The pews are alive: USC readers on parish music

In the Pews
Whether the sound of music has them singing to the mountains or running for the hills, U.S. Catholic readers agree that Mass to the sounds of silence would just be flat.

St. Augustine said that singing is praying twice, but for every angelic voice that touches our hearts there’s sure to be an off-key crooner who only hurts our ears. With the wide variety of musical genres present in American parishes today, you never know whether the sounds reverberating through the pews will inspire people to lift their voices or to simply head for the exit. While some are thrilled with electric guitars amping up Mass, the same tunes leave others feeling caught between a rock song and a hard place. Praise bands in some parishes get parishioners clapping their hands and swaying to the beat, yet others wish they’d just beat it. U.S. Catholic readers have heard it all before, and like most churchgoers, they find that one parishioner’s song of joy is another’s dreadful noise.

Eighty percent of the more than 750 readers who responded to a U.S. Catholic reader survey claimed that the music at Mass was very important to them, but only 13 percent said that they thought the current state of liturgical music was “wonderful.” Jean Gibbs of Ashburn, Virginia says, “Music is very important to me in my worship. But that form of worship has to happen outside of Mass because of the weird stuff we sing there.”

Patti DeWitt of Buffalo, New York emphasizes that music at Mass is only good insofar as it really becomes a part of the service, not something set apart: “Music at liturgy can and should be part and parcel of the prayer.”

“Music is only one element of a liturgical celebration,” agrees Suzanne Harris of Spokane, Washington. “I believe it is important and, when done well, can truly enhance the worship experience. But if it becomes the emphasis and focus of the celebration, something is out of order.”


Many people commented that the music is especially distracting when it is too loud. James Swagzdis of Holland, Pennsylvania particularly objects to “modern-day overamplification and enough percussion to shatter stained glass windows.”

He’s not the only one who thinks that modern music falls flat. Karen Karn of Plymouth, Minnesota says that in her parish, “The teen band often sings pieces that I think are frankly unsingable.”

“There was a lot of jiving and clapping,” says Linda Kelley of Greenbelt, Maryland, describing her experience of hearing gospel rock during Mass. “I ended up with the worst headache and couldn’t wait to get out.”

Not everyone objects strongly—or even at all—to modern music at Mass, however. Many readers find contemporary music to be more accessible, and if their parish does not provide it, they yearn for a little more zest. Joe and Kate Gile from Ellsworth, Maine can’t stand “the really old-fashioned pre-20th-century somber, formal music.” Mary Janowak of Brookfield, Wisconsin, even goes so far as to ask for “a little less liturgical correctness and a lot more spirit.”


In fact, more than half of survey respondents think that contemporary songs written since Vatican II have tremendously improved the quality of liturgical music. Bradley Leger of Estherwood, Louisiana says he’s not a fan of  “old hymns which have an outdated or inappropriate spirituality, especially if they are disjointed with the scriptural readings and the liturgical season.”

“I really favor contemporary liturgical music, as well as music from the folk music era, such as the St. Louis Jesuits,” says Daniel Gandert of Chicago. “I am fine with parishes having Masses with more traditional music, as long as they also have a Mass with more contemporary liturgical music. I feel that music directors who use primarily traditional music should use contemporary liturgical music at least some of the time.”

The dissonance is not only about contemporary versus traditional music, however. Only 19 percent of U.S. Catholic reader survey respondents find that at their parish the congregation sings with gusto. Fifty-three percent say that people sing occasionally with 10 percent reporting no singing at all. Some readers, like Franklyn Busby of Charleston, South Carolina, think that the culprit is “not because they are bad songs, but because they are often bad theology and doctrine.”

There are a few people, however, who accept no such excuse. More than a quarter of readers who took the survey think that everyone in the congregation should sing every song. “Mass is public prayer,” says Bob Brady of Gaithersburg, Maryland. “There is no time for private prayer during Mass. Each person should unite themselves with the congregation by singing.” But try telling that to Henry Bailey of Winthrop, Massachusetts, who admits, “While I agree in principle [that the congregation should sing], I don’t sing at all and I’m not about to start.”


In addition to thinking that people should be singing, many readers just enjoy singing during Mass because it helps them feel united with the congregation, even when they feel they don’t have the best singing voice. “My previous parish had the people in the pews only listening to the choir as they performed,” says Ginny Garza of Cincinnati. “I like to sing even though I don’t have the best voice in the world.” In fact, 85 percent of readers claim that their singing voice does not keep them from belting out a tune. Charles Wolf of Altoona, Pennsylvania says, “I was raised a Methodist. The expectation was to sing. The quality of one’s voice was not as important as the effort.”

Some respondents think that bad or poorly executed music just does not measure up. It not only discourages people from singing, but detracts from the purpose of the Mass. Cathy Stepanek of Minneapolis says, “Cringe! It distracts too much from the liturgy. No music would be better so it wouldn’t distract from a prayerful experience.”

Still others note that some services have too much singing, regardless of the quality. “If anything, it takes away from the Mass,” says Denis Nolan of Daly City, California. “Our priests sing many parts and it all blends together so that there are days when I don’t know if we’ve had the consecration yet.”

Quite a few people, while insisting that music is important to the liturgical experience, also felt that it was important to distinguish between Mass and a performance. After all, Mass is not the time or place to audition for American Idol. Thirty-one percent think that applause following a musical performance at Mass is never appropriate. Says Cindy Engler of St. Louis Park, Minnesota, “The reverence of the passion of Jesus is more important than show business.”


Some readers revealed that their parishes had attempted various types of music during Mass that were not in tune with the desires of the parishioners. “I don’t want either a square dance or polka Mass,” says Robert Mallinger of Clinton, Iowa. “If I wanted to stomp my feet and dance, I would find a dance hall. I come to Mass to pray and communicate with God through the Holy Spirit in the sacrament made possible by Jesus Christ. I don’t come to be entertained by wannabe country and western stars.”

Most people are generally happy with the music at their own parishes, and many have been moved by the music. Tom Zimmer of Sussex, Washington says that his most powerful musical experience was “singing with a choir from a homeless shelter and standing in awe of the bass section.” For some readers, the music connects them with a particular event, like James Reinke of Duluth, Minnesota who remembers “the funeral for a dear elderly friend—singing ‘When the Saints Go Marching In’ as the congregation prepared to go out to the cemetery.” Sometimes, though, the powerful music is just another hymn sung at Mass. For Maureen Sheehan of Lynden, Washington, “Hearing the hymn ‘Here I am, Lord’ covers exactly what I want to say at Mass.”


At the end of the day though, most people feel that the music is necessary as a complement to the prayer and contemplation of the liturgy. So while different parishes do music differently, the important thing is to do music that works for that community. Elizabeth Begley of Suffern, New York says, “The primary focus needs to be the community celebration of the liturgy—anything that complements that is fine with me.” As Glen McCoy from Winter Springs, Florida, puts it, “We are indeed one body, and I love a Mass that has something for everyone, every age, every taste, and every spirituality.”

And the survey says…


1. As a person in the pew, I would judge the state of liturgical music to currently be:

44% – Pretty decent.
26% – Not so great.
13% – Wonderful.
10% – Dreadful.
7% – Other

2. The music is a very important part of my experience at Mass.

80% – Agree
14% – Disagree
6% – Other


3. My parish has:

77% – An adult choir.
53% – Soloists.
37% – A children’s choir.
22% – A youth choir.
15% – Other

Representative of “other”:
“A contemporary praise band and an orchestra, and other special music on feast days.”

4. I think every single song at Mass should be sung by the congregation—there should be no “just listening” to choir or solo performances of music
at Mass. 

27% – Agree
60% – Disagree
13% – Other

Representative of “other”:
“Just listening can make for a nice reflection, especially at communion. But it carries with it the risk of becoming a performance, especially at the offertory.”

5. The type of music that is most appropriate for inclusion in the Mass is:

71% – Piano and other instruments with a small group leading the congregation.
63% – Organ music with a cantor leading the congregation.
61% – A formal choir that might perform a song or two on its own and otherwise sings with the congregation.
56% – Classical music.
55% – Latin songs such as Panis Angelicus.
35% – Electric guitars with drums.


6. I think clapping after a musical performance at Mass:

47% – Is not ideal but is understandable sometimes.
31% – Is not appropriate ever because we are not at a performance.
17% – Is a great way to show appreciation.
5% – Other

7. The contemporary songs written since Vatican II have tremendously improved the quality of liturgical music.

52% – Agree
28% – Disagree
21% – Other

Representative of “other”:
“Some contemporary music is good. Some is not.”

This article appeared in the March 2014 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 79, No. 3, pages 26-29).

Image: Flickr photo cc by simononly