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Explorations: The music of faith

Fr Andrew Hamilton SJ  |  02 February 2017

While music is a central part of our celebrations of the liturgy, it’s also often a source of conflict. 

How do we decide what music is appropriate at Mass?

Music can bring people together. Think of a music festival, where everyone is on their feet rocking to the music, taken out of themselves by the beat and the lyrics. Or think of the pipes playing as a dead soldier is laid to earth, and all are united in grief, loss and respect.

But music can also divide. Think of the punk band playing full bore in the teenager’s room, while a Mozart violin concerto plays quietly for mum in the kitchen to blot out the noise from upstairs.

For both mum and son, as also for ourselves, music is a gift. It touches our hearts and our minds and takes us out of ourselves, awakening new possibilities. Those of us who are not musical admire those who compose, play and sing well for the gift their music is to us. 

Of course, there are many kinds of music. Some music is simple – the song we hum as we go for a walk, the tune we play on the recorder. Other music is incredibly complex. A symphony in which sixty or more musicians with different instruments are involved, each with their own notes to play in an exact time and way that harmonises with other instruments, all lasting for thirty minutes or more. To compose such music, and to bring musicians together to play it precisely, are incredibly complex tasks.

Music, too, differs in different cultures. Westerners need to adjust their ears and to listen carefully to appreciate the art of the didgeridoo, Cambodian pipes or Iraqi music. The harmonies are quite different. 

Simple or complex, though, music is a great gift that can give us joy and pride in being alive. It is hard to imagine a world without music. It would lose much of its energy and charm.

Religious music

Music is important in all religions. Hindus and Buddhists chant as part of their ritual. In Christian prayer, too, music has always been important. In the Scriptural stories David plays the lute to soothe Saul’s spirits, Miriam sings a battle song of thanks after the Egyptian army is destroyed and God is praised on the harp and zither. The psalms are still sung in Jewish worship.

Christians inherited this tradition in their prayer, and in their thinking about the world. They compared God’s presence in the variety and order of the world to musical harmony. The early Christian monks used to chant the psalms, and gradually rich musical traditions developed both in the Eastern and the Western churches. The music that was composed for churches became part of the wider European musical tradition.

In Australia today almost all churches have music during the liturgy. In cathedrals and large churches, large choirs often preserve the beautiful church music of previous centuries. In smaller churches the music may be led by a few singers with guitar or organ accompaniment. Multicultural outer suburban parishes often have eight or nine small choirs, each bringing to worship its own local, Italian, Filipino, Sudanese, Islander, Vietnamese or other musical tradition. 

Why music is important

In church life music serves many different purposes. It has often been thought of as a way of drawing to the church people who are on its edges. In the European summer, many city churches have orchestras and choirs to sing Masses by Mozart, Beethoven and other great composers. They draw both tourists and local people to church. 

The desire to draw people to churches has also shaped the kind of music that is sung. Some of the finest English language hymns, notably those by the Wesley brothers and their contemporaries, were sung to popular music hall tunes and were played on steel instruments in large halls. Guitars, rock masses and Hillsong music are also designed to draw young people to church and to make them feel at home in prayer.

Music in church is also designed to help people to raise their minds and hearts to God. Many of us have favourite tunes or lines to help us pray. Well-loved hymns with tunes that are easy to sing make people feel at home and free them to pray to God. That makes people irritated when old favourites are discarded in favour of new hymns. Ironically, though, many of the music hall hymns that raised eyebrows when first introduced to draw outsiders to church are now themselves played sedately and have become favourites.

What kind of music belongs in church?

Because music is so important when we pray together it is often controversial. People constantly ask what kind of music is appropriate in church. The answers they give will often depend on what they think the liturgy is. A narrow view of liturgy will lead to a narrow choice of music. For example, if someone believes the task of liturgy is to take people into deep personal prayer, the music will be chosen for its beauty and its devotional strength. Transcendence will often be named as the criterion for choosing music

But the liturgy of the church involves more than deep personal prayer. It is something that we do together, and invites us to find God in many kinds of interaction. It includes moments of silence and of great solemnity that invite us into deep reflection and wonder. It also includes such moments of connection as the greeting of peace and the humorous story in the homily. At times we are invited to reflect on God’s word and to ask how it applies to us, or to summon our energies to go out into our world. 

The sense of transcendence in liturgy, the gift of being taken out of our own immediate world into the wonder of God’s presence, is not cultivated only in solemn ceremonial, silence and traditional music. In the liturgy, God’s presence is found in a variety of encounters, including those through shared silence, through hearing the word of God, and through the variety of human exchanges in such things as the notices, the restlessness of children, the collection and all the other moments when a frail and awkward human congregation is touched by God’s calling. Music can enhance all these moments.

Each congregation, with its own mixture of histories and cultural backgrounds, also puts its own stamp on the celebration of the liturgy. So it will also naturally shape the music of the liturgy in a distinctive way. For a congregation of young people, hymns like Fr Rob Gallea’s ‘My Lighthouse’, with its exuberance and accompanying actions, may prepare people to go out from the liturgy with renewed energy and faith. In an African congregation, priests and readers may dance to drums as they enter the church, bring up the gifts at the offertory and go out from the service. 

It follows that we should be slow to accept sweeping or detailed judgments about is appropriate and inappropriate in church music. Priests or choirmasters who say that only one kind of music will be played in their church canonise their own prejudices to the detriment of the worship of their congregation. 

Throughout the church’s history instructions on music in the liturgy have often been helpful in what they encourage but too sweeping and categorical in what they exclude. Saint Athanasius, for example, rightly encouraged the Egyptian monks to chant instead of saying the psalms. But he was too narrow when he insisted that they should chant only on one note, an instruction that would have forbidden the development of Gregorian Chant had it been accepted throughout the church. This is just one of many examples. 

Music for times and places

When asking what kind of music will be appropriate in our churches we must consider many things. We should ask first about the congregation and the occasion for which the music will be played. A polyphonic Mass may be very suitable for an adult congregation on a special occasion, for example, but it may not be appropriate for a congregation of small children in a primary school. We would ordinarily expect the music used at weddings to differ from that used at funerals.

We should reflect also on the place in the Mass where music is used. Many parts of the Mass are designed to be sung – the Lord have Mercy, Gloria, Creed and the acclamations in the Eucharistic Prayer, for example. At the beginning and ending of the Mass when the congregation is being gathered for prayer and then prepared to move out into the wider world to proclaim the Gospel, stirring hymns that involve the whole congregation are normally appropriate. At communion time when people join in sharing Christ’s body and blood, more reflective songs or quiet instrumental music can be helpful.

New music and old music

There are some general principles that might guide us when introducing music into our churches. First, the words and music should be of sufficient quality to be used in our prayer. This does not mean that they must be world class. But they should be honest and competent. Words and tunes that are rubbish do not praise God. Nor do they encourage the congregation to sing and be moved by what they sing.

It is also good to create new music. We bring to liturgy our gifts and offer them to the Lord. Our creativity is one of our greatest gifts, and so it is good for the music used at the liturgy constantly to be renewed. Creativity will lead us to explore the use of new instruments, the introduction of music from different cultures and using different styles for different groups – for young and old, for different migrant communities, for devotional and charismatic. New hymns will be composed for anniversaries and other big occasions

In choosing music, too, we should preserve the gifts we have received from the past. The shape of the liturgy is not something that we constantly reinvent. We have received it from earlier generations of Catholics, and with it has come a long musical tradition. So it is good to include some Gregorian Latin chant in the repertoire, as well as the classical polyphonic Masses and English hymns. There will be opportunities to use them when they fit the occasion and the congregation.

Finally, if we are creative and we remember great music, we shall also need to forget what is ephemeral. Much music used in church is serviceable and fits its time well, but it becomes stale. If it is kept in the repertoire, it will fail to enliven the prayer and the vitality of the congregation. So it is important for new music to have a use-by date after which only very good new hymns and music will continue to be used.

Friedrich Nietzsche, the trenchant German critic of Christianity, once said that the trouble with Christians was the mournful hymns they sung. He probably had in mind hymns that were once fresh and well sung, but had become standard and were now sung more and more slowly. He reminds us that the price of introducing new music to the church is the readiness to farewell old favourites.

Music in church is not an optional extra when we gather to pray together. Without music our prayer is lacking. Our singing and playing are gifts to God and to one another. So they should express who we are, express our creative spirit, and our range of cultures and tastes. At their best they will bring us closer to God and to one another. 


View the reflection questions and activities for 'Explorations: The music of faith' here


Topic tags: ourrelationshipwithgod, thecatholictradition, scriptureandjesus, prayer, liturgyandthesacraments

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