Guitar Chords Do Not Match …

The Grail For $ale thread on PrayTell has hit upon a sub-theme in the publishing industry: the annoying typos and occasional misguided policies of sacred music editors. My post there, expanded a bit from a comment on significant errors in the GIA Gather series:

Other religious publishers are not immune from “goof” and “slipshod.” And as for theological fuzziness, how many publishers have a theologian on the editorial staff? I used to attend reading sessions where music of many Christian publishers was presented. The strong bias I recall was in favor of sentimentality in both texts and music. Very occasionally, I would find a gem, like a delightful Ave Verum Corpus by Saint-Saëns. But usually, even the “fun” pieces would be spoiled by 3rd grade lyrics or predictable music.

As a user of GIA products for over 20 years, I will credit them with avoiding much of the sentimentality I see in non-Catholic publishers. And they do offer a s0lid dose of serious music from centuries past. However, I’ve been greatly disappointed with their approach to contemporary music. It seems to be their big moneymaker, but you wouldn’t know it for the quantity of annoying errors, especially in their hymnals. There’s almost an attitude that the average parish guitarist can’t play this anyway, and if they can, he or she should be good enough to fix the mistakes before Mass. I can and I do, but maybe I should bill the company for the job their editors didn’t do. If I’m paying ICEL, Conception Abbey, and the composers for music, the least they could do is recognize my ability to save their butts when I have to alter parts for my musicians.

Another approach that suggests amateurism is the “guitar chords do not match the keyboard accompaniment” like this is some kind of excuse for both parishes and their editorial staffs. There might be a reason why Mass of Creation sold so well from the start. I’m thinking that parish musicians appreciated a careful approach to merging organ and contemporary instruments. One would think a similar approach would work for other repertoire.

I know publishers fiddle with arrangements of hymn tunes, especially the ones in the public domain. It would be good to take that another step: find arrangers to redo public domain music and render it harmonized like MoC. A few examples:

– The tune SLANE (“Lord of All Hopefulness” and “Be Thou My Vision”) is ridiculous in the key of E-flat. It’s almost as if publishers were trying to hide that it’s a great folk tune. A key of D arrangement for small ensemble and a nice recording with guitar, bass, dulcimer, and violin or flute accompanying a small four-part schola.

– NETTLETON (“Come Thou Font,” but more recently “Sing A New Church.”) has a spectacularly dull guitar harmonization in most published versions.

– The Basque carol used for the text, “The Angel Gabriel From Heaven Came” cries out for a nice ensemble arrangement suited to the Iberian origins of the music.

In these and many other cases, modern music software could easily assist an editor in reducing the small band arrangement for keyboard, and voila: a perfectly harmonized set of accompaniments that, with care, could work in concert, so to speak.

I would have to be convinced a publisher was committed to a superior editing process before I would seriously consider acquiring a new hymnal today. For one, I would bring my list of Gather typos if I were considering getting the MR3-friendly Gather Comp. And while I can’t guarantee my own editing gaffes wouldn’t be absent, I have an easy means of correcting them. All I have to do is collect defective copies and run the corrections through my computer.

While I know it would be significant work, maybe more than my parish or I would be willing to expend, I know I could produce a parish hymnal well suited to our needs and able to be updated regularly, while being able to correct the human mistakes that happen with a big endeavor like this. Or maybe I just want to resign myself to correcting publishers’ errors and not getting paid for it.

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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11 Responses to Guitar Chords Do Not Match …

  1. Adam Wood says:

    Here’s a solution:
    Turn contemporary hymnal creation into an open source project, and make music source files (in Finale or other editor) available.

    Since that isn’t likely to happen…

    At the very least musicians who find themselves creating ad hoc arrangements of (at least public domain hymns and songs) should make that work available to all on their blogs (you are all blogging, right?).

  2. Randolph Nichols says:

    I would add poor keyboard accompaniments to your compaint. More often than not when called upon to play organ accompaniments for so-called “contemporary” liturgical compositions, I follow the chord symbols rather than the notes given. Written accompaniments tend to be over-fed and without a sensible bass line.

    I’m curious how “Gift of Finest Wheat” in its commonly pitched D-flat major works for guitarists. Ted Marier’s organ accompaniment in “Hymns, Psalms and Spiritual Canticles,” transposed to D major and with a flowing pedal line, transforms the tedious into something rather pleasant.

    I’m happy to hear you like Saint-Saens’ “Ave Verum.” It’s a pearl. I suppose the reason it isn’t sung that much by typical parish ensembles is because of intonation challenges in the middle section.

  3. Mike says:

    For such things are capos made.

    • Gavin says:

      I agree with Mike (better yet don’t use guitar!) Slane should be in Eb due to the range of an octave plus a 4th. A congregation can sing an Eb on a familiar tune, but a low A is just brutal and ugly sounding, especially on a structural pitch.

      • Mike says:

        I’ll take guitar over organ (if the guitarist is good). I’ll take no music at all over organ, no matter how well played.

  4. Adam Wood says:

    I’m happy to hear you like Saint-Saens’ “Ave Verum.” It’s a pearl. I suppose the reason it isn’t sung that much by typical parish ensembles is because of intonation challenges in the middle section.

    I bet that isn’t the reason.

  5. Todd says:

    Here’s the story on the Saint-Saens. One of my choir members and I went to a reading session in Chicago (not GIA). We both loved it and I was looking for some good 20th century pieces to expand their repertoire.

    My rehearsal space was pretty limited, so we sight-read the first section and polished that. Week 2 we drilled parts individually for the rest. When we pieced in the middle section week 3, the looks on the singers’ faces were a combination of I-can’t-believe-we’re-singing-this, and intense concentration on the part, and pure delight. I couldn’t imagine singing Mozart’s setting after experiencing this, though I know its a beloved chestnut.

    I’ve never had a choir skilled enough to tackle it in my last 19 years of parish ministry. I never knew how good I had it in my first assignment. I thought every parish serious enough to hire a music director would also have a choir serious enough to tackle music like this.

    And here’s the kicker: this 30-voice choir was a folk group until about six years before I arrived, and still utilized piano and ensemble accompaniment to most of the liturgical repertoire.

  6. Liam says:


    Wasn’t the BACS prepping the Saint-Saens? I thought I saw it on the piano in the rehearsal room last week, in fact….


    One of my major gripes with contemporary songs (it also occurs with traditional hymnody, but less frequently) is that the vocal voice-leading betrays a compositional foundation in keyboard rather than voice, typically betrayed by problems like overlapping (as distinguished from crossing) voices – in my many years of observing mistakes in choirs, the single most common trap is overlapping. By far. There’s a reason the species counterpoint “rules” forbade it – amateur voices (who have dominated most church choirs for centuries) have a hard time deal with it. Back in the day, I would have to spend time in rehearsal editing the voice leading to address problems such as that. Also the lack of good cadences; some people get too clever and forget the congregation’s need in that regard.

    Good editors would catch these things before they are printed…. The industrial scale of modern liturgical publishing is not a help here.

  7. Randolph Nichols says:


    The Saint-Saens is an old standby we often sing when – dare I say this – we need something quick and without benefit of thorough rehearsal. Because of the unresolved leadership situation at the school, it seems we’ve had to do more of that this year than in the past.

  8. RP Burke says:

    I wonder if there’s an assumption – one that may well be justified, although we don’t have any data to support it – in the guitar chords that the typical parish guitarist has nearly no musicianship, and that playing simple chord progressions is all they can do.

    Another possible assumption we can make is that the musical editors don’t know enough about guitar to make sensible decisions about key, chord progressions, tessitura, and the like.

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