Organ and Chant: Cultural Euro-Pride?


Maybe it is. Maybe not. But there’s nothing theological in the Church’s reasoning in favor of organ and chant.

The pipe organ (and note that the moniker “King of instruments” does not apply to electronic or other organs) does have some practical advantages. It enables one person to fulfill all the functions that the best accompaniment can provide:

1. It can support the singers (choir and especially congregation) at least an octave beneath the voices, so as to provide a tonal and psychological foundation for better singing.

2. It can surround the singers in their singing range and even blend their voices because the organ, like the human voice, is a wind instrument.

3. With an advanced player, the organ can cue changes for the singers: starting and stopping, modulation, etc..

There’s no question the organ is versatile. But a well-honed musical ensemble can provide all these things: support, surround, cues, and the like. It can be harder to get several people working together than to find one person who can do it all. We also have the “political” consideration of the organist: one person is easier to control than a small orchestra.

The Church’s argument for chant is simple enough. Chant permits the music to adapt entirely to the liturgical text. Hence, no need for changing the words to fit a meter or rhyming scheme. This, too, may be somewhat political, but that’s fodder for another post.

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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22 Responses to Organ and Chant: Cultural Euro-Pride?

  1. Randolph Nichols says:

    There are theological dimensions to chant if you consider how it enables a a redirection from self to the object of worship. Whether it is the only musical form to facilitate this is another question.

    Regarding a preference for the organ, don’t forget that the size and acoustical characteristics of the building are factors. In very large churches, an instrument like the piano is ineffective because its sound fades as soon as the hammer hits the string; whereas with the organ, wind under pressure flows steadily as long as the key is depressed.)

    As to “Euro-pride,” please explain why there is such interest in the pipe organ in Northeast Asia. Many of the good young organists in my neck of the woods come from Japan and South Korea.

  2. Liam says:


    THis is a strange post. It’s like you’ve deliberately decided to ignore any learning about the non-practical reasons the organ and chant came to occupy pride of place in the Roman rite. Why did you do that? In light of that, I don’t think the post is ripe enough to bother commenting on.

  3. Liam says:

    Instead, the post just reads like someone whose resented organs and chant and their acknowledge pride of place in the Roman rite. It’s not pretty.

  4. Todd says:


    I’m picking up on Keith’s idea from one of the threads below. His statement is more extreme than my own, but it’s worth exploration. There’s no doubt that the development of chant and the pipe organ have other factors, spiritual, musiccal, cultural, and the like. Mr Nichol’s suggestion about the relationship with acoustics and architecture is worth an entire book’s exploration alone. The phenomenon of Asian embrace of western music, not just the organ, is also worth a treatise.

    But the post sits in context of the blog of a church musician who acknowledges the value, need, and beauty of traditional music and instruments. It also makes a brief attempt to describe musically, not theologically, why the organ works.

    If there’s a thought that somehow my true colors are emerging after all these years according to the expectations of my conservative detractors, I’d say that doubt of me has overridden common sense. A ripe notion, as it were.

    But let’s not kid ourselves in thinking that organs and chant don’t come without challenges of their own. Don’t shoot the messenger, people.

  5. Liam says:

    Ah, Todd. Thanks for the explanation. I handn’t seen Keith’s argument so I thought the prompting was entirely you own. Hence my concern; actually, it did surprise me, rather than being a trap in waiting.

    I agree that chant and organ are not without challenges; I have labored in communities where they presented challenges of divers sorts. I’ve tried to elaborate on that over at NLM in various threads.

    That being said, I think the Euro-pride argument is a rhetorical way of shortening, rather than inviting, conversation, because it seems designed to silence people with shame over perceived Eurocentrism. That device is getting tired.

    There are quasi-theological reasons the organ became permitted (it was a fight) then entrenched in the Roman rite. Among them the idea that the organ was unique as an instrument that could imitate the human voice, which remains the normative instrument of all Christian liturgies. The bellows were the lungs, the pipes the vocal column, et cet. Thus it was considered the most human-like of instruments. It thus gained favor over more scripturally-grounded instruments like the harp (which I happen to love in liturgy in the right-sized space). Bells were the other liturgical instrument, and in a sense even more privileged: unlike organs, bells were actually sanctified by holy oils in a chrismation-like liturgy, and tower bells were the first things silenced by Muslim conquerors of Christian lands because of their unique association with Christianity.

    Chant, interestingly, is far less Euro-bounded as an idiom than contemporary liturgical music. When you consider the idiom beyond the various liturgical Libri, it’s far more accommodating of more cultural inputs than metric strophic-style ballad hymnody.

    And chant is not monotone. It is unison (if sung in single octave, which I encourage by alternating male and female voices, both in the choir and congregation, before joining them) and harmonic because of the harmonics thus created in acoustic space. It has rhythm but is not rigorously enslaved to meter. It is thus more unifying and freer, and there’s a lot of theological weight to that combo.

    Does it mean that in will work as well in every situation. Hardly. But that’s neither does the alternative. Far from it.

    I won’t go on, but there is considerably more to this than the practical issue.

  6. Gavin says:

    It is not.

    Liam is certainly more articulate than I in defending the Church’s judgement here, but agreeing that chant is Euro-centric strikes me as an odd thing for someone of your learnedness (is that a word?) to say. I don’t have to go over that chant is based off of Jewish and ancient near-eastern music. And as Liam said, contemporary music is MUCH more western-centric than chant. This should be something you already know, so such a statement about chant should be quickly dismissed. Furthermore, chant is an integral part of the Latin Rite. Would anyone dare suggest that the Byzantine Rite needs new music? Who’s championing Tom Conry for the Maronite Catholics? Gregorian chant should have pride of place for the simple reason that it is a repertoire collected for the Latin Rite. There’s nothing Euro-centric about it, although one could say it places pride in our Roman Rite. I wouldn’t say there’s anything bad about that. As I say, if you don’t like Gregorian Chant, there’s quite a few other Catholic rites all with their own distinct collection of liturgical music. Take your pick.

    As for the organ, I have to echo the refrain of “why’s your approach so much better?” I’ll admit that the use of the organ is something of a theological oddity, and something I simply take on face value from the Church. It does seem odd to me that the instrument we use in our worship is a descendant of that which entertained Roman crowds during the persecution of Christians. However, a rule’s a rule, and I simply do my job. So are you fighting that Euro-centrism by using Japanese pop styles? Or incorporating Arabic chants into your worship? How about African percussive instruments? And it doesn’t count if the music is in 4/4.

    My defense for use of the organ, as much as you may or may not like this, is that it’s relevant to people. No one hears an organ and thinks “Sweet, I want to make out to this music!” Few people associate a principal chorus with anything but church. This is why I oppose “liturgical” dance. You show me, a typical American suburbanite, a person worshipping God by dance, and I’ll probably start giggling. Now, that may be because I’m a closed-minded Euro-centrist, but it’s not an uncommon reaction among Americans. Other cultures do worship through dance. We do not. That doesn’t make our worship any worse than those that do, it just shows how Western Christianity functions. Maybe we’re acting like Europeans because… well, a lot of the Roman Rite is in the Western Hemisphere.

  7. Keith Strohm says:


    I was the one who called chant Euro-centric–though I was particularly talking about Gregorian chant. I am a vocal musician (of sorts) with a small amount of musical formation–but I am by no means an expert.

    To me, the fact that contemporary music is more indebted to the west than chant isn’t too important. I have never suggested that contemporay music should be normative or is intrinsically better for liturgy. It seems that the Church, however, has stated such a thing to be.

    The attempts to assign theological significance to cultural musical forms and idioms is a non-starter for me and seems like an artificial action. I don’t have anything in particular against chant and traditional hymnody. I just resist the attempts to push out other musical forms/idioms on a “theological” basis.

    In the end, if the Church were to enforce a ban on all other music except chant, for example, it wouldn’t make a shred of sense to me, but I would do what the Church asks of me.

    You wrote:

    Maybe we’re acting like Europeans because… well, a lot of the Roman Rite is in the Western Hemisphere.

    For now. But their is a tremendous amount of growth in Southern and Eastern hemisphere Christianity. How will the Latin Rite have a dialogue with this influx of cultures and members?

  8. Liam says:


    But the interesting thing is that Gregorian chant was not a secular musical form or idiom. So the Church was not simply adopting a secular form/idiom and retroactively assigning theological value to it. That’s a big difference. Gregorian chant had influences from predecessor chant forms and secular musical theory but as an idiom was self-grown by the Roman rite for itself.

    Also, where’ the “pushing out” of other musical forms. The Church has given organ and chant pride of place. That’s not pushing out. Rather, the current debate has arisen because others have tried to marginalize organ and chant. Projection is funny that way.

  9. Todd says:

    Actually, Gregorian chant was probably not a direct descendant of Jewish liturgical music. I don’t think there’s much question from scholars that it was a synthesis of liturgical music styles from the European core of the Roman Empire. I’m not sure we know how much early European chants were indebted to secular sources. We certainly know the organ’s pedigree as a secular instrument. The argument that a proper liturgical art must be developed within the confines of the sacred sort of flies against history, not to mention the Church’s long-standing approach to borrow, adapt, and make things artistic its own.

  10. Liam says:


    I was referring to Ambrosian chant (among other Church chant idioms, there were many), not Jewish chant. Sorry I was unclear, but I had deliberately avoided invoking Hebraic parentage for that very reason.

    Also, the idea of one-way confinement by tradition — the roach motel approach if you will — is quite normal as history goes. In the Church’s case, it’s not an exclusive prison. The Church has adopted a flexible approach, but not without standards nor without casting aside its historical development.

    What seems odd is the objection to the failure of the Church to cast chant and organ from their pride of place in this fairly flexible context. Seems others want nothing to have pride of place so that their own preferences can have pride of place, et cet. Which leads no where.

  11. Todd says:

    Gavin mentioned the Jewish source for chant. My suspicion is that chant and organ are sometimes cast from pride of place for practical, personal, or political reasons.

    Unison singing is more demanding to do well than harmony, as is playing the organ compared to playing the piano. When people do either of these with less skill, especially slowly, they tend to set a bad impression for others.

    Organists tend to be conservatory-trained, and that’s sometimes a difficult obstacle pastorally, and with other musicians.

    Schismatics made chant par of their banner, and like it or not, they tended to be identified with dissenters in the 70’s.

    A lot of this baggage is still with us today. But in many cases musicians have made themselves their own worst enemies.

  12. Liam says:


    Perhaps by you, but the schismatics I encountered in the Northeast were not at all associated with chant. So perhaps that is localized baggage, and I wonder how much is still with us. I have never heard an objection to chant in progressive or mainstream parishes based on associations with schismatics. Not once. It’s always been about personal preferences and childhood associations.

    And, as I have noted over at NLM and here before, I have my own gripes with ponderous and over-loud organists, and ponderous chant. But I have had similar quality issues with contemporary music in *at least* equal measure, too; to be truthful, even more frequently.

  13. Gavin says:


    I understand your argument, and to some extent agree that, all things being equal, both “traditional” and “contemporary” (to use tired labels) quality music should be available to the Mass-going public. Note that this excludes the tired old folk groups from the ’70s as well as the “Left-foot-Lucy” organists. I’d repeat what Liam had said, however. Namely, that the organ and, to some extent, chant are the tradition that was shoved out of the Church. In a more realistic historical view, chant was shoved out a loooong time before Vatican II, but still there was a radical shift in the ’70s of what music ought to be done at Mass. “Contemporary” forms are still new to the Mass, no matter how many people consider “On Eagle’s Wings” to be traditional music. Perhaps we can debate over whether or not the new music is acceptable according to the Church herself, but ultimately what everything the Church has said actually says is at least that these new forms should take a back seat to “traditional” forms.

    As regards the Eastern and Southern hemispheres, many of those areas experience growth within the “traditional” liturgical climates. I realize it’s not Southern hemisphere, but Mexico has a longstanding tradition of organ and chant, despite what “bilingual” publishers would like us to believe! Also, in Korea and Japan, the organ is growing immensely in popularity. While this is mostly within the bounds of a concert instrument, I’m sure very few people over there hold much objection to it as a “western” imposition in Mass.

    Jumping in with Liam and Todd,

    Guilt by association is rarely a good policy. One can easily point out all the liturgical abuse parishes with Gather in the pews. There are quite a few “contemporary” MDs who only make decisions on what’s the hottest new thing. That doesn’t invalidate the movement. People not understanding the role of priest in the Mass doesn’t give cause to ban EMHCs. And just because you know some schismatics who like chant doesn’t mean chant is inherently supportive of schism.

    In fact, I’ve heard (never seen) that SSPX parishes DON’T use chant, despite the demands of their namesake. All the people I know who advocate chant are firm followers of the Church. Even myself, if left to my own devices, would probably eradicate chant from my parish in favor of big loud Bruckner settings of everything. The directives of the Church prevent me from doing something like that, because they tell me that chant is to have pride of place. I can assure you I have no large love of chant. Much of it is pretty, and I enjoy the antiquity of it, but it doesn’t go much farther than that. Pretty often I roll my eyes when I read this person or that talking about how “chant is the ultimate sung prayer”, “chant is the only objectively beautiful art form” and such. Again, for me I make decisions based on what I really believe the Church wants. I’m sure there ARE people out there doing the right thing (chant) for the wrong reasons (bashing anything non-chant), but that doesn’t change the rule (chant).

    And how are conservatory-trained organists a “pastoral obstacle”? I see this complaint often here but it doesn’t seem to hold water. And before I get branded an “elitist”, I’ll mention that I do not even hold a degree. I have some 3 years of college education and 4 1/2 years of experience playing organ and directing music ministry. If I can do it, I suspect someone with a conservatory education and decades of experience can do it better.

  14. Keith Strohm says:


    You and I are in complete agreement in regards to quality music in any idiom or form. I also find most “contemporary folk” music created in the 70’s and 80’s execrable.

    As I’ve said, I actually appreciate and support “traditional” organ and hymnody as well as more contemporary forms. When Liam writes:

    Also, where’ the “pushing out” of other musical forms. The Church has given organ and chant pride of place. That’s not pushing out. Rather, the current debate has arisen because others have tried to marginalize organ and chant. Projection is funny that way

    in response to me, he unintentionally misrepresents my position. I agree that the pendulum has swung too far in the opposite direction in regards to using “traditional” music and chant. I am not a supporter of trying to push those things out of the Church. However, in their attempts to restoring a better balance in regards to chant, hymnody, and contemporary music, some people (and it seems most of the folks whom I seem to interact with online) believe that more contemporary forms are unfit for the Liturgy and that’s when they tend to construct this theology that not only legitimizes the organ and chant (for example), but delegetimizes other idioms.

    And that’s what I object to.

    When I hear from someone that drums are unsuitable based upon a “Theology of the Organ,” I shake my head and want to beat it against a wall.

    I’m really not a liturgical warrior–except when the Liturgy in question is being executed poorly. I don’t have a dog in the TLM vs “Novus Ordo” debate.

    And I don’t really want to.

  15. Liam says:


    I did not intentionally misrepresent your position as try to intuit what you were talking about. Because my experience (having been mostly involved in more contemporary-oriented music ministries) has been with folks trying to ignore or even delegitimize the pride of place of chant and organ, rather than the drums or piano. I have never seen percussion (which I have played in liturgy) or piano that were in active use shut down, but I have seen organ use shut down and chant under deep suspicion, due to the personal preferences of TPTB. So for me, questioning the Church’s current discipline on organ and chant sounds like it’s coming from that direction, because otherwise I don’t see why there’s a need to question is, given the Church’s flexible position in practice.

  16. Tony says:

    The whole VII “music revolution” strikes me like a rebellious teenager explaining why mom and dad’s music sucks.

  17. Keith Strohm says:


    I know you didn’t intentionally misrepresent my position (that’s why I said you unintentionally misrepresented my position), and I can definitely see where my thoughts on the subject would lead you to think I want to abolish chant and organ.

    Like I said, chant or “contemporary” music–to me the most important thing is that the music leads the community to a deeper participation in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.

    By the way, what does TPTB mean?


  18. The Powers That Be =TPTB

  19. Keith Strohm says:

    Thank you Karen!!! It makes sense now! :)


  20. Gavin says:


    you can be sure we’re in agreement about quality. To be frank, I’d much rather go to a Mass with well-done “contemporary” music than a Mass with an incompetent organist playing my ol’ favorites and a lousy schola thinking anything in Latin counts as chant.

    I agree that it’s obnoxious how some speak of my instrument (the organ) as though there is some complex theological formula which proves it to be better suited to Mass. You said that you would accept the Church’s position if it banned contemporary forms, and I suspect I would do the same if my preferences were banned – although I very well may seek employment elsewhere :P Well, consider how things are going. More and more, “contemporary” forms are being rejected, the Mass is being brought closer to a strict rubricism, and chant is slowly continuing (sing the time of Pope St. Pius) to grow in popularity and usage. And a lot of this is encouraged by the leadership. It doesn’t have the force of law, but most anyone can see what direction the Church is moving in. It doesn’t mean that everyone should just “go with the flow” – far from it! But still, there is a certain extent to which one should give consideration to the direction the leadership is taking the Church and act accordingly. Again, I’m not saying at all to “go with the flow”, and you’re right to question dogmatism applied to liurgical music. However, the changes of the past 10 years or so ought to be paid attention to and taken seriously.


    I’ve often made the case that the “reform of the reform” is much like the Vatican II “music revolution” – people in my generation tossing out our parent’s music. Indeed, my mother was a guitarist at her church when she was in high school, and now I’m working to do away with the same thing that the “old folks” love. It’s pretty funny how things have gone full circle to where today people are doing the very same thing as others were in the ’70s.

  21. Tony says:

    I’ve often made the case that the “reform of the reform” is much like the Vatican II “music revolution” – people in my generation tossing out our parent’s music. Indeed, my mother was a guitarist at her church when she was in high school, and now I’m working to do away with the same thing that the “old folks” love. It’s pretty funny how things have gone full circle to where today people are doing the very same thing as others were in the ’70s.

    Gavin, you are 100% correct.

    And in my opinion you’re both wrong. There is room in our church for good music of many different varieties. But the bad lounge acts have got to go.

    Time will tell what music is the best. But I was a victim of the heavy hand of VII in the 60’s. I really don’t want to do that to my fellow Catholics.

  22. Keith Strohm says:

    There is a prime example of what I have been talking about going on at Catholic Answers. Go to this thread and you’ll see quite a few examples of what I call the “Theology of the Organ.”

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