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Listening Like a Catholic: The Discernment of Personal Musical Taste (Part 2)

Editor’s note: This is the second in a two-part series on the topic of cultivating a more authentic taste in music. The first part is available here


In the last article, we discussed some of the criteria by which we may evaluate the quality of a piece of music. We will now move to a music’s craft, which involves the actual construction of the musical material itself. Composition is certainly as much a craft as carpentry or architecture, as it involves the combining of mathematical ratios into a structure that will either collapse, stand like a rickety shack, or tower mightily for the remainder of human history like a sonic Pantheon. These constructions can be analyzed, diagramed, and compared. Even simple music bears complex structures that cannot be understood without training. This is why trained musicians almost universally recognize the superiority of J.S. Bach’s music, while aesthetically inclined apologists have written the almost self-evident argument that: “J.S. Bach existed, therefore God must exist.” While one does not need to be musically trained to accidentally hit upon a good musical structure, it happens only slightly more often than illiterates dictating good novels. We have, therefore, a phenomenon that author Michael O’Brien called “canned music,” where most people are listening to musical structures created or performed by musical illiterates, a real “deaf leading the deaf” scenario. The result is that everyone is sold far short of what the experience of music can truly be, including the Catholics who are being called to lead the way forward into something far better.

A vitally important area of craft that everyone can discern regards rhythm. Have you noticed that rhythm is everywhere nowadays? Modern popular music simply cannot let a moment pass without filling it with driving rhythmic structure, while young music students arrive in class eager to “make beats.” Even children’s songs, when they are re-purposed for a modern audience, must have a constant attendant beat. The end result is that rhythm becomes the primary element of music, while harmony and melody become secondary considerations. This had lead to many forms of modern electronic music in which melody is largely absent and in which functional harmony has utterly disappeared. One can quickly discern, therefore, whether one’s music “breathes” naturally, or is in rhythmic overdrive. (Note: rhythmic drive is a primary tool in selling music, as it purposefully doesn’t give people space to think.) Discern, therefore, what is the goal of this rhythm? Is it intended to create aggression or exaggerated sensuality, or to simply drive a sub-par musical structure forward? Does it give me space to feel, think, and to be human?

Finally, in order to discern craft, one need merely compare one’s favorite music with the masterworks. Can it be argued that your musical choices are both beautifully crafted and worthy of the spiritual and cultural patrimony defined by the greatest composers in history? All music may fall well short of Bach and his chief imitators, but does it even attempt to breath some of the same rarified air? Is it made by people who have studied the greats? It is a tall standard indeed, but one by which aesthetic weeds can be easily separated from the wheat.

Finally we come to a music’s intent, a simple area of discernment in which one must ask: who created your music, and who helped to propagate it? What is this music for? Are these people sympathetic to your spiritual goals, or at the very least somewhat neutral about your religion? The fact of the matter is that it is almost impossible to find popular cultural diversions that do not emerge as a direct result of an increasingly anti-Christian and relativized culture, with the specific goal of driving our perceptions further into this downward spiral. One may consider by contrast the music of modern composers Henryk Górecki or Arvo Pärt, whose works emerge out of silence, do only what is musically necessary, and return us to silence once again. In contrast to the noise and rage and glitz that is constantly at work to drown out our necessary silence, Górecki and Pärt’s music reverences holy stillness, and certainly emerges from dedicated lives of prayer and faith. Can your own favorite music claim such a pure intent? How much of your music is written and performed by those seeking sainthood?

When musical culture, craft, and intent come together, a music’s purpose and potential is revealed. This is why it seems to be so difficult to create beautiful rap music with edifying lyrics that will resonate in the broader culture, while it seems equally impossible to drag classical music down into the gutter (or the popular mainstream.) There is a reason that Beethoven will never be the soundtrack to urban violence (which is why Stanley Kubrick’s infamous Beethoven scenes remain so unsettling), and why we will never see a “Bieber Liturgy.” Remember: there are no neutral aesthetic experiences in our life. We are either moving towards heaven or towards hell, and our chosen soundtrack (like the best film score) is urging the action forward in either direction.


Sing a Song with Padre Pio

Doubtless many readers will continue to feel strongly resistant to these ideas, as they involve painful and intimate personal change in a direction in which the reader may have no aesthetic desire to move. Imagine then, for a moment, that St. Padre Pio, St. Augustine, and St. Paul walk in to your room to discuss aesthetics. Will they be edified by your music collection, or horrified? Will they joyfully share in your entertainment sources? Or to return to C.S. Lewis’s maxim: do you think that your favorite Led Zeppelin album will follow you into heaven, no matter how masterful John Bonham’s drumming was? Do you think that you’ll be allowed out of purgatory until the very last shred of Salt N’ Peppa’s “Let’s talk about sex” is burned out of your mind? Humorous as these images may be, they reveal the true import of our aesthetic choices.


The Great Aesthetic Fast

Undoubtedly modern man is faced with something unique: an almost omnipresent multimedia complex that assails us at every turn, leaving no room for critical reflection unless this room is wrested by force. Yet there exists in all of this discernment a possibility to – like a monk emerging from a cave after many years of isolation – become sensitized to beauty again, while also becoming rightfully sensitive to the things that are unfit for our consumption. Therefore as a final step to an authentic Christian aesthetic discernment, I suggest a long-term aesthetic fast, at least six months in duration. It may begin with a silent retreat, after which one simply shuts out all music, media, and popular entertainment for a matter of weeks. This may be followed by a gradual admission of plainsong (another name for Gregorian chant) and polyphony, slowly working up through to the sacred music of our day. Listening can be restricted throughout this fast to mostly sacred music, so as to feed the mind and soul with music of the highest craft and intent. Music should also be very limited, no more than an hour per day unless a live concert is attended (music students and professionals will obviously have to make concessions here.) While it is impossible to shut out all of our negative culture in this media-saturated world, the results of such a fast will certainly lead to a renewal of your senses. Beauty will be more palpable in its many forms, while ugliness and violence will be more repulsive. The fast-paced editing of television and the shattering glitz of shopping malls will become unbearable, while you will regain a proper appreciation of the disruptive power of noise and the edifying power of silence.

As to your relationship with music itself, it will not be curtailed or diminished, but rather improved exponentially. You will be able stand next to Mozart, understanding the workings of the inner man as an intimate friend would, all while gazing along with him unto the edge of eternity as shown forth in his famous Requiem. You will be able to mourn humanity’s loss with Arvo Pärt while listening to his Adam’s Lament, or join Mary at the foot of the cross with James MacMillan’s Seven Last Words, or feel the ecstasy embedded in Haydn’s Creation. You will stand by Mahler’s side in eternity during the triumphant final bars of his Resurrection symphony, joyfully storming the very gates of heaven itself. Perhaps most importantly, you will be able to find the very same seat where Augustine sat and was transfixed and literally terrorized by the beauty of plainsong. Perhaps the well-kept secret here is that much great music is spiritual ecstasy encapsulated, and it is available on a regular basis for those willing to come to it on its own terms. Finally, for those listeners lucky enough to attend a liturgy with well-executed music proper for the feast, you will find yourself perceiving the Mass as if for the first time. A bit of uncomfortable discernment is a small price to pay for a pearl of such great price.

It is among Satan’s greatest lies that the sinner will miss his concupiscence in Heaven. One will never find a person who has engaged in such aesthetic house-cleaning who regrets it, anymore than a blind person could regret having their sight restored after many years.

There is a purpose to the existence of music which powerfully echoes our origins and our destiny, and is capable of leading us – as Dietrich Von Hildebrandt said – “in conspectum Dei,” or before the face of God.

38 thoughts on “Listening Like a Catholic: The Discernment of Personal Musical Taste (Part 2)”

  1. Well, golly, I am a 57-year old woman who has played piano (classically-trained by a Lutheran organist) since childhood, and stated learning the pipe organ three years ago.
    I disagree with so much of what this author is saying. I don’t think he has presented any proofs that certain music is “Catholic” or “Christian” while other music isn’t “Catholic” or Christian. The author offers his own tastes and preferences and those of other Catholics, including ancient Catholics who never dreamed of the variety of music that would be created through the following centuries.
    His statements about Bach are just plain incorrect. Bach is all about rhythm. When I am learning a Bach prelude on the organ, and back when I was a child learning the Bach inventions, the metronome was my friend to keep a rock-steady (or Bach-steady, if you prefer) BEAT. Also, the various rhythm patterns of Bach pieces are extremely important and must be played precisely in order for the listener (and the player) to hear the interaction between the themes.
    The author seems to think that Bach is “the music of God”. My husband would disagree. He finds Bach’s music “too frantic.” It literally sets his teeth on edge. (He will get a special reward in heaven for listening to me learning Bach pieces on our organ at home!)
    This is illustrative of my comment in my first paragraph–it’s all about personal taste. My husband is quite knowledgeable about many styles of music, and is trained in classical guitar. He definitely doesn’t fit the author’s rather snobby stereotype of Catholics who listen only to rap, pop, and metal.
    But my husband still doesn’t like Bach and finds it jarring (his own words).
    As for me, I am a dream-come-true for the author. A few years ago, we were watching TV, and a song was played, and everyone was waving lighters. The words were nice: something about a small town girl and “don’t stop believin’.” My husband was enjoying the song and the joke in the show was that “this was JOURNEY! Oooh, ahh!” When the song was over, I said, “So is Journey a singing group?”
    My husband nearly fell through the floor. Apparently Journey is some incredibly famous and beloved pop group. But I had never heard of them. In fact, I had never heard the song. And at this moment, I can’t name even one other song by Journey.
    When I was growing up, I was too busy and too broke to listen to most pop and rock music. I was practicing piano for several hours a day. I had two or three “pop” albums that my mother had bought at yard sales–“Mamas and Papas,” and a few Beatles albums. That’s it.
    We had a television, but it only got one channel, and so I missed out on a lot of the TV that other kids were watching.
    So I never listened to pop or rock and I still don’t. I don’t own an iPod and never will. I didn’t own an MP player when those were popular. I never owned a boom box. My dad bought me a transistor radio when I was in 5th grade, but that’s the only radio I ever owned other than the one in my car.
    I just had an old record player growing up, and big stack of (yard sale) classical albums and my beloved Liberace!
    So I live the author’s recommendations to abstain from all popular music for many months. I’ve abstained all my life.
    But…I dislike chant of all types. Since converting to Catholicism ten years ago, I’ve tried, honestly, to learn to like chant, both Gregorian and otherwise. Can’t stand it. It’s so aimless.
    So…back to my original paragraph–it really all about personal taste, and my conclusion is that God made us all different and that our musical tastes are created by GOD, not Satan. I believe that ALL musical styles come from God, and often are perverted by worldly people who do not know God. I think that Christians need to seek to redeem all styles of music and take them back from the devil. It makes no sense to me that God would allow humans to love and create so many different styles of music, but that He would only accept a few styles as “appropriate” for His worship. That limits God, and I don’t think we have any business limiting God.

    • “I’ve tried, honestly, to learn to like chant, both Gregorian and otherwise. Can’t stand it. It’s so aimless”

      Gregorian chant being aimless? The most venerable musical tradition which has been created by the Holy Ghost as being aimless?

      Oh dear.

      • Koufax, I was referring to the musical line in chant. It is random. There is no regular melody or cadence or pattern. It’s just one neume after another. I personally find this disconcerting and jarring.
        I do not believe that the Holy Spirit created Gregorian chant. I believe that the Holy Spirit led men to write it, just as he has led men (and women) to write music through all of human history.

        • I have to say that I’m not sure how Chant could possibly sound random, even though it is based on a different melodic and textual sensibility than our modern tonal system. This is a case of “keeping trying” – chant is one of those things which exceeds the bounds (or validity) of any of our personal tastes.

          • Keep trying How? When? I very rarely listen to music other than in church or at a concert. I don’t listen to music in the car ever. I own CDs of chant (yes, I have tried several times in the last ten years of being Catholic to learn to like it), but I don’t listen to CDs very often, perhaps once a month while I’m cleaning the house, and that’s not likely to be Gregorian chant. (Seems inappropriate to me.)

            I play organ for the local Latin Mass parish, but that hasn’t done anything to change my musical tastes. They don’t do chant there, they do Gounod and Vierne and those guys. I don’t mind that kind of music–it has a discernible melody.

            Sorry, I know I sound like a curmudgeon. But compared to many other Americans, I’m your dream come true! I don’t listen to any pop music and I’ve never heard of most of the popular musicians past or present. So I’m not jaded by listening to these styles. I play piano and organ. I know good music and I like good music.

            What you are hopefully gleaning from my comments is that you are facing a virtually impossible task. If someone like ME doesn’t really want to see chant in the Mass, others are going to be downright hostile towards it. Heck, I would be happy to see people actually sing a simple hymn like Holy God, We Praise Thy Name, instead of standing there mute, checking their watch, and dashing out the door the instant the priest is in the lobby.

          • Have you considered that you may simply be an outlier? I discovered the beauty of Gregorian Chant when the Benedictine Monks of Santo Domingo de Silos hit the top 40 charts when I was in high school.

            I hadn’t even heard chant in a parish, but it’s popularity — amongst secular music buyers — brought it to my attention. I certainly looked for it afterward. I find that few things calm me as much as listening to chant. It certainly puts me in the mind to pray.

          • Lovely. Outlier.
            Oh, probably. But I don’t see anyone clamoring for chant in the Mass in real life. Only in these online chats.

          • Dear Sharon – again, you *are* a dream come true, which is why I keep writing with you! 🙂 As to the “miracle” you are seeking, it is already happening via groups like the CMAA and their annual chant conferences, which are multiplying the numbers of Parishes with at least beginning chant groups in residence. We’re going to get there, because the interest is frankly huge and growing.

            I might suggest that a trip to a CMAA conference – where beginners can learn to read and sing chant and understand its history and methodology – might be the perfect thing for you.

            As to organ playing, this is indeed distressing, but it is also an *opportunity.* Good parishes with great music programs, like my own, are able to generate interest in great music and train their future musicians from the ground up. I’m seeing and hearing the fruits of this at every Sunday Mass. Let me suggest that as the world continues to grow in confusion about beauty and culture – and this includes the classical musical establishment in part – the Catholic Church is right now, in North America, poised perfectly to become (as in the dark ages) the repository of the highest culture once again, to our distinct spiritual benefit. All it takes is people who want it (whose numbers are certainly growing), and Pastors who will allow and even support it (who are in seminary as we write these words.)


          • When is the next conference in the Chicago area?

            I have to admit, I don’t know how much chant I could take. The lectures would be fascinating, but the chanting…sigh.

            I haven’t seen what you have seen in our area. I see just the opposite; people praise my “gospel” piano, and ignore my Bach prelude on the pipe organ. (Of course, I’m much better at piano than organ.)

            Just a few weeks ago, an older woman in my parish, a member of the choir, a woman who I admire for her devotion to the pro-life cause (she and her husband, parents of 8 children and numerous grandchildren, prayed outside the clinic in our town every Tuesday morning for two decades, and finally, the clinic was closed after it failed several inspections), told me that she would just as soon see the organ hauled away and hear just piano music in the Mass.

            That seems to be the majority opinion where I live.

            I think that we are suffering from too great a lack of musical education in the U.S. for any kind of “culture” to catch on. I’m involved with the local music club (the oldest continuously-open music club in the U.S.), and our classical season last year attracted a few dozen for most of the concerts, while the country music concerts at the local arena sold out within minutes after tickets were made available.

            So many of our schools, public and private, have jettisoned music education in the quest for “science and math” (which we still are terrible at in our schools). So many of the schools have dumped any type of “formal” music education (solfege, etc.) in favor of “ethnic” music, in reality, pop music.

            So many parents don’t have the guts to tell their child, “No, you can’t quit piano lessons.” Just the opposite; many parents are so weak-willed that they can’t stand seeing their little ones in any kind of pain or suffering, and that includes struggling to master an instrument, and they honestly believe that the stress of learning how to play an instrument is bad for their child. So they allow their child to give up.

            I just don’t believe it can happen, Mark. I think that a more realistic goal would be to establish at least one parish in each diocese as a “Center of Culture” and spend the money…yes MONEY!…to hire the best organist, music education specialist, singer(s), etc. to develop the liturgical music in the parish and train the parishioners in the rich history of their musical heritage.

            And that brings us to that dirty dirty word in Catholic musical circles–the “M” word: Money. Catholics pay their musicians diddly squat. They can’t expect career musicans (those who make a living from music) to play, sing, conduct, and teach for a minimum wage salary. That alone is a huge barrier to ever seeing any kind of “good” music develop in the Catholic Church in the U.S.

  2. I think there a few statements that the author does not provide a reasoning for (which is OK, you can’t define everything in one article). I would nevertheless like him to explain and provide a rational justification for the following:

    1) We have long since arrived at the point where the imitation of life by art and art by life is generally indistinguishable.

    How does this impact music, which, while grounded in natural phenomenon, does not imitate nature? I don’t see at which point this changed, and what that change looked like.

    2) “music ministry” (a tragic term if the Church ever had one)

    Why is the term tragic? Are musicians not ministers? What words would you use in place of this phrase?

    3) Consider that music is generally the last art to progress in history.

    What does this statement mean? What evidence do you have for it? Yes, the “Renaissance” period in music is commonly used to designate a time period after the “Renaissance” period in the visual arts or history. Could it be that our terms are poorly applied?

    4) The end result is that rhythm becomes the primary element of music, while harmony and melody become secondary considerations.

    Is this a bad thing? For some pieces, rhythm is the primary element of musical construction; for others melody, for others harmony, for others texture, etc. How does the primacy of rhythm make a piece base or of lesser value?

    5) All music may fall well short of Bach and his chief imitators…

    Bach was not Catholic, and much of his music is distinctly Lutheran in its tradition and references (particularly of hymn tunes). As the title of this article is “Listening like a Catholic,” I ask: why is a Lutheran given pride of place?

    6) r.e. your last paragraphs: why only list music from the European tradition? Is it be cause this is the only great music? Or is it because this is the only music that you know to hold up as great?

    • Hello Artusi – Thanks very much for your thoughtful and detailed reading of my article. I’m glad to share further thoughts based on the concerns you’ve outlined. I’ll respond point by point to your comment, with apologies for being somewhat brief.

      I’ll begin by reminding you that my intent was merely to suggest a starting point for the discernment of musical taste as it relates to our spiritual lives as Catholics. Anything else was a corollary to this goal.

      1) We have long since arrived at the point where the imitation of life by art and art by life is generally indistinguishable. How does this impact music, which, while grounded in natural phenomenon, does not imitate nature? I don’t see at which point this changed, and what that change looked like.

      -I think that – as the article outlines – this impacts music by rendering people unwilling or even incapable of questioning and discerning their musical choices, or not being able to imagine life without what is *currently* their favorite music. As to music and nature, I’d suggest that all music out of highly developed systems – especially our common practice tonality and a number of its offshoots – is so connected to the reality of the physics of sound (the overtone system, etc), that it is indeed in a sense an “imitation” of nature. As to music ITSELF imitating nature, this seems to be an ongoing centuries-long aesthetic debate which is certainly beyond the capacity of this thread to solve; I have no concrete thoughts on the matter as of yet, though I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t getting there.

      2) “music ministry” (a tragic term if the Church ever had one)
      Why is the term tragic? Are musicians not ministers? What words would you use in place of this phrase?

      -Musicians are musicians, not ministers, at least where the liturgy is concerned. They may (and should) be integral participants in the presentation of the Holy Mass, but the term “music ministry” implies, in most parishes, a musical “club” of sorts where semi-dedicated amateurs get together to sing through their favorite folk tunes, and the true spirituality behind sacred music and its propagation is never approached. As to alternative terms, I’d say: “organist, orchestra, and choirs.” This, at least, seems to be the terminology used by most orthodox parishes with highly successful music programs (and where there is no misplaced applause after the Mass!) I would gently suggest that in trying to retire the “tie-dye banner” era of Catholic aesthetics, we would do well to gently retire their terminology whenever possible so as to save good people unnecessary confusion.

      3) Consider that music is generally the last art to progress in history.
      What does this statement mean? What evidence do you have for it? Yes, the “Renaissance” period in music is commonly used to designate a time period after the “Renaissance” period in the visual arts or history. Could it be that our terms are poorly applied?

      -This is a common idea, as music tends to be the last art to move into any major aesthetic period (classicism, romanticism, modernism, etc.) Now the disconnect between music and the remainder of the arts has become so pronounced, it seems no longer to even be a consideration in the current discussion of “what’s happening.” This is why, it seems to me, it is so astounding that music is helping lead the charge in the great liturgical awakening of our times. It may indeed be an unprecedented occurrence for my beloved art.

      4) The end result is that rhythm becomes the primary element of music, while harmony and melody become secondary considerations.
      Is this a bad thing? For some pieces, rhythm is the primary element of musical construction; for others melody, for others harmony, for others texture, etc. How does the primacy of rhythm make a piece base or of lesser value?

      -Is it bad? Perhaps, and sometimes. Imagine that a composer writes a symphony where one movement or section is inordinately dominated by rhythmic motives, to the utter neglect of any harmony or melody. For a short time period, this might be exciting, but were the entire hour-long symphony written this way, it’d soon grow tiresome and perhaps even boring. Now consider that in the modern pop landscape, there are entire genres constructed in just such a way. I would call it (at times) a return to primitivism that rather matches our current cultural and moral devolution quite well, while also being a bit of a betrayal of the great advancement of musical thought over the past 1,000 or so years.

      Consider also please that while rhythm *can* (and should) be perceived intellectually, it is most often (by compositional intent) perceived in a more primal sense. A rhythmically dominated music, therefore, can most easily become a primarily primal music as well.

      Now regarding rhythm: have you not noticed that it is everywhere? Every last thing needs a catchy or driving beat it seems, from Church music to children’s songs. My strong spiritual hunch is that this is bad for us as individuals and as a society, though I’ll leave the final word to your own discernment.

      5) All music may fall well short of Bach and his chief imitators…
      Bach was not Catholic, and much of his music is distinctly Lutheran in its tradition and references (particularly of hymn tunes). As the title of this article is “Listening like a Catholic,” I ask: why is a Lutheran given pride of place?

      -Given Benedict XVI’s thoughts on Bach and the estimation of great musicians and thinkers in general, I’m very comfortable saying this. What you have in Bach is a man of profound faith – at a time, admittedly, where the Lutheran tradition was much more “Catholic” in many ways than our average Catholic parish is nowadays, to be entirely fair – whose craft and innovation remains unparalleled. He determined the course of music history more than any one man, and did it all “soli Deo gloria.” I’m not sure, therefore, that I can think of a better example than Bach.

      Personally, I’m sure that some Catholic somewhere may be called to be better than Bach. It would behove us to have a Catholic culture where such a talent can find spiritual and artistic formation, and ultimately an appreciate professional home.

      6) r.e. your last paragraphs: why only list music from the European tradition? Is it be cause this is the only great music? Or is it because this is the only music that you know to hold up as great?

      -This is a great question. To begin with, it’s because most of us probably don’t know enough about the other great world music traditions, such as Indian Classical music, to make valid comparisons. Secondly, it is rather clear that no other tradition has so thoroughly developed a combined sense of melody, rhythm, and especially harmony. (I still recall a concert combining western classical and Indian classical musicians. The western musicians marveled at the Indian sense for rhythm, while the Indians were blown away by our development of harmony and melodic interplay.) Finally, it is important to highlight this music – and what has grown out of it – because it is the ONLY high art to have grown directly out of the fertile aesthetic soil of Christendom. It is our highest heritage, and I for one do not follow fashion by relegating it as “no better or worse than any other style or tradition.”

      Thanks for much for reading my little column, and I deeply appreciate your comments. I look forward to hearing from you again – many blessings!

      • Thank you for your prompt response. I’m still not convinced by your statements on rhythm – a section of a symphony entirely devoted to sustaining chords outside of the structure of any perceivable rhythm would have, by my standards, the same capacity for interest as one that was almost entirely rhythmically driven. Perhaps European music simply did not develop rhythm to the extent as other cultures, I find Reich’s Music for Pieces of Wood to be completely and utterly enthralling, for example, as do I find Messiaen’s organ works that have a more static rhythmic profile, and I can think of every intellectual reason why this should be the case. I also think that our labels for artistic periods are ones of convenience, and just because musicians have chosen to use the label of “romantic” does not make it a parallel to an era in the visual arts of the same name, particularly when we consider that these labels were not used in the same manner during different centuries. I also do not think that European art is the only high art to grow out of the fertile soil of Christendom – I know a Syrian lutenist who would disagree with you with some passion, and I would think Christianity to be in Africa long enough to consider its tradition a Christian one. The music of the African American tradition, though younger, also comes to mind, and is most certainly Christian.

  3. Dear Sharon, thank you for your comment. I do think that it is difficult to “prove” anything so thoroughly in the arts, which is why they are such stubborn but ephemeral partners with academia; we’re not dealing with a science. What I am trying to provide is a starting point for musical discernment, something that I believe all of us should make a part of our cultural discernment in general.

    Regarding Bach, I respectfully disagree. Yes, Bach is about rhythm, but it is even more about counterpoint and the finer points of structure within the music, which is precisely why some of the world’s greatest musicians give him such pride of place. Please notice, however, that I did not say that you (or your husband) had to like Bach. Indeed, sometimes I feel just as your husband does. I only suggest that – love Bach or hate him – he has carved his own high pedestal by virtue of his own craft, as any composer who has had to study Baroque counterpoint will tell you. I heard it once said that God could sum up the study of his scripture with one sentence: “I am God, and you are not.” The study of composition in general, and counterpoint in particular, is a process of learning that “Bach is Bach, and you are not.” His quality is self-evident, regardless of how much we may personally enjoy his music.

    The same can be said for chant: it is indeed our own music as Catholics, emerging from the roots of our aesthetic pre-history. Let me suggest that your feelings of dissatisfaction with it are indeed valid, but also point to your need to continue to grow in to it. Chant is supremely good, regardless of what our personal taste may say, and is indeed a prime example of where taste may need to change (or at least admit a growing if begrudging appreciation) where it is not naturally centered. In this respect, we are on similar paths.

    Furthermore I never expressed a “snobby” stereotype: I merely suggested that a good many Catholics have not discerned their musical tastes very well, or are perhaps beginning to try undertake such a discernment but are rather unsure of how to proceed.

    I do think that you have to be *VERY* careful when saying something like “all musical styles come from God.” Despite it sounding quaint to modern ears, did Ragtime come from God as it emerged from and was used as the soundtrack for the seedy underbelly of St. Louis brothels? How about the soundtracks to pornographic films, whose use mirrors the early use of such music as Ragtime. Yes, it is true: Ragtime has evolved, entered a wider culture, and perhaps can be argued to have been “redeemed.” But its beginnings – as in so many other styles – was certainly not heaven-sent. To state that certain styles can be redeemed is indeed accurate, though one must honestly ask if it is worth the effort considering that higher styles are already available to us, or when “redeeming” certain styles only pushes them in the direction of existing higher styles and is therefore a redundant effort.

    Of course you are right to suggest that God is not limited in style; that is not akin to deifying all available styles, or showing that all styles are redeemable.

    I find your cultural asceticism to be refreshing, and you are indeed a “dream come true” for me. Keep listening, keep discerning, and thanks so much for reading my little articles here.

    • Sir, I think it is highly unlikely that Catholics in the U.S. will ever return to a chanted Mass or any kind of polyphony unless a miracle occurs in our society.

      I also think that within the next decade, we will see less and less organ music in the Mass in most cities and towns, other than in the university cities. The current issue of The American Organist (by AGO) has a most dismal accounting of the decrease of interest in learning to play the organ.

      And finally, I think that we will see less and less of ANY kind of music in any Mass, as Americans become more unwilling to make any kind of commitment to playing any instrument, including the lowly guitar. Americans will become even more unwilling to sing in public other than karaoke under the influence of a great deal of alcohol. And Americans will become even more unwilling to even listen to music that is not to their personal taste.

      I think we will see Mass become more or less amusical in the very near future. Sorry, all.

      I am trying to decide whether it is worth continuing my organ lessons. I personally enjoy it, so it’s probably worth it for that reason. But the $250.00 a month that I spend on lessons should probably be spent paying off debts or saving for my old age which is rapidly approaching.

  4. Judging by the wasteland of musical drivel I (and my husband) are subjected to every Sunday at mass, I must agree with Dr. Nowakowski. It’s true when you seek silence, so much else in life becomes unbearable.
    If only the Church would come to its senses (!) and bring back the sacred music as it was always meant to be! I am 100% convinced that Catholics would exit the mass in a whole new way; transformed by the power of music, which is no longer used to bring us into a deeper sense of the holy.
    When I was in high school, I took a class in music theory and was shocked to understand how exactly musical pieces are composed! People today have NO sense of this; if it sounds good, and if it has a pumping beat then it appeals to some sense of our lower being; hence it’s good!
    In all actuality, it has cheapened us. Our culture, our lives, our senses, each waking hour is a battle in the onslaught of what will capture our attention fastest and loudest.
    The Catholic Church has since the 1970s turned towards many things Protestant. Why it has done this I don’t know. It’s not for me.
    I love my parish in NJ, but am willing to travel 33 miles out of my way to attend the Extraordinary form of the mass, because I NEED to nourish my soul that much!

  5. I commend the author for attempting to elevate the listening ability of Catholics. I know it is an uphill battle, since I have failed in similar efforts, and I feel your pain. Not only are Catholic artists counter-cultural in terms of religion, they are generally disregarded in their life and work by both the culture and by Catholics as artists. Doubly against the grain!

    If you can get a hold of it, there is an article in The Thomist Journal from 1951 by J. Oesterle (who was an excellently trained Catholic philosopher) called “Toward and Evaluation of Music.” He only relates a very few aspects of Aristotelian-Thomistic thought to music, but they are general principles worth meditating upon and I think you would get something out of it.

    Also, I entirely agree with your idea of sensory fasting. The bombardment of sound and imagery we are subjected to these days is, quite simply, unnatural and unhealthy. A few years ago I had to stop listening to music altogether because I was feeling so suffocated and emotionally accosted just from my encounter with the wider culture (I don’t willingly listen to pop music). I returned to leisure-listening recently and found the best thing to “clear my palate” was Palestrina, but only a few times a week while driving. Otherwise, silence. (I admit that my re-invigorated interest in Palestrina attended upon my re-reading of my old counterpoint texts (Fux, Jeppesen, et alia), but that has only confirmed in my mind the excellence of this music.)

    I think he is a good test: If someone can’t find real beauty in and be genuinely attracted to Palestrina’s music—while really listening to it and being attentive—then I dare say he is in some way out of whack as a human being and is missing the ability to truly hear music as such. It isn’t that this music is the be-all-end-all, but that it has a foundational aspect that one must grasp in order to appreciate other great music or great performance. It teaches you sensitiveness, how to pay sustained attention and patiently listen to what you hear until you are capable of being moved. Once this ability is developed, your mind can gaze upon the orderly and reasonable movements of the emotions effected by the sound and it becomes self evidently beautiful and attractive and wonderful. This is what can be had in great music, but it first requires patience.

    What is the saying of Cicero? Adhibete animos et mentes vestras, non solum aures! “Bring to bear your souls and minds, not your ears only!”

  6. I have embraced silence for most of the day before 3 pm, because I have to work where music is played over the loud speakers all the time. It’s really disheartening sometimes, to give up silence. I also quit listening to talk radio, watching news, and I am now trying to limit my internet usage to Catholic topics and worldviews. Facebook has pretty much lost its hold on me, thankfully. My problem is this: I am the only Catholic (converted in 2013) in my family, and while we no longer have cable or antenna television, they still like to play unsavory video games and watch unsavory shows like Walking Dead. I am trying to create a kind of ‘sacred space’, i.e. a home altar away from television, but our house is rather small with a lot of open space on the floor the television occupies. Maybe I should get noise canceling headphones.

  7. Artusi – many great points with which I largely agree. Consider, however, that the venerable Syrian tradition did not lead to the largest sacred music tradition in history; the European model did. Further while the Negro Spirituals you mention can indeed be excellent (I actually teach the history of African American music), it is not a distinctly Catholic tradition, and indeed has a number of elements which make it occasionally incompatible with our liturgical aesthetic.

    That being said, we can – and should – love and explore all of these musics. But we should also love and explore our own, so that the first quip of my first article, that “Catholic music can be heard everywhere but Catholic Churches” – become a thing of the past.

    Thanks for your perceptive comments, and for giving me more food for thought.

  8. More or less the only kind of music I have ever found that I really strongly like is Gregorian Chant. It is okay with me if it is sung inexpertly as long as it is not excessively fast. I don’t just mean that is the only kind of Mass music like, that is pretty much the only kind that interests me at all. There are some kinds of music, like pop/rock style or rap that I cannot be around at all because I just jump out of my skin, it viscerally bothers me. It’s not ideological–I’ve always had that type of reaction since I was a child, though when I was a child I would scream and throw a fit about the music. To me it is difficult to understand or stomach how people would decide to have an unsuitable pop style music at Mass that is actually intolerable to some. But I think some people have absolutely no inkling or concept or else truly couldn’t care less if it is seriously a problem to others and makes it impossible to pray at Mass.

  9. Dear Dr.Nowakawski- As a fellow Doctor, I would add one very, indeed, absolutely imperative clarification. Sacred music is, in the final analysis (especially in this day and age, so observable, post-Obama) European music. White Music, in brief.

    E.Michael Jones’ “Dionysus Rising” tried (and failed) to make a connection between Wagner (and his post-pious Protestant Weltanschauung) and the rise of Rock, but (truth be told) it is what the Evagelical Preachers said it was, when Elvis first gyrated his pelvis ‘N music.’

    That the Media (overwelmingly represented by one foreign ‘Asiatic Ethnos’ as the older writers also noted, and as Slezkine also pointed out in his book, ‘The Jewish Century’) also were behind this Putsch toward the rhthms of the Jungle, needs to be re-iterated by honest minds. Wagner warned of “Judentum in Musik” and has been proved correct. We downplay it at our peril.

    Finally, it is no coincidence that the ‘Antichrist of the Viennese School,’ was Arnold Schoenberg- both a Jew, and an ardent Racial Supremacist- oh, sorry, Zionist. That this egotistical anarchist also believed himself alone ‘worthy’ to be the first President of Occupied Palestine – oh, sorry [sic] “Israel” was only surpassed by his pronouncement that dodecaphonism was to be the ‘new music for the next 1000 years. Truly, an anti-incarnational ‘millenium’ that has worn thin, in less than 100 years.

    Because, as musicians, i.e., those who ‘pray twice’ as St. Augustine said, we wouldn’t want to deny the truth, merely for a John 7:13 moment.

      • Only if you live in Ethiopia. Why pretend that the Negro is somehow ontologically ‘better’ in White Lands, when you are a white man living in them, unles you bow to the Idol of the “Magic Negro” as the electorate of the USA did, in voting in a multicultural, metrosexual marxist like Obama. Truly, the modern world is idolatrous, as Cambria has noted.

        Schneider, your ideology is that of the Devil. Repent, and observe the national forms of Orthodoxy our forefathers observed.

        • All sacred liturgies established by the disciples are valid rites! That includes Saint Mark, doesn’t it?? What the blazes does race have to do with it? It was utterly incidental in ancient Times! NO one cared about race as we define it in Jesus day, NO ONE! Pagan Rome and Pagan Greece were classist, culturalist, and religist, but they WERE NOT RACIST! Macabees proves it. The Hellenic kings hated Jews for being Monotheistic, hated them for rejecting Hellenism, but those traitors who did, WERE TREATED AS EQUALS, same as everyone else who joined them as established by precedent in Alexander’s campaign. Nobody cared about skin; black Romans could own white slaves, black Romans like St. Augustine’s father. Racism is an illusion conjured by greedy colonial governors, a lie put into the hearts of fools by the devil. For all my sins, I am blessed, at least, to be free of that evil, which has consumed your heart. With such ungodly hate in your heart, your sermons are as tainted as Fred Phelps or Jack Chick, paranoiacs! You are not worthy to stand in the shadow of Benedict Groschel, a true mirror of Christ! The good shepherd, should he come upon the pups of the wolves he is defending his flock from, has the choice to kill, or tame them, and turn them into loyal dogs. You, you sadist, would delight in torturing them, like a childhood maniac, feeding them glass, or skinning them alive, or worse. That’s what it feels like to have a priest talk to me in the way you do. Even if I lack essential truth, the way you preach has no pity or compassion, you puritan prig.
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          • Race has everything to do with it. God created Adam apart and different from the existing pre-adamite races. The Hebrew word “aw-dawm” delineates the very uniqueness of Adamic humanity. Europe is Christendom for a reason. The Church is Israel now. How stupid are you… or how duped to follow the Antichrist Multicuti heresy@!?

          • “Pre-Adamite”? I don’t believe in that superstition. Lilith is a myth that has no baring on sane Church doctrine. And your implication that non whites are not true humans is too evil to even contemplate.
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          • You don’t believe in the fossil records? You don’t believe in Evolution? Then why did America vote for Obama, twice, if we don’t believe that ‘the African is our brother?’ No, you pick and choose like most fools out there, because you can’t bear the psychological disconnect from your creed of universalism/multiculturalism.

          • Alrighty then, what on God’s green earth are you talking about?? The only “pre-adamites” I have heard of are the myths in the pseudogripha and a few Irish stories about the origin of fairies from a Celtic Christian perspective. I thought the only books in dispute regarding cannonicity between the Orthodox and Rome was 3rd Macabees, and, in some cases, Jubilees.

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          • You’ve not read Raciology by a Russian academic? Even though he is not a Christian, he has revived the serious analysis of the unique position of the Caucasoid race, both temporally and anthropologically speaking. Adam’s creation does NOT include the NEgroid, the Asian, or the Hottentot, frankly. That is just one more heresy that Rome invented to claim that specious ‘universal jurisdiction’ of the Pope in days gone by.


          • I have been debating with a Black Panther who has the negative mirror image opinion as you, and sites similar unchristian, or in his case, unislamic pseudo science and metaphysical gobbledygook. If I were a vindictive man I might wish to see the both of you locked in the same room for a few hours. When you trap two different kinds of spiders in a jar, you will soon have only one. You say he is a son of Lilith, he says we are the sons of Doctor Yakubstine’s monster. I say you are both proud paranoiacs and stooges of the devil, turning mankind against itself.
            Sent from my HTC One™ S on T-Mobile. America’s First Nationwide 4G Network.
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          • Ryan,

            “Fr. John” has been removed from the comments. I believe in a free exchange of ideas, and even in giving people enough rope to hang themselves, but the assertions he’s making are patently offensive.

            He made the particular mistake of making these arguments on a website operated by someone who has a lovely Asian wife and thus, half-Asian children.

            I’m quite confident that they are descendants of Adam, came into the world in original sin, and have attained sanctifying grace through the sacraments.

          • Furthermore, the only universalism I believe in is the Catholicos, or universality of the Bride of Christ. But Orthodox hardliners hardly know what it was like for Catholic emigrants during the 1850s and 60s. You came later after protestants had softened up a bit. Finding a balance between peaceful tolerance while avoiding the heresy of the “new age” has been a narrow tightrope indeed, making it increasingly hard to know what to Give to Cesar and what to save only for God, but perusing the American experiment has made it imperative that we find a way. I informed you before that I reject the evil influence of Anibele Bugnini on the Vatican 2 reforms. If you are of the opinion that the Pope actually approved of Bugnini’s treachery, then I don’t know what else to say. Bugnini was excommunicated for it, and banished, and his liturgical bombs have been slowly defused, but not all were gotten too in time. Cleaning up that mess has taken forty years and will likely take forty more.
            Sent from my HTC One™ S on T-Mobile. America’s First Nationwide 4G Network.
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          • I was raised a Catholic. I am not an Ethnic Orthodox. And that assumption is just one more element in your knee-jerk reactions to my opinions, that merely presumes and assumes, without serious consideration for facts.

          • I didn’t presume your ethnicity, only that your twisted theology originates with Russian extremists. You are the eastern version of Jack Chick and Fred Phelps and Oliver Stinking Cromwell. You are the worst so called man of the cloth I have ever had “Teach” me.
            Sent from my HTC One™ S on T-Mobile. America’s First Nationwide 4G Network.
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          • I believe the events described in Genesis are all true. However, I am only certain that the events from Abraham on were all literal, in the strict, physical sense. Was there a mighty flood that destroyed the world of man? Certainly. There is plenty of extra biblical evidence for it, both in geology, and the Epic of Gilgamesh. Was it GLOBAL? Find me anyone before your own ancestors who had a concept of the world as a globe. It’s nonsense. Men had not spread that far out for it to be necessary, although, that puts a monkey wrench in your Pre Adamite argument. If the children of Lilith were real, wouldn’t the flood have wiped them out? At least calling black people “sons of Ham” acknowledges their kinship to Adam through Noah, even if you accuse them of having a rapist for an ancestor, and being cursed for it. But that was not Africa, by Cannan! The Cannanites were distinct, and have been quite wiped out. I must further suppose that if you think non whites are not even spiritually human, then Russians and Greeks must be the mightiest of whites. I, who am descended from German and Celtic savages, am not even worthy to touch you shadow, eh?
            Sent from my HTC One™ S on T-Mobile. America’s First Nationwide 4G Network.
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  10. I am not a musician nor have I ever studied music so I cannot comment on much of what is presented in the article and subsequent commentary with any authority. I will say that “we are what we listen to.” Music is the most mysterious and ethereal of all of the languages and it moves the soul like nothing else. It literally has the ability to “summon the spirits” so to speak – or to deaden the soul. We must be very careful in choosing what we listen to for it can have subliminal influence. I have taken more and more to listening to classical music and have found that I am all the better for it. When I do listen to “pop” or “rock” and, sadly, when I hear the music played at Mass, I am left cold for much of it lacks much of what the author puts forth in the article. I do not consider myself a music snob, but I do know beauty when I hear it!


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