What is “Sacred Music”?

Christ glorified detail Fra Angelico.jpg

What, precisely, is sacred music? How do we define it? In fact, the term has developed significantly over the past century, so as to have two quite distinct meanings. From the perspective of contemporary culture, the primary meaning has come to mean something like “music that is distinguished from secular music by its religious texts and/or style.” The Post-Vatican II document Musicam Sacram reflected this contemporary understanding, as it expanded the classical meaning of the term (given below) so to include “Gregorian chant, sacred polyphony in its various forms both ancient and modern, sacred music for the organ and other approved instruments, and sacred popular music, be it liturgical or simply religious.” (1)

Prior to this recent development, “sacred music” within the Catholic Church primarily meant the devout “singing of the sacred texts of the Liturgy.” (2)  It is crucial to understand this original meaning, especially as it is significantly different from the contemporary understanding of the term. It represents the essence of the gift of sacred music in the Old and New Covenants,  and in the long history of its origins and development throughout the world.

This is not to say anything negative about the splendid array of other music, religious and secular, that has been created and enjoyed throughout history. Rather, it should help us to realize that the singing of the Sacred Liturgy has maintained a unique identity, clearly set apart from “profane” music (from the Greek pro+fanus = “outside the temple”.)

What then is the “Sacred Liturgy”? In very broad strokes, it is the official public worship of all Catholic and Orthodox Churches throughout the world, consisting of several important dimensions, (3) the most prominent of which is the Eucharistic Liturgy. This is known most commonly in the West as the Mass, and in the East as the Divine Liturgy or simply Offering.

Our word “Liturgy” comes from the Greek λειτουργία (leitourgia), meaning literally a public service rendered by or for the people, and is found six times in the New Testament. (4) Over the first centuries of Church history this word came to have an ever clearer identification with Christian worship, indicating simultaneously a divinely ordained service offered by man to God, as well as one that is offered by God to the human person.

And so back to our consideration of singing this Liturgy, i.e., sacred music. Is this universal  tradition of singing the Christian Liturgy simply a matter of custom, which can be used or discarded at will? From those who have been immersed in this tradition, the answer is a resounding “no!” Singing fits the celebration of the Liturgy in a way that mere speech cannot achieve. On the one hand it brings an external beauty and dignity that correspond to the worship of a God who is infinite Beauty, Goodness, and Wisdom. On a deeper level, it facilitates a full engagement of mind, body, and heart in the loving adoration of this God, that would be stifled by the limitations of the recited word. “Cantare amantis est” (“Singing belongs to those who love.”) (5)

But there are also identifying characteristics of sacred music, and particularly of sacred chant, which have developed in its intimate unity with the traditional Christian Liturgy itself. Pope St. Pius X summed these up into three primary categories: holiness, goodness of forms (often translated simply as “beauty”), and universality. None of these categories is simplistic - each is, as it were, a deep well containing a wealth of insight; each has accessible lessons for the beginner as well as intellectual nourishment for the scholar. I look forward to exploring them together in subsequent blogs and podcasts!

For the moment, let’s look at some other characteristics that are inherent in the nature of sacred Christian chant, which for Pope Pius would have been evident. We post-moderns, on the other hand, might need to be reminded of some of them:

  • Its rhythms tend to be tailored to the rhythms of speech, rather than being subordinated to pre-determined rhythmic figures that fit neatly into a regular meter. This allows the Word to be served by the music, rather than vice-versa.

  • Its modes and melodic figures stay within  stylistic parameters that can be clearly identified as sacred, that is to say, consecrated to the liturgical worship of God.

  • Within these modes, a certain modesty of form is maintained – in contrast with virtuosic complexity – so as to point away from the singers to the theocentric focus of worship.

  • When two or more voices sing together, the sacred chants have been primarily in unison, representing the unity of hearts and minds, and providing the kind of noble simplicity which facilitates its universal accessibility. As this chant has been complemented, in the context of the tradition, with harmonies and counterpoint, the principles of simplicity and universality have been maintained: the parts sung by the congregation have remained mostly in unison or with simple harmonies, and the parts sung by the choir, while requiring a certain level of skill, have been oriented towards a holy resonance in those who are listening.

  • Furthermore, the nature of Christian sacred chant is to be primarily vocal, although appropriate musical instruments have been allowed in some Rites, especially the Roman Rite, as a support for the human voice. Why this universal emphasis on the human voice? It is because it is radically different from any man-made instrument that is external to his body. It intimately engages the entire human person – mind, heart, soul, and strength – in a way that allows communication of the deepest and most subtle movements of one's soul.

  • The interior effect of traditional sacred music is to draw worshipers into the contemplative dimension of the Liturgy, including the dimensions of adoration, listening, transformation and loving communion. While this is the most intuitive of all the characteristics, it is nevertheless reasonable and normally within the grasp of both children and adults.

To be continued soon… In the meantime, your input and questions will be most welcome!


(1) Musicam Sacram, no. 4b, 1967. This was actually a citation from a lesser known document under Pius XII, De Musica Sacra et Sacra Liturgia, no. 4, 1958. 

(2) “Sacred music, being an integral part of the solemn liturgy, participates in the general scope of the liturgy.... its principal office is to clothe with suitable melody the liturgical text proposed for the understanding of the faithful...” and “As the singing should always have the principal place, the organ or other instruments should merely sustain and never oppress it.” Tra le sollecitudine, nos. 1 & 16, Pope St. Pius X, 1903 [emphasis mine]

(3) In the broadest sense of the term as used in the West, the Sacred Liturgy includes 1.) the Eucharistic Liturgy, 2.) the Divine Office (prescribed psalms, hymns, prayers, and readings for each part of the day,)  3.) the administration of the seven Sacraments, 4.) the Martyrology (in which the lives of the saints – heroes of the Faith – are read or sung,) and 5.) various other sacred ceremonies which are reserved for Bishops to celebrate.  While in the East all of these aspects are also present and faithfully practiced, the term “Liturgy” is reserved for the Eucharistic Liturgy alone. There is a remarkable unity (in the midst of their rich diversity) in these structures of worship between all the many Rites and Churches throughout the world who trace their governance and traditions back to the Apostles.

(4) Luke 1:23, II Corinthians 9:12, Philippians 2:17 & 30, Hebrews 8:6 & 9:2; there are nine other instances in the NT where closely related Greek words are used. The Greek word translated as “worshiping” or “ministering to” in Acts 13:2 is λειτουργέω (leitourgeo).

(5) St. Augustine, Sermo 336, 1