Last week we talked about babies crying at mass, attire for worship and now I’d like to examine a third topic.

Do Catholics sing?

Now granted, I’m no Frank Sinatra, but I tend to at least try to sing at mass because i strongly feel like it is part of our mandated participation in the liturgy (the work of the people). But I also think that there is a strong faction of people who would much rather listen than sing, especially if your choir is great!

I’ve been attending a mass that has no music lately–or, I should say, no accompaniment. And I must say I really miss the organ which helps people like me who can’t carry a tune in a bucket, at least think they aren’t butchering the song.

Good choir directors hold their singers to higher standards but also besides sounding good, the job of the choir and especially of the cantor (if your parish uses one) is to be inviting. You are the leader of song but that does not mean that you are “performing.” You are “leading prayer-song” and we should all be participating with you. Your job is to help us sing with you. You can sing and we can follow you. Without you, we may indeed be lost. This is another reason that the music should indeed be good quality at mass. You play better tennis with better tennis players–and you sing better with people who have been trained to do so well, even if you haven’t been.

Now all that being said, I think that the little practices that choir directors do before mass are a bit overdone. What people want in music at mass is good quality and singable music–things that we don’t really have to stretch too far to sing ourselves. My thought is that if we have to practice it, then we probably shouldn’t sing it.

I do like a lot of the call and response hymns/songs that are out there these days and favored by a much younger demographic. They do in fact give room for the Cantor to lead and for us to respond to the prayer-leader. It’s a great way for the laity to play a proper part in the liturgy as well.

I also think that the music should reflect the ritual. So we might have a very rousing and lively opening hymn (AKA the processional hymn) or even a beautiful processional featuring classical Bach. But come communion time, something much more contemplative is called for, and we may opt for a Taize chant or even Gregorian chant.

Here’s a great article on the 8 myths about music at mass. One myth that adds to my comment about choirs performing:

Myth 3. Choirs are only there to support congregational singing.

In the early church, the faithful sang much of the Mass. There were, however, certain melodies and texts that developed over time that some found difficult to sing.

Choirs, or scholae cantorum, were developed with trained singers who not only supported congregational singing, but also performed some pieces on their own. Europe saw the development of famous choir schools and Catholic education has always included the teaching of music in its curricula. The advent of part-singing made choirs even more necessary to the Mass.

Choirs can be beneficial in leading the faithful in song, but they also can have their own role apart from the congregation. Active participation does not mean that everyone has to do the same things at the same time; it implies an interior participation by listening and contemplation as much as engaging in following the Mass and observing ritual gestures.

Paid professional cantors and choirs have been a part of the Catholic musical tradition for many centuries and continue to inspire Christians in their worship beyond what is accessible to the ordinary pew-singer. Vatican II explicitly urges the development of such choirs and musical education in schools.

What are your pet peeves about music at mass? Are you bored by the old-school hymns or are you inspired by the sounds of the pipe organ? Do diva cantors and awesome choirs inspire you to sing more–or do they make you more passive and more apt to simply listen rather than participate? Do you sing out loud or are you embarrassed? What’s the deal?

0 thoughts on “Mass Etiquette: Do Catholics Sing? And Should We Practice Before Mass?”
  1. GREAT TOPIC! Thanks!

    I love to sing. For years, from childhood into adulthood, I was told that I couldn't sing and perception became reality.

    Not that it mattered much… Sadly, the last two parishes that I belonged to in the NY Archdiocese were not big on anyone but the choir singing.

    Then I moved here and was astounded to hear almost everyone singing. I was knocked down by it. And inspired. I figured I could "hide" my bad voice among them.

    One day an old friend came to visit, one who may have been critical about my voice in the past; she can sing well. She was sitting next to me at mass and she was shocked when she heard me and noted that I could indeed sing well.

    I was astounded.

    My long winded point – sing out and you may be really really surprised. There is a whole other thing about community, confidence and more in that but I will not clog up this comment with it.

    I think that music is essential to liturgy. And I will respectfully disagree with you about the pre-mass practice of psalms or new songs…

    If you have to practice it just means that it is new, for example. Another reason for this as I understand it, is engagement between the music ministry and the congregation.

    Pipe organs are great – but so are pianos, guitars and other instruments. I am always reminded of that old line that tells us that to sing is to pray twice. I can't remember who said that.

    Sing out people! Sing out to the Lord and one another!

  2. Via facebook:

    From Noelle Farra:

    I was taught (in catholic school) that "singing is twice praying." I say sing out loud even if you don't know the right words!

  3. Via Facebook:

    From: John D. Giorgis

    Here's One: By my own (admittedly unscientific) estimation… 90% of Choir Directors and Choir Members think that they don't get to do enough new music, and 90% of persons in the congregation think that not enough music is repeated…

  4. Via Facebook:

    From: Wanda Tubbs

    Being a choir member and cantor at times…I feel more of the congregation needs to join in with the singing. And start with the old hymns everyone knows….this will get them into the habit of singing. Gradually introduce new hymns and repeat them on a regular basis until the congregation recognizes the tune and the words….continue in this pattern. You are singing the praises of God not to sign a recording contract.

  5. Via facebook:

    From Connie Lane Neuman:

    So many people say they were told they were not good singers. Doesn't that have to be deconstructed? Music doesn't need tonal perfection; enjoying the music is the point. And in church we sing together to "make God feel something," as God's Property sings.

  6. Noelle–that was St Augustine's line! And as you know I am king of the song parody: "Yahweh…I know….you drink beer…."

  7. I'm from an Augustinian parish – we sing! Qui cantat, bis orat. To sing is to pray twice.

    We often introduce new music by having the organ/piano play it as prelude for a couple of weeks. Then when we sing it, the melody is in people's heads without apparent effort. We do practice on occasion, usually when introducing some new Mass part, which doesn't easily lend itself to the stealth teaching approach (imagine an Amen played over and over again as a prelude!).

    As a cantor, my favorite moments are when I sing the refrain of the psalm (which we neither teach ahead of time, nor provide music to, so it's got to be singable under those conditions) and raise my hands and the congregation drowns me out as they sing it back. I measure success by how often I can't be heard over the congregation!

  8. Via Facebook:

    From Mike Young:

    Those with gifts should use them, those without talents should sing quietly. The good book says you do not need to be ostentatious about worshiping the lord.

  9. Via Facebook:
    From: Rachel Bundang

    "My thought is that if we have to practice it, then we probably shouldn't sing it."

    As a working musician/liturgist, I disagree with this. Sometimes new music just needs a *brief* rollout period, even when it's simple, to get folks familiar w/ it. I say this more for mass parts, which may get used for a whole season, than for occasional hymns.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *