Wednesday, January 27, 2010

In praise of church music

I came across this quote from the Catechism of the Catholic Church, and I thought it would be perfect to share here:

"The musical tradition of the universal Church is a treasure of inestimable value, greater even than that of any other art. The main reason for this pre-eminence is that, as a combination of sacred music and words, it forms a necessary or integral part of solemn liturgy."

To put the same idea in my own vernacular version, I'd paraphrase the musical "Nine": What good is church without le singing? (And that idea is even more fun if you can hear Judi Dench singing it in your head.)

So is it true that music is greater than any other art when it comes to religious value? Can we even measure the value of Michelangelo's Pieta against Mozart's Requiem? Or perhaps the value simply in the weekly direct participation of the congregation in music.


  1. I think music does have greater religious value than other art because it is more participatory. For that same reason, I think hymns, psalms, and responses have greater religious value than solos, anthems, or instrumental works. A person can admire or be moved by vocal or instrumental pieces or other religious art, but there is still a factor of disengagement or an aspect of listening or watching someone else perform. But for me, music that I can join in with i.e. hymns, psalms, or responses, more fully reflect what Worship and Liturgy (i.e. the work of the people) is all about.

  2. The debate over participation is fascinating because there's such variety among the Christian denominations - a spectrum from the Catholic Latin mass to Quaker meetings and denominations that have no pastor, just lay leadership. Lutherans seem to split the difference - professional clergy but heavy lay participation. (Plus, don't forget the eastern traditions of meditation, a highly individual experience.) Lutherans might value music simply because they see it from a particular spot on the 'participation spectrum.'

  3. From the view of psychology, for some reason sounds are more likely to go directly to our emotional centers than are inputs from other senses. This can happen whether we participate or not, and you will see people moving to music that they are not even consciously aware of. This emotional connection can be critical in our understanding of almost anything.

  4. I have always loved that section of the Catechism, which specifically came out of the Second Vatican Council. I once attended a lecture by Dr. William Mahrt from Stanford; he referred to the same quote and explained that sacred music is the terminal art not because we sing AT the Liturgy, but rather we SING the Liturgy. In other words, all of the Apostolic-ascribed Liturgies have in common that they are completely sung. There are even some Eastern Holy Week Services that require the priest to chant specific patristic homilies.