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Andrew Motyka is the Archdiocesan Director of Liturgical Music and Cathedral Music for the Archdiocese of Indianapolis.
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“With all the powers of modern music open to him, from romanticism through French impressionism to the German and Russian modernists, he is yet able to confine all these contradictory forces on the groundwork of the Gregorian tradition.”
— Theodor Rehmann (on Msgr. Jules Van Nuffel)

Garbage in, Garbage out
published 18 March 2015 by Andrew R. Motyka

OMETIMES IT’S STRANGE to think about just how far computers have come in my lifetime (and I’m pretty young). I remember my family’s first computer when I was a kid, a 64kb PC. I also remember even then thinking how easy it was to mess something up. A tech-savvy friend once used the principal of GIGO – Garbage In, Garbage Out – to refer to how most computer errors are, in fact, user errors. A machine doesn’t do what you want it to do; it does what is designed to do.

I got thinking about that idea when speaking with a friend of mine a few days ago. He was telling me about a retreat that he had gone on. By his account, it was a great retreat: he came away spiritually edified, he had time for prayer and reflection, and he grew in discipleship. That sounds like a great retreat to me. His one complaint, though, was something about the music (hang on, let me practice my Surprised Face). The music was well executed, and the musicians certainly had played for Mass and devotions before. They played all the standard Catholic hits from the 80s, as well as some “Praise and Worship” music (side note: I find devotions to be a pretty good time for Praise and Worship music, actually).

What hit him a few days into the retreat, though, was what he described as, “I felt like we were singing nursery rhymes.” He is used to getting (in his words) “meat and potatoes” texts when singing at Mass, so when switching to these pieces, he felt like it was a bit dumbed down. I can relate to that.

I understand the desire for the familiar favorites that many Catholics mention when they consider their preferences of Catholic music. Most of the melodies and accompaniments are pleasant sounding, familiar, and beautiful in their own way, if simplistic. One issue with many of these preferences, though, is the lack of consideration of the text.

This tendency is one I recognize from high school. I know there are times when I expressed my dislike of a particular popular song, and was heralded as crazy. Most of the time it was because I didn’t like or relate to the words. I would usually get the response, “I like it because of the beat” or “I don’t really care about the words.” Before you know it, you’re singing along to that song, and repeating, over and over again, words that don’t represent who you are or what you believe (see John Lennon’s Imagine for a good example of this). Soon, you may even come to believe these things. You’ve said them out loud often enough.

You are shaped by the things you see and hear, but more importantly, you are shaped by the things you say and do. The Church certainly recognizes this in her simple encapsulation of liturgical theology: lex orandi, lex credendi (the law of prayer is the law of belief). We come to believe what we pray. We also come to believe what we do and what we sing. The principle lex orandi, lex credendi works both in favor of good theology and against it, and it extends beyond the liturgy into our lives. Garbage in, garbage out.

This brings me back to my friend’s retreat. He’s not normally one to complain about music or other shortcomings in the liturgy. He knows not everyone is where he is. However, he recognized something true about the music he was experiencing: it was shallow, or in his words, nursery rhymes. Such music was described to me by Leo Nestor as candy, which is fine in small amounts, but not in place of vegetables. He would also say, “Too much of that music will rot your teeth and erode your faith.” It’s been ten years since he said that in class (maybe I’m not as young as I thought), but I’ve never forgotten it.

The next time you choose a piece of music for the liturgy, ask yourself: what is this piece saying? Is there enough substance to this to spend our time putting it in our mouths? Is it even true? The text matters. In fact, it’s more important than the music because it precedes it. If a text isn’t worth reciting, it’s not worth singing. Regular readers of this website will know our preference for the propers. It’s no coincidence that the propers use Scripture as their basis for texts. It’s tough to say that a text is garbage when it comes from the Bible. That doesn’t mean that Scripture is the only text worth singing, but it’s a good benchmark.

Pay attention to your texts, and to quote Dr. Nestor again, always be careful what words you put into the mouths of the People of God.