The use of musical instruments in the Liturgy

The type of instruments to be used in the liturgy is probably one of the most frustrating topics to cover. We have several documents guiding us that are actually quite specific, but several problems arise due to practical reasons and the misinterpretation of these documents.

Sep 19, 2014

Sacred Music Space By Shanti Michael
The type of instruments to be used in the liturgy is probably one of the most frustrating topics to cover. We have several documents guiding us that are actually quite specific, but several problems arise due to practical reasons and the misinterpretation of these documents.

In Sacrosanctum Concilium, it states:

“120. In the Latin Church, the pipe organ is to be held in high esteem for it is the traditional musical instrument which adds a wonderful splendor to the Church’s ceremonies and powerfully lifts up man’s mind to God and to higher things.

But other instruments also may be admitted for use in divine worship, with the knowledge and consent of the competent territorial authority… This may be done, however, only on condition that the instruments are suitable, or can be made suitable, for sacred use, accord with the dignity of the temple, and truly contribute to the edification of the faithful.”

It clarifies further in the instruction Musicam Sacram, which deals with the form and nature of worship music within the framework of Sacrosanctum Concilium:

“63. In permitting and using musical instruments, the culture and traditions of individual peoples must be taken into account. However, those instruments which are, by common opinion and use, suitable for secular music only, are to be altogether prohibited from every liturgical celebration and from popular devotions.[ 44]”

The bracketed [44] in the statement document refers to an article in another document, which is frequently overlooked, De musica sacra et sacra liturgia (Instruction on Sacred Music and Sacred Liturgy).

“70. Musical instruments which by common acception, and use are suitable only for secular music must be entirely excluded from all liturgical functions, and private devotions.”

This is an extremely important point to note as De musica sacra et sacra liturgia was an instruction that was released in 1958, prior to Vatican II and Sacrosanctum Concilium (Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy). Many of us are under the impression that any documents prior to Vatican II can be disregarded when it comes to the music in the liturgy. As we can see, this is not true as these documents draw from its predecessors.

Having provided some of the relevant quotes pertaining to the use of instruments, several points can be raised.

1) The pipe organ is an instrument that is very difficult and expensive to build and maintain, especially in our climate.

Yes, it is difficult and expensive to build. I don’t think the Church in all its wisdom did not consider that. If the Church has told us that the instrument is to be held in high esteem, then finances should be raised and assigned specifically for this.

The Church of the Assumption in Penang successfully raised enough funds to restore its almost-decade old pipe organ. It is regularly played and I am told now that there has been an influx of people coming forth to get organ lessons as a result of the instrument just being there and being played regularly.

The Philippines were creative with their organ building. The Las Pinas Bamboo Organ in St Joseph Parish Church in the Philippines, is a 19th-century church organ with unique organ pipes; they are made almost entirely of bamboo. Quite ingenious, considering the bamboo is plentiful, and probably can withstand the climate better.

2) What other instruments can be made ‘suitable for sacred use’? Which instruments are “by common opinion and use, suitable for secular music only..”?

In the documents prior to Sacrosantum Concilium concerning sacred music, the only instruments other than the organ that are actually stated as being allowed are wind instruments and bowed instruments. However, Article 120 of Sacrosantum Concilium, leaves the issue of instruments open ended by stating that other instruments may be used as long as they are approved by the competent territorial authority, and can be made suitable for sacred use.

The piano was one of the first modern instruments to be permitted for practical purposes for churches that had no organ as it was a keyboard instrument, and could accompany singing sufficiently. Then came the guitar.

The argument from most conservatives would say that the guitar should not be permitted because of its frequent use in secular music. However, it is important to note that article 70 in De musica sacra et sacra liturgia states “Musical instruments which by common acception and use are suitable only for secular music must be entirely excluded from all liturgical functions”

The guitar is not an instrument suitable only for secular music. It is an instrument that is almost as old as the organ, and is as suitable as the piano for accompanying vocals in the liturgy IF it is played skillfully and does not deviate to any genre that is unsuitable. Indeed, what has made the guitar an unfavourable instrument in the church is the guitarist whose talent in playing the guitar is derived from secular music. As a result, we have had every style creep in, which has then affected the genre of music being sung in Church, from 50’s and 60’s folk music, to rock, to the praise band.

With all these genres coming into out worship, other instruments were then allowed. The electric bass, the drum set, the rhythm and solo guitar, and those dreadfully cheap midi sounds that come from the different settings of the electronic piano and the electronic drum set.

It is important to note that other instruments are allowed when it is part of the culture and tradition of the people. However, in an English speaking community that is westernized in it’s culture, there is no real purpose for using instruments that aren’t relevant, unless you are singing a piece of music from a different culture. For example, using percussion in an African piece sung by a non-African choir would be permitted for ‘performance practice’ purposes, in keeping with the tradition of the piece.

The primary problem is that church musicians and the clergy are not reading the documents pertaining music thoroughly enough. The documents are there as instructions and guidelines, and some adaptations may need to be made to suit the needs of the church such as amplification due to architecture, the skill and availability of musicians etc. But those contextual decisions cannot be made in an informed manner if the documents aren’t examined more closely.

When it comes to sacred music, beauty is not in the eye of the beholder because the Church has given us very clear instructions on what is the most appropriate way to worship in the liturgy. It is not a matter of taste. If we do not know how to appreciate the preferred methods of worship by the church, it is not from the music being ‘outdated’, it is from a lack of exposure.

The only instrument that is absolutely essential in the liturgy is the human voice. Everything else is to primarily accompany the singing, and to enhance liturgical worship through beauty. In the hands of highly skilled musicians, a good church organ, piano or guitar is invaluable. Invest in your musicians instead, and throw out that drum set!

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