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How We Should Sing—And Why People Don’t Sing

Benedictine monks perform chants at the Monastery of St Benedict of Norcia, Italy. (CNS photo/Christopher McLallen courtesy Universal Music)

Part 3 of a 3-part Series. You may read the other parts here: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

Now for something really practical: How should we sing the chant? An experienced choir director will have plenty of advice and know-how, but it requires persistent and persevering effort to educate a congregation to the point where the people will sing the chant reasonably well. It can be done, I’ve heard it done many times, but it doesn’t happen automatically, and woe betide any parish or chapel that pays no heed whatsoever to the art of chanting.

First and foremost, chant should be lively, moving forward with momentum. Chant is never to be sung too slowly or lethargically. It is not a funeral dirge. When it comes to the pacing of chant, there is always a danger, given the law of entropy, of slowing down over time. At the college where I teach (and where we sing a lot of chant), it seems that at certain times of the year, people start to sing more slowly, and need to be gently prodded to pick up the pace. We have to make a conscious effort not to be heavy like syrup, but light like birds on the wing. Remember, the monks who gave us the chant had to sing many hours a day, so they couldn’t afford to wallow in it—they wrote music that is meant to be vibrant and energetic, while still being meditative and peaceful. These characteristics are by no means contradictory.

Chant’s rhythm is an organic one, like the beating of the heart or the ebb and flow of the tide. It should be sung in a legato style, smoothly; not every note is equal or should be equally emphasized, as in a badly played military march. One hears the ebb and flow of the melody. Corporate breaths should not be too frequent; phrasing should match thoughts as much as possible. All of this is the province of the music director, who needs to take steps not only to train the members of the choir or schola, but also to help the people sing better, through such means as brief lessons given before Mass begins, the introduction of chanted prayers into schools or parish groups, and chant workshops open to all.

The more you sing and hear the chants of the Church, the more connatural they become to your soul; they rise up within you as spontaneous prayers. They shape your memory and imagination, and thus your prayer life becomes more and more suffused with the Church’s own memory and imagination. It’s like the way people speak and use the gestures of their mothers or fathers because of so many years of being close to them. When we come before our Lord at the end of our lives, it will be a great consolation to us if He sees written into our souls the very face and voice and gestures of His beloved Bride, the Church, of whom His own Virgin Mother is at once the most perfect member and the supreme exemplar.

Now I’m going to have some fun. In my lifetime, here are the main excuses I have heard as to why people don’t sing, or at least don’t sing much in the household of God.

“I don’t feel like it.” This, gentle reader, is sheer laziness, which is perhaps too polite a term for it. If someone plans to do in life only what he or she feels like doing, I strongly recommend avoiding marriage, priesthood, or religious life. This “I’ll sit back and listen” attitude seems to be linked up with a longstanding problem: Catholics, in general, seem to lack all inclination to SING at Mass. Part of the reason is that the quality of the music has tended to be so poor, but surely part of it also stems from an unfortunate history of thinking about the Mass as something the clergy do, rather than something every Christian genuinely participates in—and, be it noted, with a distinctive role for the laity assisting at the mysteries. As we have seen, the modern popes for over a hundred years have urged the faithful to sing the parts of the Mass that are theirs to sing.

“I can’t sing.” Really? Not even quietly? Do you want to sing better? There’s only one way to get there: by trying. Everyone can make it to the point of singing the simpler chants of the Ordinary of the Mass, but it takes a sincere intention and some effort—like all good things in life. Although I seldom have occasion to quote Protestants favorably, John Wesley had it exactly right when he said: “If [singing] is a cross to you, take it up, and you will find it a blessing.” The more we sing, the more it makes sense to sing and the more joy we find in good songs. St. Augustine is credited with this remark: Qui bene cantat bis orat, “He who sings well, prays twice.” The first meaning of “well” is not that you always hit the right note, but rather that you sing with love and understanding. That is what it means for the people to sing well at Mass. So, convince yourself, no matter how many objections you can think of, that the only appropriate thing to do when there is congregational singing at Mass is to SING. You don’t have to sing loudly in order to participate in a simple song, like the Gregorian Mass Ordinaries common in traditional churches or chapels. Even a quiet voice, sotto voce as the Italians say, is better than no voice at all. In the end, no one can replace or substitute for your voice. Your singing voice is the instrument God gave you in your mother’s womb, the only instrument you always carry, and the one that God most desires to hear, because it bears your personality.

“I don’t know how to read music.” How do you expect to get better at it if you don’t keep working with it? The four-line square note system of notation used for Gregorian chant might look scary if you’re not a musician or you’ve been trained only with modern musical notation, but it is a very intuitive approach and easy enough to get used to if you keep your eyes on it while you’re first listening to chant and making your tentative forays. Back in high school, when I first came across a copy of the Graduale Romanum and had no teacher who could explain it to me, I went out and bought a chant CD at the record store, and proceeded to listen to it over and over while attempting to follow along on the pages of the corresponding chants. After some time, the relationship between the sound on the recording and the symbols on the page grew clearer to me, and it was not long before I was chanting for love. We can all do something like this whenever we attend a sung Mass.

“Music is for the choir, for specialists, not for plain folks like me.” That’s false: music is for everyone. My own children, by the time they were 5 or 6, were belting out the Salve Regina and other chants before they could read any letters, let alone any music. We have to get over our inhibitions and our pride: really, every human being was created with a natural musical instrument that the Creator intended each of us to use regularly. If a child can do it, we, striving to be child-like, can do it, too.

I’m saving the best excuse for last:

“Singing disturbs my personal prayer.” This is a Quaker mentality. Liturgy is public worship: the very word litourgos in Greek means “the work of the people.” Each one of us needs both public prayer and private prayer, every day. They are like the systole and diastole of the heart, or the inhalation and exhalation of breath. Breathe in with mental prayer, breathe out with communal vocal prayer. Naturally, the liturgy has silence within it, and there is not an opposition between collective and personal—we ought, for example, to have a certain precious leisure to commune intimately with our Lord after receiving him in Holy Communion. But the main point is that the Mass is fundamentally and essentially a public and vocal prayer offered by the Church to God, and therefore a prayer that is public and vocal for each one who participates in it, always in keeping with one’s proper role. If we try to get from the liturgy what we ought to be seeking in fifteen or thirty minutes of quiet personal prayer each day, then it’s possible we will end up frustrated, obtaining the benefits of neither one form of prayer nor the other. It would be like expecting a salty dish to be sweet, or literature to be philosophy (or philosophy to be literature).

Our Lady, Queen of the Angels, Saint Gregory the Great, Saint Cecilia, Saint Pius X, pray for us!

17 thoughts on “How We Should Sing—And Why People Don’t Sing”

  1. I have a few responses to the objection “Singing disturbs my personal prayer.” To be clear, I enjoyed the article. The points I make in this comment are not intended to be mean-spirited criticisms of the article or the author’s view. Rather, I would genuinely like to know how someone with expertise in these matters would respond.

    1) What about the potential conflicting values of congregational singing and beauty in the liturgy? Should the priority not be on creating artistic beauty to further the transcendent aspect of the Mass for the faithful? What if congregational singing diminishes beauty, and thus robs the congregation of art’s power to impart interior glimpses of the divine mysteries? Music by the choir of experts can be beautiful to a degree that congregational signing cannot be, especially when the congregational singing is actually ugly. When congregational signing is ugly, it can detract from true interior participation in the divine mysteries of the Mass. I’m not saying that we should not sing at all, but at what point does the value of public vocal prayer conflict with other values in the liturgy?

    2) I think it is false to assume that public prayer implies a need of vocal worship. In other words, the liturgy can be a public activity but still be a quiet activity. Primarily, I think this assumption diminishes the powerful collective experience of group mental or contemplative prayer. For instance, consider the communal activity of Zen meditation (completely silent). Zen practitioners and other Buddhists can and do meditate on their own in solitude, but they still gather to collectively meditate, and this is their principal form of public worship. In fact, the communal bond forged by group meditation is powerful because it is based on a shared spiritual experience. Public mental prayer during Mass enables a deeper communal bond to the extent that it enables a spiritually deeper shared experience. Dietrich von Hildebrand expressed a similar sentiment about different levels of communal experience in the Case for the Latin Mass: “Yet they forget that there are different levels and kinds of communion with other persons. The higher the good which the theme represents, and which binds men together, the more sublime and deeper is the communion.”

    3) Does singing not increase the risk of acting against the Lord’s command in Matthew 6:6? By singing well, it is perhaps more likely that I am praying to be admired by others around me. By singing poorly, it is perhaps more likely that I am concerned about other’s impression of my bad singing. Of course, I would fight these temptations with the best of my limited abilities. But I cannot always master these temptations, so the risk is increased. (Note: I am a poor singer, so I fall into the latter category.) I reference Pseudo-Chrysostom’s commentary on Matthew 6:6—“[W]e should not pray to God with loudness of tone, but with a silent heart, for three reasons…. [T]thirdly, because when you pray aloud, you hinder any other from praying near you.”

    • Good questions.

      1) This is why there should be a choir or schola that sings certain things, such as the more difficulty propers, while the people sing other chants. At a Solemn High Mass with the clergy, people, and choir each singing texts that pertain to them, there is a sense of balance, of mutual service, and varied forms of participation that is exceptionally rich. You get the benefits of high art as well as the benefit of a chant repertoire that belongs to everyone in common.

      2) Another excellence of the Roman liturgical tradition — and in this respect it surpasses the Byzantine, in my opinion — is its integration of significant periods of silence into solemn worship. Of course the Low Mass is silent throughout, but I refer to even a Solemn Mass, where the Roman Canon is like an oasis of silence in the midst of a luxuriant world of music. Our souls need it all, and there does not have to be opposition amongst these various elements.

      3) I suppose if one sang too loudly and operatically, or too loudly and badly, either might draw too much attention. But is this not an argument to sing moderately, along with everyone else, at the right time?

      • Have I missed something? The embedded video demonstrates a chant pushed through the lens of 13th century French Ars Antiqua? – Nasal tone, lots of phygian double leading tone cadences, a rhythmic mode formula applied? Is it being offered as a possible performance practice from that time?

  2. Mons. Bartolucci expressed my misgivings about your aesthetic views better than I could…

    “Maestro, what role does music play in this process?

    It has an incredibly important role for many reasons. The affected “Cecilianism” to which certainly Perosi was no stranger, with its tones that were so mild and enticing to the ear had introduced a new romantic sentimentalism, which had nothing to do, for instance, with the eloquent and solid physicality of Palestrina. Some extravagant deteriorations introduced by Solesmes had cultivated a subdued gregorianism, which also was the fruit of a pseudo-restauring passion for the Medieval ages, which were so popular in the nineteenth century.
    The idea of an opportunity to recuperate the archeological vein, both in music and liturgy, of a past, from which the so called “oxen centuries” (seculi bui) of the Council of Trent separated it ….. in short an archeology which has nothing at all to do with Tradition and which wishes to restore something which maybe never existed, is a bit similar to certain churches restored in the “pseudoromantic” style of Viollet-le-Duc.

    What does it mean, Monsignore, when in the musical field you attack Solesmes?

    This means that the Gregorian chant is modal, not tonal and not rhythmical, it has nothing to do with “one, two, three, one, two, three”. We should not despise the way people sung in our cathedrals and replace it with a pseudo-monastic and affected murmuring. A song from the Middle Ages is not interpreted with theories of today, but one should go about it as it was then. Moreover the Gregorian chant of another historical time could also be sung by the people, sung using the force with which our people expressed their faith. Solesmes never understood this, but we should recognize the learned and great philological work executed on the old manuscripts.”


    And just to make this concrete:

    This is what real Tradition probably sounded like:

    And this is what Solesmes made from it:

      • At least they respect the tradition and the historical sources. Unlike Solesmes.
        Every single historical manuscript or printed source with Credo Cardinalis has the rhythm you can hear on this recording (or a very similar local variant thereof). For what we got as Credo IV there is NO historical evidence.

        • You may well be right historically, but we have to take into account the change in musical sensibilities from the Middle Ages to the present. We passed through the phase of Romanticism. Now, I am the last person to suggest an overly-romanticized interpretation of chant, as one can sometimes hear among the French monks even today, who sing too slowly, and with a lot of “rubato,” etc. But I do find a certain flowing beauty and purity in chant sung in the Solesmes style, as long as the pace is kept vigorous. I think returning to a medieval style of singing would be terribly distracting for most people.

          • Now your arguments are getting suspiciously similar to the arguments of modern liturgists about “modern man” and his “sensibilities” 😉
            My last comment wasn’t even about the ‘style’ of singing per se, just about the rhythm of the chant, which in many many cases was falsified in the editions of Solesmes (of which Credo IV is just the most blatant example) The authentic rhythm could most certainly be performed in a variety of vocal styles!

          • I concede both of your points — one has to be careful not to alter a musical tradition so far that it ceases to have its original genius or spirit, and that one could sing authentically but not stridently (which is what I often find happens with “historically accurate” performances — it sounds like people are shouting, as if they are crusaders about to storm the bastions of Jerusalem!).

          • And what if many 16th century sources actually do tell us people sang rather loud, or literally shouted in the church? (and they actually do…) Do we allow that to change our conception of what e.g. Palestrina’s music should sound like?

            I live in the Netherlands and I’m fortunate enough to get to play some interesting historical organs. I also very much enjoy French baroque organ music. Should I not use the proper registration for a basse de cromorne verset because after the Mass someone will inevitably remark the cromorne/dulciaan register sounds like a goat? Or the offertoires of the French baroque organists. Virtually ALL of them are written for grand jeux registration, the loudest registration possible on the instruments of the period. Quite hard to wrap ones head around that – for a contemporary church organist! Appropriate or not?
            And if we indeed do respect historical sound ideals in organ music why not in vocal music?

            (I don’t mean to be adversarial, I very much appreciate and enjoy reading your writing on liturgy even though our tastes in music might be a little different. Lot’s of the questions I pose here are things I have to make choices about quite often in my work as a musician and a discussion such as this helps me to pinpoint my own position more precisely…)

          • There is certainly plenty of room for differences in taste, as long as we are striving to follow the Church’s principles and guidelines for sacred music.

            It is true, regrettably, that modern Catholics are often not good listeners and appreciators of our musical heritage. Our contemporary music is so often repetitious, narrow, and superficial, so we are not accustomed to the great variety out there — the wonderful stops on the old pipe organs, the parallel 4ths and 5th of organum, the richness of Sarum polyphony, the splendor of Baroque music, etc. In my opinion, we should revive as much of this as possible, but use it wisely and well, particularly on special occasions, when something different can highlight the solemnity.

            But I also think, with St. Pius X, that one must be careful not to give a bad impression to the faithful, so that they are distracted or distressed. Hence, if there were a way of singing from centuries ago that would now seem disruptive or even vulgar, it needs to be avoided for the sake of a higher good, which is the devout decorum that should be typical of a church before, during, and after the liturgy. Perhaps we are a little too “stuffy” and “Victorian” nowadays, but I don’t think that’s going to change by introducing loud, brash, or strange things. It will only add to the confusion of our times.

  3. I used to love polyphony, until I became a Catholic, and the music in the NO is dreadful. I would love chant to be a regular feature in our Mass, but it isn’t. Hard to do with a slide guitar.

  4. Can you recommend some resources to get started singing at home? I can read music, but I don’t know where to purchase quality songbooks. I also like the idea of a CD to match; I think my kids would like that. 🙂


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