Sacred Music: Integral or Ornamental

Our family celebrations almost always have some time set aside to singing songs together. Since the new year, this has taken a new class and original compositions are also being premiered!

It is not uncommon to find persons expressing themselves not just generally by use of words, but somewhat more deeply by breaking out into a song. Singing in our case doesn’t have to be planned, it just happens. One can think of numerous situations in life wherein singing forms an integral part of what is celebrated, commemorated or what is happening.


Conversely, one could list up events that do not require singing of any sort. They might include singing, but as such, to varying lesser degrees and could be construed to be just ornamental.

Diving with this thought into the sacred liturgy, what place does singing have in the Mass? Is it integral or ornamental?

(As this answer unfolds it would be helpful to not make comparisons and relate it to the music one generally hears at mass) i

Joseph Ratzinger, in his book The Spirit of the Liturgy, introduces his chapter on ‘Music and Liturgy’ with a statement that contains much truth:

“When man comes into contact with God, mere speech is not enough. Areas of his existence are awakened that spontaneously turn into song.”ii

To pick up on that note..not long ago the Bible’s first song was chanted by the faithful during the Easter Vigil liturgy, which brought to our hearts key moments in salvation history. The song of Moses (Exodus. 15: 1-18) that rose up amongst the Israelites in response to God’s work of redemption, once again found voice in the liturgy as we remembered all that was done for us.

This work of redemption is elevated to a whole new degree through the life, passion, death and resurrection of our Lord. This is what we celebrate at the liturgy.

To quote the Catechism of the Catholic Church,

“Through the liturgy Christ, our redeemer and high priest, continues the work of our redemption in, with, and through his Church.” CCC 1069

It is quite obvious then that in response to such a greater work of redemption, words will not suffice, song must come to the aid of the Church. Anybody actively participating in the liturgy would be moved to interior acts of adoration, remorse, contrition, thanksgiving, supplication, petition and so on. It seems hardly conceivable that all these acts might find expression through mere words. It does really seem that in this deeply personal encounter song and silence must come to our aid.

It would seem then, that since the time of the early Church, singing has always permeated the Christian liturgy. Such indeed was the case!

Fr. Mark Kirby explains:

Every word pronounced in church had a “singing quality.”…By the fourth century, the fully sung liturgy, with its roots in Semitic chant, had become normative in both East and West. Simeon of Thessalonika bears witness to this tradition. All catholic Churches in the whole world have observed it (the Sung Service) from the beginning and have uttered nothing in worship except in song.” iii

The Vatican II document Sacrosanctum Concilium iv echoed similar sentiments:

“The musical tradition of the universal Church is 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.

(Emphasis added)

To end with one of our favourite theologians and saints…

Singing is a lovers thing said St. Augustine and sacred song has quite naturally found its place in the celebration of the Mystery of love.

1.Common experience might have one conclude that there is no organic unity between the priests parts and the choir singing. Songs are just “taked on” to the liturgy. This and other issues surrounding Sacred Music will hopefully be covered in future articles.

2.Ratzinger, Joseph. The Spirit of the Liturgy, pg 136, trans. John Saward. Freiburgim Breisgau: Verlag Herder, 2000; reprint edition, Bangalore: ATC Publications, 2010.

3.Kirby, Mark Daniel. “Towards a definition of Liturgical Chant.” Sacred Music, Vol. 136, No. 2 (Summer 2009), 5-39. [Online], pg 11, (Simeon of Thessalonika quoted in Schmemann, Liturgical Theology, 168)

4.Second Vatican Council, Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy,Sacrosanctum Concilium. 1963; Online Edition

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2 Responses to Sacred Music: Integral or Ornamental

  1. I like to sing and praise God, always in some situations happened in my life I used to offer it up to God by singing
    Thanks for this article God bless you