A Primer on Liturgical Music

While it still varies from place to place and parish to parish, it seems overall that COVID restrictions are slowly waning. This will, as it has until now, affect liturgical celebrations. One of the main ways this will happen is that soon, please God, we may be able to sing regularly at Mass again. Therefore, as pastors and parishes begin preparing for such realities, I want to offer the following “Primer on Liturgical Music” as a means to help singing the praises of God once more. In general, it will offer theological and liturgical principles from which priests may draw and apply to their specific situations. In other words, I do not intend simply to catenate rubrics, but rather to give a more fundamental vision of sacred music. This will also be a plea to consider using the great musical patrimony of the Church — particularly Gregorian Chant and the Propers — so as to help renew sacred music within parishes at an opportune time. When better than when going from nothing to something?

(Nota bene: Portions of Colossians 3:1–17 will be used throughout, so you may wish to read that before proceeding.)

Essential Definitions

Let us begin with clarifying some terms. In order to understand sacred music, we must first understand its context, which is the Sacred Liturgy. According to the Second Vatican Council, the liturgy is nothing less than a making present of the Paschal Mystery of Jesus Christ: His Passion, Death, Resurrection, and Ascension.1 Further, the same Council states that the purpose of the liturgy is, through the worship of God in Jesus Christ, the glorification of God and the sanctification of men.2 Already this demands particular things of any music used at liturgy: it must be worthy of the Cross and capable of glorifying God and bringing men to holiness.

This leads to the next definition. Sacred music must in fact be sacred, holy and sanctifying. This means, as the history of the word “holy” shows, sacred music must be “set apart for worship, consecrated.” Think of Isaiah 6:3, where the prophet sees the seraphim chanting “holy, holy, holy” in the presence of God. This shows that God is thrice-holy, thrice-set-apart. In other words, He is “totally other” as the Scholastics would say. At the same time, however, He is able to sanctify (make holy) those who come to Him, as Isaiah’s own purification in verse six shows. Following this, sacred music should be something set apart specifically for liturgical purposes, and, by that fact, should be something that helps to sanctify.

Finally, sacred music must, as obvious as it seems, be music. According to the dictionary.com entry, music is “an art of sound in time that expresses ideas and emotions in significant forms through rhythm, melody, harmony, and color.” The most important part of this definition is that sacred music be an art: it must be beautiful and uplifting, stylistic and logical. Christian worship is after all defined by the Logos of God (see Rom. 12:1, wherein worship is defined as logike latreía), meaning, by its very nature, it must be reasoned and ordered. In other words, it cannot be a slovenly, atonal, unsettling amalgam of random and cacophonous sounds, but must rather be a beautiful, clear, coherent set of notes that give priority to the text being sung and foster a prayerful setting. When this happens, sacred music lives up to its high calling “as a treasure of inestimable value, greater even than that of any other art. The main reason for this pre-eminence is that, as sacred song united to the words, it forms a necessary or integral part of the solemn liturgy.”3

On the whole, then, sacred music is an art set apart for worship which makes holy. It is sacred before it is music, meaning the focus is on God, not us. For the liturgy is about God coming to us and taking us to Himself, not us “making God happen” by our coming together. Keeping this in mind helps us to keep liturgy rooted in God and in mystery, rather than in us and in trying to solve the mystery.

At this point, I would like to make a distinction: sacred music and religious/devotional music are different. Both are certainly good! But one (sacred) has its proper setting in the liturgy, whereas the other (religious/devotional) can easily be used elsewhere, from private prayer to concert stages. This, by itself, disqualifies it from the Sacred Liturgy, for it is not specifically set aside for it. Dr. William Mahrt, speaking about the most fitting music for Mass as Gregorian chant, explains this concept:

Gregorian chant is unique, there is nothing like it; it does not belong anywhere but in church. Even if some people use it for mood music, its proper place is in church. [. . .] It is like incense: as soon as you catch a whiff of it, you know where you are. There is thus something that is unambiguous about the sacredness of Gregorian chant. I think ambiguity is not a necessary part of sacred music. In fact, clarity is a necessary part of sacred music. Clarity means that its purpose is unambiguous. So Gregorian chant has exclusive use as sacred music and an unambiguous purpose.4

St. Paul comes to mind in this same vein. Writing to the Colossians, he says: “Seek the things that are above . . . set your mind on things that are above, not on things that are on earth . . . put to death therefore what is earthly in you” (Col. 3:1–2, 5). Applying this to sacred music, we can say that such music should raise the mind and heart, and not draw it to earthly realities. This is why anything that can take place elsewhere does not belong at Mass or other liturgies. Consider “America the Beautiful” or “God Bless America,” which are often sung at Mass on July 4th. If we are honest, these songs can remind of the seventh inning stretch at a baseball game more than the heavenly realities, and so should not be sung when entering into those same heavenly realities. Just because something mentions God does not thereby make it suited for liturgy. On the other hand, a total lack of God is also quite suspect. Cardinal Ratzinger had some marvelous words on this very topic:

A Church which only makes use of “utility” music has fallen for what is, in fact, useless . . . For her mission is a far higher one. As the Old Testament speaks of the Temple, the Church is to be the place of “glory,” and as such, too, the place where mankind’s cry of distress is brought to the ear of God. The Church must not settle down with what is merely comfortable and serviceable at the parish level, she must arouse the voice of the cosmos and, by glorifying the Creator, elicit the glory of the cosmos itself, making it also glorious, beautiful, habitable, and beloved.5

If we were to continue with St. Paul in the same letter to the Colossians, we would see that he has more to say that can be applied to our present discussion. The rest of this article will draw from his words to explain various aspect of sacred music.

Logical Nature of Sacred Music

In Col. 3:10, St. Paul says: “You have put on the new man, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator.” The current context of liturgical realities calls to mind the sacrament of baptism, in which we are each clothed with Christ. In this sacrament, the image and likeness of God, given to us at conception yet marred by sin, is restored and renewed. By entering into this and engaging in it throughout life, this New Man who is Christ lives within us and works through us (see Gal. 2:19–20). To live up to this on our part requires our whole selves. When it comes to sacred music, then, it must be a matter of entering into that New Man, living up to the image of the Creator. Now, St. Paul says this happens through “knowledge,” meaning this in an intellectual pursuit. This most certainly applies to sacred music: it must be intellectual in the deepest meaning of that word. It must speak to the very nature of man and help him as a rational being to pursue the truth. This happens in a couple ways.

First, music used in liturgical worship must be rational. It cannot be a bunch of babble or something that does not accord with reason (and thereby also with Revelation, since both come from the one source of Truth). I honestly think one of the reasons many do not sing is because what they are asked to sing is nonsense. They know, innately, that they cannot and should not sing such drivel, and so they do not. Unfortunately, this means that when something good is offered, they have been habituated to such a point that nobody sings. (It does not help either that men are simply discouraged from singing due to the schmaltzy melodies and higher registers of many modern hymns!)

Second, we must remember that music and singing in the liturgy is not just banal lip-service, but rather a matter of, as St. Benedict put it in his Rule, allowing our “mind to harmonize with our voice.”6 It is a matter of even our inmost depths entering into the worship of God by “harmonizing” with the text being sung, whether by removing distractions or by truly engaging whatever the text might be instead of robotically mouthing words. Music helps this to happen, because it is an internal and external affair. Yes, singing happens externally, but the words presented for our voices to engage are in the heart of the Church, and we enter with our own hearts into that same text. Sacred music thus engages the heights of man in his intellect and the depths of man in his heart. All of this is then expressed musically.

This is why it is so important that we internalize sacred music: memorization affects the soul, and when the material to be memorized is sacred, all the better! In this way, the music becomes our own, and we take pride in it. This extends to the whole of the liturgy: by memorizing prayers, Scripture readings, chants, and hymns, we are not as concerned with finding the proper page in a hand missal or pew book, but rather about actually participating in the sacred reality before us, and that from the heart. We are concerned about participating wholly, with heart and mind unified in song.

This is why it is so important to choose the right music for liturgy. The old proverb is lex orandi, lex credendi. What we pray will affect what we believe. For example, if for years a parish is (consciously or not) singing a hymn that is heretical — perhaps it implies Christ was only a man, or uses terms that make it seem like the Eucharist is only bread and wine — the parishioners will likely not believe the true faith, because they have sung heresy for so long. By constantly singing and praying what is not true, lies are believed, internalized, memorized, and those who pray so will no longer have the faith of the Church. Is it any wonder that the divinity of Christ and the Real Presence of the Eucharist are questioned even by so many Catholics today, when catechesis and music used at Mass have not formed them properly? No, not really.

I would like now to make a bold, yet obvious, suggestion to such problems: simply sing the Propers of the Mass!7 They are given to us by the Church to be sung (or recited) at each Mass, they are almost always straight from Scripture or the saints, and they have withstood the test of time. In addition, they are much easier than many of the hymns used at Mass these days, which are not only not meant for Mass, but which in some cases could only be sung by someone with advanced degrees in music.8 With the Propers, however, anyone can participate, even at a moment’s notice. Simple psalm tones are all that is needed, and there are plenty of those to go around. (This is not to rule out more complex forms of singing the Propers where that is possible! Long live sacred polyphony!) This will not only eliminate the constant need for new hymns, but will also, over time, teach people Scripture and truth by what they pray. It will also eliminate the need for creativity, which is always dangerous in matters liturgical, for we will simply be taking up what has already been proposed for us by the Church. Mother Church knows best. Let’s take advantage of Her knowledge.

Unifying Nature of Sacred Music

St. Paul continues (Col. 3:11): “Here there cannot be [division] . . . Christ is all, and in all.” He is saying that, because of the nature of our baptism, there cannot be division among us, but rather Christ must reign in everything and in every aspect. Everything must lead to Him and flow from Him. This is of course true of sacred music: it must lead to Christ and not distract from Him. For it is like an icon which is not Christ Himself, but is a good, true, and beautiful reflection of Him. Thus, good music must show forth the Incarnate Word, and must stand in a meaningful relation to the words in which the same Word has expressed Himself (Scripture, liturgy, etc.). Our patrimony of sacred music, then, inasmuch as it utilizes the words of the Word, brings the Church together, where “Christ is all in all.” It is one of the ways we are united to the Church of every age, for we sing the same words (by use of the Propers and prayers of the liturgy) and in the same ways (if we use chant and sacred polyphony).

This would be an appropriate time to mention a few things which often can lead to disunity in a parish rather than unity in Christ. First, sacred music is not a performance as that word is usually used. It is not a time for a budding soloist to draw attention to himself and thereby to distract from the liturgy. The Sacred Liturgy is not an opportunity for a display of talent, and sacred music is not art for the sake of art. They are about the glory of God and the salvation of souls, and so must be executed — “performed” — in such a way as to draw people to God. In a way, one who engages with sacred music must live out what John the Baptist said in John 3:30: “He must increase, I must decrease.” Put more bluntly, if our singing and music leaves people with more memories of us than of holy moments of prayer, we likely have failed somewhere along the way.

Another thing which brings about disputes has to do with likes, tastes, and preferences. “I like this hymn. I don’t like that style of music.” The first problem with this is the ego involved. It is not about what the Church wants, but “I.” We would do well to recall here that the liturgy is about God first, not us. Also, we should remember that the liturgy is not a moment of entertainment, which must above all pander to me, but rather a moment of prayer, during which I give myself to God. The second problem is that there is likely no parish in the world which has a set of parishioners who will all agree on their preferences of music. This is why we turn to the Church, and Her “preferences,” for She, as the Body of Christ, knows how God ought best to be worshiped. Along these lines, I would like to quote from my own bishop, James Wall, when he introduced ad orientem worship at the Cathedral in Gallup:

There is an old saying that holds de gustibus non est disputandum: when it comes to taste, there is no room for dispute. To a point, that is true. Nobody can fault anybody for liking chocolate chip ice cream more than mint, or Chevrolet more than Ford. When it comes to the ways in which we worship God, however, nothing is simply a matter of taste. Msgr. Charles Pope explains this well: “Preferences should be rooted in solid liturgical principles. [. . .] People matter, and they should be nourished and intelligently engaged in the Sacred Liturgy — but not in a way that forgets that the ultimate work of the Liturgy is not merely to please or enrich us but to be focused on and worship the Lord” (National Catholic Register, “5 Things to Remember in the ‘Ad Orientem’ Discussion,” 8 August 2016).9

This is all good reason to follow what St. Paul says next to the Colossians (3:14–15): “And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body.” It is an act of humility and love to do and sing what and how the Church asks us, even if we may prefer other things. Other things may be suitable for personal prayer, but liturgy is regulated. God has told us how He wants to be worshiped and we ought not to mess with that. We can say here, then, let not disputes about sacred music tear us apart! Let them rather draw us to Christ!


After all these admonitions, St. Paul concludes (Col. 3:16–17): “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teach and admonish one another in all wisdom, and sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs with thankfulness in your hearts to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.” I pray that these few paragraphs have been a bit of teaching and admonition “in all wisdom.” What remains is for us to “sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs with thankfulness” according to the mind of the Church. In this way, we will enter more fully into the thankfulness of Christ, expressed perfectly on the Cross and made present at every liturgical celebration. In this way, ultimately, we will be engaged not only in worship of the Father in this life, but will anticipate the worship of heaven.10 May these truths inspire us to sing to the Lord the new song of the redeemed in Christ (see. Rev. 14:1–3), and join the angels and saints while here below, until such a time as we can, please God, join them in the eternal song of the blessed in heaven. Amen! Amen!

  1. See Sacrosanctum Concilium, 5.
  2. Sacrosanctum Concilium, 7: “Christ indeed always associates the Church with Himself in this great work wherein God is perfectly glorified and men are sanctified. The Church is His beloved Bride who calls to her Lord, and through Him offers worship to the Eternal Father.”
  3. Sacrosanctum Concilium, 112.
  4. William Mahrt, The Musical Shape of the Liturgy, (Richmond: CMAA, 2012), 163.
  5. Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, The Feast of Faith: Approaches to the Theology of the Liturgy, (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1986), 126. All of Ratzinger’s/Benedict XVI’s writings on liturgical music are worth reading for forming an ecclesial understanding of sacred music.
  6. Rule of Saint Benedict, chapter 19.
  7. Resources abound now which help to make this possible. Simple English Propers is a book that makes the Propers easily accessible in the vernacular, and has supporting videos for practice. International Liturgical Publications also has a variety of pew books with the Propers in them for at least recitation or use with psalm tones. As for difficult hymns, I recall once in seminary when the hymn was so complicated — it involved different melodies every other verse and had changes in both key and time signatures — that literally the only person in the chapel that could sing it was the one who had both a master’s degree in music and perfect pitch!
  8. The history of the liturgy shows that hymns have always had their proper place in the Divine Office, not at the Mass. It is also interesting to note that in the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (n. 86), the use of a hymn is only foreseen at one point in the Ordinary Form: post-Communion. Even then, it is seen as following the Communion antiphon, not replacing it. The same would seem to apply if a motet or some other choral piece were to be done.
  9. Bishop James Wall, “Turning Toward God: Celebrating the Mass Ad Orientem,” Diocese of Gallup Website, Diocese of Gallup, published July 22, 2019, accessed October 5, 2020, https://dioceseofgallup.org/celebrating-the-mass-ad-orientem/.
  10. See Sacrosanctum Concilium, 8.
Fr. Mitchell Athanasius Brown About Fr. Mitchell Athanasius Brown

Father Mitchell Athanasius Brown was ordained a priest of the Diocese of Gallup in 2018. He holds an STL in Liturgical Theology from the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross (Santa Croce) in Rome, and is the parochial vicar at Sacred Heart Cathedral in Gallup, NM.


  1. I believe in the power of praise, that my heavenly Father loves worship. I love singing to my God, with joy and gladness. Let us all worship our Father. Amen

  2. Kevin Aldrich Kevin Aldrich says:

    We are fortunates to have the Canons Regular of St. John Cantius in our diocese (Springfield in Illinois). They are doing just what Fr. Brown advocates.

  3. Many of us are likely forwarding this excellent piece to our liturgists and priests as a shot of courage to live the truth liturgically. What a great tool to open this crucial conversation as The People of God return to the Divine Liturgy- thank you, Father Brown!
    The truth of this piece is further evidenced by the fact that some men dear to our family left the Catholic Church when “the music was too stupid to sing” and the priest did not defend the liturgy but allowed it to be musically dumbed down, now vacant of meaning and beauty, and much of the simple sung prayer (propers?) was abolished. Sacred music became “mass songs,” sung with the focus upon the worshiper and not the Worshipped, and while the new, Disneyesque tunes have been labeled feminine, this woman has not and absolutely will not sing Lord of the Dance, or other inane jingles like it.
    In any case, our men expected a leader they could respect, and if the priest himself did not believe the liturgy was divine enough to defend, why would they? They left the “new church” with her new music; they could worship themselves anywhere- and they are.
    Determining culpability is not something I am capable of, Thank God; and I wonder if these previously catholic men ever spoke with parish staff, or just left. Which begs the question, what are we laypeople doing to charitably engage our parish staff?
    Divine Father- we ask you sincerely- please saturate all of your family with humility, courage and love, that we may participate and offer sacrifice in the Divine Liturgy, meeting Jesus in unity of mind and body with His holy Church.