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Liturgy and a Language that Lies

Can music convey meaning?

An excellent recent article by K.E. Colombini in Crisis Magazine titled “Keep Sacred Music Sacred” featured the very insightful words of Archbishop Alexander Sample of the Archdiocese of Portland in his pastoral letter “Sing to the Lord a New Song.” The Archbishop states:

Despite the Church’s norms, the idea persists among some that the lyrics alone determine whether a song is sacred or secular, while the music is exempt from any liturgical criteria and may be of any style. This erroneous idea is not supported by the Church’s norms.

In few a words, the Archbishop expresses a profound understanding that is easily overlooked. Drawn out, he seems to say that music, independent of any text attached to it, is capable of conveying meaning, and that its meaning may or may not be appropriate for liturgical usage. The Archbishop, it seems, recognizes the reality of a language of music.

To me, this begs a discussion of this language, as without a basic understanding of its terms, we are hopeless at applying it as the poor teenagers who fell victim to the now-passé fad of tattooing themselves with Chinese symbols. Without having any real knowledge of Asian languages beyond what they were told at the local tattoo parlor, they were as likely to find themselves branded with ads for laundry detergent as anything else.

This precise problem echoes the sentiment of Pope Francis when he speaks about the banality that has crept into liturgical music. To participants at a conference on sacred music in March of 2017, the Holy Father stated:

At times, a certain mediocrity, superficiality and banality have prevailed to the detriment of the beauty and intensity of the liturgical celebrations... [hindering the faithful from] perceiving the mystery of God and participating in it with all the senses, both physical and spiritual.

There was a time when the confines of liturgical norms meant that parish musicians did not necessarily have to speak or understand the language of music, they needed only to recite it. The correct application of the language was left to centuries of tradition. However, if we today find ourselves exercising greater freedom, then with that freedom comes the responsibility of learning and applying the language appropriately.

How then, does the language work? We know that across time and across cultures, music demonstrates a uniquely powerful influence over our bodies, our emotions, and our minds. In fact, it possesses mechanisms for influence over each of those components of our humanity. It does that through its own three components—rhythm, harmony, and melody.

Rhythm is often the first we understand. Our bodies are inherently rhythmic, and the soothing rhythm of a mother’s heartbeat, heard in the womb, could be called the first music we ever know. Rhythm is the reason a lullaby is effective at rocking a baby to sleep, a march is effective at making us feel like stomping, and a waltz is effective at making us feel like swaying. Rhythm speaks directly to our bodies and impels how we use them.

No one would be surprised at the suggestion that a John Phillip Sousa number would be a poor choice for a lullaby or for a romantic prelude, even if it was set with otherwise appropriate words. A march’s rhythm sends a message perfectly suited for marching—and generally unsuited for most anything else. Similarly, every rhythm communicates something specific directly to our bodies.

Addressing the next component of our natures, harmony can convey emotional meaning very powerfully. If we keep the rhythm and melody of a bit of music the same, but alter the harmony, it is the emotional message that is immediately impacted. When seated at a piano, I can make listeners feel the weight and tragedy of Mary’s little lamb not being allowed at school by changing the normally major key to minor. I can also make a funeral dirge seem ironic or cheerful by making the same change in reverse.

If it’s difficult to imagine this without an audible example, here are two funny YouTube videos making the point. The first contains happy children’s songs like “Frere Jacques” played in minor keys at, and the second makes emotionally-reversing changes in contemporary music videos at The principle alteration in both of the videos is simply in how the familiar melodies are harmonized.

Finally, among the three components, melody appeals primarily to our intellects. Melody immediately implies pattern, and our pattern-seeking minds leap, almost unbidden, at the game of predicting what’s next, of constructing reasonable possibilities, and of seeking resolution and completion. To understand this, imagine, for an instance, the discomfort you feel at an incomplete melody. It’s a bit like the discomfort you feel at an incomplete sentence, an unfinished story, or at seeing that one book that doesn’t line up with the others on a shelf.

There is a movie in which a neighbor of Beethoven is playing the piano and stops abruptly to answer a knock at the door. The joke is that Beethoven, before loosing his hearing, is so disconcerted by the incomplete line that he storms over to his neighbor’s, barges in, and furiously plays the last note. We all have a similar impulse. The impact of melody on our minds is so noted that researchers have dubbed the term “the Mozart effect” to describe the influence that exposure to complex and well-constructed melody has on the intellectual development of children and the performance of adults in tasks of math and reasoning.

So, with rhythm, harmony, and melody, music conveys meaning. (For those who are academically inclined with regard to music, I readily admit that my above discussion is a gross yet useful oversimplification.) As the Archbishop implied, the musical meaning that comes about from these components is entirely separate from any text that might then be applied. Performers, composers, and the architects of different musical styles can order and emphasize these components to suit the meaning they wish to convey.

Mozart—with his simultaneously creative and predictable use of melody—can make me better appreciate logic. Puccini, with his masterful command of harmony, can make me weep helplessly at even the most implausible operatic story lines. The compelling rhythms of a good Irish folk band can make me feel like standing up and fighting for what’s right, even if I’m all alone in the living room.

We all feel these things, though perhaps we don’t take the time to sort out why. None of it, however, is accidental. It is music communicating meaning though its own powerfully influential language.

Interestingly, in the examples above, while the styles each emphasize one aspect or another of music’s components of influence to achieve their purposes, the three remain what we might call “properly ordered.” That is, they are ordered in the same way that Catholic teaching calls upon us to order our own selves--with our reason ruling our hearts, and our reason and our hearts ruling our physical appetites. Melody is primary over harmony, and melody and harmony are primary over rhythm.

There are other musical styles where this order is scrambled or even inverted. For instance, the violence we hear in the most extreme rap styles isn’t only contained in the lyrics. It is also music that eschews the primacy of melody and harmony for an exclusive emphasis on an unceasingly aggressive rhythm. For another example, who can forget the “Lambada,” the piece of music claiming to the be the most hypersexualized that existed? That was a promotional exaggeration, but nevertheless, imagine how inappropriate sacred text would be set in these styles.

While these extremes are never the case in practical usage, something along similar lines does occur when the music at Mass seems to regard musical style as simply a backdrop for sacred text without taking account the message contained in the music itself. I frequently hear this happen under the auspices of liturgical enculturation—whether such sensitivity is meant to appeal to a particular ethnic enclave or to contemporize the liturgy for a particular age group. Enculturation is absolutely laudable, but enculturation often isn’t what’s happening.

Real enculturation of liturgical music should take into account the musical language of the culture in question and use the appropriate musical “terms” in that language for the physical, emotional, and intellectual experiences appropriate to the liturgy. These include the musical terms for things like awe and reverence, penitence and sorrow, transcendent joy and wonder. I argue that the ability to call on these terms is the criteria for the appropriateness of music to the context of the Mass.

I am familiar with a Mass setting that, although the final three chords aren’t contained in the sheet music, is set to a rhythm which always compels the parish pianist to finish each sacred response with “cha-cha-cha.” Yes, the pianist shouldn’t do that, but the music shouldn’t compel the pianist, who is only responding naturally to the bodily pull of the rhythm, to do so in the first place. What is happening is that such a setting, instead of embracing and using the fullness and richness of the musical language of a given cultural group, has seized upon the most stereotypical sound associated with that culture.

Now, the sound most stereotypically and superficially identified with any culture is embodied in the song most frequently requested at that community’s favorite watering hole at 8 PM on Saturday night. The outcome of basing one’s enculturation of liturgical music on this is as painfully oversimplified as saying, “Well, German Americans of a certain age group like polkas, so at their parishes, the Gloria should sound something like Roll out the Barrels. And the Sanctus? Well, the Mass should have continuity, so make sure it echoes that established theme.”

Interestingly, if the makers of a new-and-enculturated Mass setting were interested in learning the musical language of a certain group, they should at least stay around the watering hole until around 1 AM, when nostalgic songs that express heartbreak, regret, and the tender hope for reconciliation begin to take their turn on the jukebox or with the band. At that point, they might begin to hear a hint of what the Kyrie should sound like. But I digress.

My point is this: music has a language, and that language has terms for physical, emotional, and logical meaning. To misuse those terms is to contradict the meaning of the text. Whether it is intentional or not, such a conflict creates an experience in the listener akin to a lie. It is similar to saying “yes” with one’s words while shaking one’s head vigorously, winking an eye, and visibly crossing the fingers, thus using one’s body language to say “no.”

Which message does the person who does this send? Is not the text of their “yes,” not only contradicted but perhaps even overridden by the more powerful communication of “no” via a more visceral language? While such a mismatch of music and message might generally just make for unsuccessful or ironic art or advertising, in the context of the Mass, the lie becomes dangerous on a scale of eternal consequence.

This point can not be overstated. One might wonder why, in a time of grave and tragic crisis in the Catholic Church, a point about liturgical music would be given such weight. To wonder this, however, is to almost forget what it is that happens at the Mass. Forgetting that is to forget Christ Himself, which is precisely the reason we find ourselves in a moral mess.

Let’s take one step back and ask ourselves, why is music a part of Mass in the first place? Is it because Mass is a long worship service full of droning readings, talks, and rituals which must be periodically livened up by a little entertainment? To think this is to imagine the Mass to be something like protestant evangelical church service—a gathering at which Christ Himself is not truly, physically, literally present in the Blessed Sacrament, and where the band is generally an enticement for attendance (and often a good one).

My friends, that is not the Mass! The responses of the Mass—the parts that are sung in union with the very angels themselves (Luke 2:14, Isaiah 6:3) as the veil of time is ripped away and we stand in awe of Christ’s very literal self gift, are not there for our entertainment. The musical responses are the almost-incomprehensible opportunity to ourselves participate in the event of greatest cosmic significance that has ever occurred—Christ’s sacrifice—as He Himself becomes truly and physically present on the altar.

If you have forgotten this, you have forgotten what it means to be a Catholic. And liturgical music that has lied to you may be in great part to blame. It is unfathomable enough but through Faith to understand that your physical senses deceive you when you behold Jesus in the Eucharist. He looks, tastes, smells, and feels like bread and wine. At least your ears should affirm the sacred Truth.

Our responses at Mass, in order to be truthful, need to employ, rather than ignore, the profoundly influential language of music to sound like what they mean.

If they do not do this, it is better for us to simply speak the responses truthfully than to sing them with our fingers musically crossed behind our backs, so to speak. If we sing “Lord, have mercy,” it had better sound like we are imploring God for just that, not asking to be tossed peanuts at a baseball game. “Holy, Holy, Holy” had better imply to the listener that He Who is drawing near is in fact truly, inconceivably so.

When asked to choose the music to which you will walk down the main isle of your church for your wedding, would you exclaim “Oh, wouldn’t some indistinct and emotionally uninvolving elevator music be just perfect!?” No! You would certainly choose music with meaning appropriate to the moment. When you walk down that same isle to be even more intimately united with God Himself, why on earth would the importance of the music be less?

Consider the impact the musical choice would have on the onlooker. Consider someone who was questioning their Eucharistic faith, or perhaps a non-Catholic observer. Consider a Catholic who, over many years, is exposed to contradiction in music to sacred texts and sacred realities. If they attended your wedding, at which elevator music was the selection for your procession, would they leave with the impression that something momentous had occurred?

Is this a problem that is easily solved? I would say yes. It can be solved Mass by Mass by our parish musicians—by choirs full of retirees and teenage guitar players who as of yet know a total of three chords—if they do two very achievable things:

  1. Parish musicians must realize the enormous importance and dignity of their work. They must be enlivened in their Eucharistic devotion and made vividly aware of the theological realities of the Mass, including the function of the responses. They must realize they are welcoming Christ Himself on the altar.

  2. Regardless of their skill level, parish musicians must be introduced to the basic principles of communicating musical meaning. The principles aren’t widely known, because they are not naturally addressed when someone takes a music lesson where the focus is on “how” to play an instrument or sing. However, they’re not at all difficult to learn or employ.

These two things will ensure that the musical choices that parish musicians make accord with the meaning of the sacred texts they sing. (This information is so communicable and absorbable that my arts-oriented Association of the Faithful, Famila Victricis, is planning to offer it in a short retreat course in Santa Fe, in online video classes, and through parish workshops wherever they are needed. Click HERE for the link.)

It should be clear from my suggestions above that I am not here advocating a particular musical style in the liturgy, though certain styles easily solve the problem of musical meaning matching sacred texts, which is the very reason they existed in the first place and why tradition upheld them. However, those styles often require very specific training or familiarity, often acquired over a lifetime of exposure to the artistic heritage and culture of Catholicism. That is exposure that the parish musician of today does not have.

I am very excited by wonderful programs that seek to re-educate the Catholic faithful in these musical traditions and believe that in the long term they will have great success. However, my immediate concern is what happens on the altar today and offering as expedient an emergency remedy as possible. What is at the root of such urgent concern? Jesus Himself.

Today Christ is present on the altar, exactly as He was present hanging on Calvary, His heartbreak increased as He is witnessed by indifferent crowds who don’t recognize Him. We today are these crowds, encouraged by music that whispers “That’s not God. He’s not here. Nothing important is taking place.” Nevertheless, His Sacred Heart is lying as exposed to us in the Eucharist as it was when He said to St. Margret Mary:

Behold the Heart that has so loved men that it has spared nothing… and in return, I receive from the greater part only ingratitude, by their irreverence and sacrilege, and by the coldness and contempt they have for Me in this Sacrament.

Let us stir up our sentiments of warmth and reverence and love so that Christ today on the altar is received with comprehension and desire in our minds, our hearts, and our bodies. Nothing less than this, my friends, is the importance ensuring of truthful music accompanies the Mass. Its purpose, in the end, consoles the Heart of Jesus himself.

What sound should accompany this scene?

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