Selecting Music for Liturgy

Once we are convinced that singing is important in any liturgical celebration and understand where music should be used during Mass, the next question is: Who selects the music for parish celebrations and what criteria do they use when making choices?
The basic criterion for deciding whether a particular piece of music is suitable is the musical judgment. Is the music technically, aesthetically and expressively good? Only artistically sound music is appropriate and effective in worship.
This does not mean, however, that only one style of music should be used in liturgy. Good music is to be found across a variety of forms, including chants, metrical hymns, responsorial music, folk idiom and contemporary composition.
While all music used in liturgy should be good, not all good music is suitable for liturgy. As well as the musical judgment, selecting music for worship must also be made on liturgical grounds.
In deciding whether a piece of music is liturgical appropriate there are a number of areas to be considered. The style of the musical piece should reflect the nature of that part of the Mass where it is to be used. For example, a hymn that relates well to the readings for a particular celebration should not be used as an entrance song unless it also serves well the purpose of gathering the assembly.
It is also important to look at the words being sung to ensure they are appropriate for the liturgy that is being celebrated. Those choosing music should understand the feasts and seasons of the Church’s year and to have studied closely the scripture readings and prayer texts for the celebration. They also need to ask whether the musical setting expresses and interprets the text correctly and makes it more meaningful.
The third criterion to be met is the pastoral judgment. This involves making decisions about whether a particular piece of music enables this assembly to express their faith at this time and in this place. Does it suit the group celebrating and their place of worship? Is it appropriate for the age, culture and education of the congregation? Is it something with which they feel comfortable and secure enough to sing well? Is it within the capabilities of the organist and song leader?
The choice of music for parish Masses is not determined by the personal preferences of the parish music co-ordinator. The musical judgment is made by the people with expertise in music and knowledge of available resources. The liturgical judgment requires knowledge of the structure, flow and spirit of the liturgy. Making sound pastoral judgments depends on knowing a particular parish community – its history, traditions, culture.
Selections are best made if those responsible for music ministry are present at meetings of the parish liturgy committee. Reflecting on the readings and texts for the liturgy as a group opens up the spirit of the celebration and provides the context in which appropriate musical choices can be made. By applying musical, liturgical and pastoral judgments, music is chosen for the assembly that will put a song on their lips and bring joy to their souls.


Elizabeth Harrington