Instruments to be used at mass


Recently a friend told me that percussion instruments/guitars were not proper to liturgical music. I have read through several documents which say that the Organ is to be given preeminence, however I was wondering if anyone was aware of any authoritative documents from the Congregation for Divine Worship or someone else that specifically mentioned which instruments are not proper and should not be used in liturgical music.

Does anyone here besides myself like the contemporary music at mass

There are no instruments that are “banned” (though that might not be a bad idea).

John Calvin (one of the main inventors of protestantism) prohibited any musical instruments that were not specifically mentioned in the Bible. Interestingly, this would exclude the organ, but allow drums and guitars (well, lyres, anyway, which are stringed instruments).


While the rules have been relaxed, at least in practice, since documents like Tra le Sollecitudini (1903) and Musica Sacra (1958), I think we can still get an idea of the mind of the Church from these documents.

In 1903, Pope St. Pius X decreed that

The employment of the piano is forbidden in church, as is also that of noisy or frivolous instruments such as drums, cymbals, bells and the like.

It is strictly forbidden to have bands play in church…

I imagine the forbidding of piano was largely due to its association with secular music–though I acknowledge that in many places today it is allowed by the ordinary.

In 1958, the Sacred Congregation for Rites said that

Some musical instruments, such as the classic organ, are naturally appropriate for sacred music; others, such as string instruments which are played with a bow, are easily adapted to liturgical use. But there are some instruments which, by common estimation, are so associated with secular music that they are not at all adaptable for sacred use.

It does not, however, list them specifically as St. Pius did.

The most recent document I’m aware of is the one you alluded to, Sacrosanctum Concilium (1963) which, besides recommending the organ, says:

other instruments also may be admitted for use in divine worship … only on condition that the instruments are suitable, or can be made suitable, for sacred use, accord with the dignity of the temple, and truly contribute to the edification of the faithful.

Since it does not make list of forbidden instruments, there is a wide margin for interpretation; but I think it would be prudent to use at least the spirit of past documents in making such an interpretation.


Breaking (old) news: all instruments besides the organ are “banned” unless officially authorized by the local authority. Some instruments are just unfit and simply cannot be allowed into the liturgy. And yes, there are authoritative documents stating this.

Where common sense does not suffice (is it not revolting to have drums and an electric guitar let a cacophonic noise be heard where the angelic choirs sing their eternal Sanctus, taking the place that is proper of the Gregorian schola cantorum and the sacred organ?), the Instruction Musicam Sacram on music in the sacred liturgy (by the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments) and the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy Sacrosanctum Concilium solemnly promulgated by the Holy Father Paul VI, clearly state:

By sacred music is understood that which, being created for the celebration of divine worship, is endowed with a certain holy sincerity of form.

The following come under the title of sacred music here: Gregorian chant, sacred polyphony in its various forms both ancient and modern, sacred music for the organ and other approved instruments, and sacred popular music, be it liturgical or simply religious.

Other approved instruments. Let’s read some more:

In the Latin Church the pipe organ is to be held in high esteem, for it is the traditional musical instrument which adds a wonderful splendor to the Church’s ceremonies and powerfully lifts up man’s mind to God and to higher things.

But other instruments also may be admitted for use in divine worship, with the knowledge and consent of the competent territorial authority …] This may be done, however, only on condition that the instruments are suitable, or can be made suitable, for sacred use, accord with the dignity of the temple, and truly contribute to the edification of the faithful.

Did the local bishop approve in written the use of percussion instruments, guitars (specifying if they are standard or electric), et cetera? I highly doubt it.

The point is very clear: given decision and consent from the Ordinary, only instruments suitable to sacred use can be employed, instruments fitting with the high dignity of the House of God, whose voice edifies the faithful - edification is not entertainment or amusement, it is lifting up the soul beyond the worldly.

Think I’m just voicing my personal opinion? Let’s read some more, then.

those instruments which are, by common opinion and use, suitable for secular music only, are to be altogether prohibited from every liturgical celebration

Some instruments are, in fact, to be altogether prohibited from liturgical celebrations - banned, cast out, anathematized. Doesn’t take a motu proprio to state that electric guitars, percussion instruments, and the like, no matter how often we find them in churches, are not suitable for sacred music.

Keep them for non-liturgical events. Keep them for the local Christian rock ecumenical music festival. Keep them for youth group socials. Just don’t bring them into the Sanctuary - unless you want to see the Mass attendance drop even lower than the current 20-something%.

I am involved with youth groups. I always have people ask me whether more traditional songs could be introduced.

When we added a keyboard set to “organ” (we talk of a small college chapel) and the notes of Immaculate Mary inundated the hearts of all at the end of Mass, people felt it - and everyone joined the chant. Attendance went up.

Same when the (spoken) Holy, holy, holy Lord and the (spoken) Lamb of God were replaced with the (chanted) Sanctus and the (chanted) Agnus Dei. Some of the older people present had tears in their eyes as they could say: “I recognize this, deep in my heart!” Their soul was singing: “I will approach the altar of God, who brings joy to my youth”. And the younger faithful were captivated by the dignity of a hymn that was ancient and mysterious, yet simple and living.

Contrary to popular belief, people - especially young people - will not settle for the banal, and they do not want to see worldly things in liturgical context. They want, long for, and demand the liturgy to elevate them to a higher realm. They truly want the liturgy to be a moment when we forget ourselves and lift up our hearts to the Lord, singing the hymn of God’s glory with Angels and Archangels, with Thrones and Dominions, and with all the hosts and Powers of heaven.

Am I criticizing the presence of drums, electric guitars, gongs, et cetera currently used in some liturgical celebrations? God forbid! Keep them, play them, do whatever Christ allows you to do. However, the life of the saints teaches us one big lesson: never settle for less. Give the best to the living God. And we can do better than percussion instruments and guitars. Oh yes we can.

Video - how simple and awesome: a modest church, a modest organ, a modest congregation, a heavenly hymn.

What takes years to learn, months to build, and weeks to install…


If there are instruments that should not be used in the mass, I confess that my singing would also be banned from the church!


I find these threads on catholic music hilarious.

After being in mega Evangelical a Churches with full orchestras or 10 piece rock bands with light shows and big screen TV’s, even the most contemporary Catholic music seems traditional to me!



Coming from a high-church Anglican background, with a professional organist and choir master, most “traditional” Catholic music, of the popular kind, seems quite light-weight to me! :slight_smile:


The main principle the Church has taught (for centuries) is to avoid bringing the profane into worship. A part of this is to be able to recognize and be cautious of things drawn from the familiar secular music. Having a good understanding of connotations. Familiarity. Where does the voice of the instrument draw one’s mind? This ties in with the importance of setting things apart. Recognizing sacred objects for sacred use. Sacred music being one such thing set apart.

One can see this principle can encompass melody alone. The human voice alone can create music that is purely secular and not suitable for sacred use. It can be performance based. Pointing to itself for praise.

Some cultures have set apart different instruments and traditionally view them as set apart from others.

It goes without saying the organ is held in high esteem by the Catholic Church. For a lot of reasons. One being, it can be “set apart” and become integrated in the physical structure of the Church itself.

The Church has many authoritative documents that calls to “avoid the profane” to be wary one is not offering a secular performance. It asks competent authorities to always be sure to they can answer, “how is this music set apart for sacred use?”


I get conflicted on this subject every time it comes up.

On one hand, I really do dislike the “hootenanny” music at Masses (and the songs that were written for hootenanny Masses, even when they are played on the organ).

On the other hand, we are sinners who have been and are being sanctified (set apart) for God’s use. What is wrong with sanctifying (setting apart) instruments and melodies that were originally used in profane settings, and now using them for the praise of God? (Singing “Amazing Grace” to the tune of “House of the Rising Sun” comes immediately to mind, although that’s one arrangement that I never expect to hear at Mass :bigyikes: )


Correct. You will never find a list throughout the Church. Such decisions are left to the local bishop and his decision should be honored. No doubt the friend in the first post was expressing his opinion based on what the Church teaches.



I recall many years ago, hearing “morning has broken” at a folk mass at my future wife’s parish. I completely lost my train of thought. I couldn’t help but wonder if the acoustic guitarist would segue into moon shadow next. Or maybe play some Van Morrison? It led to us seriously discussing (quite often) our spiritual needs regarding the Liturgy. Nuff said.

I have played guitar for over 30 years. I love the instrument. Yet, I still can’t in any way shape or form understand how this this instrument can be “set apart” for sacred use. It may simply be my weakness. But it is what it is…


One of our cantors usually uses a acoustic guitar to play every weekend at the Masses he is in. It sounds just fine being used to leading the people. its not like he’s using a ane electric with an amplifier doing the national anthem like Hendrix.


I have no intention of arguing that someone somewhere may not be able to utilize the acoustic guitar in the Liturgy. To associate it differently as I - and deem it as something appropriate.

It’s interesting you bring up the electric guitar.

I am quite confident I I have enough God given ability and imagination to accompany an organ or string section with one of my electric guitars (and effects processors) so very very few could ever identify it as anything other than what I desired the instrument to ‘appear’ to sound like. (If the instrument was hidden in a choir loft. It would be quite helpful.) I could not do this as a lead instrument. But the instrument could add some very appropriate voicing’s for augmentation. It’s possible this may come into play for some future composers. Who knows.


Just a note about “the keyboard set to ‘organ’.” An electronic keyboard is NOT an organ, regardless of how authentically it reproduces one. It saddens me to see parishes where an old or broken organ is replaced by a keyboard. They are as different from one another as a guitar is from a violin. Organs have manuals which resemble a keyboard or piano, but there are 61 keys, not 88, and they aren’t weighted like a piano. Organs normally have two or more manuals as well as stops to alter the quality of the tone produced. Keyboards have settings like “jazz organ,”“church organ,” or “chapel organ,” which do not allow for any on-the-spot tonal alteration. Organs have a pedalboard, with which bass and sometimes melodies are played with the feet. Keyboards have nothing except perhaps a sustain pedal. In short, organ repertoire cannot be played on a keyboard, and replacing an older organ with one is always a poor decision.


as one of my teachers likes to say what does it say in the girm or other juridical document say.

note just because some pope in 1906 said something about pianos or other instruments in mass doesn’t mean that we must agree with what he said. It is possible that doctrine develops that would allow pianos and other instruments (other than organ) in mass.


I, for one, would be delighted if they could get the organ out of the Church. I rarely find it any better than any other instrument. All instruments are equal in my eyes (sometimes good, sometimes bad).

I’ve heard guitars that great and some that were awful
Same with drums, organs, tamborines, chant, trumpet, you name it.

I don’t think any instrument has an advantage.

It should be culturely based, and, more important, the operator should know how to make it appropriate for a liturgical setting. Sometimes the problem is not the instrument, or the operator, but the song or music.

On the other hand, I sing loud and long. So,others might say my instrument (my voice) is terrible. I’ve never been told, but my brother’s is awful, so mine might be the same. I’m mostly there to worship rather than be picky.


I totally agree. :sad_yes: I speak of a small college chapel. Before, all we had was someone playing a guitar. When the keyboard set to organ was added (not in the front, but in the back), at least now it “sounds” Catholic…it’s not the real thing, but it’s a step towards it!

I do agree that it is sad when an actual pipe organ in an actual parish is replaced by a keyboard or by an electric organ. I would try to make repairs happen. The issue is that it is hard to find people who can even play those organs…at my parish we have this one man who is actually a professional organ player (such a blessing) and every time we celebrate the E.F. at some old church, everyone (but especially the resident priests!) is so happy that we can actually make that huge old organ let its majestic voice resound again :slight_smile: (I’ll never forget how this baby sounded!).

I was just having lunch with my friend who plays the keyboard, and (amusingly enough) he was explaining to me the very same thing you said about the pedals, the keys, etc. I told him we should try to learn to play the real organ one day! :smiley: If we do, then we can make something amazing happen…we can either fundraise and get ourselves a small organ, or roll up our sleeves and build a small one :smiley:


A small church might not be able to afford a new electronic organ, but places like Craigslist often have organs for sale fairly cheap. The main thing to look for is that they have at least two 61-key manuals, one above the other (not staggered with one above and to the right), and that they have a full 32-note pedalboard.

Good brands to look for in the United States include Allen and Rodgers, the two most common makes, as well as less-common European models like Johannus, Galanti, Ahlborn-Galanti, or Viscount. Both Rodgers and Allen vary in tone quality depending on the year, but Allens are built like a tank and can be repaired multiple times. Galanti/Ahlborn-Galanti instruments sound nice but are cheaply built and prone to electronics issues. For smaller instruments, Conn organs are not bad but most of them are home organs and are over 40 years old. Avoid at all costs Lowrey and Hammond organs. Most Baldwin organs are likewise not worth the effort.

If you want a good used pipe organ, it will cost much more to ship and install it, but will last longer overall. Try the Organ Clearing House in Massachusetts.


I wish there was a Mass without music. I would SO be there!!!


There is one.

It is called Low Mass in the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite.

More and more parishes offer it :slight_smile: See one directory here.

DISCLAIMER: The views and opinions expressed in these forums do not necessarily reflect those of Catholic Answers. For official apologetics resources please visit