Sunday, September 16, 2012


Disclaimer, that's not my title and not my article, but the headline and article in this morning's Atlanta Journal Constitution! Read on!

Bad church music is a sin

By Lorraine V. Murray

For the AJC

My husband and I once attended Mass at a church that had the most gorgeous pipe organ. We were all set to enjoy some fine sacred music, but the hymns – or should I say pop songs? — were accompanied by the tawdry tinkling of a piano.

Pianos are fine in secular settings, but when it comes to church, give me the majestic tones of the organ any day. As for guitars and tambourines, they’re just dandy at rock concerts, but using them at church is like wearing tattered jeans to a big meeting with the boss.

People go to church to worship God, and the instruments and lyrics should reflect this goal.

In “Holy God We Praise Thy Name!” the words emphasize God’s everlasting power. The images in “There’s a Wideness in God’s Mercy” remind us of divine compassion.

Unfortunately, these hymns are giving way to folksy, feel-good songs with lyrics that often shine the spotlight on people, rather than God.

One particularly heinous song has the congregation proclaiming, “We are the light of the world,” even though this biblical description applies to Christ. The lyrics of “We Are Called” are liberally peppered with self-congratulatory references to the people in the pews.

In my book, bad church music is a sin. It can annoy people and make them angry, which is never a good thing. It also drives some people to avoid Sunday services altogether.

Traditionally, sacred music in the Western church has meant the sonorous tones of the organ and hymns composed by the likes of Bach, Mozart and Ralph Vaughn Williams. Today, though, sacred and secular are being sadly confused.

Some music directors seem unaware that “sacred” means something holy, and quite different from the everyday. This is one reason churches have stained glass and uplifting works of art.

Yes, it’s possible to worship God in a dingy auditorium, but a soul-stirring sanctuary and truly sacred music give us a little glimpse of heaven.

Eating a gourmet meal on china plates is radically different from gobbling down burgers housed in Styrofoam. And to me, that’s the difference between traditional church music and the feel-good ditties played in many churches today.

And I’m not alone. A Facebook page called “I’m Fed Up with Bad Church Music” has nearly 4,000 members, including evangelical Christians, Anglicans and Catholics.

There’s a vast treasury of traditional sacred hymns, which are prayers put to music —so why not sing them at church? If you like folk music, you can enjoy it on your back porch.

But when it comes to church, let’s have music that offers a foretaste of heaven.

After all, the choirs of heavenly hosts surely are not strumming banjos and singing “Gather Us In” and “We Are Many Parts.” At least I hope not.

Lorraine writes about the deadly effects of insipid church music in her mystery “Death of a Liturgist” (St. Benedict Press). Her email is


Anonymous said...

No surprises here. Attending Mass in most parishes requires a heroic effort just to pray without being distracted by the awful, horrible music. On those rare occasions when there is no "music ministry" available, I almost want to shout out with gratitude for a Mass that is not ruined by the din or bad songs, bad singing or all of the above.

rcg said...

Back In Tennessee this weekend. St Michael's Church. Recessional was in Latin. Just sayin'..

John Nolan said...


There's no recessional in the Roman Rite, so the fact that they reserved Latin until the Mass was over speaks volumes, I'm afraid.

@ Anonymous

The obligation to attend Mass on Sundays and HDO made sense when you knew what you were getting. But obligation works both ways and I came to the conclusion forty years ago that I was under no obligation whatsoever to put up with sloppy liturgy and bad music. In fact, since it would amount to an occasion of sin (anger) one is obliged to avoid it.

Anonymous said...

Just wondering if the organist has to play all the traditional music at a mournful funeral dirge tempo?

Gene said...

@Anonymous, I have to say I feel much like you do. I sometimes attend Mass at two other Churches when I am out of town and I have to make myself go. In fact, it is so awful, and not just the music, that I truly wonder if it is even a valid Mass. There have been occasions on which I simply refused to attend and went hurrying off to Confession that week. There is something truly wrong when someone who loves the Church, the Mass, and who is very active in the Church is made to feel this way. This is in no way to diminish my sin for not attending. The very fact that Vat II and its "misinterpretation" has led to such unrest and division in the Church is evidence enough for me that it was a huge error...that's in the Faery Queen.

Anonymous said...

Overall, I like the music at St. Joseph's, but it might be nice if we sang a greater variety of good hymns. We've done Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee twice in the last month, and as much as I like Beethoven, it just feels so much more Enlightenment than Catholic. If you're worried about how the congregation will feel about trying unfamiliar hymns, not to worry!--Probably 2/3 of the congregants don't sing anyway. Sometimes I feel embarrassed just to sing at a normal volume because hardly anyone else is singing. And I find it really disrespectful when people leave while the last hymn is being sung.

Anonymous said...

I don't know how many churches in the Savannah diocese do this, but I sometimes go to Mass at a parish that has limited musicians available. So what do they do? At Communion, a layperson turns on a stereo recording of some sappy G & P song. They honestly think that we can't go to Communion without having this garbage fill our ears! Just once, I'd love to receive Communion and have enough space to pray without having to tune this junk out.

Pater Ignotus said...

Pin/Gene - Although you try to sugarcoat it, claiming to be in love with the Church and the mass, your decision to skip mass when the ambience is not to your taste reveals, I think, your true motivation.

No one makes you feel this way, you choose it.

John Nolan said...

Pater Ignotus, The Mass should not have an 'ambience' which panders to the taste of those who attend it. The great musicologist Hans Keller once said "art has nothing to do with taste" and this applies even more so to the sacred liturgy.

The greater one's love for the Mass, the greater the hurt and outrage felt when it is abused, as it routinely is at parish level.

rcg said...

PI, I understand what you say. The long term damage done to my family is something I regret from bad, and I mean BAD, catechisis that was aided by the music. I go every Holy Day of obligation and take my children. but it is very difficult to help them understand we are not the same as Methodists, Wiccans, or all the others "welcome to the feast". It's a mess and for some reason the music is a focal point. It just is.

Pater Ignotus said...

John - Every mass has, by default, an ambience; that is, "the character and atmosphere of a place." The ambience comes from the place, not from the mass which is celebrated in that place. And that ambience varies with the architecture, the music, the building's acoustical properties, and the various people involved.

I am sure you would agree that the ambience of the liturgy at, say, St. Peter's Basilica in Rome differs significantly from the ambience of a papal outdoor mass in Bogota.

Some seek an ambience that caters to their own preferences, and that is not necessarily a bad thing. When, however, they understand their own tastes or preferences regarding ambience to be normative for the Church and all her members, then you get into trouble.

I would not agree with Keller's statement if, by it, he means that everyone must regard different examples of art in the same way.

Gene said...

Ignotus, coming from you, a Priest who engenders just the kind of suspicion, distrust, doubt, and disgust with many on this Blog, the statement is hardly worth considering. It is my personal opinion that you are an excellent example of everything that is wrong with the Priesthood since Vat II and that you likely create more unease than confidence among those you encounter. In Catholics who seek a stronger Catholic identity and a return to a purer Mass and liturgy, you simply create disgust. Your theology is careless, your attitude toward the TLM, devout Catholics on this blog, and serious liturgical discussion is cavalier, and you are condescending and arrogant with absolutely no personal intellectual or theological basis for it. To make this any clearer, I would have to use profanity and call you names. Fr. says that is a no-no. A couple of people whom I respect have chided me for speaking so harshly to you on the blog. I tried to feel guilty for it, but it didn't work. I feel no guilt over it at all. Christ have mercy...

Pater Ignotus said...

Pin/Gene - That's a nicely worded broadside from the "traditional" Catholic. But, you see, it has nothing to do with your choice to skip mass, now does it?

Are you madder at me for bringing it up, or at yourself for admitting it in the first place? (I suspect it is the latter - and that that anger is the source of your harsh words.)

Gene said...

Igtnotus, Are you kidding? Drop the seventies encounter group schtick and wrap your head around the fact that you are a proctologist's dream of Paradise.

Carol H. said...

When a person truly loves and worships our Lord, and believes in his true presence in the Eucharist, that person cannot tolerate his being mocked by priests in clown suits or making the sacrifice of the mass a woodstock experience. It is no different than when the soldiers dressed our Lord in purple, gave him a crown of thorns and mocked him as king.

It seems to me that in this case, it would be the lesser sin to watch mass on the TV, internet and make a spiritual communion than to be associated with the mocking crowd. God, who sees men's hearts, knows where we are at.

John Nolan said...

Pater Ignotus

The point Keller was trying to make is that there is an objective standard by which art, particularly music, can be judged which is not dependent on personal likes or dislikes, nor on prevailing fashion.

Pater Ignotus said...

John - And I would disagree with the notion that "art," good or bad or in between, can stand apart from the human experience thereof.

If there is no one to enjoy Philip Glass' "Einstein on the Beach," is it art of any kind?

Anonymous 2 said...

Am I the only one struck by the author’s dismissal of “feel good” music? Is there something wrong with “feeling good” about being at Mass in the presence of our Lord and Savior?

BTW, Anonymous, my contribution to other members of the congregation feeling good is not to sing. It is a regular act of Christian charity on my part. =)

Gene said...

John, I suspect that this is Ignotus' Christology, as well. LOL!

John Nolan said...

Pater Ignotus

Beethoven, in his last symphony, after three magnificent movements introduces the human voice. Basil Lam once remarked that the composer was saying in effect "this is not enough - art must not put itself above the humanity which it serves". Which is precisely the point you are making.

However, as Benedict XVI has shrewdly pointed out, the celebration of humanity in the setting of Schiller's ode is surpassed by Beethoven's Missa Solemnis, where his art is at the service of God. Over the opening bars of the Kyrie the composer writes "von Herzen moege es wieder zu Herzen gehen", which resonates strongly with Newman's "cor ad cor loquitur".

Pius X was was perhaps too prescriptive when it came to liturgical music. The chanted propers from the Graduale Romanum can happily co-exist with (say) Haydn's 'Nelson' Mass, as they can with Gounod's Messe de Ste-Cecile.
Neither was written as a concert piece.

Advertising jingles and pop ditties have a specific function; the former to sell products and the latter to provide ear-candy on an industrial scale; ninety-five percent of pop songs are about sex. Because of their profane associations, and the general mediocrity of their musical content, such genres have no place in the context of the Mass, although they can be made available in a non-liturgical context for those who want them. This is not my personal opinion; every official or semi-official pronouncement on liturgical music says the same.

William Meyer said...

We have adapted of late, to the Saturday afternoon Mass. The reason is simple: there is a minimal presence in the choir section, and unlike Sunday morning, we are not assaulted by drums(!) and three guitars. Yes, we must still hear the piano, but most often, the other instruments are violin and flute, which soften the blow somewhat.

That said, the "Gather" hymnal is used, and unceasingly brings to mind images of bonfires.

Lou P. said...

It's all good! When we join the congregation with a Christian Spirit we share the Love of Christ that radiates respect, patience and consideration for others. I'm a church organist that loves traditional sacred music and classical organ music but growing up as a boy in West Virginia I attended a funeral at a tiny country church where I witnessed one of the most inspirational musical experiences of my entire life....a young boy singing his heart out and punching one key on an old harmonium continually while singing off key a hymn I couldn't identify. His courage to offer his voice in praise to GOD inspired me to volunteer my humble skill as a church organist later in my own life. As many times as I've read Church regulations on sacred music and have seen people get fussy about music I still rely on my own experience and meditation to guide me with an open heart to accept other for who they are and what they have to share. I think Amy Vanderbilt said it best in her book on etiquette when she commented "Those who matter usually don't mind and those who mind usually don't matter." While I do understand much of the concern for keeping church music sacred it should also me noted that most classical music is based on common folk tunes and that GOD himself likely listens to even the most educated musician like a FATHER enjoying his infant cooing. Bless you all for your concern about reverence and please remember to think of others with the same regard as you would have them think of you.
Lou P.