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"Bishops have a duty towards both wise and foolish. They have to rouse the devotion of the carnal people with material ornament, since they are incapable of spiritual things."
— St. Bernard of Clairvaux (†1153)

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Guest Article: “Why That Hymn Doesn't Work”
published 5 September 2016 by Guest Author
Note: As a volunteer who loves liturgy but lacks formal training in music, I rely on advice from CCW contributors regarding guest articles. The following submission by Fr. Thompson was interesting because, while several contributors were critical, they unanimously said, “But please post it, because thoughtful articles like this generate beneficial discussion.” Feel free to let Fr. Thompson know your thoughts here. —J. G.


149 Hymnal OST OF US involved with parish music don’t have doctorates in musicology or in the history of liturgy. So how can we convincingly articulate our objections to particular pieces of music, whether hymns or Mass settings? I offer twelve criteria to aid in communicating precisely why you find certain music suitable or unsuitable for use at Mass. Certainly it is better to bring clear principles to the discussion rather than simply shouting, “Because I don’t like it!”

These criteria fall into two categories: Music (criteria 1-8) and Lyrics (criteria 9-12). Each criterion has two poles; the closer to Pole 1 the more suitable for congregational singing, the closer to Pole 2 the less suitable.

Criterion 1 : Range.

Pole 1 Less than an octave; Pole 2 More than an octave.

Criterion 2 : Maximum Intervals.

Pole 1 A Perfect 5th or less; Pole 2 Greater than a Perfect 5th.

Criterion 3 : Syncopation.

Pole 1 No syncopation; Pole 2 Highly syncopated.

Criterion 4 : Accidentals.

Pole 1 No accidentals; Pole 2 Chromaticisms.

Criterion 5 : Metrical Variation.

Pole 1 No variation; Pole 2 One or mere meter changes.

Criterion 6 : Proportion of Maximum to Minimum Note Length.

Pole 1 Two to one; Pole 2 Four (or more) to one.

Criterion 7 : Stylistic Genre.

Pole 1 Dedicated sacred; Pole 2 Secular/popular.

Criterion 8 : Congruent Connection with Liturgical Action.

Pole 1 Consistent compatibility; Pole 2 Disparity.

Criterion 9 : Enunciation.

Pole 1 Easy to declaim; Pole 2 difficult to declaim.

Criterion 10 : Aesthetic Beauty.

Pole 1 Poetic/evocative; Pole 2 Prosaic/trite.

Criterion 11 : Conformity to Church Teaching.

Pole 1 Unimpeachably orthodox; Pole 2 Doctrinally sketchy.

Criterion 12 : Wisdom & Theological Depth.

Pole 1 Expresses profound universal truth; Pole 2 Expresses moralistic platitudes.

We would award an excellent degree of suitability to those musical selections which have the higher number of criteria that are closer to Pole 1 than Pole 2. A preponderance of criteria closer to Pole 2 would be deemed not very suitable for use in the liturgy. For example, a highly syncopated and chromatic melody of wide range, containing 3 metrical changes, in a recognizably popular style whose lyrics are trite and cliched, would not be very suitable. Whereas a selection having an easy range of less than an octave, an uncomplicated meter whose musical style is recognizably that of sacred music, distinctly fits the liturgical action of its place in the Mass, and is poetic and theologically rich as well, would be highly suitable for use in the liturgy.

My hope is that these criteria help us all more readily articulate the relative worth of music proposed for Mass.


We hope you enjoyed this guest article by Fr. James Thompson, O.P.