Is Modern Catholic Church Music Aesthetically Mediocre?

Is Modern Catholic Church Music Aesthetically Mediocre? March 23, 2018

Catholic apologist and author Karl Keating wrote:

Nearly all contemporary Catholic music is dreck. That already was old news when Thomas Day wrote Why Catholics Can’t Sing in 1992. I don’t visit Evangelical churches much, but my impression is that, while they may have (relatively) large music ministries, the music is no better. It is Protestant dreck instead of Catholic dreck. It may sound better because performed by larger ensembles with better instrumentation, but it’s still pop music.

I don’t necessarily agree with Karl’s wholly negative assessment, but certainly agree that there is a lot of mediocre church music out there, and it’s important to talk about. Aesthetics is relevant to good worship.

Of course God looks at the heart (a point I have often made regarding communion in the hand). But that’s not at issue here. It’s still perfectly legitimate to talk about what is (aesthetically) good and bad music at Mass, just as it is proper to discuss good or bad architecture or liturgy or homilies.

People are entitled have opinions as to what is good and bad music: especially in proportion to how much they are musically trained. Unfortunately, as soon as we say “such-and-such a piece” is “lousy” then we are indirectly criticizing a person who likes it (and the composer and indirectly the performers). But I don’t see how that can be avoided. It’s sort of like apologetics. We’re always offending someone, simply by taking a stand that x is true and contrary views a, b, c, false.

I wouldn’t argue that all or most modern Catholic music at Mass is dreck or “trash” but that a great deal of it is bad (poor) music. I’m entitled (as is anyone else) to think some music is good or bad, just as architecture or a book or a movie or car is good or bad. I was a music major in high school (band and orchestra) and know a great deal about music (huge classical collection, etc.)

Granted, “dreck” is sort of insulting. One might have a point there. But then, Karl Keating would probably say he was using a very direct or graphic term to make a provocative point: that it is bad music. Jesus did the same by calling the Pharisees “vipers” and “whitewashed tombs.” The Bible calls our righteousness (compared to God’s) “filthy rags” (meaning menstrual rags, I have read).

My argument is slightly different than Karl’s. The argument goes beyond mere musical tastes or styles. Aesthetics holds that one can make an objective judgment as to relative goodness or badness of music or art or literature.

For example, I can say that Vivaldi’s music is not my own style or preference, without in the least disparaging it as music. That would be an instance of being aesthetically excellent but just not one’s own personal preference in music.

But if I say that some vulgar and idiotically repetitive hip hop song is “bad music” I’m going beyond mere taste. I’m saying that it itself is bad, objectively speaking. That’s an instance of being aesthetically bad and also not one’s own personal preference.

That’s the argument being made about [much of] church music: that it is lousy, mediocre, bad. Not all agree (obviously) but many many good, sincere, serious Catholic people think this, and so it ought to be discussed.

There is a lot of mediocre or downright bad church music. I don’t see how anyone could argue that no one should ever say that particular music is bad. That is aesthetics, which is a legitimate field of inquiry. And when music is part of a Mass, arguably, these arguments indirectly have to do with good (or proper) and bad liturgy as well.

I know bad / mediocre music, as one who has a fair degree of knowledge of music of all sorts. And most of what I hear in Catholic churches is bad. People without a musical background and education may be innocently unaware of that, which is one thing, but we who have more training are very aware of it, and it’s often painful to endure.

Nor do I deny (for the record) that there can be very good contemporary music. I like a lot of CCM, like Phil Keaggy and Amy Grant. But that’s beside the point. For me, it’s not “ancient or classic vs. modern” but “good vs. bad music.” I think most critics are not objecting merely because music is of recent origin, but because it is lousy recent music and inappropriate for the Mass.

The solution is to utilize highly trained musicians to oversee the music at Mass, so that it is of a high quality and standard, and so that we give our best to God and heighten the worship at Mass as much as we can through aesthetic means. So, for example, people who sing out of tune shouldn’t be highlighted as soloists, no matter how much zeal they may have to serve. Our standards in church should be no less than those at a good high school or college choir.

Just my $00.02′ worth . . .

[see much more discussion from the original Facebook thread]

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(originally 6-10-15; with slight revisions and additions on 3-23-18)

Photo credit: First verse of the hymn Ut queant laxis in Gregorian square notation, according to the Benedictine tradition. Photo by Pierdeux (1-20-17) [Wikimedia CommonsCreative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license]

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