Some New Church Music That Isn’t Sickening

The music you hear in a family’s household says a great deal about that family. For instance, if all they ever play is the shallow, repetitive stuff that gets churned out of the modern pop music machine then they deprive themselves of the richness and depth that God intended when he gave us the gift of music. Or, if family members are forever splitting up and going into separate rooms to listen only to the music they individually prefer then the family suffers from disunity—by never sharing music or singing as one they never get to be drawn together in that way which, again, is such a powerful gift from our heavenly Father.

These are problems which affect our earthly, human families, yet to a greater degree they affect God’s family, as well. When we, the members of Christ’s body and of God’s family, gather together in God’s house at Mass, the music does not often serve the purposes of fully drawing us together in unity and deepening our relationship with the Almighty. It has the opposite effect, in some cases.


A New Kind of Hymnal

This is not another article about bad liturgical music. It is more of a clarion call to embrace a better way of performing and participating in the music of Mass. The recently released Vatican II Hymnal, published by the Texas-based non-profit organization Corpus Christi Watershed, is the pièce de résistance of this “better way.”

There are, of course, other hymnals available already from other publishers. Catholics use them at Mass every Sunday. The quality of the songs therein is debatable, and there is no dearth of opinions on the subject. Song preferences aside, the Vatican II Hymnal responds to a more pervasive problem that is rarely recognized at the parish level: every Sunday music directors “spin the dial,” as CCW President Jeffrey Ostrowski puts it. Songs for Mass are very often chosen, if not outright randomly, then with little regard for the liturgical season or for the themes of the Mass that day.

The Church put specific prayers and chants in place for every Mass many centuries ago, with the intention that we should sing them regularly and ritually: an Introit at the beginning, a Gradual and an Alleluia after the readings, an Offertory and a Communion.

Each is an exquisite gem that inspires everyone who hears. Each bears an aura of antiquity that is astounding: many of them would have been heard and sung by St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Francis of Assisi, and St. Albert the Great.

The Church prefers that we use these chants today, and yet most of us have never heard them before. The Catholic Church does allow for some latitude in the music planned for Mass, but what was intended as an extraordinary exception has become a universal rule. Sunday Mass is now dominated by songs which are quite often musically inferior, thematically inappropriate, and lyrically shallow. The result is a lack of unity in God’s family and a watering down of the Mass’s inherent beauty.


The Picture of Mass

Just as the Scripture readings are formally set and repeated in cycles throughout the ages, so also is the music we are meant to hear and share in. It is all for a reason, of course—it all works together to form a particular picture.

For example, at the Mass for the first Sunday after Easter last year Catholics heard specific readings from Acts of the Apostles, the 1st letter of Peter, and the Gospel of John. The homily expounded on those readings (one hopes) and in some way exhorted parishioners to imitate the first disciples spoken of in those readings. The Church thought all of this through a long time ago for the sake of the faithful—in general, everything at that specific Mass should celebrate these particular themes and subjects. That is the “picture” it forms.

The music should add even more color and texture to the overall picture. The best way to do this is what the Church has prescribed for centuries: chant. Gregorian chant is the best, most common way of singing what are called the “Propers” of Mass: the Introit, the Gradual, the Alleluia, etc.


Changing to Chant

This would amount to a revolution in parish music programs, and Ostrowski is sensitive to the seismic disturbances this would cause.

“I would suggest a two-step program,” he says. “Firstly, every secular, undignified, emotionally-driven song needs to be gradually banished from our churches. Secondly, we ought not to instantly take away hymns, because we have become so accustomed to them—and many are truly beautiful and they enhance worship. However, we should remember that chanting, especially the Mass Propers, is our ultimate goal.”

“Musicologists,” he goes on to say, “have pointed out that the very form of metrical hymns, with their predictable upbeat and downbeat, tend to remind us of the passage of time and (by extension) the world. Whereas Gregorian chant, which is completely free in its rhythm, takes you into another world: prayerful, reverent, eternal, holy.”

On top of this, it is the preferred music of the Church—not the hymns to which we have all become so accustomed. Gregorian chant “should be given pride of place in liturgical services,” wrote the Council Fathers in 1963’s Sacrosanctum Concilium (par. 116) and yet this mandate has largely been ignored for decades.

It seems, however, that chant’s time has come. Corpus Christi Watershed has achieved amazing success as the go-to place for any and all resources having to do with chant, and the Vatican II Hymnal is a crown jewel of that success. The hard work and persistence of the staff, board members, composers and performers associated with CCW is all an effort designed to meet a modern resurgence of interest in the ancient forms of liturgical music. New scholas, or liturgical musical groups, are springing up in dioceses across America and they are often comprised of young, enthusiastic folk with very little formal training—they only know that they love the music that Corpus Christi Watershed is making available.

At this point, the biggest obstacle for the average Catholic is simply a lack of confidence. They are unfamiliar with the traditional music and so they are not sure if they will be able to learn it or perform it correctly. Again, that is what Corpus Christi Watershed was created for: to assist Catholics everywhere in rediscovering and implementing ancient polyphony and chant in their parishes.

Imagine the glorious beauty of every Catholic Church on earth joining in harmony to hear the ancient Scripture readings assigned to a particular Sunday, to be pondering and fixating on the same themes and ideas, and to share in the one, holy sacrifice of the Mass all to the music of sacred chants that have been sung by Catholics on that day since the first centuries of Christianity? That is a more profound sharing in and realization of the unity of God’s family, and a foretaste of the heavenly reality that waits for all of us at the end of time.

The Vatican II Hymnal, like everything Corpus Christi Watershed produces, is done with no other purpose in mind than to bring us all into closer contact with God and with each other at Mass. It is high time that music directors stop thumbing through missalettes in search of mediocre songs that may or may not be prescribed by the Church. It is time to rediscover the ancient glory of the chants that the Church gives us.


Dan Lord is a writer whose articles have appeared in Crisis, National Catholic Register, Catholic News Agency, and Fathers For Good, and his as-yet-untitled book being published by Our Sunday Visitor will be released in the spring of 2012. He has an MTS from the University of Dallas, and he enjoys teaching, composing music and playing with the various children which his loving wife tricked him into conceiving. He blogs with careless abandon at


    Once again we get to be micro managed on worship.

    • What do you mean, Paul?

      Seems instead it’s, “we get to” worship God the way God intended in the liturgy rather than choose-our-own-adventure.

      Give me chant (which I have rarely if ever heard in Mass) over the banal songs we sang yesterday at my parish any day.

  • Excellent post, Dan! My husband and I have the honor of celebrating Mass and praying the Divine Office with monks at Conception Abbey in Missouri from time to time, and the experience is elevated to anything beyond the “normal” experience at the parish level. I credit chanting in achieivng that result (along with purposeful silence, architecture and art, tempo of the Mass and the spoken word, both in the homily and way Scripture is proclaimed). Chanting certainly has been a prime way for my spirituality to be tapped in a way it’s never been before.

  • Martha

    Gregorian chant “should be given pride of place in liturgical services,” wrote the Council Fathers in 1963’s Sacrosanctum Concilium

    Um, what?! WOW! Oh, the things I don’t know.

    Hear, hear, Dan! Great article. After suffering through the ‘Praise and Worship’ youth choir yesterday (could they have squeezed in any more self-centered lovey-lovey refrains in?), I’m so glad to be reminded that I’m not the only one who doesn’t applaud.

    I’m actually thinking about starting a youth choir of my own at my parish, and teaching the kids chant, and ancient Latin hymns.

  • Ann

    I thought this was a very well thought-out and nicely referenced article expressing a view. I can barely hum, and appreciated the invitation to “join in”.
    My children, however, have sung in various scholas over the years. I must admit that the chant music is very uplifting music to hear. That is, it definitely raises one’s soul up towards Heaven.
    Being a cancer-survivor, I am definitely into promoting daily turning oneself to God in any way possible. I say to give this new Hymnal a try!

  • Cord Hamrick


    Given a piece of music in which one of the intended instruments for its performance is an electric guitar and another is a multi-piece percussion set; is it, necessarily, because of the inclusion of those instruments, guaranteed to be a shallow repetitive piece of crappy music?

    And, if the answer is, “No, it’s not the instruments, per se…,” then, what, specifically, is the problem?

    Is it,

    1. The lyrical quality?

    2. The composition style? (Overall structure, harmonic and melodic and rhythmical motifs, et cetera)

    3. The accompaniment style? (The arrangement and implementation within a given section of the composition, which in small ensembles usually involves some discretion by the player)

    4. The quality of the performance? (Involves skill, experience, taste, opportunity to rehearse)

    5. The quality of the sound reinforcement? (Involves skill and adequate gear, including the nature of the room)

    I ask, because my chief observation about the experience of Catholic Churches with music using modern small-ensemble instruments is this: They have no valid experience of it, because it has never, or nearly never, been competently attempted within the walls of a Catholic parish.

    Had string quartets and Gregorian Chant been experimented with in as uniformly piss-poor and half-hearted a fashion as music with more contemporary instrumentation has been in the Catholic world, then doubtless string quartets and Gregorian Chant would be lambasted and vilified as unsuited to the Mass. But they hasn’t; fortunately. Thus they are accepted…but, music written for modern instrumentation needn’t be subjected to such handicap, either.

    I think it’s timely to ask such questions given that the David Crowder Band’s final album, which is a requiem Mass, is currently Billboard’s #2 album in the U.S. (Not #2 Christian album, mind you; it’s the #2 album.)

    Perhaps now is the time for Catholics, who apart from Matt Maher have been almost entirely absent from the field of modern-form musical composition, to re-enter that world and leapfrog the existing work with modern-instrumentation writing which does not suffer from repetitiveness, shallowness, and lack of skill?

  • Robert Fox

    Dear Cord Hamrick:

    For an excellent answer to your question… the best source are the Church’s own documents on liturgical music. There is good summary of the matter which can be viewed in video form here:

    My family and I started out in Church Music with guitar and flute, playing many of the tunes from a book called ‘Glory & Praise’. When my children became teenagers… they began to discover another form of liturgical music in Gregorian Chant. A young man in my parish offered to train me, my wife and my children in chant. After reading the Church documents and particularly the documents of Vatican II… I realize that Chant is the preferred form of liturgical music.

    As amateurs… we have been teaching ourselves the beautiful propers and other parts of the Mass and also have been learning old and new polyphony for the Mass. Yes! NEW polyphony.

    My eldest daughter introduced me to the music of Kevin Allen… a MODERN COMPOSER of Gregorian Polyphony. An article about him can be found here:

    His book Motecta Trium Vocem has 12 pieces which are VERY easy to learn… even for someone afraid of polyphony as I was.

    As to the propers themselves… they are PART of the Mass… and I would miss them now that I am used to hearing them and singing them every Sunday and Holy Day.


    My kids will never go back to the ditties which we have seen and heard for so long… and neither will my wife or I… or many of our friends.

    God bless you.

    vty Bob Fox

  • Robert Fox

    PS: Dear Cord Hamrick:

    Ahhh… obviously I can’t spell too well. It’s Motecta Trium Vocum.

    The thing is that the individual practice videos are available for FREE on line.

    Servus, Bob Fox

  • Sarto

    I like Gregorian Chant. I also know how difficult it is to sing Gregorian Chant well. The author wants to get rid of “emotion.” Hmmm. Mary’s Magnificat? Not full of emotion? The Psalms? Not full of emotion? Seems to me that this approach is a denial of the Incarnation. Or was Jesus forever as he is so often protrayed, solemnity personified? I like Jesuit priest Don Gelpi’s discussion of the role of the affect. It is there, he would tell us, that we often first sense God.

    As for the ability to bring someone into a soaring sense of the mystery of God…have you ever listened to some of the chant-like music developed by Protestants, especially Evangelicals. Every year, I attend our community worship service and I often hear this music. I watch the people literally rise off their seats, lost in the arms of God.

    • Thanks for your comment, Sarto, but I think that wild accusations of me denying the Incarnation are a little silly once you realize that nowhere in the article do I express a desire to “get rid of emotion.” I love emotion. In fact, I’m laughing with delight right now! It’s true that I did quote Mr. Ostrowski when he suggested that “emotionally-driven” songs need to be systematically “banished,” but that means exactly what it implies: songs that exist primarily to elicit emotion, with little to no lyrical, theological or liturgical value, have no place in the Mass. That’s just good, solid Church wisdom. I believe that if we, the faithful, followed the guidance of our Church (and simultaneously rejected faddish notions of what constitutes worship) it would result in a more beautiful liturgy and a stronger community of the faithful.

      • sarto

        Thanks for setting me straight, Dan. I agree about music that is emotion for emotion’s sake is way too shallow. And I am glad you are not denying the Incarnation, which anyone would be doing if they were trying to get rid of emotion in Church music.

        I can still remember the emotion I felt when I used to attend Mass at Mt. Angel Abbey, in Oregon. Or, at two Trappist monasteries where I have made retreats. I am not sure I appreciate the kind of Gregorian Chant we hear, say, on the daily Mass program on EWTN.

        Another new kind of music that moves me deeply is the sung/chanted Divine Mercy Chaplet. My favorite time was when our group, led by a woman with an excellent voice, sang the Chaplet in front of an abortion clinic in El Paso, Texas.

  • Sam Schmitt


    I think you may be asking the wrong questions. Not every piece intended for electric guitar and drum set is necessarily “crappy;” it may be a musical masterpiece played by world-class performers – but that’s not the point. Rather, we should start with “What’s appropriate for worshiping God in the liturgy?” Since the there already is a rich tradition of using music in the liturgy, and further, the Church has laid down guidelines about what is most appropriate, we should look to tradition and the guidance of the Church to determine what is fitting for God’s house. It is not just a matter of using good quality music that happens to have sacred words.

    I don’t think the reason modern styles in the liturgy are opposed is the quality of the performance. In many evangelical mega-churches – and some Catholic churches – pop styles are done quite skillfully and are very much accepted. One big consideration is the associations that particular instruments and styles have. There’s nothing wrong in itself with languid jazz standards or disco music (well, maybe there is with disco!), but these styles have associations that are foreign to the liturgy.

    Again, there is a great deal of music out there that is of excellent quality, but this alone does not make it appropriate for the liturgy.

  • Robert Fox

    I don’t get the sense here that the author… or any of the young folks engaged in this renewal of liturgical music wish to “get rid of emotion”. Rather… I see them as wishing to restore a sense of emotional/musical proportion or balance to the Mass.

    Chant is not hard to learn. The effort I put into learning chant was equal to the effort I put into learning how to strum my guitar chords to some of the songs which we have heard for at least the last 20 years at Mass.

    The HARD part is the quieting of our interior selves at Mass. We are used to being so STIMULATED by music which is essentially at odds with Church documents… that we need to gradually reorient ourselves.

    The question is NOT “What is my (or other people’s) preference for liturgical music”… but RATHER… “What is Christ, by way of His Church… by way of the Vatican II documents and the last four popes asking of me as a volunteer or professional of music at Mass.”

    It’s so much more easily dealt with when I take my opinions and preferences out of the equation and simply ask what does the Church want for me?

    vty Bob Fox

  • Cord Hamrick


    Thanks for your response.

    I already agree that pop styles, even done quite skillfully, can be and often are inappropriate for liturgy because they are not liturgical music.

    I cannot honestly say they are inevitably inappropriate because “pop styles” is a descriptor for about a thousand or so sub-genres ranging from Benny Goodman to Beyonce, from Stephen Sondheim to Smokey Robinson, taking in Yes and Yello, Anthrax and Adam Ant, Enya and Eurythmics, and Dave Matthews and Diana Ross, Kraftwerk and Kansas, Iona and Incubus, along the way.

    Somewhere in all of that I suspect there is music fit for liturgy, simply because everything audible in which an electric guitar and/or drums are involved can be found somewhere in in that gigantic landscape. If in fact nothing appropriate may be found in all of that, why then the only plausible conclusion is that it really is, after all, those two instruments which are the source of the objection. But I have other reasons to judge that idea false, which I will give below.

    So then if is not the instruments alone, and if somewhere under that “big tent” called “pop music styles” something may be found, what are its attributes? And why has the right mix of attributes not been seen yet in a Catholic parish, so far as most of us know?

    To help answer that question is why, in my original note, I broke down the potentially objectionable aspects of modern instrumentation music into different categories, of which only one was the quality of the performance. (And, although I did not number it, I gave respondents an opportunity to suggest that the instruments themselves were objectionable.)

    My hope was that someone would zero in on what is faulty or inappropriate in each category where something is faulty or inappropriate.

    In exploring all of this, I do think we should keep some history in mind. No conclusions we reach today should be incompatible with admitting all that we know to be factual about the history of Christian worship and of Jewish temple worship which prefaces it.

    As a matter of history, pipe organ, harpsichord, pianoforte (“piano”), SATB-style polyphony, and female singers are all innovations which were viewed with skepticism and resistance, to put it mildly, at the time of their initial introduction to Church music.

    (Pipe organ, of course, was the first synthesizer, intended through variations of mechanisms to achieve sounds simulating other instruments. You see this on occasion in the naming of the stops on some organs, where instead of lengths they are labeled as “trumpet”, “flute”, et cetera.)

    So is it possible to play music on piano which is inappropriate for worship? Absolutely. Try out your Scott Joplin some time as an offeratory and see how that goes over. Likewise organ and harpsichord. And I don’t probably have to list potential variations of vocal performances, female or otherwise, which would render even a cappella vocal music unfit for liturgy.

    Psalm 150 is sufficient to demonstrate that there is nothing intrinsically unfit about guitar (okay, lyre and zither; close enough) and drums. (Not much gray area, is there, in the imperative, “Praise Him with the clash of cymbals; Praise him with resounding cymbals!”)

    And even the manner of their playing and the accompanying “staging,” for want of a better word, allows for a broader emotionalism than we might sometimes expect or, if we are of European stock, instinctively prefer. I myself was embarrassed when, at a baptism/confirmation/Mass with the Archbishop present, colorful silken kite-like things on poles were brought in in a sort of procession. But then I remembered David’s dancing before the ark in a liturgical garment, and wondered what that tells us about the more celebratory forms of Temple worship on high holy days.

    And there is this: Different cultures have different authentic voices in which they worship the Most High God, and the Church intends (with mixed success on some occasions, it must be admitted) to be enculturated wherever on earth the sacraments are celebrated.

    Some cultures in particular are “Apollonian” and some more “Dionysian” in their authentic and enculturated expressions of worship. This is noteworthy because when a person of a more Apollonian bent observes a more Dionysian style of expression in another, they can either reserve judgment or condemn. But if they condemn, they quite likely condemn unjustly, and the fruitfulness of their own worship is likely to suffer. The story of Saul’s daughter Michal might have been given to us to learn this very lesson.

    So where do all these ruminations leave us?

    I suspect that “pop music styles” have been, up until now, poorly adapted to liturgy.

    For appropriateness, there must of course be good performance and good sound reproduction, and in these areas Catholic parishes are usually far weaker than even the worst of their Evangelical brethren.

    There must also be lyrical content which is theologically sound and not unduly self-absorbed and bathetic. In this, frankly, the current crop of praise-and-worship songs has done a better job than most of the hymns written for Catholic hymnals in the 20th century.

    But the hymns and chants written before that probably did a better job than either one.

    Okay, so minor lyrical improvement and major skill and production improvements are needed.

    But what about the writing, both in song form and arrangement and in the writing of melody, harmony, and rhythm figures?

    In those areas, I sense a possibility for Catholic liturgical music to lead the way through better writing, and thus become (as was once the case before) the source of improved quality for the rest of musical expression in our culture.

    For of course electric guitar parts need not be twangy and nasally. Drum patterns need not remind us of a disco. These are symptoms either of bad writing or the limited stylistic range of a particular performer.

    (On two related notes, I’d add that church buildings need not look like neglected industrial complexes, and vestments need not be clownish, or resemble a lacy baby bunting or a cheap shepherd’s outfit for an elementary school play, or look fabulously “ghey.” But those are topics for another day.)

    From a historical perspective, I suspect we’re in that transitional phase during which liturgical music is learning to incorporate new instruments and the styles associated with them: Throwing away the bad, and holding on to what is good.

    (You should hear how unfit for Mass some of the earliest noodlings on pipe organ were.)

    So, five hundred years hence, I expect they will be saying more or less the same things they were saying five hundred years ago, albeit with different instruments: “You can’t use a xeronythene in worship, you nincompoop! This is the Mass, don’t you realize that! There’s a reason that electric guitar and bass and drums and various keyboards have been the standard for centuries: They’re suited to producing liturgical music. And, sorry if it sounds too stick-in-the-mud to you younguns, but putting some skill and though into music-writing matters. That’s a big reason why the music written for guitar and drums and bass and keys is far superior to that repetitive xeronythene crap you listen to on your cybernetic implants. There’s no effort, no artistry, in any of that.”

    Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

  • Hello Cord,

    You obviously have a lot of thoughts on the subject of liturgical music, and I, for one, appreciate your input and interest. You notice, I’m sure, that I didn’t spend any time in my article beating up on pop music or trying to designate which instruments I think should be used at Mass and which shouldn’t. Still, I think you’re trying to bring up some interesting issues. I’ll take a shot at responding to why we ought not to use pop music styles.

    Pop music, by its very nature, is the kind of music we enjoy in the everyday, commonplace world we all share. The Mass is, by its nature, something that transcends that world. It is literally heaven coming down to meet earth—we can’t see it, but we know it’s true. Everything we do in Mass, therefore, should be an attempt to express and conform to that reality. Pop music draws our minds away from that reality, back to the profane and the mundane. Pop music obviously isn’t bad—but what we’re in need of is music that is more appropriate to what is really going on at Mass, music that doesn’t generally remind us of anything we just played on the CD player or heard on the radio or in a department store. Chant does that. It expressly calls our attention to heavenly realities. We hear it, and we know right where we are and what we should be doing. That makes it a really unique form, and it deserves special status—which is exactly what the Catholic Church teaches.

  • Cord Hamrick


    Thank you for your gracious response.

    I think a confusion between you and me and perhaps other readers is occurring because of different definitions of the term “pop music styles.”

    My theory is that it’ll be hard for us to converse constructively on the topic if some subset of what I call “pop” includes something that’s appropriate for Mass, but you’ve defined “pop” more narrowly so that your definition excludes everything that’s liturgically suitable.

    Do you mind if I test the theory?

    Are you aware of the “pop” song “Awaken” off the album “Going For The One” by the prog-rock band Yes?

    If you aren’t, perhaps you’ll go to Grooveshark and give it a listen for a few minutes? (Just go to and search for “yes awaken” and when the results come up, hover over the correct entry and click the little gray “Play” button which appears.)

    It’s quite a long song by pop standards and if you don’t like the style I don’t want to force you to listen for the whole thing on my account. But listen, if you will, to the first two minutes, and then from 9:50 up to about the fourteen minute mark or so.

    Now, that’s played by a small ensemble consisting of a male vocalist (with admittedly rather less than the usual quota of testosterone), a drummer, a bass player, a guitarist, and a keyboardist (playing various synths, one of which sounds like a pipe organ layered with a string pad).

    In other words, it’s played by a rock band, on rock band instruments.

    But, does that make it “pop” music? (You certainly won’t hear it in a department store. But a million people have it on CD or on their .MP3 players.)

    And, whether it’s “pop” or not, does any of it represent a style of writing, arranging, et cetera that would be appropriate for Mass?

    What I’m getting at is that I believe some folk would exclude out-of-hand that particular set of chords and timbres on the basis that they’re being performed by what looks like a rock band using rock instruments.

    If that’s what’s meant by excluding “pop music” from the liturgy, I’m afraid I can’t get behind it because I think, if anything, that’s the direction instrumented liturgical music ought to be going.

    But, if a person says, “Oh, well, that’s so idiosyncratic that one can’t really call it pop music,” then my response is to say: Very well, don’t call it “pop” music; just call it “21st Century Liturgical Music” and teach all those currently insufficiently-trained Life Teen guitarists how to play like that, and praise-and-worship songwriters how to write like that.

    You see, my concern is that folks are saying, “The current crop of pop-style music in liturgy is badly written for liturgy, and is played with insufficient skill…so, instead of seeing to it that it’s written and played better on the same instruments, let’s chuck those instruments, give up writing new music using modern instrumentation, and stick with our existing repertoire, only using instruments invented before 1950.”

    I think that attitude takes church music writing into a sort of musical ghetto. We Christians ought to be providing the leading artistic vision for the world: Haven’t we got the most to sing about, after all? But we seem instead to be turning ourselves into mere museum-custodians. It is wonderful, of course, to preserve the excellence of the artistic vision of the past for the edification of the current generation. But it would be tragic if there were not, now, an ongoing vision being realized, using the instrumental palette of the 21st century, for the edification of future generations.

    Your thoughts, Dan? (Or, anyone else?)

  • Cord Hamrick

    Oh, one final thing:

    The original article linked to “On Eagle’s Wings,” “Gather Us In,” and “Kumbaya” as examples of what’s execrable about current liturgical music.

    I have to agree about all that. Admittedly, I’ve never had the misfortune to experience “Kumbaya” in liturgy, praise be to God. But I heard someone once say they saw a nun strumming out Dylan’s “Blowing In The Wind” as an offertory at Mass; I assumed that this was mere humorous exaggeration until another person confirmed it. Egad!

    And I have heard “Gather” and “Eagle’s Wings” and “Here I Am, Lord” (a.k.a. the Brady Bunch Theme on Sominex).

    Yuck. All three of those, and anything resembling them: Yuck.

    I hope that no one supposes that in supporting newly-written liturgical music with modern instruments, I am expressing a preference for that dreck. That stuff, if they made me pope (hah!) would be chucked out with the kind of abrupt, high-handed, and jarring firmness that precipitates schisms (reason #2,390,871 why they aren’t going to make me pope).

    But I really do have to put Mercy Me’s rendition of “Better Is One Day” in a different category (or at least a far-superior rank in the same category) than those things. Likewise the rendition of “Revelation Song” off the WOW Worship Purple CD by Kari Jobe.

    The lyrical content is significantly better, for starters: Far less self-involved and therapeutic in focus. (Hard to go wrong with near-exact paraphrases from Scripture, I suppose.)

    But I also think that those tunes have slightly superior writing, from a music-style and arranging standpoint, to any arrangement or rendition of “On Eagles’ Wings” I’ve ever heard. Despite the fact that it’s obviously “pop”: Far more “pop,” at least, than “Awaken” by Yes.

    They’re more melodically interesting. More artful. More suited to the cadences of the English language. And they aren’t, like “Eagle’s Wings” and its brethren, layered with those 70’s-era saccharine major 7 chords that make one want to settle in for a nap while listening to “Up, Up, and Away” by The 5th Dimension.

    The rhythm figures (acoustic guitar strum patterns and the like) are, I grant, formulaic. But they’re at least formulaic according to current formulae, not thirty years out-of-date formulae. That makes a significant difference to the listener: The difference between immersion and shuddering distaste. And there’s no obvious reason why they couldn’t, on revision, become less formulaic while keeping that which is good about the music.

    Even these examples are not ideal in my view; but I offer them to show that there is a possible avenue for forward progress through new writing. I am not convinced that the only way to improve liturgical music is either to return to the pre-60’s repertoire exclusively, or to write new music that’s intended to imitate the old as a kind of self-conscious color-by-numbers “style study.”

  • I appreciate all your points, Cord, and I concur with many of them. But if the discussion always follows the same debates over who would prefer to hear which style and which instruments and what personally appeals to a particular group in a particular time and place, then the discussion will always end up slowly imploding into subjective reasoning, e.g. “who are you to say what kind of music brings me closer to God?” The answer to that, of course, always has to be: “whatever floats your boat.” But when it comes to liturgical music, though, the primary question is: what form of music best expresses the theological realities of the Mass? The Church says “chant,” and for a variety of reasons I agree.

    Having said that, the Church has always been a champion of the arts, including music. If you or any composer thinks they’ve developed a new form of music that expresses well the theological realities of the Mass, and is therefore on par with chant, then I say: put it on the table! Submit it for consideration, by all means! If the Holy Spirit wills it, it will become a celebrated part of the Church’s liturgical musical tradition, just like chant.

    • Cord Hamrick

      Dan, that challenge is a worthwhile one.

      It’s something I have been mulling for awhile, in fact.

      I don’t know how successful I’ll be, but you’re right: I might as well put my creativity, such as it is, where my mouth is. I’ll get back to you with results when I can.

      • That’s awesome, Cord. God bless.

  • Tony Esolen

    To Cord: Sacrosanctum Concilium gives special mention to the pipe organ, because of the nature of the sound it produces: it is a grand and mighty instrument. Its sound fills the large space of the church. More than that, the complexity of its range and its overtones allows for everyone in the congregation to “find” his or her note, whether they’re singing in harmony as the old Protestants used to, or whether they’re singing in unison at different octaves (I’m two octaves below our soprano cantor). The problem with the guitar is that its overtones are limited, its chords grow muddy in a large reverberating space, and it does not carry the melody line. The problem with the piano is, again, that, let’s say, a middle C is just a middle C (unlike what’s going on when several stops are out on the pipe organ), and that we associate piano with different sorts of performances: a soloist playing Liszt, maybe. Don’t get me wrong; I think the piano is an amazing invention. I don’t like it for Church music.

    To Dan Lord: I like chant a great deal. But I also love the great tradition of Christian hymnody. It would be a sore loss for me to think that I’ll never again sing “All Glory, Laud and Honor” on Palm Sunday, or “Thine Be the Glory” during the Eastertide, or “Lo, He Comes” during Advent, or, yes, any of the great hymns by the Wesleys, and even Luther’s “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.” These are works of art, and often of consummate power.

    • I agree completely, Tony. I don’t want to see the great hymns simply eliminated. The Church makes allowances for them, obviously, but I’m not sure how to make use of that allowance without opening the door to lesser hymns, which always seem to be waiting at the door like uninvited guests! Hopefully, greater minds than mine will be able to work out some new guidelines.

  • Cord Hamrick


    I agree with you about pipe organ, but keep in mind that…

    (a.) it didn’t start “grand and mighty” but as a novelty instrument that was enlarged and perfected over, what? Five hundred years or so, from the 1200 to 1700?; and,

    (b.) …part of that perfection came about when the church buildings were designed around the organ; that is, to amplify reverberations by using rectangular spaces which were multiples of the lengths of the waveforms for each note (and thus, of the pipes).

    That last is why the pipe organ fills the church: It is the church; or rather, the church is the soundbox for the organ much as that wooden box with the hole in it is the soundbox for a dreadnaught-style folk guitar. (Put a bunch of Lilliputians in pews in there, and they’ll call the guitar “mighty,” too!)

    I’m confident you already know most of that.

    But, I mention it as a preface to (respectfully) disagreeing with what you say about the guitar. What you say (“its overtones are limited…”) is correct only of the acoustic and unamplified guitar. It’s true of the nun strumming Dylan tunes (a travesty I mentioned in an earlier post), but not remotely true of the better-done evangelical worship music today…and I’m trying to advocate something a step above that.

    The technology of an instrument advances faster today than in the five hundred year development of the pipe organ. That’s why an Ibanez Universe through a Fractal Audio Axe FX II, in a well-treated hall, is increasingly comparable to a pipe organ (and can do much the pipe organ can’t). One compares the developed form of one instrument with the developed form of the other.

    Likewise one compares the undeveloped form of one instrument with the undeveloped form of the other: The nun with the acoustic guitar is comparable to the earliest pipe organ predecessors…something like a bagpipe or a hurdy gurdy, I suppose.

    Because it is merely a matter of technology, a trio of bass and electric guitar and keyboard can and does out-fullness a pipe organ if

    (a.) the players have the gear and know how to use it; and,

    (b.) the sound reproduction, including the sonic character of the hall, is adequate.

    …which may sound like I’m weighting the playing field in favor of my argument. But I’m actually only leveling the field: The pipe organ likewise only works when you have the gear (priced a pipe organ lately?) and a player who knows how to use it (rare and pricey, these days) and the hall is reverberant and treated (“tuned”) for the organ (and vice versa).

    By the way, I’m with you on Christian hymnody. I’d hate to lose the better Wesley hymns. My old Baptist hymnal still plays a part of my private devotional life.

    And I should point out that I also love chant, though I know it far less well. (I wasn’t a Catholic yet, when I was getting my music degree. Give me a few years and I’ll absorb it better.)

    In fact I suppose I like pretty much all worship music except when it’s too reminiscent of a radically different style associated with a secular mood or environment.

    So I have great sympathy for the kinds or arguments you and Dan Lord have made; they echo my own mind in many ways. I deeply desire majesty, awe-inspiring fullness and richness, and excellence of musical craftmanship in worship.

    But how best to achieve it, for the next thousand years?

    And, how to create an environment in the Church which matures everyone towards that musicality which makes the churches the central wellspring of musical talent and training and inventiveness in our culture as they ought to be?

    That last is not going to happen if we go the “museum route,” preserving liturgical music intact without any development. That the best churchmusic of 500 A.D. and 1000 A.D. and 1500 A.D. should remain in use goes without saying, or should. But I don’t think the Holy Spirit is likely to freeze it in amber. By the year 2500, barring the Lord’s return, I’m confident there will be some new enlargement of the tradition.

    What will it be? If by 2500 it will be a sturdy new branch off the central trunk of the church music tradition, where now is its nascent bud?

  • frjimt

    sickening? emotion driven? banished?
    but do it gradually,
    then why not ban all music all together.
    I’m all in for hiring a good Jehovah’s witness that might help with that.

  • Sam Schmitt

    “And, how to create an environment in the Church which matures everyone towards that musicality which makes the churches the central wellspring of musical talent and training and inventiveness in our culture as they ought to be?”

    May I suggest that this environment will only develop if chant is vigorously promoted, appreciated and sung. I don’t mean a Kyrie only during Lent or a chant hymn every once in a while during communion. Chant has to become the backbone, the bread and butter of music for the liturgy.

    A good place to start is with the simple chant dialogues between priest and people (“Dominus vobiscum” or “The Lord be with you” and its response, etc.) moving on to the ordinary (unchanging) parts of the mass like the Gloria, Sanctus, and Agnus Dei, and finally the propers of the mass (introit, alleluia, etc) sung by the schola. These elements are part and parcel of the liturgy and should have priority over hymns, anthems, and other musical elements which are not part of the rite itself. (Naturally this does not mean eliminating hymns or anthems altogether, but recognizing what is fundamental.)

    This isn’t a matter of keeping Church music in a museum; rather, history has shown that great new developments come only from those who have a full knowledge and appreciation of the tradition.

    Gregorian chant isn’t just one option among many for the Roman rite – it is “integral” to it, as Vatican II says – the music that belongs to the rite itself, embodying those characteristics of sacredness, universality, and beauty which Pius X identified as proper to sacred music. With the chant tradition holding on by a thread, the first priority should be tending this plant before branching out in new directions. These new developments will come, but only with chant in its proper place.

  • Wow, great conversation! Dan & Cord, I really appreciate your discussion. This is something I too have struggled witha LOT.

    I LOVE Jeff at CCWatershed and this Vatican Hymnal, as well as Adam Bartlett and his “Simple English Propers” project – both of which are INCREDIBLE resources for music ministers.

    However, I also have a strong place in my heart for, what I will call, “Praise & Worship” music which, in my opinion, has taken “pop music” and applied some of its techniques to authentic “worship” in the Church.

    I think the BIGGEST thing for music ministers to understand are the CONTEXTS of worship in the Church: liturgical, para-liturgical, and devotional.

    Liturgical music has been written on ad nauseum – and rightfully so since it is a part of the “source and summit” of our faith. And the Church has been clear about Her preference: chant is given “princem locum” – or FIRST place. I do find it interesting however that this “first” place does not EXCLUDE other forms of appropriate sacred music (that which “fosters unity of minds, brings delight to prayer, or confers greater solmenity upon the sacred rites – SSC112 or 116 I forget) and I believe that Catholics can and should begin writing “liturgical” praise & worship music that would conform to these norms and be at the service the liturgy.

    Beyond liturgical music however, you have para-liturgical music and devotional music. I place “adoration of the Blessed Sacrament” into the para-liturgical category b/c while there are litrgical norms attached to it at the beginning and the end, during adoration various style of prayer may be excersiced – including songs.

    For devotional worship – be it private or public – and sort of musical prayer may be appropriate, however it IS important to always keep in mind the principles of sacred music I cited above – without which our worship becomes purely emotive, individualistic, and banal.

    I pray that some of you would be interested in my blog on this subject, “The Catholic Worship Blog”. the goal is to empower music ministers to rediscover the heart of worship in the Church. The worship music of the Church shouldn’t be contemporary or sacred, charimatic or contemplative, it should be CATHOLIC. Our goal is to unite Church musicians to learn more about worship in the Church.

    I don’t mean to “spam” my links below, but to be honest, the reason I strated this blog/ministry is because I haven’t found anywhere else online where these kinds of conversations are happening in terms of music ministry in the Church. I thank you all for your contributions in this discussion, God bless!

    Here’s some articles you may enjoy:
    “The Spirit of Worship eBook”:

    “Why P&W IS Praise AND Worship”

    Also, have a listen to our podcast!

    And if you’re a music minister, we have a store just for you!

  • Dan Craig

    I’m only 21 years old, and I agree completely with this article. Chant (along with sacred polyphony and many ancient hymns) is literally and exclusively sacred music. There aren’t any “worldly” or “protestantized” associations attached to it. It has been in the tradition of the Holy Catholic Church for centuries and still is the most sacred form of music there is, which is only fitting for the most sacred Sacrifice we celebrate each day.
    Thanks for your work, Mr. Ostrowski and Mr. Lord!!

  • mike flynn

    the pharisees and scribes have once again hijacked holy mother church. i am a historian by nature and schooling. i very much appreciate the higher culture of RCC. many modern hymns have made me cringe in the pew. and i would not mourn their passing. give me a good “holy god we praise thy name” anytime. yet that is all such a veneer, not the substance of the faith. but when the scribes start publishing long, preachy aticles on gregorian chants, we – the RCC – are setting us up once again for a great fall. let’s get back to, and stick to the WORD.

    • Hello, Mike. For Catholics, everything we do and say at Mass is intimately connected to what we believe. Some things are more important than others, of course, but there really is no such thing as a “veneer” of unimportant trivialities covering a delicious, chewy faith center. Give the Pharisees a little credit—Jesus himself said that not one jot of the Law would pass away until all was fulfilled. What we do, and the way we do them, truly matters. If we don’t bother to sing and play music that expresses what we believe to the best of our ability, what does that say about our relationship with Christ? If we continue to ignore what the Holy Spirit-guided Church says about which kind of music is best for the liturgy, what does that say about our relationship with Christ? Far from being “preachy,” I think I, like so many out there, simply want to see God honored in the most beautiful, faithful way possible. God bless.

  • Tony Esolen

    I agree with you, Cord, on the need for composers to continue to write great music for the Church. We may well disagree on how that is to be done.

    I’ll use poetry for an analogy. Every great development in the history of English poetry has been a retrieval of something old that had been forgotten, and its reintegration in a new context. So then, Milton went back behind the epic romance genre of Spenser (whom he admired very greatly) to write Paradise Lost under the more direct influence of Virgil and Homer. Pope did the same sort of thing, in a different manner, by eschewing the blank verse of Milton, and incorporating the heroic couplet (like the French alexandrine couplets) into English, as Dryden had done. Wordsworth reached behind the neoclassical Pope to retrieve both Milton and Spenser. Browning and Tennyson lived in an age when poetic drama was almost nonexistent, but they retrieved the dramatic monologue from the Renaissance.

    So, Ralph Vaughan Williams, a great composer in his own right, wrote hymns inspired by the centuries of hymnody, and wrote polyphonic pieces inspired by Renaissance polyphony (check out his O Taste and See), AND restored old folk melodies from the British Isles, harmonized them, and had them set to the poetic hymn-texts of Isaac Watts and others. That is what our “composers” now could be doing, but aren’t.

    Another thing: the texts to hymns written after 1950 are almost uniformally dismal. There are a few exceptions, mainly by guys like T. Dudley-Smith, who actually seems to know what’s going on in religious poetry. But most of the texts are plain bad. That’s no surprise, since our schools have almost wholly abandoned the teaching of the long heritage of English poetry, and since poetry has faded almost entirely from the experiences of ordinary people.

    So I sure would like to hear the new “The King of Love My Shepherd Is,” and the new “For All the Saints,” but I doubt I’m going to, because of the general ignorance and incompetence out there…. Sorry, but that’s as I see it.

    • Cord Hamrick


      Hmm. I find myself agreeing with everything you said there. (You needn’t apologize and say “Sorry, but that’s as I see it.”) There’s certainly ignorance and incompetence out there, and I agree with you about the texts to the hymns.

      Part of the problem, of course, is that our whole culture is no longer a poetry-producing culture; the lyrics to popular songs are the closest we get, and many of those are atrociously bad because children in schools are taught to view free verse as equivalent to a Shakespearean sonnet, and are not even taught the difference between free verse executed well and mere vomiting of emotion on to the page…and is it any wonder that their idea of how to write lyrics amounts to vomiting emotion on to the page? There are exceptions to the rule. But they are few and far between.

      But look at what an opportunity that is, for Catholics (and Christians in general) if we take the whole crop of home- and private-schooled kids and teach them poetry for real. It ought to be comparatively easy to leapfrog the secular culture’s artistic output and seize the initiative, when that artistic output is crap.

      Not every Christian kid will be a genius, but it’ll vastly improve our odds if we just have that whole segment of the population understand the words “When Ajax strives some rock’s vast weight to throw / The line, too, labors, and the words move slow.” It isn’t poetry until at least that kind of craft is in evidence, as a bare minimum. But public schools largely neglect to teach that minimum.

      To return to your analogy: I see how a return to study of chant would parallel a return to the study of Virgil and Homer in some ways. And of course I do not disparage, but firmly assert, the value of chant.

      But I must state this cautionary note: What if one were to command, “All chant, all the time, at all places where music is possible, in every liturgy.”

      (I grant there is no real concern that that would happen, at the moment! …but I am following the argument for chant’s unique status — or perhaps an exaggeration of that argument — to its logical conclusion — or perhaps an exaggeration of its logical conclusion.)

      If we were to say, “Chant, All The Chant, and Nothing But The Chant,” one could argue that, well, modern folk who want to compose for the Mass should just compose in the chant style. But, they’d better not modify that style much, or develop beyond it. If they did, what they compose would start to be out-of-bounds again.

      In that case we should have Catholics as the masters of a particular kind of style-study: They would, on command, be able to produce chant that looked and sounded like it came from the 9th century.

      But that would not be a living artistic tradition. It would be a kind of embalming fluid.

      And note that chant, pride-of-place or not, simply isn’t the only form of liturgical music that we know to be fitting. My previous cited examples of Psalm 150 and David before the Ark pretty well rule out the idea that the Israelites were tuned in to the “All Chant, All The Time” station.

      Is it chant that we should be teaching to the liturgical musicans, then? Perhaps we should be teaching them the proper way to “clash cymbals?”

      I think it is “all of the above.” Let them be well versed in all of the liturgical musical styles (with pride-of-place given to chant).

      Let, then, their student/journeyman output be in all liturgical musical styles (with pride-of-place given to chant).

      And then, let their mature artistic output be turned towards modern instrumentation (when it is instrumental) or incorporate a knowledge of modern vocal production (when a cappella), but written by authors so deeply versed in the ancient liturgy music that the texts and melodies and harmonies and rhythm figures produced are (a.) obviously distinct from what you hear on the radio, and (b.) of obviously higher quality.

      I think it has to be that way, for if that kind of process — the incorporating of new instruments and techniques by persons well-versed in the liturgical music that preceded them — does not happen, we’ll have no living tradition, but a dead and embalmed one.

      And we can be confident of that, because that’s the kind of process that produced Pipe Organ and Chamber Orchestra music, to begin with.

      Or so it seems to me.

  • Chris

    It is great to read these insightful comments. Would anyone care to recommend some good collections of hymns that would be worth purchasing. It would be greatly appreciated. Thank you

  • Mark Higdon

    Good to see this article. Prior to reading it, I had already acquired a nodding acquaintance with CCW and the Vatican II Hymnal. Re the latter, I found it instantly and enormously ironic that a work intended to restore tradition, dignity and relevance to the music of the sacred liturgy would be named after the historical event that helped to wreak so much havoc and mayhem upon it in our time.

  • Laura

    Thank you Dan for the article, it covers an important topic in an intelligent and fair way. I would like to see this chants back in the mass

  • Tony Esolen

    Chris: Maybe the best English hymnal of the century is the Anglican 1940 Hymnal, just called the 1940 Hymnal. It is still in print. It was reissued in the 1980’s with a supplemental section of additional hymns in the back.

    Also excellent is the Adoremus Hymnal, but it doesn’t have as many hymns as does the 1940 (yet there will be Catholic hymns in Adoremus that aren’t in the 1940 — which, by the way, itself has a great wealth of medieval plainsong).

    I find that the hymnals published before 1950 are generally pretty darned good. Things go downhill after that (except for Adoremus). Almost any hymnal before 1950 will include some unusual treasures. Then there’s the classic English Hymnal, sometimes called the “Green Hymnal,” put together in the 20’s by Vaughan Williams and Percy Dearmer. It contains a HUGE number of very complicated chants, not to mention hymns and melodies that are hard to find elsewhere (including a haunting second harmonization by Bach of O Sacred Head Surrounded, and a really beautiful original melody for Jesus Christ is Risen Today).

  • J P Bernhard

    No one has brought up the fact that drum beats and electric guitar pulsating has been scientifically proven to physically stimulate the adrenaline glands, which results in a sense of drive-a sense of power-pushed to the extreme can even produce anger/dominance. Unfortunately, this “music” is sometimes entering worship because people are addicted to this physical stimulation. One young man told me, “it makes me feel powerful.”

    • John Zmirak

      Here’s a good rule, I think: Anything that makes good driving music on the highway is not suited for Mass, and vice versa. Of course, recent (70s) hymns are both soporific AND irreligious, so they’re useful mainly for repelling invasive deer in the suburbs.