Do objective musical elements (rhythm, meter, harmony, etc.) cause one hymn/song to be more suitable for Mass than another?

I started another similar thread yesterday, but as Cat graciously pointed out, it was worded in such a fashion that only music directors could respond. Hopefully this one is more inclusive. In your personal opinions, what objective elements in Catholic church
music should affect the choices used at Mass? Please be as charitable as possible
when using descriptions. In this particular thread, I’m referring mainly to the hymns/songs
and not to Mass parts , and am trying to restrict it to musical aspects. I think that characteristics of texts could be addressed in a separate thread.

By hymns/songs, then you are referring to what would be considered the “propers” in Gregorian chant, and in Gregorian chant these parts would be the proper antiphons of the Mass: introit, gradual, alleluia, offertory and communion.

The things that make Gregorian chant particularly suited to the Mass are:

  1. Almost every word is biblical (Bible verses, psalm verses);
  2. The music is meant to draw attention to the Word, the words are not made to fit the music/melody, but the melody is made to enhance the Word of God;
  3. The voices blend into one voice, so that no one voice dominates: humility, instead of a “superstar”;
  4. It gives a sense of the transcendence of God, and the introit in particular, severs to draw us out of the profane world, into the sacred realm of God;
  5. It is the ancient (circa 8th-11th century) and traditional form of music in the Church;
  6. There are no theological issues with it.

I don’t necessarily think that other forms of music are inappropriate at Mass, but I do think that if modern composers tried to adhere to at least the first 4 points, we’d have fewer issues with theologically questionable hymns and better music.

This is for the Mass. In the Divine Office, the hymns aren’t biblical, they are instead theological.

Thank you! That was very enlightening. Number 4 made me think about entrance hymns,
and how the musical elements can aid us in making the transition from our secular environment into a sacred one.

Personally, I thinks that songs with a quick triple meter (3/4) or a fast compound meter
(such as 6/8 or 6/4) blur the distinction between the sacred liturgy that is about to commence and the secular world that we just stepped out of. (I’m speaking of ones that
are generally taken at a quick tempo and have a sort of swinginess to them). To me,
they do not indicate that we are now on holy ground.

These metric/tempo qualities seem to be “unfitting” in other areas of the Mass as well.
The Liturgy is described as being “Solemn”. This does not mean that we cannot be filled with joy, and express this in our music, but I think it does affect compositional styles a great deal. In my opinion, avoiding these pieces would, as Saint Pius X said, “maintain and promote the decorum of the House of God”.

Yes. For example we can compare versions of the Dies Irae (the sequence for Requiem Masses). This is the Chant. Mozart makes it more of a performance piece. Joe Green takes it further. Jenkins makes it a dance beat; Landa, a monster mash.

While Mozart and perhaps Verdi could be used in some cases (Monarch, Bishop, etc), generally other than the chant these variations are unsuitable for the liturgy.

Now, as to what elements that make something unsuitable:

  1. I would start with anything that distracts from the Liturgy. The overly dynamic nature of the performance pieces draws attention to the performers (as intended).
  2. As the music is the people’s part, music should be in a generally singable range. Many “contemporary” songs used in Church are not singable as written.
  3. The instrumentation (both choice of instruments and setting) should not be of a particularly secular style.

Gregorian chant is of course not metered. But it has both a melody and a “super melody” (Arsis-Thesis) that sets the tone of the piece depending on where the emphasis is, to enhance the sorrowful/joyful/supplicative/meditative nature of the piece.

And of course the nature of the piece needs to be taken into consideration by the choristers so they can set the mood correctly. We always read through the antiphon first, and then provide choristers with its translation so that we don’t sound too funereal at a joyful piece and vice versa!

Generally speaking, I think that meter changes within a hymn/song can cause totally unecessary problems with congregational participation. Some are worse than others in this respect. This is due to the fact that some people are singing it “as written” and others
are singing it as it should have been written! (With simplicity and clarity).
When I say meter changes, I mean that the basic repetitve ordering of the beats (say, ONE, two, three, ONE, two, three) is all of a sudden interrupted with a measure or more
of a different meter (ONE, two, ONE. two). This “trips up” part of the congregation.

It works for rehearsed choirs but is not so good for the average group of non-musicians.
Even if everyone “gets back together again” at some point, it’s an unecessary impediment
to singing as one.

Bit of thread drift here, but the Dies Irae is no longer used at Requiem Masses since after Vatican II.

It has been divided into three sections, and is used as the hymn at Vigils, Lauds and Vespers of the 34th week in Ordinary Time, with a doxology added after each section.

My thanks to snowlake for re-doing this thread and making it more accessible.

To CDNowak–I would respectfully argue that Gregorian chant IS quite distracting for people like me who grew up in a different church tradition (evangelical Protestant). I find myself watching/listening to the singer and analyzing his voice and delivery of the chant, especially whether he is singing it in a head voice vs. chest voice or through his nose ala country-western. Also, because there is no regular (Western-style) melody/cadence, I personally have a difficult time singing Gregorian chant without concentrating on my breathing, pitch, and intonation, and of course, trying to match myself to the other people who are singing. This is especially important since there is no accompaniment to drown out any “early entrances” otherwise known as “oops.” Finally, since it is in Latin, I have to keep my brain engaged to remember how to enunciate and of course, what the translation is. IMO, a simple, familiar hymn is easier to sing while concentrating on the dignity of Jesus Christ in the Blessed Sacrament and the Liturgy of the Mass.

Point 2 is a generalization. This morning at Mass, we sang one of the hymns to the melody of Be Thou My Vision–a very ancient hymn. This song is low at the beginning, but gradually builds up to a fairly high note, and the melody warbles all over the scale. I am not very good at singing the lower range in a head voice, so I tend to switch from chest voice at the beginning to head voice at the end. I don’t think this is an easy song to sing. I do think it is one of the most beautiful melodies in hymnody and I am glad that we sing it, even though it’s a challenge to those of us who aren’t naturally-gifted or trained singers.

A few years back, I did an analysis (random) in which I took ten oft-sung “contemporary” hymns and ten oft-sung “traditional” hymns out of the Gather book. As it turned out, note for note, the traditional hymns had more high notes (above high C) than the contemporary hymns. I think it would be interesting to do an analysis of the intervals in the different types of hymns; I’m guessing that the traditional pieces are just as likely as the contemporary hymns to include large interval jumps (6ths and 7ths).

As for the instruments and secularism, this depends on the background and ethnicity of the listener. IMO, an organ is just as secular as any other instrument (ballparks, skating rinks, theaters, and of course, rock bands). I realize that a pipe organ is different, but many Catholic churches do not have pipe organs due to the expense of upkeep. Since I grew up in a teetotaling family, I do not associate the piano with lounge music at all; to me, it is a “church” instrument that is also played on the concert stage.

I’m not voicing these arguments to try to prove that I’m right and you’re wrong. I’m only trying to point out that there are many points of view and all have a certain degree of legitimacy and value.

And I’m GLAD that I don’t have to select Mass music! I couldn’t take the pressure!

Thanks Cat.
To spark more discussion, here are some elements that everyone might want to
comment on, either one-at-a-time or in combinations:
rhythm, meter, harmony, melody, tempo, accompaniment style, instrumentation,
form (eg: strophic, "song form"w/ refrains, etc.),range, solo vs. ensemble, musical factors that affect the text (but not “text alone” please)…please add to these, I’m sure there are more than what I’ve just listed.

In Gregorian Chant there shouldn’t be a singer/soloist as such. There can be a cantor who intones the chant up to the star in the score, after that the schola or choir all join in, although in more recent times, the schola will often pick it up from the very start. Then at the psalm verse of the introit a soloist may intone the verse, but it’s a much simpler melody on one of the psalm tones. Alternately, the schola can do the verse together.

Also a well-trained schola will be able to sing properly from the diaphragm, not nasally. And when the voices blend properly, the individual defects are less noticeable.

For the ordinary parts, when just starting out I recommend Kyrie XVI and Sanctus/Angus XVIII, and Gloria VIII (de Angelis). They are very simple melodies and easy for the faithful to chant, though I don’t strictly speaking consider the Gloria of the Mass of the Angels to be “Gregorian chant”. But it is an easy melody to learn and has the benefit of being very well known.

My point was that even the classical pieces are highly disruptive to the continuity of the liturgy, while the chant piece preserves it. Had the sequence not been removed (yes, I was aware of the fact) I may have found a modern setting that would serve as a positive example.
The points with the difficulty of resurrecting chant are well taken. It would be nice if there were a tradition of English language chant (which, like Gregorian could be accompanied) that could meet both what the Church set as the standard and people where they are at. I definitely think there is a need to reestablish a distinct Catholic culture, building on the Roman forms.

I only said that it is a common problem with contemporary music. I don’t deny that it may be a larger problem (I can think of some chant settings that have issues there). It is an important consideration when selecting music, though, particularly for congregations that do not tend to have gifted or trained singers.

Not sure how the piano got that reputation, I associate with Chopin, myself. It is not totally a cultural issue, but I was far more general than you give me credit for;).

Sometimes the “soloist” treatment of certain songs tend to give a"performance" like
atmosphere to the Mass. Is anyone familiar with “Prepare Ye the Way”? I’d never heard this one before, but it was used for the entrance at Mass yesterday. A female singer
was accompanied by a rock band, and her verses were belted out in the style of Janis
Joplin. At certain points one of the electric guitarists would offer a few solo "metal style distortion"riffs. Objectively, that is what happened. My personal opinion is shaped by the
psychological shock it put me into.The transition from the secular world to the sacred was
not achieved.
Since I don’t see the score for some of these pieces, I don’t know if this is how they
were intended to be performed, or if the instrumentation and soloist aspects were
intentionally “added” by the musicians.

Not this Prepare Ye the Way!? :thumbsup:

Oy yoy yoy. No, it was another one by Michael W. Smith. They passed out sheets before Mass w/ the lyrics. Here are some of them:

Prepare ye the way,
Pepare ye the way of the Lord
Prepare ye the way,
Prepare ye the way of the Lord.

Yeshua You reign on high - You rein on high
Almighty God Your love is like no other

I think this is some of most sensible and practical commentary that I have seen on these forums. The last sentence is especially good.

I believe that many of the Catholics who lean toward traditional music underestimate the importance of the lack of tradition of chant in the English language, or more specifically,
in the United States. It has been nearly 50 years since Vatican II changed much of Catholic culture, and in this time, many people have forgotten. I talked to our parish’s music teacher, a young lady in her late 20s. She pointed out that she has never heard chant in the Mass and has no idea how it’s actually done.

And then you have many Catholics like me who are converts from Protestantism, specifically evangelical Protestantism. I know that there have always been converts to Catholicism from Protestantism, but up until Vatican II, much of Protestantism, even evangelicalism, looked a lot like Catholicism. There was an “Order of Service,” with specific events; e.g., a Prelude, an Opening Prayer, an Opening Hymn, a Pastoral Prayer, a sermon, etc.

But in the last 40 years, evangelicalism has become less and less structured; indeed, many evangelical pastors pride themselves on doing something different every week. And the music has become less and less traditional. I remember traditional hymns when I was a child and even during my teenaged years, but after 1975, basically much of the music that I knew as “church music” was Christian pop and rock. To ME, this music sounds reverent and worshipful because it’s what I grew up with.

So people like me have come into the Catholic church with little or no experience with liturgy, let alone liturgical music, and when we hear Gregorian chant, it’s like “WHOA, what’s that weird stuff?” It doesn’t sound like “coming home” to us, it sounds strange.

And that brings us back to CDNowak’s wonderful assessment–this is going to take a re-establishment of a distinct Catholic culture!

And that re-establishment MUST be done by people who are good musicians, who know how to sing correctly and how to teach others. As much as many of you want to see traditional music and chant–the “Catholic culture”–restored to the Church, wishing won’t make it happen! Neither will griping or complaining. Neither will criticizing people like me who actually love contemporary Christian music and know how to sing and play it.

What it will take is really good musicians and music teachers who KNOW how to re-train Catholics so that the “culture of Catholicism” can be re-established.

Aside from the fact that Michael W. Smith is not Catholic, the text is problematic because the Church does not refer to Jesus as “Yeshua”. It is not something that should be sung during the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, regardless of rhythm or meter.

My rule of thumb is this: if it sounds like something that I could listen to on the soft rock/pop station or some other secular medium, then, it’s not fitting for the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.

The communion/meditation song was “A New Hallelujah”, which again employed
specific instrumentation (electric guitars, drum trap set, etc.) with fast tempo and
extremely loud dynamics (due to amplification). These characteristics made it very
difficult to focus on communion and to pray.

To be more specific about which song this was, here are some of the words:
" Can you hear, there’s a new song/ Breaking out from the children of freedom/ every race and every nation/sing it out, sing a new Hallelujah." Then the refrain: “Arise - let the church arise/ let love reach to the other side/ alive come alive - let the song arise”

Thanks, BG. I have to say in all honesty that this would not even have fit on a soft rock/pop station. The musicians performed it in the style of hard rock, similar to the sound of J.Joplin or Jimmie Hendrix at Woodstock. I’m not being sarcastic, either.
It was very disturbing.

I was leading up to the hard-rock genre. The problem is that while a song may be religious, it’s not sacred. While all sacred music is religious, not all religious music is sacred.


I just looked up “Michael W. Smith, You Tube” and then typed in these titles next to his name that appeared at the top. I listened to/watched the performances and have to say that the elec guitar and drum aspects were no different in effect than the ones that I experienced at Mass yesterday. This might be hard for some of you to believe, but it is true. I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t been there myself.
Can you imagine trying to receive Holy Communion w/ this going on?

In contrast with the video, no one was singing (young or old) except those in the first few rows of pews. The “band” was up front to the left of the altar. I think the people up front were friends of the band members or relatives. It was extremely loud, but no one cared to join in anyway. Very interesting.

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