Summer 2020 Virtual
"What is Sacred Music?"
Dr. William Mahrt
The word sacred means set aside, in this case reserved for the particular purpose of Divine Worship. Pope St. Pius X defined three characteristics of liturgical music, sacred, beautiful, and universal. Music is sacred which sets the texts prescribed by the liturgy, such as processional texts, scripture lessons, meditation chants, hymns of praise and petition and expression of belief. Their musical style conveys the sense of the action which they accompany. Music is sacred which unites a diverse congregation in a unity joining their voices and lifting their hearts to a common purpose.
Sacred music must be beautiful, because it addresses almighty God, who is the ultimate Beauty. The beauty of sacred music creates an experience of the holiness of God, a foretaste of the Beatific Vision of God, which is the end of each human life. Sacred music thus has a transcendent purpose, which is expressed in transcendent styles. Sacred music is universal when it is received and understood by the body of worshippers as expressing the order and purpose in the liturgy, when it is experienced as being our own, when we sing it by heart, from our very own being.
Kinds of sacred music include Gregorian chant, which arises out of the liturgy itself and has pride of place. Sacred polyphony arises out of chant, in which chant-like melodies combine in a paradigm of order and purpose, expressing the order of creation and leading to the creator. Music for the organ derives from sacred polyphony, being principally in the contrapuntal style of fugue and choral prelude, both of which derive from chant. Hymnody has its origins in the chant as well, and the best of hymnody can be the basis of uniting the minds and hearts of worshippers. Concerted sacred music, which includes beautiful instrumental music interacting with sacred choral singing, whose styles include choral declamation, fugue, and accompanied solo singing, all oriented to the expression of the texts the liturgy prescribes. Other kinds of music can enrich human life: dramatic music, dancing music, music for entertainment, and many more, but sacred music is distinct from these, the highest kind of music because it serves the highest goals.