Music at Mass

Is there any liturgically correct parameters for music at Mass, specifically, can it be recorded or does it have to be live?

This reply from the EWTN library should answer your question regarding pre-recorded music at Mass. While not specifically ruled out, the preference is for live music. The Church also tells us that, as far as musical instruments go, the organ should be given “pride of place”. Regarding what type of music, the Church says that Gregorian chant is to be held in the highest esteem. This would be followed closely by sacred polyphony. There is somewhat of a hierarchy when it comes to instruments and music in church - some are more suitable than others. Some music and instruments have no place in a Catholic liturgy - that is not to say that Christian “rock” music cannot be good to listen to, but the point is that just because a piece of music mentions God or Christ, it is not necessarily suitable for liturgical functions.

The music used at the Mass must be live. In other words, there has to be the involvement of the human element. The Congregation for Sacred Rites, now known as the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, issued this directive:

  1. The use of automatic instruments and machines, such as the automatic organ, phonograph, radio, tape or wire recorders, and other similar machines, is absolutely forbidden in liturgical functions and private devotions, whether they are held inside or outside the church, even if these machines be used only to transmit sermons or sacred music, or to substitute for the singing of the choir or faithful, or even just to support it.

As late as 2003, I posed this question to the Secretariate for the Bishops Committee on Liturgy (now known as the Bishops Committee on Divine Worship) and the directive still stands. It has not been abrogated by the Holy See.

Thanks for correcting my response, Benedictgal! When was the directive you quoted issued by the Congregation? It obviously overrules a number of responses given in the EWTN article that I quoted.

Being not very informed in the history of music and musical instruments I wonder whether there was any rock music during the early church? If we mean by lively or loud music there was definitely such music in worship in the OT. String musical instruments, harps, cymbals, trumpets and horns, drums and tomburines were mentioned. Why they are set aside or less of a priority for liturgical worship now is quite interesting.

As for the type of songs I suppose if they have imprimaturs they should be accepted during the mass.

I don’t think hymns generally bear or require an imprimatur - at least, I don’t recall ever seeing an imprimatur on liturgical music. Even if a hymn does contain an imprimatur, this only guarantees that the words are free from moral or doctrinal error - it would not take into account the style of music. Church music and its suitability is not only about the words - singing a hymn to a traditional hymn-tune is not on a par with singing the same words to tune of a modern rock song. This is one of the reasons why certain instruments are more suitable than others for liturgical celebrations - the organ is automatically associated with the church (there being very few places apart from churches which house organs). Drums or electric guitars, on the other hand, are more instantly associated with the secular world - parties, concerts, popular media, etc.

The Catholic Church recommends the prioritisation of the organ and Gregorian chant - other Christian denominations have developed different traditions, but many continue the tradition of giving the organ pride of place. As an organist, there is no doubt whatsoever in my mind that the organ is the most effective instrument for inspiring congregational singing. The organist has a whole orchestra at his fingertips, and thus can convey a whole range of emotions; it can aid quiet, meditative prayer at once, and moments later convey the immense joy of the Resurrection of Christ on Easter Sunday.

I just stumbled onto this thread and I’m a bit concerned now. For years I have been providing music ministry regularly in my church for Mass. Together with my brother and now and again a few others, we have been providing music for First Holy Communion programmes, Community masses and Family masses. We both play keyboard, using synthesised layering and harmonies and I sometimes play the drums and we sometimes have a guitarist. We used to give out shakers for the recessional hymn, as it was usually lively, and we were trying to get the whole congregation, kids and all, involved. This has all been directed towards a more contemporary style to attract the youth, while maintaining the reverence of the original hymns.
So have I got it wrong?

Thanks for the clarification. Music and hymns are certainly not my area and therefore cannot say with certainty regarding them.

As regards to imprimaturs, it seems that the church I was visiting had stopped using all hymns not found in their hymnal. Before the choir or the music ministry would issue song sheets because the songs they were using were not from the church hymnal. After the emphasis on GIRM it seems the choir cannot choose any other hymns other than the ones in the church hymnal. So I thought perhaps an imprimatur is required on the choice of the lyric of the song. Or perhaps the church is too strict on hymns choices.

This has caused quite a disappointment among the music people and some had voice their concerns about the restriction.

The guitars and the drum are still being used and maybe that church has not yet moved into exclusively organ music. Oddly enough I have not met anyone who feel that the mass is overly Protestant in this regard but maybe that’s because they are quite familiar with the music and hymns that their choir/music ministry have provided for them all those years.

Personally any music that’s appropriate to the occasion is fine by me. Some music/songs can really move the hearts and I thought why not using them even if they are not in the hymnal as long as they are doctrinally not in error.

God bless.

Hi Matthew - greetings from a fellow Irish church-musician! Firstly, you are to be commended for getting involved as a church-musician - although I was working as an organist in Dublin for the past year, I’m back in the west now, and I know that it is so difficult to get talented musicians to share their talent!

While I wouldn’t make a judgement on the type of music which is on offer at your parish - because amongst other things, you mention that you have tried to maintain the reverence of the hymns. On a personal level, I’m not sure that it would be my cup of tea. I must say, in former times - when I was a bit younger & those Sister Act films were coming out in the early 90’s, I thought that lively music was the way forward. After all, Sister Mary Clarence was able to get a packed church & a papal visit because of her upbeat music. However, I later reflected on this, and I thought that the people portrayed in the film were going to church for a concert. If God came into the picture, it was as an afterthought.

Now, don’t get me wrong - I’m not suggesting that this is the way it is in your parish, but the primary “factor” which should be attracting people is God and the miracle of the Mass. For my part, if I want to hear rock music, I go to a rock concert. Sacred music should be on a different plain - perhaps the music you provide is on a different plain, I’m not judging it without having heard it. I will say this though: a number of months ago, I had an argument about a priest on the nature and purpose of hymns - he wanted me to play some of those Evangelical worship hymns on the organ and I refused. I felt they were not suitable 1. For playing on the organ or 2. For playing at Mass in our cathedral church (he was a visiting priest by the way). He asked, “do you know what the purpose of a hymn is?” I replied that I certainly did. He proceeded to tell me that the primary function of the hymn is to make people happy - the primary function! “Wrong!” I told him - since, contrary to what he affirmed, the music is firstly directed at God and it lifts the singer’s heart and mind towards the divine. Happiness may be a by-product, though it need not be - funeral hymns, for example, often convey feelings of anything but happiness.

Just out of interest, does your church have an organ - pipe or digital? If so, have you tried (or would you try) using it for a period of time to gauge the response to it? As far as I know, the archdiocese of Dublin still has some kind of initiative whereby it will give people grants to learn the organ - you could look into that if you’re interested. It might be worth contacting the Diocesan Director of Music - if you don’t have his contact details, you can p.m. me and I will gladly send them to you. The Royal School of Church Music in Ireland (RSCMI) may be able to offer you advice too.

Not wanting to argue but if that the purpose does it mean to say that only organ music can effectively provide that objective?

I don’t know about churches not being able to use hymns which are not in the hymnal. That seems to me to be a very hefty restriction. I mean, there are so many hymnals out there - if I look at a contents page for an American hymnal, there are so many hymns that I’ve never heard of, because there are many hymns from the U.S. which have not made it to this side of the Atlantic. I’m sure the reverse is also true. There is one hymnal which has been standard in Ireland for the last 40 years or so - “The Veritas Hymnal” - now, it’s a great hymnal, but it is very small. While it contains a lot of the traditional hymns, so many greats were excluded. However, the majority of Irish churches don’t have hymnals - though the idea is growing in popularity - most print the words on the missalette or a separate sheet. Having only one hymnal can be very restrictive.

As far as the words go, one must be very careful that they are faithful to the Church’s teachings. However, I don’t believe that that means limiting ourselves unconditionally to a Catholic hymnal - there are many hymns which have been penned by Protestant writers which, for the particular topic concerned, are in line with Catholic teaching, and are thus suitable for use in Catholic churches.

Just on a point of information - in Ireland relatively few churches have an actual pipe-organ. This is unlike France, for example, where even the smallest rural church will have a fine instrument. One reason for Irish churches not having them, apart from Ireland simply not having a tradition of organ-building, is that for many years while Ireland was under British rule, Catholics were not allowed to worship in public and so, no churches were built. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, there was a church building-boom. Catholic churches were springing up all over the place. The 1903 Motu Proprio of Pope Pius X which reaffirmed the primacy of Gregorian chant, coincided with this boom, and was quite likely used as an excuse not to install organs. So, unfortunately, when the 1960’s came, churches began to “invest” in those electronic jazzy organs which are not very suitable for accompanying the sacred liturgy…

Not at all - I’m referring to the quality and purpose of church music. This should be a guiding principle whether the music is accompanied by the organ, another instrument, or completely unaccompanied.

However, as I said earlier, in my experience there is no instrument which is quite as effective as the organ at inspiring congregational singing. I have played at liturgies where guitars and other instruments have been used - in particular, one carol service where I shared the accompaniment with a guitarist. He accompanied a few carols on the guitar, and the difference was instantly noticeable - people were not singing; his guitar simply could not sustain the wistful singing of a large congregation. Perhaps people have had different experiences; this is just what I’ve observed on much more than one occasion.

Thanks. I am perfectly agreeable with that. :slight_smile:

Finally, if you would like to comment on this. As mentioned earlier I spoke about the musical instruments the ancient people of the OT used for their worship that could roughly compare to our liturgy today. Other than the wind instruments like the horn shofars, many string instruments and drums were used.

For the Early Church Fathers it is not so much about the types of instrument but the sincerity of the worshippers that was of utmost impotance in liturgical worship. In fact no instruments may be used if human voice can replace the haromonious sound dedicated to worship God.

“David formerly sang songs, also today we sing hymns. He had a lyre with lifeless strings, the church has a lyre with living strings. Our tongues are the strings of the lyre with a different tone indeed but much more in accordance with piety. Here there is no need for the cithara, or for stretched strings, or for the plectrum, or for art, or for any instrument; but, if you like, you may yourself become a cithara, mortifying the members of the flesh and making a full harmony of mind and body. For when the flesh no longer lusts against the Spirit, but has submitted to its orders and has been led at length into the best and most admirable path, then will you create a spiritual melody.” (Chrysostom, 347-407, Exposition of Psalms 41, (381-398 A.D.) Source Readings in Music History, ed. O. Strunk, W. W. Norton and Co.: New York, 1950, pg. 70.)

“Leave the pipe to the shepherd, the flute to the men who are in fear of gods and intent on their idol worshipping. Such musical instruments must be excluded from our wingless feasts, for they arc more suited for beasts and for the class of men that is least capable of reason than for men. The Spirit, to purify the divine liturgy from any such unrestrained revelry chants: ‘Praise Him with sound of trumpet," for, in fact, at the sound of the trumpet the dead will rise again; praise Him with harp,’ for the tongue is a harp of the Lord; ‘and with the lute. praise Him.’ understanding the mouth as a lute moved by the Spirit as the lute is by the plectrum; ‘praise Him with timbal and choir,’ that is, the Church awaiting the resurrection of the body in the flesh which is its echo; ‘praise Him with strings and organ,’ calling our bodies an organ and its sinews strings, for front them the body derives its Coordinated movement, and when touched by the Spirit, gives forth human sounds; ‘praise Him on high-sounding cymbals,’ which mean the tongue of the mouth which with the movement of the lips, produces words. Then to all mankind He calls out, ‘Let every spirit praise the Lord,’ because He rules over every spirit He has made. In reality, man is an instrument arc for peace, but these other things, if anyone concerns himself overmuch with them, become instruments of conflict, for inflame the passions. The Etruscans, for example, use the trumpet for war; the Arcadians, the horn; the Sicels, the flute; the Cretans, the lyre; the Lacedemonians, the pipe; the Thracians, the bugle; the Egyptians, the drum; and the Arabs, the cymbal. But as for us, we make use of one instrument alone: only the Word of peace by whom we a homage to God, no longer with ancient harp or trumpet or drum or flute which those trained for war employ.” (Clement of Alexandria, 190AD The instructor, Fathers of the church, p. 130)

I mean when the emphasis is on organ, could it not be due to cultural and not so much that it is THE instrument?

I’ll have to go after this.

God bless.

While this document was issued in 1958, it has not been abrogated. Furthermore, the statement made by the USCCB Secretariate to the Committee on Liturgy was made in light of this document (2003) and, to my knowledge, neither has been overturned. The bottom line is that whatever we have at Mass, from the flowers to the music, needs to be live.

With all due respect, I think you have. The music for the Mass needs to have dignity, solemnity, beauty and majesty. Please read what Pope Benedict XVI wrote in Spirit of the Liturgy:

On the one hand, there is pop music, which is certainly no longer supported by the people in the ancient sense (populus). It is aimed at the phenomenon of the masses, is industrially produced, and ultimately has to be described as a cult of the banal. “Rock”, on the other hand, is the expression of elemental passions, and at rock festivals it assumes a cultic character, a form of worship, in fact, in opposition to Christian worship. People are, so to speak, released from themselves by the emotional shock of rhythm, noise, and special lighting effects. However, in the ecstasy of having all their defenses torn down, the participants sink, as it were, beneath the elemental force of the universe. The music of the Holy Spirit’s sober inebriation seems to have little chance when self has become a prison, the mind is a shackle, and breaking out from both appears as a true promise of redemption that can be tasted at least for a few moments.

If we cannot let the beauty of the sacred music, genunine sacred music, move the heart, then there are serious problems. There is also this from Pope John Paul II to consider:

  1. In continuity with the teachings of St Pius X and the Second Vatican Council, it is necessary first of all to emphasize that music destined for sacred rites must have holiness as its reference point: indeed, “sacred music increases in holiness to the degree that it is intimately linked with liturgical action”[11]. For this very reason, “not all without distinction that is outside the temple (profanum) is fit to cross its threshold”, my venerable Predecessor Paul VI wisely said, commenting on a Decree of the Council of Trent[12]. And he explained that “if music - instrumental and vocal - does not possess at the same time the sense of prayer, dignity and beauty, it precludes the entry into the sphere of the sacred and the religious”[13]. Today, moreover, the meaning of the category “sacred music” has been broadened to include repertoires that cannot be part of the celebration without violating the spirit and norms of the Liturgy itself.

It should not be a question of livening things up. If the sacrificial nature of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass does not move us, if we are not touched by the fact that the Paschal Mystery unfolds before us every time we are at the liturgy, then everything else that we do is superficial because we have missed the point of why we are there in the first place.

I guess what Clement of Alexandria says towards the end of the quoted passage is similar to a point I made earlier - some musicial instruments are made unsuitable by the fact that they are initially regarded as secular instruments rather than being primarily associated with the Church’s worship. So, in a way, yes- culture can play a part in influencing one’s thoughts on the suitability of a particular instrument.

Remember, however, that when Clement and Chrysostom were writing, organs were not used in the Catholic liturgy - they had first made their impact in the East since Ctesibius of Alexandria had invented a primitive pipe-organ in the third century B.C. They were not really used in churches in Europe until the seventh century, and even at that, their use was not yet widespread. Despite this, however, the organ is still one of the oldest instruments used in Classical music. There is even evidence to suggest that the early church organs may have been used to accompany Gregorian chant - but the purpose was never (nor should it be today) to compete with the beauty of the human voice.

Perhaps this article might be of help to you:

Pope Benedict notes that:

The “cosmos” comment with how the organ became so prominent within the Church was very interesting and now totally makes sense to me. I did not know the reasons why organ was held so high, just that it was and then comments from those who weren’t really into organ saying it was originally a non-Christian instrument. The idea that the organ was considered the “combination of all the voices of the cosmos”. It was a way to show that the Church was truly superior to that of the Byzentine Emperor and to show the importance of “the cosmic rank of belief in Christ, which is independent of and indeed superior to politics”. So now, when one hears the organ (when it is played well – again this idea of practicality) one is hearing the voice of God, who is, in essence, the “combination of all the voices of the cosmos”.

You can’t go wrong following the Holy Father.

Interesting quote from the Holy Father, Benedictgal. It reminds me slightly of the foreword to the eight organ symphonies by the great Charles-Marie Widor. He was writing about the philosophical nature of the organ:

“…whereas the orchestral string and wind instruments, piano and voices dominate only at the first impulse of the accent, the moment of the attack, the organ, confined in its original majesty, speaks philosophically: alone among them all, it can produce indefinitely the same volume of sound and thus, from the idea of infinity, give rise to religious ideas. Surprises and accents are not natural to it; they are brought to it, they are adopted accents…”

An interesting insight, in my humble opinion :slight_smile:

Thanks, everybody, for the great dialogue. I asked the question because it was asked of me as church secretary and I wanted a liturgically correct answer. Benedictgal gave me what I needed to pass on to the Pastor and our music department. This is an awesome site and resource.

I had no idea when I originated this question that it would incur so much feedback. Thank you, one and all! There is a situation at my church that has been going on for years and has since been determined to be liturgically incorrect. While it’s resolve is not without issues, in the long run I feel we are now on the right track to living within the Church’s musical guidelines. The next step for me is to reach out to the diocese to see what their edicts are. Hopefully, they will support what I have learned here and my concept of the universal Catholic church.

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