Introduction: the Theory of Sacred Music


Here I am using the word “theory” in its original precise meaning, which coming from the Greek word theoria is “looking at something carefully”, or “contemplation”. This is in contrast to other definitions such as “a conceptual explanation of observed facts” or “ideas detached from reality” in which the word is often used today.

Such a theoretical aspect of our approach to Catholic sacred music is essential, if we are to understand what it is, what it has been, and what it is intended to be. Without such a foundation, it will be difficult if not impossible to avoid confusion, as we seek to proceed forward with a unified approach and a common understanding.

This approach might seem at first to be strange to us, as we are immersed in a culture which places great emphasis on getting things done, but very little emphasis on wisdom! Of course, we do need to get things done effectively, but if we do not have a strong foundation in wisdom - in the ability to think clearly, and to see what we do in the context of the greater reality in which we live - our deeds will lack both depth and durability.

In the formation we offer, through workshops, seminars, and consulting, we aim to address at least three important aspects of the theory of sacred music (not to be confused with “music theory”): its philosophy, its theology, and its history. In each of these aspects, we take pains to present an accessible step-by-step approach that seeks to connect with the “ordinary” people whom we are called to serve!

Philosophy: we look at the nature and qualities of sacred music, beginning with its origin in ancient Hebrew worship, proceeding to the chant of Christ, the Apostles, and the early Church, and then following the broad lines of its development to our present day.

Theology: we explore the meaning of sacred music in its proper context of the Sacred Liturgy and traditional Christian faith. This will lead us to examine to what extent it is related to our capacity to worship God, and to know, love, and serve him.

History: we study the remarkable development of sacred music in all those Churches and Rites, East and West, who trace their governance, beliefs, and liturgical traditions in unbroken line back to Christ and the Apostles. In learning to appreciate this broad spectrum of living sacred music traditions, the faithful of each Church (including those of us in the Roman Rite) can be better prepared to understand the gift of their own particular traditions. From this perspective, we then study the great patrimony of sacred music in the West.