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CNP Feedback -
Black List?

by Gary D. Penkala

The readership of these Musical Musings articles on the CNP website may be as varied as it is vast. Below I have quoted anonymously the entirety of two Feedbacks we received on the same day, with a few of my own comments added. These point out the hunger for an official "Black List" of banned music (or perhaps "White List" of approved music), as was published in the 20th century. Many people are looking for this kind of precise regulations again. In my opinion (to be explained later), many people will be disappointed — whether because these books will not likely appear, or if they should, because of the content.

But first, the comments and questions from readers:

Feedback Comment #1

I have visited many evangelical, fundamental churches in my area in the past five years, probably 30 to 50 churches, and I am appalled that the pipe organ, choir, hymn books, and the piano have all been thrown out. Instead, we have an amateur, untrained "worship team" that sings on the platform with hand-held microphones, acting like they are contestants on American Idol. Many of these same churches have pipe organs that sit unused and collecting dust in the corner, while this horrible modern music is played on electric guitars and loud drums instead. What can be done about this appalling trend?

I am an evangelical, and a trained pipe organist, who can find no church to play organ in within my denomination. They have all gone modern, and thrown out all traces of the beloved hymns that we all grew up with and loved. Nobody wants to hear pipe organ music any more. My heart is broken. And I was trained and groomed to play organ in the church. Can you offer any hope?
Thank you.


There is a grave error in associating "music" with "entertainment." So many large, fundamentalist churches (many with "auditorium-style" meeting halls) will on paper deny any guilt here, but an objective look shows otherwise. Pop music styles, like the entire pop music industry, are driven by the need to entertain — that's their entire raison d'etre — to produce slick music that teens (and people who want to feel like teens) will spend billions of dollars to buy in plastic or downloadable form. Add the name "Jesus" to one of these hits and you've got the next "praise song" for Sunday worship at iPod Church of Christ down the street.

For almost forty years, since right after the close of Vatican Council II, the music in Catholic churches has danced with this same idea. I dare say, shamefacedly, that the wacky musical "innovations" in the 1970s in U.S. Catholic parishes led to a trendy, folksy style of composition, and many of these same tawdry pieces were taken over into mainline Protestant hymnals. The "Praise Bands" that now play in too many liturgical Protestant churches (Lutheran, Methodist, Presbyterian, Episcopal) can be blamed, at least in part, on the poor music that infected Catholic churches decades earlier.

There is hope, however. Pope Benedict XVI, by writings, by discourse, and by example, showed Catholic church musicians what their music should be like. He insisted on recovery of chant, on promotion of sacred polyphony, on beauty and holiness in our music. The pipe organ has always been the instrument of choice for Catholic liturgy. Parishes who ignore this are doing so with more institutional and cultural disdain these days than in the immediate past.

You are absolutely correct in your assessment that many Christian churches, Catholic and Protestant, have forsaken the organ, and that is to be lamented. But, at least in Catholic circles, the tide has turned, witnessed by the public trepidation of the progressive element that fostered the ignoble music of the 70s and 80s. We must realize, though, that forty years of laxity will not be corrected overnight. The huge ship that is the Christian Church will not be turned by anything but gradual and persistant course corrections (aircraft carriers do not make 90-degree turns!).

In the end, be hopeful! Continue your love for organ; practice and play whenever and wherever you can. Wait for the day when beautiful, noble music will once again be heard in worship of the Almighty.


Feedback Comment #2

—My specific responses are in interspersed throughout in [bold]

I'd like to know where this list of banned instruments comes from (guitar, accordion, etc.).

I am a church music director, who believes very much in the authority of the Magisterium and the authority of the bishops and pastors. I submit to them, because in doing so, I submit to God Himself.

I have a problem when one says, "This is not proper for this or that." I agree, that not everything is appropriate, but to start saying it is the instrument that causes the inappropriateness is appalling. [It's the style that is inappropriate, more than just the instrument. A classical guitar accompaniment to a lyrical psalm could be beautiful and noble — it's hard to see mercilessly thrashing guitars, along with piano, drums and bass, in the same way.]

Before faulting an instrument for its inappropriateness, I think it's important to look at our music directors and their lack of good, solid, Catholic formation. It has to start there, or everything else is irrelevant.

Just as contemporary music can be thought of as performance, so can chant. I know too many directors who feel so snooty about their knowledge of chant and sacred music, and their ability to perform, they isolate themselves from those who want to learn. [That's a personality issue, not a matter of rubrics or the validity of contemporary music versus chant.]

I have taken it upon myself to ask questions about what is appropriate, what is not, from bishops to priests, to even a cardinal. Their answer has always been that there is great flexibility, [There may be flexibility, but not carte blanche.] but there needs to be a purpose to the music chosen for Mass. This is what I have gotten from studying the Church documents on music. I have found no banned lists of musical instruments. However, I have learned that the organ and chant deserve pride of place. I fully agree with that. However, it is difficult to acquire a good sounding organ. We've had to do with a high end keyboard with an organ sound because we lack the space and resources for an already packed to capacity parish. [I agree that if a good pipe organ is not possible in a situation, then an alternative must be used. I would argue, though, that the alternative should be an electronic organ, which can be relatively small. If that's still impossible at the moment, then the solution you mention above may be all that will work. However, the parish must realize that this is only a less-than-ideal, temporary option. What plans are being formulated to effect a better solution in the short term? What plans are being discussed for an ideal long-term solution? If crowding is a problem, perhaps there is a new church building in the works? Where will the pipe organ be placed in the new building?]

At my parish, each weekend, we have one Mass with traditional music, one with contemporary and traditional, and one with Spanish music. For our big celebrations, we are using more Latin and sacred hymns [O magnum mysterium by Victoria, Alma Redemptoris Mater by Palestrina, Ave verum corpus (chant), Salve Regina (chant), etc.] [That's wonderful. All this music is certainly in line with the mind of the Church — it's beautiful, noble, appropriate and proper to the Liturgy.] I use this to help with the Catholic musical formation of my parish, [Remember that chant is not only a reminder of our heritage, but is the official music of the Roman Rite today.] but I realize, too, that the music has to fit the tone of the Mass (readings, prayers, themes, etc.). [There is much less precise and specific "correlation" necessary between music and readings than many liturgists of the late 20th century would have us believe. Take, for example, the proper Introits — there is only one text for the 20th Sunday in Ordinary Time, which is used for all three cycles. Obviously the focus of this Introit will not match the specific readings for Year A, B & C. I wouldn't try to meticulously match every detail of music and Scripture.] I find that some of the contemporary hymns speak to the hearts of the people more than chant could ever, and vice versa. [Remember that the purpose of music is not necessarily to move people's emotions. Music functions to praise God; and the most appropriate music for Catholic worship (Propers, chant, noble and beautiful choral pieces) does just that.] It's for this reason, that I feel a church music director must be formed in Church doctrine to:

  1. Be aligned to Rome and her teachings and her vision for music in the Church. This includes submitting to the authority of the diocese and the pastors.
  2. Be mindful of the tone of the Mass (mood, themes, etc.).
  3. Be mindful that the Mass on its own, without music, is still awesome.
  4. Be charitable and humble to the needs of the people.
  5. To touch the minds and hearts of the people to prayer and worship, and to increase their love for Jesus in the Eucharist.
  6. [Be mindful that music should be focused on God.]

I love chant, as I love sacred music, contemporary, jazz, rock, etc. But I have not heard of any banned instruments. I am against electric guitar at Mass [Why?] (I own at least 4), because I played in Life Teen for a while and realized on my own that it just didn't seem right. [The Vatican is simply expanding on that same feeling — rock styles, Broadway styles, popular radio and MTV styles, "just don't seem right" for the worship of Almighty God.] However, I've been to Mass where contemporary music was played, with drums, acoustic guitars, bass, and it was very, very prayerful, and caused me to fall on my knees, just as chant has caused me to fall on my knees in awe of God.

Your comparison of polka music being inappropriate for graduations is a bit uninformed. I have been to university graduations where rather than having an ensemble, a mariachi band played. It is quite common to see this at universities in the Southwest. [In a Southwestern community or at a predominantly Hispanic university, perhaps Mariachi music might be more appropriate, although it would still be preferable to have a more solemn tone for any liturgy, including a graduation. However, I mentioned a "polka band" playing at graduation — I don't know too many Polish universities in the U.S.] Some of the songs were of the polka style, but added to the festiveness of the occasion. [Relating this to Mass, we need to be careful that solemn and noble does not give way to festive and playful. Liturgical music need not be slow and ponderous at all times, but it needs to be noble and sacred ... always!]

When it comes to music for Our Lord, I think it's important to give Him the very best of what we have to offer. If it's chant and choral music, it had better be your very best, just as it is for contemporary styles or other styles. And the music should reflect the themes and tone of the Mass. [See note above about the tenuousness of "themes".]

General Response

Simply put, there is no list of banned instruments. There is no list of banned music titles. The modern Church does not work that way. This does not mean there are not guidelines — just look at these documents. This does not mean there are not excellent examples to emulate — just look at the Masses broadcast from Saint Peter's Basilica in Rome or the National Shrine in DC.

If there are no concrete do's and don't's, how do musicians make choices?

Music must be appropriate:

  • Thriller (Michael Jackson) is not.
  • Ave verum (Gregorian chant) is.
  • Gather Us In (Marty Haugen), questionable.

Let's explore this further.

Music must focus on God:

  • Beer Barrel Polka does not.
  • Holy God, We Praise Thy Name does.
  • Gather Us In does not. [God is not mentioned in any verse.]

Music must be beautiful:

  • In Da Club (gangsta rap) is not. [Emotional, yes; beautiful, no.]
  • Panis angelicus (Franck) is.
  • Gather Us In, probably not. [The music is rather repetitive and elementary.]

Music must be noble:

  • Turkey in the Straw is not. [It's frivilous.]
  • Sicut cervus (Palestrina) is.
  • Gather Us In, probably not. [Its effect is to exalt the congregation — that's narcissism, not nobility.]

In choosing music for Liturgy, we must make decisions based on guidelines and examples that the Church offers. We can always be safe if we use the official music of the Church: the Propers contained in the chant books, or vernacular translations of them, or noble and beautiful modern settings of those texts. The more we stray from the music the Church actually does recommend (i.e. the Propers), the less sure we can be that the music is appropriate.

Please remember that popularity of a song, or how long it's been sung, or how dear to a parish's heart it might be, or how many parishes sing it, or how it makes people feel — none of these guarantee the appropriateness of the song. In choosing, many people can be just as wrong as one person. The contemporary, pop "praise song" that we were exploring above is sung by hundreds of Catholic parishes on any given weekend. That does not mean it should be.

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