucharistic theology, if they emphasize the purely social justice ecclesiology, if they downplay orthodox doctrine and water down the faith by ignoring the supernatural elements, then we shouldn't be surprised when Catholics turn out to be so wishy washy and ignorant of their faith.
Part three examines the music - is it accessible to a congregation? Does it lift the heart?
Modern hymn writers, in an attempt to be relevant, and in ignorance of the sacred tradition write hymns in all sorts of contemporary styles. I have heard hymns sung during communion that sounded like love songs from Broadway musicals. I have heard hymns that sound like protest marching anthems, Elton John numbers, songs by Abba, sound tracks from musical comedies or just bland muzak. I've heard gospel blues harmonies, polka, country Western, jazz riffs and rhythm and blues numbers. I've heard psalms sung in a sultry nightclub style, an Ethel Merman broadway style and even some sacred songs crooned through a hand held microphone. None of these styles evoke the sacred. They are entertainment based and are the absolute nadir of contemporary Catholic worship.
Part four sums everything up and asks just what is suitable and should we have hymns at Mass at all? How can we meet most congregations where they are and move them closer to the ideal?
The setting and circumstances of the liturgy therefore matter. A small humble and down to earth parish should not attempt a cathedral standard organist and choir, but Gregorian chant based music will be suitable for both, one being adorned with finer aspects of classical music, while the other may be adorned with more simple music. All things should be done decently and in order and according to their proper status. Music at Mass should reflect the character and circumstances of the parish while at the same time aiming for the highest and holiest standards of beauty in worship.
And finally, Father links to a video (also below) which quotes lots of documents and points us toward many free online resources.

Can you tell the difference?? from Corpus Christi Watershed on Vimeo.

Update: Father Longenecker continues the conversation today by defining emotion vs. sentimentality.


aimee said...

THANK YOU SO MUCH for posting this! i don't know how many times i have told my parents that not all types of music are suitable for Mass... good to know that there are people out there insisting on true Sacred Music. THANK YOU!

p.s. please take a look at our Catholic young women's blog,

Ryan Murphy said...

Sing Like a Catholic by Jeffrey Tucker is an excellent book on this subject and is free online (

The bottom line is that (as Jeffrey says in his book) "we need some other benchmarks besides personal taste to guide us forward. This is why there is so much wisdom in the Church’s teaching that Gregorian chant should be the foundational song."

The music we should be doing at Mass is the ordinary (Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, and Agnus Dei) and the Gregorian chant propers. The propers are the Introit (done at the entrance procession), the Gradual (done after the first reading), the Alleluia (done after the second reading), the Offertory (done during the preparations for the liturgy of the eucharist), and the Communion (done during the reception of communion). The propers are to be sung by the schola only, there is no need for the congregation to sing them. The congregation can and should sing the ordinary.

The ordinary is always done at parishes, but almost all of them think it's ok to simply omit the propers and replace them with something less important (like a vernacular hymn). It's crazy, really. As a friend of mine very wisely said: "there's something about chant that seems a lot more appropriate to Mass then regular music. People look at me weird when I say I think we should revert all back to chant, but it honestly seems, I dunno, DESIGNED for Mass almost."

He's right of course. Gregorian chant was written by anonymous monks and nuns throughout the church's history for a liturgical purpose. As the General Instruction on the Roman Missal states; “Gregorian chant holds pride of place because it is proper to the Roman Liturgy”. It's also simply the most sacred music ever written.

The return to beauty and sacrality at Mass is also one of the Church's greatest evangelization tools:

"The beauty of sacred music held me spellbound at my first ever experience of the Eucharist... The sublime music of the Mass undoubtedly assured me of God's presence; the Gregorian chants elevated my spirits, creating in me a sense of awe for the Sacred. I was instinctively drawn by the aesthetic beauty of the Eucharist and this experience filled my heart with immense joy."
--Gaurav Shroff, convert from Hinduism

This is a beautiful quote, but how often could this happen now in this country?

Ancilla Indigna said...

This was an excellent video. If music doesn't have a sense of the sacred, beautiful and religious it should not be used in the church. I loved that quote from Pope John Paul II. I have found that even music that is polyphonic and can be used in the sacred setting of the Mass, if it is performed in a spirit of vanity, barring from it a spirit of reverence and beauty, such as a pious song sung irreverently and even militaristically, it is very spiritually disruptive. Perhaps some are more sensitive to this than others, but I think this is a good example of how we must worship BOTH in spirit and in truth.