The Role of Music in Liturgy

I recently attended my first AFL match, along with 40,000 others, at the MCG. At the end of the game I was struck by how the supporters of the victorious team rose as one to sing the club anthem. The tune was old-hat, the words were corny, but young and old, male and female, melodious and vocally challenged alike joined in the rousing chorus.
Music is often an important part of special gatherings – carols around the piano or keyboard at Christmas, the school song at class reunions, and of course Happy Birthday whatever the age being celebrated (even for 106 year old twins in Japan!).
The reasons why singing is so much a part of these occasions are the same reasons why singing is integral to liturgy. Liturgy is too a celebration – a celebration of faith.
Music serves the liturgy, and those who gather to celebrate, in several ways.
§ Music draws us together in unity.
Just as the team song unites people across all ages and background at a football match, singing together at Mass draws us into a single worshipping community. The entrance song in particular helps transform us from a disparate group of Mass-goers into a community with a common purpose.
§ Music expresses and shares faith.
Music serves the liturgical assembly by enabling us to express faith through song. We use the words and tunes of gifted composers to say what we often cannot ourselves put into words. The hymns that we sing speak of the wonders of God, of the life, death and resurrection of Christ, and of the power of the Holy Spirit among us.
§ Music allows the words of the liturgy to speak more fully.
Sometimes words take on a much deeper meaning when sung. The “Happy Birthday” song sounds pretty silly when spoken rather than sung. The melody of favourite hymns has become as much a part of their message as the text. The meaning of a Mass response or hymn is heightened if the melody reflects what the words express. The joyful Celtic Alleluia, for example, is popular because the joyous lilting melody expresses so well the Good News which it announces. An effective musical setting conveys a meaning that goes beyond the words themselves.
§ Music allows us to express joy and enthusiasm.
At the recent national gathering on evangelisation in Brisbane the conference song “Hearts on Fire” really caught on because its lively rhythm drew people in and gave them permission to sing along, clap, wave arms – even jump on chairs! Singing offers us a unique means to express joy and enthusiasm.
§ Music sets the tone for particular celebrations.
Music plays an important part in helping us enter into the spirit of the different liturgical seasons. The sombre tone of Good Friday is so effectively captured in songs such as “When I survey the wondrous cross”. The music of Easter enables us to express our joy in the resurrection of Christ.
We sing because we are people pf prayer and, according to an ancient proverb, the one who sings prays twice!


Elizabeth Harrington