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July 15, 2009
In Life and in Liturgy: Does Musical Style Matter?
By James Flood *

By James Flood *

In Life

In eras previous to our own, there was often concern about the effect of musical styles on our moral lives, from ancient Greece all the way to the mid-20th century. Christian philosopher Anicius Boethius, wrote in the 6th century: "Music can both establish and destroy morality. For no path is more open to the soul for the formation thereof than through the ears. Therefore when the rhythms and modes have penetrated even to the soul through these organs, it cannot be doubted that they affect the soul with their own character and conform it to themselves" (On Music Bk. 1, Ch. 1, quoted from. Rev. Basil Nortz, O.R.C. "The Moral Power of Music." The Homiletic & Pastoral Review (April 2002): 17-22). Today, however, such talk sounds embarrassingly outdated. Many people do understand the impact of the words of music, to the extent that rock and rap lyrics have at times become political controversies involving high court cases and the making of laws. This is certainly a valid concern, as no doubt the words of music do influence our thoughts and behaviors. But discussions on the power of the musical style itself, words aside, are easily dismissed. But the words generally flow from the style. It is the style itself that is often at the root of the problem.

In the 1950s, rock music sent shock waves through America. Parents, pastors, and concerned citizens spoke with abhorrence about this new style and made dire predictions about the negative moral impact it would have on the young and on society as a whole if it were not curbed. Modern people chuckle at these uptight and repressive "prophets of doom" who saw rock music as corrupting the young and disposing them to rebelliousness, sexual license, excess, and violence. But it seems that these so-called alarmists are vindicated by statistics. The ‘60s saw a sharp increase in sexual activity among the young, teen pregnancies, rebellious attitudes towards parents, drug-use, and violent crime. While there were certainly other contributing factors, the coincidence is simply too uncanny, especially when we consider that the powerful rock movement itself became synonymous precisely with drugs, free sex, and rebellion against parents and society.

To understand music’s effect on the human person, it will be useful to cover the components making up the human person. The Manichean heresy never seems to entirely leave cultures, and ours is not the exception. So it is worthwhile to reiterate here that one cannot divide the body from the soul as long as we are alive on this earth. We are body-soul composites. Whatever the body does our soul is closely engaged with. Hence, if someone uses his hand to point a gun at someone and uses his mouth to demand money, he cannot later claim that it was his body that did the evil, but his soul was uninvolved. This body-soul composite comprises an intimate intertwining between our body, our intellect, our emotions, and our will. These four components influence one another and form the disposition of our soul, that is, our relationship with God. It is important that we, with the help of God’s grace, form our intellects well, act as wise guardians of our emotions, and govern our bodily actions so as to bring our souls in conformity with our true dignity as images of God--the True, the Good, and the Beautiful One.

Our bodies, emotions, and intellect are doorways to our soul. Additionally, our bodies act as a kind of sign post of not only our emotions and intellect, but also our will and the disposition of our soul. Plato once wrote, "Music and rhythm find their way into the secret places of the soul." Music is powerful precisely in that it influences our emotions, intellect, and our bodies-- those three "doorways to the soul." In short, music plays a role in forming who we are and helps to form, or deform, our very soul in its relationship with God. This usually happens in more subtle ways, such that we may not even realize that adjustments in our attitudes and behavior are even taking place. We shall consider examples to see how music influences us for good or for ill.

Notice the bodily movements that rock music (and its descendants, rap, hip-hop, and club-scene dance music) frequently inspire, particularly in the young. Beyond innocent foot-tapping, typical movements that rock inspire are foot-stomping, repetitive fist-pumping, head-banging movements, and sometimes chaotic, spastic-like movements. When individuals "get into" rock music, they often don "cool," "tough," or "sneering" facial expressions. When it comes to dancing to rock, it may include some of the above elements, but frequently it includes sexual movements. This phenomenon is universal. It is literally cross-cultural. Now the sexual act and its spontaneous movements find their true meaning -- their goodness and beauty -- only in the end for which God created it: the private activity between a man and woman who are in the sacred union of Marriage wherein they are renewing that union with an openness to creating new life to be educated and nurtured. The sexual movements so universal in rock and hip-hop dancing found at parties and concerts are sexuality in the wrong place at the wrong time. It neither promotes loving union nor the procreation of children to be nurtured and educated. It only affords the body and the emotions the inclination towards sexual pleasure for its own sake. Whether those who engage in it are aware of it or not, this type of dancing is, in a certain sense, being publicly sexual with friends and strangers alike (and easily leads to lust). Such a crossing of proper boundaries breeds a cultural milieu where it becomes common to go further and actually engage in sexual relations with those with whom no marital commitment exists. It is not a coincidence that the rock movement of the ‘60s brought with it the proud doctrine of "free sex." This once radical doctrine now enjoys mainstream acceptance.

Notice, in contrast, the movements in the dancing inspired by classical music, that is, ballet. This type of dance springs organically from beautiful and ordered music. When my 4-year-old hears the music of Beethoven or Mozart she immediately begins dancing like a graceful ballerina (or at least as gracefully as a 4 year-old can). Classical dance is also found in the courtly dance common in European society in the 16th to 19th centuries. As seen, for instance, in Jane Austen movies. Composers wrote music for such dances as the allemande, courant, galliard, sarabande, and gigue. Some were slow, some fast and energetic. Others were moderately slow or moderately fast. The movements of these dances are ordered rather than chaotic, graceful and beautiful rather than brutish. The person is expressing in his or her body, movements that are consonant with his or her God-given dignity; with truth, goodness, and beauty. But am I speaking as an elitist here? No, for even the square dancing accompanied by Appalachian folk music is consonant with the dignity proper to a person created in the image of God. Such dancing is certainly simpler and less refined than the classical, but the music lifts the mind, and one can see the simple and innocent joy on faces as well as bodily gestures that express mutual respect. There are also many other popular styles which inspire various dances which are in harmony with our human dignity.

But what about Christian rock? Not an easy answer. I believe Christian rock can be a sincere expression of one’s faith for the musician whose native form of musical expression is rock. The rock enthusiast who is a believing Christian also can experience positive, faith-building feelings related to Christian rock. It is the musical language to which their habituated aesthetic sense finds a sympathetic response. So rock music with Christian words can serve as a good alternative, but I say this by way of concession. As Fr. Basil Nortz, O.M.R., often repeats in his lecture, Music and Morality "Music is its own message." (Audio CD, Opus Sanctorum Angelorum) Christian rock (especially the harder forms) hobbles in its attempt at communicating the message and essence of Christ. The blaring amplifiers, the pulsating and syncopated 4/4 meter with screaming electric guitars are themselves communicating a message that runs contrary to the music’s text. This is why the phrase "Christian rock" sounds to many like a contradiction. Slapping Christian words on to hard rock music does not baptize the style. Observe also that though the movements noted above in connection with rock are perhaps toned down at Christian rock gatherings, they really don’t change that much in kind. But one’s musical tastes do not convert over night, so in the interim, Christian rock serves as an alternative. Difficult as this may be, the practicing Christian should consider opening himself up to other more edifying styles. Such a journey may yield surprisingly happy results.

And what about folk styles or other more popular music styles with specifically Christian lyrics? Catholic folk/popular artists such as Danielle Rose and John Michael Talbot write and perform music in the popular vein that is, I believe, a perfectly appropriate musical setting for communicating love for God and living the spiritual life. For those who enjoy it, this music can aid one in growing in virtue and love for God. Popular music can also be used specifically for worship in prayer groups, concerts, or festivals of praise. But even these styles can lead to a problem; one that is common today.

In Liturgy

There is a time and place for good things, and music is not an exception. If music acts on the emotions, and if there are emotions that are appropriate in certain settings but not in others, then it makes sense that different types of music are appropriate in some settings but not in others. There is nothing wrong with say Tchaikovsky’s lovely "Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairies," but if at a college graduation ceremony the orchestra decided to chuck "Pomp and Circumstance" for "Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairies," it would strike those in attendance as shockingly out of place, and the emotions appropriate for the solemn occasion would be compromised. But then, what if the "Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairies" caught on as the norm for graduation ceremonies around the country along with other similar pieces? The shock would eventually go away, but the atmosphere and tradition of graduation ceremonies would be changed. Those in attendance would likely begin exhibiting different behaviors and attitudes than before. Likely, people would dress more casually. They would probably become more chatty, perhaps even spontaneously engaging the Master of Ceremonies with humorous jabs, and the Master of Ceremonies might choose to loosen up a bit and do away with the uncomfortable graduation cap and gown. Graduates themselves might start saying to themselves, "What’s the big deal? I don’t feel like going to the graduation ceremony."

The Mass is a solemn ceremony too, but infinitely more so. As Vatican II document Sacrosanctum Concilium states, "In the earthly liturgy we share in a foretaste of that heavenly liturgy.…" (no. 8). The liturgy is the one place in our earthly lives where heaven and earth meet. We come into contact with a reality that transcends our earthly existence. Additionally, the Second Person of the Trinity miraculously, mysteriously, and incomprehensibly becomes bread to be consumed. In the great Sacrifice of the Mass Christ’s sacrifice on Calvary is offered for us and at the same time re-presented to the Father in heaven. It is an occasion unlike any other occasion, and it demands music that communicates the awesomeness and utter transcendence of the event. It must guide the emotions and intellect to properly take in what is happening and it must transcend our earthly lives. Religious pop music simply will not do.

Unfortunately, due to a well-intentioned effort at making God more accessible and a loose interpretation of Vatican II, pop music was introduced into the Mass. This was initially shocking, but the shock has worn off. Because the music (as well as other factors, such as catechesis, architecture, art, and liturgical practices) communicated a different message and aroused different emotions than what the Church officially taught about the Mass, attitudes, understanding, and behavior at liturgy have changed. Instead of wearing one’s Sunday best for the occasion, Mass-goers often where clothing exactly the same as what they where at home: jeans, shorts, t-shirt. Instead of genuflecting profoundly at the very presence of the Second Person of the Trinity, genuflecting is skipped altogether.  Celebrants will sometimes decide to replace some of the "confining formalities" of the Liturgical rubrics with something a little more "fun." And some lay people say to themselves, "What’s the big deal? I don’t feel like going to Mass."

It is a shame that Catholics possess such a rich treasury of sacred music yet remain almost completely unaware of it. The vast majority of Catholics have never even heard of such great Catholic polyphonic composers like Palestrina, Byrd, or Josquin, nor their music. And though Vatican II states that Gregorian chant "should be given pride of place in liturgical services" (Sacrosanctum Concilium, no. 116), its use at Mass has become something of an oddity. We’re like the Simpsons living in a modest house with modest furniture all the while and unbeknownst sitting on treasures of gold. The popular music frequently used at Masses simply does not match up with the solemnity and awesomeness of the sacred occasion. Notice how most proponents of popular liturgical music will themselves not refer to it as sacred music. Yet these same people will admit that the liturgy is sacred. Non-sacred music for a sacred liturgy: we have a contradiction. In light of this, it makes sense why Pope Benedict XII said, "An authentic updating of sacred music can take place only in the lineage of the great tradition of the past, of Gregorian chant and sacred polyphony" (speaking in the Sistine Chapel, June 24, 2006).

Music is powerful. It shapes our emotions, our intellect (understanding), the use of our bodies, and the state of our very souls. Parents interested in the spiritual good of their children would do well not to follow the lead of their children or their children’s peers, but instead give them training and appreciation of classical music, and where popular music is concerned, if possible, not allow rock, rap, or hip-hop in the home. As concerns the liturgy, pastors and parishioners would do well to insist that at least one of their Masses be done with proper sacred music. Changes can’t be made overnight, and a sweeping imposition of musical styles that today’s Mass-goer is unfamiliar with will not work. But at least we can begin the slow process of leading our congregations to discovering the value and beauty of music that is truly transcendent and sacred in its very style.

This resource is provided in collaboration with The Foundation for Sacred Arts.

James Flood is the founder and President of The Foundation for Sacred Arts, Washington, D.C. He is also Director of Music at St. Clement Parish in Lakewood, OH and is Choir Director of the Schola Cantorum at the Lyceum in Cleveland, OH.
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