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What makes music sacred?

By Laura Davis


I’ve spent a lot of time in churches throughout my life. I was baptized in the Episcopal Church, raised Methodist, and am a converted Catholic. I’ve worked in Presbyterian, Episcopalian, Lutheran, and Methodist churches and spent a summer in Eastern Europe singing in a Romanian Orthodox church. I’ve experienced a wide variety of religious music — from crazy arm-raising rock band style to lung-clogging incense-burning chants — in different parishes within each of these denominations. While I have my own musical preferences, over and over again I ask myself, is this music sacred? And if so, what makes it sacred?

I am by nature a traditionalist and my inclination is to argue that the so-called more “traditional” style of music in worship is more sacred. I’ve sung Handel’s Messiah with the New York Philharmonic multiple times and I’ve sung Our God is an Awesome God with various local church praise bands more times than I care to count. Every time I sing Messiah I love it more, and every time I sing Our God is an Awesome God I feel like I’ve sold a piece of my musical soul. But I cannot discount the number of people who seem truly moved by the experience of the latter. There are people all over the world who advocate for this more “contemporary” style of worship, and much as I hate to admit it, it seems to be effective. People come to church and do their best to live out a Christian life because of a style of music that they feel connects them with God. Anything that connects people with the divine has merit, but I still wonder, is it sacred?

It might first be important to establish a definition of the word sacred. The Catholic Church makes its definition of sacred music pretty clear, stating in Musicam Sacram that music for the mass must “be holy, and therefore avoid everything that is secular.” It goes on to say that sacred music must also be “universal in this sense.”

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For many people, something that is special and deeply meaningful is sacred. Mary McDonough argues, that the music of U2 and Pink Floyd are sacred because they brought her a great deal of comfort after her father’s death. So while the music of U2 and Pink Floyd were sacred to Ms. McDonough because of her own personal experience, it fails to meet the Catholic Church’s criterion. While I like the music of both bands, I have not had any kind of sacred experience with either of them, so in that sense, the music is not universal; it is specific to one individual’s experience. It also most certainly does not fit the first half of the definition that sacred music should avoid anything that is secular.

I think it’s fair to say that the music has to be about God. The word sacred by definition must have to do with God or the gods, and most of the music of the contemporary worship movement fits this criterion. Perhaps then we should consider the purpose of sacred music: to function as part of the mass or service, most often as a part of worship. Worship derives from Old English weorthscipe ‘worthiness, acknowledgement of worth’. So if sacred music is intended to worship God, then such music must be of worth.

Most of the music that fits into the contemporary church music genre has the same structure and most of the songs sound alike. You’ll find I, IV, and V chords pervasive throughout most of it with maybe a vi chord or an added 7th or 9th occasionally. It is by nature accessible—not particularly difficult or innovative. And this is why it appeals to the masses. But is it of high worth? Yes, if you define worth as something that has the potential to be meaningful to someone (hence the Pink Floyd U2 argument). No, if you define worth as something that is rare or unique and has a degree of innovation.

I am not a traditionalist for the sake of tradition. I think it’s important to adapt to the times and to constantly rethink past ways of doing things. After 10 years of thinking about this question, I still don’t have a concrete answer. I am not prepared to say that current popular trends in church music are not sacred. At the risk of offending some of my former colleagues, I am prepared to say that I do not think that music of the contemporary worship genre is as innovative or of as high quality as the music of Bach or Handel or even slightly more modern composers like Howells. But I see and understand the argument for both styles of music, regardless of my own tastes. Ultimately, I believe it is important for all church musicians to consistently ask questions of the music they choose. Is it about God? Is it going to connect others with God? Is it of worth? What makes something of worth? And lastly, is it sacred?

Mezzo-soprano, Laura Davis, is a singer, conductor, and voice teacher. She holds a Master of Music degree in Voice Pedagogy and Performance from the Catholic University of America and a Bachelor of Music degree in Sacred Music from Westminster Choir College. Davis has held positions in numerous churches throughout the past 10 years, most recently in the Baltimore/Washington United Methodist Church where she served as the Director of Music from 2009-2013 for the largest church in the conference. Davis has recently returned to her home state of Colorado where she is in the process of opening a voice studio committed to teaching authentic artistry. Read her previous blog post on yoga and voice.

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Image credit: Antique Building Cathedral Chapel Christian Church. Photo by PublicDomainPictures, public domain, via Pixabay.

Recent Comments

  1. Bill W

    I’m not Catholic, but when I’ve attended Catholic services in recent years, I’ve been dismayed at how the churches I’ve visited seem to have turned their backs on their rich musical heritage in favor of a bland folk style that sounds like the worst of the 1960s/early 1970s.

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