I was recently at a liturgical planning meeting for a Catholic conference. The issue came up whether drums should be used at the Masses celebrated at the conference. I argued that the use of a drum set and bongos is not appropriate at Mass since they do not jive with the Church’s teaching on what is sacred music.
First of all, I would like to state that I do appreciate drums played well. Rhythm is an essential part of music and the drums highlight and drive the rhythm of a piece. However, a musical piece has rhythm in it whether or not there are drums. The question is their appropriateness at Mass.
That you would have to explain to a Catholic that drum sets and bongos do not belong in Church highlights this reality: Despite the fact that in her official pronouncements on sacred music the Church has been the clearest about what is the proper music for the liturgy, and what kind of music should not be used, there is precious little knowledge or awareness of these pronouncements even among musicians in the Catholic Church and the clergy.
To help us in discerning what is proper for use in the Liturgy and what to exclude, the Church lays down three principles: 1) sanctity; 2)goodness of form; and 3)universality. The respecting of these principles has always been behind the making of good liturgical music. It was Pope Saint Pius X who explicitly taught these three principles for music in the liturgy and raised them to a “quasi canonical” status. He does so in his motu propio Tra le sollectitudini (November 22, 1903). In paragraph 2 he stated that “… Sacred music should possess, in the highest degree, the qualities proper to the liturgy, and in particular sanctity and goodness of form, which will spontaneously produce the final quality of universality.”
What do these three terms mean?
For sanctity, the music must evoke a certain holiness or sense of the sacred and so exclude any association in the minds of the listeners with secular forms and styles, not only in the music itself, but also in how it is performed.
Goodness of form means that it must be true art, “…for otherwise it will be impossible for it to exercise on the minds of those who listen to it that efficacy which the Church aims at obtaining in admitting into her liturgy the art of musical sounds.”
The principle of universality is observed when, even in different cultural and new forms of music, the musical offerings are “… subordinated in such a manner to the general characteristics of sacred music that nobody of any nation may receive an impression other than good on hearing them.” (Tra le sollectitudini n.2).
These three principles were referred to and upheld in chapter six of the constitution Sacrosanctum concillium from Vatican II, Musicam sacram (Congregation for Divine Worship, 1967), and restated explicitly in the monograph of Blessed John Paul II commemorating the centenary of Pope Saint Pius’s X Motu proprio Tra le sollectitudini (L’Osservatore Romano, January 28, 2004).
If we take these three principles and apply them to the use of drums, we will see whether they belong at Mass. In regards to sanctity, the issue is that drum sets and bongo drums are associated not with the sacred but with dance bands and entertainment. In a musical ensemble they provide the driving rhythm for dancing and physical movement and they appeal to the lower sensibilities. However, the liturgy and its music are meant to raise us to a higher level of sensibility. Rather than helping us center our thoughts and prayers on the heavenly realities we a celebrating in the Mass, the driving rhythm and sound of drums takes our thoughts “where you do not wish to go” (Jn 21.18), that is, to more secular venues.
The usual musical pieces performed at Mass in which drum sets and bongos are used do not possess sufficiently the quality of goodness of form. The melodic motifs and harmonic progressions of these pieces are mainly drawn from the musical formulae of pop and commercial music. They fall into the category which Pope Benedict would call “utility music” — easy to grasp and repeat, but neither memorable and nor worthy of serious study, unlike the pieces from the Church’s heritage of sacred music.
Drum sets and bongos at Mass also lack the quality of universality. There are many people, musicians and non-musicians, to whom this music would leave a bad impression. The assumption that everyone appreciates drums at Mass is not true. This style of music at Mass may appeal to a certain demographic but is annoying to others for good reason. It does lack universality.
Many may object to the use of drums sets and bongos at Mass on the basis of personal taste. However, those who appreciate the Church’s heritage of sacred music and who know the principles of sacred music have objective criteria upon which to base their opinions.
However, regarding that music which is part of the Church’s heritage of sacred music and specially mentioned in her pronouncements, such as Gregorian chant, polyphony, and organ music, there may be people who do not particularly enjoy it, yet even they would not say that this kind of sacred music is inappropriate at Mass.
Ultimately, we come to Holy Mass not because we expect to pleased or entertained. We come to join ourselves to Christ’s offering of himself to the Father. At The Holy Eucharist, sacred art, vestments, architecture, language and music help draw us out of the mundane things of this world to join in the heavenly worship. Then, refreshed and strengthened by our sharing in the sacred action of Christ and his Church, we will be equipped to go forth into the world and bring the Good News to all creation.