Let’s Talk About Church Music
Christopher Wemp '12, M.A. '15
In my work as a liturgical music director and composer in the Catholic Church, I’ve heard many versions of the opinion, “This song is terrible!” How do we actually evaluate the quality of a song used at Mass? How might a music director select music that is “appropriate” for the Mass? I’ll be the first to say that there are songs and musical genres I like and those I don’t like.
Realizing this bias does, to a degree, affect my own music selections, I decided to find other methods besides aesthetic taste, then have conversations with people as to why I would or wouldn’t use a particular song at a liturgy. The stakes in such a dance are high: If a person of faith hears a music director speak poorly of a favorite song (one that could very well have affected the person’s faith life), there is a risk of alienation and exclusion, which runs contrary to the message of the Gospel.
So, if you find yourself ready to rant about a song, I invite you to consider grounding your argument in these three touchpoints instead.
- What are the lyrics communicating? If the song has original lyrics, does it make statements that perhaps fall outside of the Catholic tradition? For example, stating that we change the world by receiving communion is quite different from saying that we are empowered to change the world through grace found in the Eucharist. One of the trickiest ones I’ve encountered is seeing lyrics that talks about loving Jesus, but is ambiguous in communicating what kind of love that is. Ultimately, are the lyrics calling us into deeper communion with one another and with God? How?
- Does the music bring out deeper meaning of the lyrics? If the lyrics of a psalm speak of crying out to God with joy, and the music is a slow, dark chorale in a minor key, does that music help us enter more deeply into the lyrics? What about a lament in which the music is fast, syncopated, and exciting? If the Scripture readings for the liturgy are about the Holy Spirit and none of the songs used at that Mass mention the Spirit, how is the music helping us reflect on the Holy Spirit? Ultimately, does the music work with the liturgy’s sacred scripture in such a way that it calls us into deeper contemplation, prayer, and community?
- Is the harmonic structure of the song faithful to the tradition from where it comes? This one is a bit more technical. If a song is written using Western harmonic tradition (e.g., most American and European music), there are well-defined rules of harmonic progression, voice part leading, counterpoint, and arrangement that master composers such as Bach and Beethoven used. While rules are broken all the time in composition (and oftentimes to good effect), composers that understand the music theory and make modifications with deep purpose tend to have the best results. If someone is simply unaware of the rules and doesn’t follow them, there is a higher risk of creating a song that doesn’t quite work structurally.
Of course, there are more considerations to contemplate. Hopefully, the three I introduced can begin to help focus personal reflections and conversations around liturgical music from, “I can’t stand this song!” to “Let’s talk about how this song moves us (or doesn’t move us) to be greater disciples of love.”