Tuesday, 18 June 2013

The Qualities of Sacred Music

I am currently in Salt Lake City, participating in the Sacred Music Colloquium for my fourth year in a row. We are singing a great deal of Gregorian Chant, both in Latin and in English, for both the old and new masses, every day of the week. It is an amazing experience. Anyhow, I decided that while I am here, I will post on the blog an article I wrote some time ago about Sacred Music. This is another article which was published in an unofficial newsletter organized by my fellow students in school. 

Pope St. Pius X is known, among other things, for having laid down the characteristics of true liturgical music in the Motu Proprio Tra le Sollicitudini.  He draws these characteristics from the purpose of liturgical music. Music is an important of the sacred liturgy, for which reason its purpose can be none other than “the glory of God and the sanctification and edification of the faithful.” Liturgical music is a kind of adornment, an enhancement, of prayer itself; for as St. Augustine is famously quoted as saying, “he who sings prays twice.” Thus, liturgical music ought to bring forth the prayerful nature and the meaning of the liturgical texts, thereby heightening its efficacy and contributing to the greater glory of God, and rousing the minds of the faithful to a greater devotion. Pope Pius notes that this can even better dispose the souls of the faithful for “the reception of the fruits of grace belonging to the celebration of the most holy mysteries.” Thus it can be seen that music is no small part of the life of the Church.

Drawing from these principles, the Holy Father enumerates three primary qualities of good liturgical music. These qualities are sanctity, beauty, and universality.

1. Sanctity. Liturgical music should be holy or sacred because its very purpose is the worship of God. But what is it that makes music holy? Remember the saying of Augustine: “he who sings prays twice.” As was said before, liturgical music must be a kind of enhancement of the prayer itself. Prayer is essentially a lifting of the heart and mind to God. Now, music has the particular power of moving the emotions of man in a way which corresponds with the music itself. Thus, liturgical music ought to arouse in the listener those emotions which are most conducive to prayerful devotion. For example, it would be entirely improper for marching music to be played during the liturgy, for the passions aroused in such music are not helpful to the meditative nature of prayer. Rather, prayer is made with a serene and tranquil disposition. Thus, liturgical music ought to imitate the passions associated with such a disposition, and in this way it will be better able to aid the faithful in their participation in the Church’s prayer.

2. Beauty. The music must have an intrinsic goodness of form and must be sung with artistic excellence. St. Thomas teaches that beauty consists in three things: integrity, proportion, and clarity. Integrity implies a kind of perfection and wholeness, a conformity of a thing to its nature. Music, then, must not depart from the rational bounds imposed on it by nature, it being an inherently human thing, a product of man’s rational creative powers. Thus, because music has the peculiar power of moving the emotions, it ought to do so in a way that is consistent with reason. Proportion implies a kind of order, symmetry, or harmony in a thing, such that it is ultimately without chaos or anarchy, that all its parts come together as a single harmonious whole, that it be properly ordered to its ends, and so forth. Proportion applies to music in a very special way, since one of the essential components of music is harmony, the relationship between different pitches on the musical scale. There is a very ordered mathematical relationship between the different pitches, which determines what is or isn’t proper musical harmony. Beautiful music must be harmonious. Clarity implies a certain brightness, such that the object radiates in such a way that shows its perfection and harmony. Clarity is often defined as the splendor of the form. It is thus the most important element of beauty, for a beautiful thing must first be perfect, but must more importantly show that it is perfect. This manifestation of perfection is the primary element of beauty that incites pleasure in the mind that beholds it. Beautiful music shows forth the perfection of its nature, it makes it “shine” (albeit to the ears and not the eyes), so that the mind can easily grasp it and derive satisfaction from it. Music which is obscure, messy, ambiguous, or the like, cannot be beautiful.

3. Universality. Pope Pius explains that while each nation may be permitted to make use of musical forms which are particular to itself, these forms must nonetheless be subordinated to a form which is recognizable in all nations. The highest form of music used in the liturgy must be of a kind that is fit to be used in all places and for all times. This is important, because the Church is one and universal – that is what the name “Catholic” means, after all. Hence it is most fitting that her worship be universal, that all people in all times and places be able to participate in the same essential form of worship, without any substantial division between them. A Catholic visiting a foreign country ought to feel that he is still at home, when worshipping with fellow Catholics. Furthermore, it ought to be such that if one of the saints were to rise from the grave and worship with Catholics in the present day, he would easily recognize the liturgy as essentially the same one in which he himself participated in his time. This universality, this transcendence over all times and places, is a beautiful reflection of the transcendence of God Himself.

These are the essential qualities of Catholic liturgical music. After enumerating these qualities, Pope Pius X goes on to say:
These qualities are to be found, in the highest degree, in Gregorian Chant, which is, consequently the Chant proper to the Roman Church, the only chant she has inherited from the ancient fathers, which she has jealously guarded for centuries in her liturgical codices, which she directly proposes to the faithful as her own, which she prescribes exclusively for some parts of the liturgy… (emphasis mine).
1. Gregorian Chant is sacred. Gregorian Chant is most fittingly described as the music of prayer. It best imitates and arouses the meditative disposition, a quieting of the mind and imagination, so as to direct the focus on God. Chant of its nature avoids imitating the rapid movement of everyday activity, and its gentle, flowing rhythms are perfect echoes of the quiet motions of the heart which take place in meditative prayer. As such, it inspires in the heart those emotions and passions which are best conducive to devotion and prayer, and quiets those emotions which, being associated with the rapidity of external activity, can only hinder the inner recollection of the soul which is so necessary for prayer. Thus, Gregorian Chant is eminently sacred, and is best suited to liturgical worship. 
2. Gregorian Chant is beautiful. Gregorian Chant truly possesses the three characteristics of beauty. It has integrity, for it adheres ever so strictly to the rational form and finality imposed on it in its imitation of emotion: the expression of the emotions connected to devotion and prayer. Indeed, in so doing, it rises above the limits of simple nature, setting foot in the territory of the supernatural. This is perfection of the highest degree. Gregorian Chant has proportion, for although it is but a single line of music, it avoids all excesses of chromaticism and dissonance. Harmony need not be said to exist only between multiple notes played simultaneously, but also between the notes of a single melodic line. This harmony exists without a doubt in Gregorian Chant. And finally, Gregorian Chant has clarity. Of its nature, it is truly the music of prayer, as has been stated. But not only is this so, it is very clearly and intelligibly, indeed, radiantly, the music of prayer. No one, upon walking into a grocery store and hearing Gregorian Chant being played from the speakers, would for a moment think that such music is fitting for such a setting: it belongs in the Church. But the Chant has clarity in another way as well, for if one examines its place in the particular parts of the liturgy, one observes that it is always composed in such a way that brings out the nature of the particular prayer to which it is attached, thus adding to its own beauty and the beauty of the liturgy as a whole.
3. Gregorian Chant is universal. Because it is sung primarily in Latin, it has acquired a truly universal character; for Latin is the universal language of the Church, as Pope John XXIII explains in Veterum Sapientia. But not only this, one observes that in the history of the Church, Gregorian Chant rose to the level of a musical form which accompanied the Church wherever she went. For centuries it has been sung in Churches all throughout the world. The Church has claimed it as her own music, a means which she herself has produced for the worship of God. Moreover, Gregorian Chant is possessed of a distinct musical character which transcends all others, being in itself quite independent of them; an ideal, a paradigm, to which all other forms of music have the ability to imitate in some way, while retaining some degree of their own qualities.
Because Gregorian Chant possesses in an eminent degree these three qualities of liturgical music, Pope Pius declares it to be the supreme model of all sacred music, and that
the more closely a composition for church approaches in its movement, inspiration and savor the Gregorian form, the more sacred and liturgical it becomes; and the more out of harmony it is with that supreme model, the less worthy it is of the temple.
Hence, while other forms of music may be permitted in the liturgy, they must always be made to imitate Gregorian Chant. In the western Church, special place is given to renaissance polyphony, which is very well imitative of Chant in its character, and indeed, has the origin of its history in the Chant itself.
Good music is a very great necessity for good liturgy, when it makes use of music. Hence it is crucial that, today, in order to restore the liturgy to its former beauty, liturgical music also be restored. This is because music serves as a genuine enhancement of liturgical beauty, thereby contributing to greater glorification of God.


  1. Great post. I've had many a conversation with some of my more liberal friends about the inappropriateness of modern "praise & worship" type music in church, but I am not very organized in my ideas - your post states it all very clearly. It's very helpful!

    I don't really understand those who prefer the likes of Matt Maher - after hearing Gregorian Chant and, to a lesser degree, polyphony, how could anything else seem fitting?

  2. I hope you have a wonderful time! The Archbishop from my diocese is there, Archbishop Sample!