Dear Catholic Hymnal: Music Not Written in the '60s Is Still Good

I’ll get to the point, then an explanation.

What is up with music at Catholic Mass? Are they allowed to use an instrument other than an acoustic guitar? Are they allowed to use songs that don’t sound like they were written between 1965 and 1975?

I’m not Catholic yet. I’ve been a Protestant my entire life, but I have attended Catholic Mass for a while now. I’ve been to several different Catholic churches from NY to NC. I was born in '71 so I’m not a kid, but I also have no recollection of when this style of music was popular.

I’m not a big fan of hymns anyway, but for a 2,000 year old Church, Catholic hymns seem to be stuck in a particular 20th century decade. I feel like I should be wearing a tie-dye, using the word “man” heavily, and avoiding the brown acid.

I’m sure the answer will have something to do with Vatican II and suggesting I find a Latin Mass (not an option). But I would tremendously prefer Gregorian Chant to what I’ve heard so far.

I find many aspects of Catholicism appealing, but the music used during the typical American Sunday Mass is not one of them.

Please don’t turn this thread into yet another debate over styles of music. Keep in mind the OP"s concerns and address them alone. Thank you all. :slight_smile:

Hi OP,

In my area, the music in each parish is a bit different, and sometimes the music ranges in the same parish from one Mass time to another. Perhaps there is a Mass in your area with more traditional liturgical music. Your music director or your pastor may be able to help with this, or failing that, the diocesan offices. Also, let them know your feelings, they may be amenable to more traditional music themselves. They need to know what their flock is thinking!

The choice of music has many factors in Catholic parishes. It depends on what the pastor wishes. Is he is particular about it or does he leave it to the music people?–directors, players, cantors, choirs, etc.

Many people are heavily influenced by the idea that lively music will bring in people, ala “Sister Act.” While the movie was entertaining, the reality is most people simply don’t care about what music is sung/played at Mass. Some don’t mind if it’s not to their liking–some of these simply overlook it, while others “offer up” their dislike as a penance :). Others have no preferences. If you have a preference you are free to express it–in charity, of course.

A good many parishes started using songs from the “new” writers back in the 60’s and 70’s and seem to be stuck there. Like Havard suggested you may wish to talk to the pastor of your local parish about it to express you delight in good, solid hymns. He may not have given it much thought with all the other things he has on his plate.

Bishop Alexander Sample is an expert in liturgical music. Hopefully, OP, you will find some consolation in this article and also the fact that most of us suffer at one time or another with banal and inappropriate music at Mass.

Bishop finds sacred music essential for liturgy

…sacred music is not a subjective matter of taste, but that it is defined by “objective principles.”

… “universality” means that sacred music, while it can reflect a particular culture, must “still be easily recognized as having a sacred character” and be able to transcend cultures.

That “one rarely if ever hears Gregorian chant” in the liturgy is “a situation which must be rectified,” said the bishop.

Amen! I think when they moved the musical accompaniment to the Mass out from behind the scenes, so to speak, got rid of most chants, added a bunch of instruments, and lodged it up front near the altar then the music became spectacle not support. After that it became a competition to grab the attention of audience and to entertain. It is supposed to be an euphonic form of worship which praises God, compliments the liturgy and lifts the spirits, not a jamboree. However, I probably don´t represent most people, since I consider anything post-1600 as iffy :wink:

I forgot to add that , since the musical element has evolved into a source of entertainment the majority of music directors try to keep the attention of the majority of their audience. And, since most parishes have a lot of parishioners who are in the 50-75 age range the music usually played is the music that was their new Mass music when they were young.
Coincidentally, this also was a period when good catechesis was sorely needed,but not received, so the role of music within the Mass was not taught properly. IMO

In my experiences “guitar” masses seem to be fading into the past. While the music choices at mass are still largely drawn from the 60’s-80’s, I like to think that more traditional music and chants are beginning to make a comeback. This is due, I think, to the fact that the reforms of Vatican II are at last being realized in the manner that many of the Council Fathers intended.

So, I would say that things are only going to get better as Catholics rediscover the wonderful treasury of sacred music the sons and daughters of the Church have composed over the centuries.


I’ve only heard piano or organ so far in the parish where I attend Mass. I have noticed, though, that not a single one of the songs in the Missal are familiar to me from my years attending Protestant services. I like the music quite a bit, but the songs definitely don’t have an “old, traditional” feel to them. (IOW, not an “Old Rugged Cross” in the bunch. :wink: )

Piano/organ with sometimes a cello accompaniment at my Church during the bigger celebrations. We have a music director well versed in the history of the Catholic church, and she has combined sacred works from the entire catalog of Catholic hymns and music… key word on “sacred” works. While we don’t have Gregorian chant, we are getting closer to reintroducing some more Latin into the Liturgy, and more “chant-like” settings.

S L O W L Y this seems to be changing within our Archdiocese… but seems to be the case.

I am thinking there is probably a diamond in the rough near you, within a 30 mile radius. If you can travel, and are willing to, you will most likely find what you are looking for… or at least close to it. I pass by two Parishes on my way to my current Parish. Otherwise, let the nearby Parish know your thoughts. Let a few people know. Talking/dialogue on the subject is a good thing. Let people in charge know what speaks to you, coming from a Protestant religion to the Catholic Church.

The beautiful and good music of the 60’s and 80’s will last and the awful music will fade away and be forgotten. This is the history of beauty. In any given period of time a great deal of music is written. I imagine that there was terrible music written a hundred years ago, horrible music written 500 years ago and so on. The terrible music is forgotten and the beautiful remains.

This is why traditional music sounds beautiful to us. It is the best music of that period of time. There is some music written in the last 50 years that will last forever just as the best music of ancient times has remained and will remain forever.

It’s my opinion that many of you are assuming esoteric and deeply spiritual reasons behind the dearth of keyboardists, but in reality, the reason is very practical.

I would bet a whole dollar that the reason the OP never hears the piano or organ in the Mass is because there is no one who is able (or willing) to play the piano or organ in the Mass.

And even if there were pianists or organists who were able and willing to play for the Mass, they might feel uncomfortable doing so for free or cheap. Musicians tend to hang together.

Although I make my living working in a hospital (lab tech), I am an excellent pianist, and I’m coming along well with my organ lessons (I can play hymns now!), and I do not charge to play at my parish. But I expect to be paid to play at parishes other than mine. I will choose to donate my services if I know that there is true need/low funds in that parish. Otherwise, I don’t play for free because my fellow musicians can’t play for free or they would starve. It’s not seemly for me to undercut them.

I’m very serious about this, folks. Not too many children are taking up the piano/organ nowadays. I just talked to a college today, and learned that for the first time in many years, they finally have ONE organ major! They are thrilled. Many colleges have no organ majors.

It’s a ton of work to learn to play the piano (or organ), and many kids just don’t have the gumption (or the stern parents) to stick with it and do the tedious hours of practice. This isn’t the 1950s and 1960s. There’s a lot of cool stuff for kids to spend time doing; e.g., video games, cable tv, iPods, surfing the web, social media–all much quieter for the rest of the family than listening to a little one banging on a piano, and much easier for parents than trying persuade that little one to pleeeease practice!

So OP, if you want to hear organ or piano in your parish, volunteer to donate the money to pay them. :slight_smile: And if no one steps up, try to persuade some children to start taking lessons. Godspeed. You’ll need it.

Another thing is that often Catholic parishes are often somewhat underfunded compared to many Protestant churches. So if you were a trained organist, where would you go play? A Catholic parish where you make a pittance (or nothing), or a church that follows the American Guild of Organists pay scale? (starting at 50k a year for a full-time organist with a Bachelor’s degree).

You’re right.

However, in all fairness, I do think that the AGO expectations are a little unrealistic. New medical technologists in our hospital lab (Bachelor’s Degree) who work with the constant danger of a needlestick (HIV, hepatitis, etc.) and who daily save lives don’t start at that salary!

Also, a church organist should have the opportunity to teach piano and organ, which can help them make up for a lower salary. This means, of course, that he or she must have access to the church organ at times when students are available for lessons.

But as I said earlier, people aren’t lining up their children to take piano and organ lessons nowadays. So it’s no wonder AGO would like to see the organists make more money from salary rather than from lessons that may never materialize.

I hope these answers are helping the OP to understand. I am very curious to know if the OP has knowledge of organists and pianists in the parish who are not allowed to play because of the guitarists, which would indeed be quite upsetting, or if I am correct and there truly aren’t any organists and pianists in the parish who are able and willing to play.

That explains that much at least, but it doesn’t explain the disregard for the Church’s entirely-non-instrumental musical patrimony, i.e., chant and polyphony. Anyone can do them, and chant especially is not terribly difficult to learn.

It’s not disregard, it’s ignorance due to the deplorable state of music education in the United States over the last 40 years or so in the public, private, and even the homeschools.

Due to the push to get our U.S. schoolchildren up to par with other nations in science and math (which we have also failed to do for several reasons, mainly breakdown of the family that would hold children accountable for what they learn in school and how they behave in school), music and other arts have been cut drastically and even eliminated in some school districts.

In spite of the studies demonstrating a strong correlation between musical training and math comprehension, many schools districts have cut music classes to once a week.

Misguided groups have also brought about the demise of traditional music training in many schools, where it has been replaced with more “relevant” music classes such as hip-hop. Protests against “white Eurocentric Christian-based” music have ended any attempt in many schools to teach reading music through any method, including the time-honored solfege method and also the technique of “head voice,” and replaced it with listening to and singing along with CDs of currently-popular pop musicians.

I attended a meeting of the “State of the Arts” in our city’s public schools a few years ago, and I was appalled when the Superintendent expressed great pride in our district’s Hip Hop classes in the elementary schools!

Many schools have cut out band and orchestra as well, again in the misguided effort to vamp up achievements in math and science. This effort has obviously failed.

In other words, sw85, most Americans under the age of 50 have never been taught how to sing, let alone read music.

Please understand that this means that they DO NOT grasp the concept that marks on a sheet of paper indicate pitches. This means that they are not capable of reading neumes for chant, let alone notes for a polyphonic piece.

But how about singing “by ear?” It won’t happen. Many Americans have not developed the ability to listen to a line of music and sing it back again; they are utterly incapable of matching pitches. I work with many choirs, including children’s choirs, and the directors are shocked by how many of the children cannot sing back a simple melody line. Adults are even worse. They cannot hear the pitches and match them in their brain and in their voices.

Of course you understand that this means that even if a good musician plays or sings a line of chant, the majority of people will NOT be able to sing it back.

If people are “forced” to sing chant in their parishes, many of them will not sing at all because they can’t. The older people will sing, but many of them have quavering voices (because of the natural effects of aging), and this will make the chant sound unappealing to the younger people in the congregation, and will result in even more dislike of chant.

As for polyphonic music, it simply cannot happen. If people cannot sing back a simple line of music in unison, they are utterly incapable of singing back a part of a polyphonic arrangement in chorus with several DIFFERENT parts of the piece!

No, the only way to sing polyphony is to be able to read music. A few people are gifted to be able to learn complex music parts and remember them, but this ability is very very rare! I’ve seen it ONCE in my lifetime (I’m 57).

Again, some church choirs are doing polyphonic pieces, but look at the average age of these choirs.

Furthermore, most Americans know nothing about music history or music appreciation, and many have grown up with a disdain or even a hatred of any kind of music that is not popular music because they have never been taught by good teachers to understand or appreciate a variety of music.

This means that chant and polyphony are completely unknown by most Americans other than in pop and concert settings, and many of us do not see these musical styles as “religious” because we’ve never heard them in religious settings.

I think this will be the hardest obstacle to overcome. I have been Catholic now for 10 years, and I’ve honestly tried very hard, mainly because of the posters on CAF, to try to appreciate Gregorian chant and sacred polyphony in a Mass setting. It’s hard. I grew up with it in movies, concert halls, and even on the radio (several decades ago, a group of monks produced a CD of chant that became a Top Forty bestseller), and to me, this music is not worship music, it’s “performance” music. I certainly respect Holy Mother Church, and if She says that Gregorian chant and polyphony are good, then I will obey. But I am having a very difficult time changing my “feelings”.

I’m sure there are plenty of others who feel the same way about music that some older people still call, “Long hair music.”

I hope this post helps you to understand why you don’t hear chant and polyphony in Mass very often. Maybe in the cities with thriving universities with good music programs, but in most cities and towns in the America, the people have never been taught “music”. It’s ignorance, not disregard. You should pity them, not be angry with them.

And if you have a good idea for improving the situation, go for it! From what I’ve seen on CAF, most Catholics are upset with the music in Mass, but back away from any attempt at making changes. What I say to this is, if you can’t or won’t do anything about it, learn to live with it and appreciate what you have. Bitterness and resentment will not help the situation or help your soul. :slight_smile:

The interesting thing with the ubiquitous guitar and drum kit music is, the people who champion it are old (myself included) and think the music of the 70’s is miraculously appealing to our youth. They believe that the music they grew up with 35 years ago is the mellow, inclusive, approachable music that is going to save and energize the Church.

Well, have a cup of coffee and take a look around, young people are not listening to our brand of 70’s soft rock. It is as old and tired to them as How Great Thou Art, and even less energetic. How can it be that our 70’s music will inspire people 30-40 years younger? Does that make any sense? We guitar-toting hippies have become every bit as traditional as those scary folks who like pipe organ and chant.

If we can’t have pipe organ and piano cause it’s just to scary for 50 and older sensibilities, we would be better off just having choirs do chant, in English, rather than tapping away on the drums and guitars. We must start conveying something of the power and sacredness of Christianity, because we are losing another generation of young people with our “nice” music. The Christian life is not always nice and comfortable, yet our music has all the spiritual intensity of a soft warm blanket. bleeeeccchhh. Christianity is supposed to be countercultural., yet we are bending the liturgy to reflect what’s worst in our modern age (at least in the US)…a soft comfy complacency.

As far as teaching people to sing, I understand what Cat is saying about young people being illiterate in music.
But I do not think it is as difficult as it seems to teach someone to learn pitch. I’ve seen it happen many times in our own choir. Reading ability is a big help, but imitating pitch is something almost anyone can do.
What our director does for a newbie is reverse the process. He will ask the person to sing a pitch and the director will give it back on the piano or with his voice. That seems to unlock the door to mimicking pitch.

I think the larger problem with young people joining choirs is, young people just don’t join much of anything period. The community service culture has died, and you see it in clubs like Rotary and K of C and Kiwanis, and the Catholic Church. We have a culture that is entitled to be entertained, rather than joining to serve.

I agree, teaching pitch and other musical skills is a snap.

But how do you get people to come to choir? Children, teenagers, adults–they don’t come.

Now if they were PAID…

There was an article in the AGO magazine about the un-paid choirs recently. Apparently “volunteer” choirs are a fairly modern innovation. So maybe we should budget in our parishes to PAY choir members of all ages. Children could receive credit towards their Catholic school tuition.


Frankly, I’ll bet they still wouldn’t come.

Sound easy does it? Well, well, well.

In general, I agree with you about the deplorable state of music education among our population. However, necessity is the mother of invention and practice improves the situation. In the Ruthenian Church, we have a strong tradition of congregational singing/chant, without instrumental accompaniment. For the most part, we all sing, even those who “can’t” (myself included). We are a very small parish, we maybe 40 adults/teens and 30 younger children in attendance most Sundays. Most adults are under 50. Many parish choirs are bigger than that! We recently lost our cantor. so for nearly a month we’ve had to go it alone, without the crutch that the leadership of a cantor provides. During the changeable parts of the liturgy, our priest sometimes has to carry us, but for the more familiar parts, we sing. Sometimes it is weak, if we don’t know the prescribed tone well. We struggled this past week with all of the changes due to the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, but we still sang. I suspect we’ll get stronger and better as a congregation now that we don’t have the cantor to lean on. We don’t have a choice. Our liturgy requires it, therefore it happens. Sometimes, I’m the only person in the congregation during a weekday liturgy. I sing, even though I “can’t”. (By can’t, I mean I don’t have the skills and confidence to stay on key if I sing in a strong voice. If I keep it soft, I can usually hit the notes, but I’ve been known to change keys several times in the same song, mostly because I try to match those around me.) It is possible. I don’t know if it practical, as it requires a cultural shift. Let’s face it, America Catholics in general are not known for congregational singing. There’s even been a whole book written about it. :slight_smile:

An example of Ruthenian chant:

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