The Affective Side of Liturgical Music

In the post on the hymn “Jesus so tenderly calls me” Ephrem surfaced the issue of the emotional life of Catholic sung prayer.

(C)an we sing about the joy of salvation? How delightful it is to be brought into Communion with the living God? That is what statuary and devotions give people an opportunity to do, and what most of our current art, including music, gives no opportunity for: delight in the joy of salvation. This hymn is at least a step in the devotional direction.

It seems to me that songs give the composer or singers two opportunities to express this. The text, obviously: “With joy you will draw water at the fountain of salvation,” (Isaiah 12:3) Psalm 98 and numerous other examples. And the music itself.

As westerners, our ears are more used to communicating mood through harmony. A small sliver of Catholics might recognize the distinctiveness of the modes and melodies of plainsong, but if we were looking to music to express or communicate mood, including affective joy, we would first turn to harmony. Clearly Catholics have done so, as very little devotional hymnody is plainsong.

Ephrem continues with an important point:

Devotional means affective. We love God. We don’t tolerate God or answer His call as servants. God wants our friendship. He draws us, actively, as affective and thinking persons, both within the Liturgy and outside it.

If you want to see really distant, non-relational language, look at most present-day Church music. Or at the “optional” collects of the Mass, the ones that were composed in English. If you want to see intimacy and tenderness, look at the Introits.

I might quibble that devotional life is not only affective, but it also implies a committed life. If my spouse or child is ill, I care for them with devotion. But my love for them is expressed more in concrete acts. In my case, “guy” things: dishing out ice cream, running a warm bath, fetching an extra blanket from the linen closet, going out to the pharmacy at an inconvenient hour, stuff like that. Not really joyful stuff. Unless you’re a guy, it doesn’t seem very affective. But I would submit that many Catholics don’t approach their devotional lives with joy. They say their prayers, do the “procedures” from a sense of habit and commitment. And that’s a good thing when balanced with Ephrem’s suggestion of the importance of joy and emotion.

Which brings me to the point of the essay. I suspect that much modern liturgical music lacks the “emotional” connection of pre-conciliar vernacular hymns for a few reasons:

1. Much of it is based on Scripture. And while the examples of Luke 1:46, Isaiah 12:3, Psalm 122:1b express joy explicitly and in context, the Biblical sources also express other human considerations, not always positive emotions.

2. Contemporary church music has been often criticized (by Anglicans) as happy-clappy. Whether a fair condemnation or not, many musical styles suggestive of happiness, joy, dancing, are in use. Willard Jabusch pioneered them with his English-language hymns. Good musicians want to be “serious” musicians, and I know that many composers over the years have suppressed their affective sensibility in composition as their style matured.

3. Emotions are seen as an individual kind of thing. Composing for liturgy always brings the potential pothole of writing something that fits the emotional appeal of a smallish subset of people, and alienates lot of others. One has to go no further than the bile-driven discussions on Marty Haugen and David Haas to see that most conservative Catholics who object, object to these guys being wussies rather than over-intellectualized Palestrina-wannabes.

4. Most white composers have avoided sentimentality, at least overtly in the texts. Tom Conry might be an extreme example. LifeTeen music, however, uses the medium of music to communicate the emotion. And there’s no doubt that the celebrity-driven aspect of Catholic music publishing focuses on the emotional appeal of the guru, sometimes above the content of his (or maybe her) music.

5. Probably the one aspect that many contemporary musicians have been drilled in is an avoidance of individualism. It is part of the “progressive gospel” that the Church, especially in the US, is too focused on “me and Jesus,” and doesn’t center enough attention on building community. There was a time when I avoided any literal use of first-person singular in my own compositions. I wrote two settings of Psalm 91 in the 90’s, and in each one, I altered the ICEL refrain from “Be with me …” to “Be with us, Lord, when we are in trouble.”

6. Yet Black Gospel music embraces the “I” and the “me” of communal prayer. In progressive circles, one doesn’t usually criticize Gospel music. But then again, you don’t see too many white folk imitating it.

My sense is that Ephrem is on to something with the need to recover the affective side of music. Outside of the monastery, I don’t see chant as a leading player in that. But by the same token, I don’t see mining the scrap heap of devotional hymnody as being the best territory for enrichment. A good parish music director would probably take the emotion factor into consideration when planning or shaping an entire repertoire.

What do you think?


About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in the Pacific Northwest, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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17 Responses to The Affective Side of Liturgical Music

  1. Liam says:

    Perhaps this partial thesis can be contrasted with a partial antithesis: how would one say the affective side to music is addressed in Greek liturgy (which has no harmonies), which seems to be healthy and vital and in no need of help?

  2. Ephrem says:

    Liam, the chant is affective (but I’m no musicologist. At all.)

    But look especially at the joy in relationship that is found in the WORDS. Eg, Christmas:

    “Your Nativity, O Christ our God, has dawned upon the world the light of knowledge. For those who worshipped the stars, were, by a Star, led to worship You, the Sun of Righteousness, and to know You the Dayspring from on High. O Lord, glory be to You.”

    From the Akathist Hymn and Small Compline:

    “Heavenly King, Comforter, the Spirit of truth who are present everywhere and fill all things, Treasury of good things and Giver of life, come and dwell in us. Cleanse us of every stain, and save our souls, gracious Lord.”

    See how intensely they relate to the Lord. They number His praises and glorify Him. That’s joy.

    We do the same thing, but in our more streamlined Latin style. Eg last Sunday’s Communio:

    “The Lord has prepared a feast for me: given wine in plenty for me to drink.”

    And Introit:

    “May all the earth give you worship and praise, and break into song to your name, O God, Most High. ”

    Pure delight in God.

  3. Liam says:


    I am inclined to agree, and that was what prompted my anti-thesis, as it were, but I wondered how Todd might explain that.

  4. Todd says:

    Do people necessarily separate music from text? I suspect people take more cues from the music than the words, and I think its true across the board: pop music and sacred music.

    The Christmas texts do reflect joy, but we all know that chant in the hands of an amateur can render these all as a disaster. Christmas carols, collectively, all communicate the joy of the season through their harmony–mostly all major keys.

    Personally I agree that chant expresses joy and the whole range of human emotion, but I think you would find that sentiment not shared among the general public.

    Contemporary composers use these Mass texts, too. The SLJ’s started it and others have picked up from there.

  5. Liam says:

    But Todd that does not explain the enduring quality of the music of the Greek liturgy.

  6. Ephrem says:

    Todd, I’m not sure you know what I mean by “joy.”

    (Actually, I think you do know but won’t admit it if it means losing out
    to the “conservatives.”)

    Explain, please, how the Hodie Christus Natus Est, sung with any accuracy at all, can be rendered a disaster. Then I will tell you of the masses of people I’ve heard sing Pange Lingua Gloriosi, without acccompanimant, gloriously.

    Whereas, take away the guitar from I Will Come to You in the Silence; is anyone singing?

  7. Todd says:

    Ephrem, I think we all realize that music appreciation, even in sacred music, is part of cultural conditioning. Westerners are bombarded by music driven by rhythm and harmony. The notion of melody is driven by the principle of the hook, not by a greater sense of beauty.

    My point is this: you, Liam, and I find chant engaging and emotional. Many otherwise devoted Catholics who lack our experience with good music do not. Catholic devotional music hardly ever includes chant–that’s the people’s choice after and before the council. I wish it weren’t so, but that’s the state of affairs we have in our laps–like it or not.

    I have heard people sing “You Are Mine” a cappella. They will do it because they like the song. It’s interesting that you chose that piece, because from the voice of God, it expresses a considerable intimacy and tenderness.

    And there are two relatively common factors that render chant a dead item: poor acoustics and a needlessly slow tempo. Again, not ideal, and also not likely to ever happen in my music program. But it does occur.

  8. Kathy says:

    You Are Mine does not express tenderness. If somebody talked to me that way, somebody I love, I would wonder why in the world they don’t say what they mean in a normal loving way.

    “I will come to you in the silence… Do not be afraid, I am with you; I have called you each by name”–these are very stiff expressions. They don’t feel human or gentle, and they don’t express relationship. If your son or daughter was frightened in the night, and you came and said, “Do not be afraid, I am with you,” they would probably crack up and say “Daddy, why are you talking like that?”

    Only Mighty Mouse can get away with singing, “Do not be afraid; I am with you.” But opera is not suitable for Mass, as we know from the old Motu Proprio.

  9. Kathy says:

    Compare to the tenderness of the song, archaic expressions and all, Come Down, O Love Divine. “Come down, O love divine, seek now this soul of mine and visit it with your own ardor dwelling.” Those sentiments have a wordiness to them, granted. But they have an intimacy as well; you can imagine gazing into somebody’s eyes, God’s eyes, while singing them. Whereas “Do not be afraid, I am with you” fails, drastically, as intimate converse. It is an announcement, not a love song.

  10. Liam says:


    If you’ve ever heard Greek popular music, it is highly rhythmic and harmonic. But for some reason, the Greeks have not found a need to change their liturgical music to be engage it. So are Catholics so unique from Greeks that that is simply impossible? Or is an issue of demand failing because the supply is failing?

  11. Todd says:

    This is probably worth a separate post, but here goes:

    “Ardor” is not quite as stiff as “I love you and you are mine.”

    And I don’t know why Catholics have found it helpful to engage popular forms for devotional song. It happened before the council. Certainly pop forms are well-integrated into church music–that’s what volunteers know how to play and sing.

    I think this is an improvement in the minds of most Catholics: “Finest bread I will provide till their hearts be satisfied. I will give my life to them. Whom shall I send?”

  12. Kathy says:

    Todd, could you please clarify what your last comment means? I’m taking the second paragraph to be sarcastic, but I don’t have any idea of what you mean by the 3rd and 4th paragraphs.

  13. Gavin says:

    To respond to the essay, while I agree that affection lends much to religous music, it can’t be the end-all criteria for judging a song’s liturgical suitability, as some have suggested. I don’t really consider it as such, anyway. I think you run into trouble if you do nothing but objective music, but trouble will also come up if you do nothing but that 1st Communion hymn mentioned.

    Getting in on the discussion, Liam has a good point, and one I make about Latin. It isn’t just Eastern Orthodox, but Eastern Rite Catholics who have used the same language, music, liturgy for centuries without a phony “need” to “engage” their liturgy with secular influences. Todd is right to point out that Latin Catholics have done that for a while now, starting with the music of Mozart and such, BUT that doesn’t make it right. And the point should be made that opera in the 19th century was perhaps not the equivalent of REO Speedwagon today. Opera may have had a popularity that it and musical theater do not enjoy today (and it was still wrong to borrow its styles for Mass), but even the similarity of Mozart’s operas to his Masses is not the same as putting a different melody and words to “I Can’t Fight this Feeling” and using it during Communion.

    As far as “volunteers know pop styles”, well nuts to them. I think I could celebrate a Mass or run a diocese, and I’d be happy to do so without pay. Just because I think I have a skill doesn’t mean that I’m called to that particular ministry. And if a guitarist wants to run a choir or at least pick music, why can’t they go off and get an education in what they’re doing? I got my first year of music study at a community college with about 3 guitarists in my theory class. They certainly picked up on that and music history quite well, why can’t the “volunteers”? Not to mention that music ministry should be a full-time paid position.

    Todd, you say you enjoy chant, and perhaps acknowledge its ideal suitability to the Roman Rite. Then why not use it? People’s unfamiliarity with it is not an acceptable reason, whether people are familiar with it now, 70 years ago, or 150 years ago. Why do people associate the Celtic Alleluia with joy? Because they hear, even in church, major music being the only way to express joy. Let people grow up with Mode VII, and they’ll appreciate it. How do you expect that to happen? Get up and do something! As I repeatedly said on my blog and elsewhere, change happens at the parish level.

    This is part of a greater debate that we often wind up on the outskirts of here, over whether culture as a whole should hold to that which is good (bring up Shakespeare to an average American, for example) or let things fall to the wayside, as thee and thou unfortunately did. In the Church, we have a divine command to hold fast to what is good. That doesn’t mean we go back to 3rd century liturgy, but it DOES mean that when Pope St. Pius called for chant he had good reason to do so.

  14. Todd says:

    It’s my suspicion that devotional hymnody prior to the council was influenced in part by popular song of the day. The harmonization of “Jesus so tenderly calls me” strikes me as less like a Protestant hymn and more like schmaltzy music of the late 19th, early 20th century. I would concede being no expert in pre-jazz pop music, though.

    My quote is from “Here I Am Lord.” As I reviewed the “most popular” lists of Catholic church music, it struck me a great deal of the contemporary items possess a certain appeal to the affective side.

    Thanks, Gavin, as always, for your input. My point about volunteers might extend to “stopgap” music leadership in many Catholic parishes of the past and present. If you have the neighborhood piano teacher playing organ for church, you’ll have a person with strong sensibilities in certain genres of music. Obviously, if you live near a conservatory and can draw on music students and faculty, you’re in a more uptown mode, especially if early music is on the college menu.

    The Catholic Church has not set itself up for success on the parish level by its own standards, much less those of the parishioners. Yes, parishes are doing the yeoman work in that regard.

  15. Liam says:


    Tone 7 (7C) is my co-favorite along with the T. Peregrinus. Catholic congregations and even non-Catholic are pretty familiar with Tone 8G, as it has long been the default tone for things that want to sound like plainchant (with Tone 2 playing a supporting role in that regard).

    There is a considerable amount of contemporary music that apes modality, with varying degrees of success. The Massive Creation comes to mind.

  16. Ephrem says:

    Todd, the refrain to Here I Am Lord is just fine, in fact there’s some really strong use of poetic devices in it. Asking a question, not quite rhetorically–that’s smart. The sense of dialogue, pressing the question again and again–that’s intimate.

    But where it fails is on the last line. No matter what the vocabulary is, including “hold” and “heart”, the intimacy falls short on that line. It is merely what one should say. It is not, as the rest of the refrain, what one WOULD say. Those aren’t realistic words of love.

    A good hymn is able to express religious experience. A great hymn, in imitation of the Psalms, is able to express religious experience in such a way that not only do others find it credible, but the singing of it is a religious experience in itself. Ideally, there are no soft spots, no filler lines, and there isn’t all that “should” feeling. A great hymn is not didactic at all. It serves only to provide a shared experience between the human person and God.

  17. Ephrem says:

    I Heard the Voice of Jesus Say is a great hymn.

    Bread, Blessed and Broken For Us All, besides its considerable theological issues, is didactic. It tries to indicate how we should think about something.

    Something modern that’s good? In Perfect Charity, or the children’s song An Angel Came from Heaven, or Farrell’s Restless Is the Heart.

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