SURVEY OFFERS INSIGHTS
ABOUT MUSIC AT MASS
The liturgical season that began on December 3 anticipates Christ’s return in glory. But its timing — immediately before Christmas — and the themes infusing its weekly readings point also to Jesus’ first appearance in a Bethlehem stable.
So Advent feels like, and tends to function as, a run-up to that beloved silent night, holy night. Not to mention serving as a reminder that time for holiday shopping is running out.
To make things even more confusing, the new church year begins with Advent. This is in contrast to the turn of our secular calendar a few weeks later.
For those churches that subscribe to liturgical materials services — OCP, GIA, etc. — Advent also brings new music books. And with those fresh, unwrinkled paperback volumes inevitably comes renewed discussion about the music we use at Mass.
Consideration of that topic in my parish was enriched this year by a survey with which we attempted to discern people’s preferences in hymns, instrumental accompaniment, and song leadership. Worshippers at all Masses were asked to complete and return a brief questionnaire.
In our 360-family parish we received only 40 completed forms (an additional two came in after results were tabulated). Such scant participation raises questions about how much attention the average Catholic in the pew actually pays to worship music — or about the motivation to express themselves on the topic. People’s active concern might be far less than what you would infer from those heated debates that scorch Facebook’s news feed.
But assuming the returned sheets reflect the feelings of those who actually care, our survey provided a few interesting impressions. For instance…
- Traditional hymns were preferred over contemporary songs 13 to 7. But most people (24) declared that they enjoy a mix of old and new selections. A mere 7 said that they like singing the liturgical antiphons — which suggests to me that there’s very little support for the efforts of liturgists pushing sung antiphons as a vehicle for advancing the so-called “reform of the reform.”
- In the matter of accompaniment, organ and piano ran pretty much neck-and-neck (21-to-20), far outpacing guitar (3), that humble instrument so irksome to the tradition-minded. One anti-guitar partisan appended the word, “HORRIBLE” in all-caps. Ouch! Still, guitar players can take some comfort in the fact that 12 respondents said they enjoy either organ, piano or guitar. Only one person expressed a fondness for unaccompanied (acapella) singing.
- Our survey confirmed that congregations rely on musical leadership. Only two respondents claimed to enjoy singing without a song leader. Otherwise, results indicated a fairly high level of flexibility — 21 respondents saying they found being led by either a choir or an individual vocalist acceptable. Of those who expressed a preference, 12 favored a choir, as opposed to only one favoring an individual cantor.
- Twenty people claimed to be able to read music (another 20 said they couldn’t). This may correlate somewhat with the expressed willingness of 28 respondents to learn new songs. Only 11 said they prefer sticking with material they already know.
- Perhaps the most telling survey result was a marked disdain for Latin. To the question “Do you find it satisfying when we sing Latin songs and responses?” only 8 people answered “Yes.” In contrast, 28 said “No,” two with exclamation points for special emphasis. (One who liked Latin added a note expressing particular fondness during Advent and Lent, while one who didn’t like Latin made an exception for Advent and Lent.)
It should be pointed out that responses to each question don’t necessarily add up to 40, the total number of questionnaires tabulated. Not all respondents answered every question, and several checked more than one choice on some.
The survey form provided space for comments, and people didn’t hesitate to offer their advice for improving our music ministry. Some excerpts…
“The first song we sing — the entrance song — and the last song before leaving should be UPLIFTING!! Most of the time they are not known songs and depressing! Easter and Christmas services should have VERY uplifting music! Sing extra songs at the end of the service!”
“Need to pick up the tempo. Music has been too slow.”
“I want something that makes me feel alive in church. Have you seen ‘Sister Act’?”
“We need encouragement to sing! Song is PRAYER! I always sing at Mass … We need inspiring music with Mass themes … Also we need songs we know and can sing. Recurring lines are easier because there are less words to learn.”
“I like popular songs — whether old, contemporary, or today’s popular Christian radio songs.”
Well, that last one was perhaps a bit much — as was another respondent’s suggestion that we add “I’ll Fly Away” to our weekly repertoire. I don’t expect to hear that old gospel chestnut sung at Mass anytime soon.
The place of Latin in worship remains a vexed question.
Around the country, a neo-Traditionalist minority is pushing for restoration and expanded use. But while most Catholics may agree the ancient tongue deserves recognition for its historical significance, my sense is that they feel use of Latin in liturgy should be very specific and highly restrained.
One survey respondent offered an excellent summation of this view…
“I grew up with the Latin hymns and responses, and sang them with the entire student body at daily Mass for 12 years. I wouldn’t mind hearing a Latin hymn that I’m familiar with (like ‘Ave Maria’) occasionally, but I definitely would not like to go back to Latin Masses and songs regularly.”
As with Advent itself, our pre-Advent music survey can bear many interpretations.
Granted, we were querying a small rural parish using research methods that weren’t all that sophisticated. And the number of responses was definitely small. Nevertheless, what we received was an expression of the vox populi (voice of the people), even if it was the vox of a rather limited populi.
Does it reflect the views of Catholics in general? Well, I wouldn’t want to make too much of it. But at a minimum, I’d say our survey lends credence to an observation I’ve made repeatedly throughout my years as a liturgical musician…
Most people crave emotional engagement at Mass — not necessarily a capital-C “Charismatic” experience, but something that moves them.
Good worship music, whether incorporating traditional or contemporary songs, helps to address that need.
A classic Advent hymn captures this longing of our hearts…
“O come, divine Messiah
The world in sadness waits the day
When hope shall sing its triumph
And sadness flee away.”
Take a minute to enjoy a lovely rendition of “O Come, Divine Messiah” by the Cantate Domino Choir from the Church of Our Lady of Perpetual Succour in Singapore. The famous French carol is rendered a bit more slowly than I’m accustomed to hearing it, but this presentation is very effective…