I'm a non-believer church organist; I just moved to Spain and it's my first time playing regularly for a church service -- this one is Catholic.

I want to understand why Catholics have music in the church services: is it for God, or for the people? This question seems crucial to me, because as I get more creative with the music, with the organ stops / embellishments / polyphony, I want to understand what do Catholics believe about who is ultimately judging my music, them or God.

Being a non-believer, I don't really want to get into details of theology with the priest (he knows I'm a non-believer who is baptized Eastern Orthodox, and that was fine by him), so I'd just like to find out more about contemporary Catholic philosophy on this matter; I did some Googling but couldn't find anything relevant.

One random interesting thing: we have both German-language and Spanish-language services in our church; the words to the Spanish Gloria and Sanctus are always the same, but the words for the German Glorias and Sanctuses vary (if they're not the standardized ones, they are called Lied); but my priest considers this variation of the text practiced by German churches to be decadent / a corruption of the true text, and so we always do the same Gloria and Sanctus for the German-language services. So my interpretation is that, in this case, a change in the words is something that is being judged negatively by God, i.e. it is not good enough to worship Him. So I wonder if I can also do the same thing with musical notes, and so what should I avoid?...

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    Wow! Nice question! Let me pull some other ideas together. Commented Mar 17, 2019 at 1:39
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    Your last paragraph is an interesting question itself. Please post it! I can say you: There are different opinions on this in Catholic Church. You see this: The german bishops included different texts for Gloria and Sanctus in the "Gotteslob", your Spanish priest don't want to use them.
    – K-HB
    Commented Mar 17, 2019 at 10:13
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    @MattGutting Looking forward to your answer :)
    – Gabi
    Commented Mar 17, 2019 at 10:27
  • @K-HB OK, I did, thanks for the suggestion: christianity.stackexchange.com/questions/69138/…
    – Gabi
    Commented Mar 17, 2019 at 10:28
  • Give me a couple of days, my son in law does christian music ... I have some bits that may fit into an answer. need to discuss with him. Commented Mar 30, 2019 at 1:28

3 Answers 3


Sacred music is "to arouse man's devotion towards God". God has no needs, being perfect in Himself.

Addressing "Whether God should be praised with song?," St. Thomas Aquinas answers:

As stated above (a. 1),* the praise of the voice is necessary in order to arouse man's devotion towards God. Wherefore whatever is useful in conducing to this result is becomingly adopted in the divine praises. Now it is evident that the human soul is moved in various ways according to various melodies of sound, as the Philosopher states (Polit. viii, 5), and also Boethius (De Musica, prologue). Hence the use of music in the divine praises is a salutary institution, that the souls of the faint-hearted may be the more incited to devotion. Wherefore Augustine say (Confess. x, 33): "I am inclined to approve of the usage of singing in the church, that so by the delight of the ears the faint-hearted may rise to the feeling of devotion": and he says of himself (Confess. ix, 6): "I wept in Thy hymns and canticles, touched to the quick by the voices of Thy sweet-attuned Church."

*In that question, "Whether God should be praised with the lips?," he writes:

Consequently we need to praise God with our lips, not indeed for His sake, but for our own sake; since by praising Him our devotion is aroused towards Him

  • Thanks, really useful! So my goal is to make people feel a certain way. I'm thinking, if a word can be a sin, as judged by God, so can a purely musical phrase? So while God Himself does not need my music, I could still sin against Him, though it's not so obvious to me what that would be. Corroborating with christianity.stackexchange.com/questions/20249/…, it seems to me what's important is to set as goal giving rise to the right feelings, which are different from those of pop music, which I should avoid.
    – Gabi
    Commented Mar 17, 2019 at 10:31
  • @Gabi "if a word can be a sin, as judged by God, so can a purely musical phrase?" Are you asking if one can curse God (instead of praise Him) with music?
    – Geremia
    Commented Mar 18, 2019 at 0:44

I'd like to add a few comments to Geremia's excellent answer. I was an organist myself, but the church that my family attends now uses contemporary worship and unfortunately classical music isn't that appreciated in that church, which is a great pity. But the worship team on stage really LEADS the congregation to WORSHIP through visible emotion, prayers, and unscripted words (this is not a liturgical church), so those in the congregation that are willing to let their hearts touched will JOIN the worship team in singing, sometimes with hands, clapping, and other physical expression. I believe the organist (plus the choir & music director) has exactly the same responsibility in a liturgical church.

In my opinion, classical style worship has an added dimension that is missing from contemporary worship, which is the ART element, that is, intrinsic beauty in the music itself, while contemporary worship is more PRAGMATIC and in my opinion doesn't have much intrinsic beauty. However, in BOTH styles, the words explicitly direct human hearts to evoke the greatness of God, the love of God (and Jesus), and other expression of faith extolling the works of the Triune God. The words, then, function just like poetry set to music. If the words are written AS poetry (like in most older hymns), then you also have another dimension of ART, but at least when the words explicitly praise God, even simple non-poetic lyrics can do the job.

My point is that when your congregation APPRECIATES the Art dimension in music and/or in the words, then you can potentially double or triple the amount of devotion that your organ performance (and your music selection) can generate in your congregation. As an organist we are servants to the congregation. So in a church setting the measure is more in terms of how well the congregation's DEVOTION toward God increases, while in a concert hall setting the measure is how well the music critic (or the paying members of the audience) is satisfied.

So in my opinion that's the sticking point. People are simply different. Some who are not artistically inclined can worship God better with contemporary music, but some like myself can worship God better with J.S. Bach St. Matthew Passion or Mass in B Minor for example. I really have to humble myself not to feel superior to them, so I mostly pity them for not taking the advantage of praising God with more dimensions, because I believe that some attributes of God that are True, Good, and Beautiful ARE communicable to a human heart (sadly this is no longer majority opinion).

So to answer your question about stops, polyphony, embellishment in hymn playing, or I can add chorale preludes, if I WERE your congregation, I WOULD LOVE IT, and yes, I would evaluate your performance artistically, but as a believer I have to remind myself that this is church, not concert hall, although I WILL thank you after service for preparing well if you perform J.S. Bach's chorale prelude sensitively and artistically, for example. But if the congregation is not that appreciative, as a worship servant to lead congregation MORE to God, you'll have to adjust your music selection accordingly.

Notice one important difference between classical performer and contemporary worship leader, both tasked with leading the congregation to worship God. As a member of the congregation I would NOT try to get clues from your emotional state while playing the organ as opposed to being led visibly by a contemporary worship leader to increase my devotion to God during worship. VERY DIFFERENT. Contemporary leader is like rock star on stage, whose function is to sympathetically induce similar devotion within the congregation. BUT we as classical organists's job is to produce the artistic SOUND which is the agent that stirs the congregation's heart. It's lot more impersonal, but both the VISIBLE sign from contemporary worship leader and the AUDIBLE sign from the organist serve the SAME function, that is, to stir the congregation's heart to worship God. The congregation also has the SAME responsibility: to let themselves be touched. I can be aloof in a contemporary style worship (because I don't like the music), but I would be failing my responsibility to God (why would I come to church, then?). Similarly I can easily imagine a member of the congregation who doesn't like J.S. Bach refuses to let his heart be stirred by the triple effect beauty of Mass in B Minor so he can be more devoted to God.

Moving on to how God looks at your own service as an organist. I'm aware that you are not a believer, but regardless, if you do your job well as I described above, then maybe one day when you become a believer Jesus will say to you: "Well done, my good and faithful servant. You have been faithful in handling this small amount, so now I will give you many more responsibilities. Let’s celebrate together!" (Matt 25:23-25).

If you are a believer like myself, then even the act of preparation can be worship itself, because while practicing you can worship God in your heart. What Father wouldn't be pleased to see his children give their best to Him? People think that's why God appreciates Abel's sacrifice, not Cain's. Sometimes when I'm in certain mood, it's hard to hold back tears during my own performance because it can affect my playing. Similarly, sometimes I see a contemporary worship leader got so carried away with what the words that are being sung that she has to hold back emotion when leading the worship (who can sing well when you're sobbing?)


Contemporary Catholic views on music in the Church: is music for God or for the people?

The Catholic Encyclopedia has a nice article on Ecclesiastical Music and explains that Sacred Music is to elevate man's spirit to those things that are spiritual:

Just as St. Philip Neri spontaneously sang the prayers of the last Mass which he celebrated, so is all true religious music but an exalted prayer — an exultant expression of religious feeling. Prayer, song, the playing upon instruments, and action, when arranged by authority, constitute the elements of public worship, especially of an official liturgy. As man owes to God that which is highest and most beautiful, music may employ on these occasions her noblest and most effective means. Church music has in common with secular music the combination of tones in melody and harmony, the division of time in rhythm, measure, and tempo, dynamics, or distribution of power, tone-colour in voice and instruments, the simpler and more complicated styles of composition. All these, however, must be adapted to the liturgical action, if there be such, to the words uttered in prayer, to the devotion of the heart they must be calculated to edify the faithful, and in short must serve the purpose for which Divine service is held. Whenever music, instead of assuming a character of independence and mere ornament, acts as an auxiliary to the other means of promoting the worship of God and as an incentive to good, it not only does not interfere with the religious ceremony, but, on the contrary, imparts to it the greatest splendor and effectiveness. Only those who are not responsive to its influence, or stubbornly cultivate other ways of devotion, can imagine that they are distracted in their worship by music. Appropriate music, on the contrary, raises man above commonplace everyday thoughts into an ideal and joyous mood, rivets mind and heart on the sacred words and actions, and introduces him into the proper devotional and festive atmosphere. This appropriateness takes into account persons and circumstances, variations being introduced according to the nature and use of the texts, according to the character of the liturgical action, according to the ecclesiastical season, and even according to the various needs of the contemplative orders and the rest of the faithful. - Ecclesiastical Music

Pope Francis and Sacred Music:

“Your music and your song are a true instrument of evangelization insofar as you witness to the profoundness of the Word of God that touches the hearts of people, and allow a celebration of the sacraments, especially of the Holy Eucharist, which makes one sense the beauty of Paradise." - Pope Francis

Pope Francis has highlighted that sacred music has suffered in modernity: “At times, a certain mediocrity, superficiality and banality have prevailed, to the detriment of the beauty and intensity of liturgical celebrations.”:

Pope Francis has called for the renewal of sacred music in the life of the Church and urged the faithful to restore sacred music’s position within the Church and its engagement with culture.

The Holy Father’s March 4 address to a conference convened for the 50th anniversary of Musicam Sacram recognized that sacred music had often suffered since the Second Vatican Council. The “Instruction on the Music of the Liturgy,” released March 5, 1967, addressed the “ministerial role” of sacred music and established norms for pastors, musicians and the faithful to observe regarding music in the liturgy.

The instruction set out four types of sacred music: “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.”

In his remarks, Pope Francis highlighted that sacred music has suffered in modernity: “At times, a certain mediocrity, superficiality and banality have prevailed, to the detriment of the beauty and intensity of liturgical celebrations.”

Musicians, composers, conductors and singers in scholae cantorum, he said, “can make a precious contribution to the renewal” of sacred music, he said, while also highlighting the need for “appropriate musical formation” of the faithful, including seminarians, to accompany their contributions.

One day later, an international statement, Cantate Domino, was published by 200 pastors, musicians and scholars to highlight the history of sacred music since Vatican II and to suggest means to restore what “will always be a gift of beauty to future generations.” - Pope Francis and Sacred Musicians Call for the Reform of the Refrain

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