Sacred Music: Purpose and Qualities

Approximately two years back, after a mass in which I was playing with other musicians, one of the faithful mentioned that the music that day made it really tough for him to pray. Not a comment that I had expected, But nevertheless, it made me think. Was our music actually fostering a spirit of prayer? Or did we lose track in our youthful enthusiasm?
Looking back…we I believe we did lose track.


Another time, (and here I was probably altering my playing style and choosing hymns with rich texts), a person mentioned stated that, “You made this place feel like a sanctuary!

Music is powerful. In the first case, the music robbed the faithful of the spirit of prayer and reflection. To elaborate, probably the music led to more distractions, less reverence, less interior silence. In the second case it reminded the person where she was, in a holy place. A place where God dwells. Probably in the first case it was more oriented towards a concert, or secular setting, and in the other the music was oriented towards prayer. It can thus be seen that from the purpose the music derives particular qualities that made it suitable or unsuitable.

It is quite simple. Music used for a march past has a particular function and hence derives particular qualities. The same can be said about lullabies, music at a party etc.

What then is the purpose of Sacred Music? Secondly, what qualities must it have?
In this article we’ll look at Church teaching, and that too, just a small part of it. At the turn of the 20th Century Pope Pius X, wrote motu proprio, an instruction on Sacred Music.(Tra le Sollecitudini)

He was concerned about, “maintaining and promoting the decorum of the House of God in which the august mysteries of religion are celebrated…i

The Pope was calling the entire Church to a reform in Sacred Music. In his own words,

“Today Our attention is directed to one of the most common of them, one of the most difficult to eradicate, and the existence of which is sometimes to be deplored in places where everything else is deserving of the highest praise…Such is the abuse affecting sacred chant and music.” ii

Pope Pius X answers both these questions whilst outlining some general principles.
To both of the questions I would do justice to give a short answer, while quoting the Pope extensively.

Purpose of Sacred Music
Glory of God
Sanctification of the faithful
(short answer)

Sacred music, being a complementary part of the solemn liturgy, participates in the general scope of the liturgy, which is the glory of God and the sanctification and edification of the faithful. It contributes to the decorum and the splendor of the ecclesiastical ceremonies, and since its principal office is to clothe with suitable melody the liturgical text proposed for the understanding of the faithful, its proper aim is to add greater efficacy to the text, in order that through it the faithful may be the more easily moved to devotion and better disposed for the reception of the fruits of grace belonging to the celebration of the most holy mysteries. iii

Qualities of Sacred Music
Goodness of form
(short answer)

Sacred music should consequently possess, in the highest degree, the qualities proper to the liturgy, and in particular sanctity and goodness of form, which will spontaneously produce the final quality of universality.

It must be holy, and must, therefore, exclude all profanity not only in itself, but in the manner in which it is presented by those who execute it.

It must be true art, for otherwise it will be impossible for it to exercise on the minds of those who listen to it that efficacy which the Church aims at obtaining in admitting into her liturgy the art of musical sounds.

But it must, at the same time, be universal in the sense that while every nation is permitted to admit into its ecclesiastical compositions those special forms which may be said to constitute its native music, still these forms must be subordinated in such a manner to the general characteristics of sacred music that nobody of any nation may receive an impression other than good on hearing them.iv

Future articles will focus on various other themes which will hopefully in turn shed more light on the topic introduced here.

1. Pope Pius X, Tra le Sollecitudini, 1903, Intro, from Adoremus Bulletin

2. Ibid

3. Pope Pius X, Tra le Sollecitudini, 1903, I, from Adoremus Bulletin

4. Ibid.

Share your view

3 Responses to Sacred Music: Purpose and Qualities

  1. Bro Reuben this article is so true and such an imp topic today. The church is so filled with music that too with so much beat and noise that it has robbed the essence of what it was suppose to do. Good article. God bless you for bringing this up in such a honest yet perfect way.