On Not-so-Good Music

Graduale_Aboense_2Everyone seems to be confused about the liturgy these days.

Con-fused literally means fused together; to be confused is to mix up things that are not the same.  The classic image is throwing out the baby with the bath water.  It is confusion because you don’t realize that the baby is something very different from the bath water.  It is a problem because bath water needs to be thrown out, and babies need to not be thrown out.

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You probably recognize “liberal” confusions with the liturgy—though sometimes we do well to state the obvious.

Some people think that if liturgy “accommodates” us by being in our language, it should accommodate us by changing the message spoken in that language—by replacing the Gospel of Jesus Christ with something more modern.  But those are not the same things.  In fact, they are opposite things: the liturgy is translated so that we can hear the original Gospel, not so that we can replace it.

Some people think if the liturgy changes at all, then everything should change.  But there are things that can change and things that can’t change.  That Christ is Lord, that he comes to us in the Eucharist, that he speaks to us in Scripture, that we fully find him only in the Church: these things don’t change.  What reading we read on which day, what language it is in, etc., have always varied, through time and place.

Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.  These are different kinds of change, different things.

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But “conservatives” are often confused about liturgy too.  Today the liturgy is often banal; therefore, many say, the way to be sacred is to go back to the Tridentine Missal.  This confuses all sorts of issues.

Granted that modern liturgy is often very bad – I grant that – what about it is bad?  Is it that it’s in the vernacular?  That some of the the prayers have changed?  What precisely is the problem?

Here’s my thesis: the real problem has nothing to do with the Vatican II Missal, nothing to do with English, nothing to do with a whole lot of things that people confuse.  The central problem (as St. Pius X pointed out at the beginning of his pontificate, over a hundred years ago) is bad music.

I could say things about the texts of our hymns.  But here, that’s not my point.  I mean the music, the tunes.

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To understand this problem, first consider the tone in which you say something, and how much it affects what you’re saying.  “I?  Love you?”  “[Well] I love you.”  “[Sigh, mumble] I love you.”  “I love you!!!”  “I love you!!”

“[Little] Lamb of God [isn’t he cute?], you take away the sins of the world!”  “[Bleeding, sacrificial: raise your eyebrows] Lamb of God, you take away the SINS of the [evil] world.”  “[Bored mumble:] Lamb of God . . .” etc.

“Lo-ord have mercy!”

The way you say something has an awful lot to do with what the words mean.  That’s the biggest reason music really matters.

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A very little theory.  Modern music is almost exclusively in what we call “major” and “minor” keys.   Major keys are – take my word on this – rooted in mathematics.  They sound pleasant because in fact they resonate with themselves – we’re talking the wave lengths of vibrations.  Dissonance sounds harsh not just because of culture, but because the waves that carry sound are jarring against one another.  Major keys sound nice because they are nice.  It resolves to something genuinely peaceful.  This is physics, and the musicians of the ancient world knew it.

Minor keys are more complicated – and thus a little more jarring – but fundamentally mimic major keys.

Here’s the interesting thing: until the modern period, almost every major musical system, worldwide, explicitly banned these simple, pleasant keys precisely because they’re so pleasant, such easy listening.  They lull you to sleep, make you feel too comfortable, don’t stimulate you or make you think.

The theory of Gregorian chant is complicated, but, seriously, here’s the most basic rule: you’re never allowed to sing in major or minor keys.  The music is supposed to be more challenging, more stimulating than that.

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Now, the issue is complicated because in the early modern period, musical geniuses like Bach started doing really complicated things: counterpoint, harmonization, and lots of key changes and chromaticism.  Because the music was so complicated, they resorted to the simple keys: major and minor.  But they only used those keys because they were doing such complicated things with them.

Notice, in the small print of your hymnal, how many traditional hymns are “harmonized” by people like J.S. Bach and Isaac Watts.  Traditional hymnody can be in major keys because there’s really complicated stuff going on; these hymns teeter on the edge of over-simplicity, but guys like Bach could save it, through rich harmony.  (This might explain why African music and African-American spirituals are rich, but dumbed-down white versions are not: serious harmony.)

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The biggest problem in liturgy today is that we sing our Psalms at Mass, and all of our hymns, in musical keys that lull us to sleep, pat us on the head, tell us to be comfortable and complacent at just the moments we ought to be called out of ourselves into the mysteries of faith.  There are plenty of problems with our texts, but first of all, musically, we are putting our souls to sleep.

Jesus is just our cuddly little lamb.

Fix this one problem – first, by singing the Psalms in serious tones, then by reintroducing serious hymns, whether the old major-key ones with serious harmonization, or even by setting your favorite texts to old Gregorian tunes (any halfway serious church musician knows how to do this) – and you have solved the banality of the modern liturgy, without getting into Latin, the Tridentine rite, bad lighting, girl altar boys, ad orientem, or any of the host of issues that get confused in most conversations about the Mass.

Listen to the Psalm tone next Sunday.  Does it urge you to meditate on the mysteries of God – or just make you feel comfortable and complacent?

eric.m.johnston

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