Drums at Mass: What were they thinking?

Just recently the Liturgical Commission of the Archdiocese of Vancouver published liturgical guidelines for school Masses. The document’s most glaring difficulty is the instruction that: “…during Lent limit the use of elaborated instrumentation such as drums or tambourines.” This statement implies that drums are acceptable at others times of the year. What follows is an excerpt of what I wrote to the head of the Archdiocesan Liturgical Commission which published the document.

I have some concerns about the document on Liturgy Guidelines. Aside from the formatting issues and the footnote numbers without any references, the comment about not using drums and tamborines during Lent implies that the rest of the year it is appropriate to use drums at Mass. Yet the use of drums sets and bongos is not appropriate at Mass since it is not in harmony with the Church’s teaching on sacred music. Although some may argue that there is no specific prohibition of drums, this does not imply that they are ought to be used. The Church has not specially prohibited the use of kazoos or balloons or toy pianos, yet these things are not to be used in Church.

In her official pronouncements on sacred music the Church has been the clear about what is the proper music for the liturgy, and what kind of music should not be used. 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.”

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 objections.

In the intimate relationship of music and liturgy, Gregorian chant was proposed as a model by St. Pius X; to this end in his important motu proprio, there is a specific rule: “the more closely a Church composition approaches Gregorian Chant in movement, inspiration, and feeling, the more holy and liturgical it becomes; and the more it deviates from this supreme model, the less worthy it is of the temple.” Tra le sollecitudini, ¶3. Drums sets and bongos are at the extreme “less worthy” end of the spectrum of appropriateness in Church.

For an example of an excellent liturgical diocesan document that offers solid teaching on music at Mass and useful guidelines for musicians and priests, click here for the pastoral letter of Archbishop Sample, penned when he was the bishop of Marquette. Now he is the current Archbishop of Portland.fff

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About Didobonaparte

A Roman Catholic priest of the Archdiocese of Vancouver, I am the parish priest of Saint Joseph's Catholic Church, Langley.
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3 Responses to Drums at Mass: What were they thinking?

  1. Pingback: Drums at Mass: What were they thinking? | Catholic Canada

  2. Alex says:

    Great article. I would be curious to know what percentage of parishes in this archdiocese use bongos or drums?

  3. Aloysius Gonzaga says:

    Very well written. I’m afraid that nothing will convince some people of this. It is a consequence of living in an ecclesial culture that has zero respect for tradition. I wish you the best of luck.

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