Recorded Music in Lieu of Singing
Date: October 24, 2022
Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy and sacramental theology and director of the Sacerdos Institute at the Pontifical Regina Apostolorum university.
Question: I have attended a Mass at a place where they use recorded music instead of singing. Is this permitted? – J.W., Santa Cruz, California
Answer: We addressed this question several years ago, and it crops up again occasionally. The Church’s position has not changed on this topic. Hence what we last said in 2019 remains basically valid, although here we have added some further considerations.
The relatively few norms that exist on this point tend to explicitly forbid using recorded music during the liturgy.
Originally this would have also included, most preset accompaniment to live singing, a possibility offered by many modern keyboards. Recent technical advances, especially the use of some preset features as an integral part of original musical compositions, allow for some exceptions.
The fundamental reasoning behind the relevant norms is because the whole liturgy, including the music, is a prayer, and true prayer essentially springs from the person praying. It is sufficient to imagine substituting a recording of the Our Father or some other spoken prayer, to realize that it would not be quite the same as the assembly saying it together. The same reasoning applies to musical prayer.
The principal documents that deal with music in Church always emphasize the importance of singing and presume the presence of live musicians who are considered as being part of the assembly.
The 1958 instruction "De Musica Sacra" issued by the Congregation of Rites states, "Finally, only those musical instruments which are played by the personal action of the artist may be admitted to the sacred liturgy, and not those which are operated automatically or mechanically."
This document followed Pope Pius XII's 1955 encyclical "Musicae Sacrae," in which he insisted that liturgical music be "true art" if it is to be a genuine act of worship and praise of God.
Although these documents precede the Second Vatican Council, there is practically nothing in the conciliar or post-conciliar documents which would contradict the principles enunciated or invalidate their general normative value.
Indeed, the council's insistence that choir and musicians form part of the liturgical assembly would even strengthen the presumption against the use of mechanical music.
According to the above documents it is preferable to sing without musical accompaniment than resort to artificial means.
The General Instruction of the Roman Missal states in Nos. 39-40:
"The Christian faithful who gather together as one to await the Lord's coming are instructed by the Apostle Paul to sing together psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs (cf. Col 3:16). Singing is the sign of the heart's joy (cf. Acts 2:46). Thus, Saint Augustine says rightly, 'Singing is for one who loves.' There is also the ancient proverb: 'One who sings well prays twice.'
"Great importance should therefore be attached to the use of singing in the celebration of the Mass, with due consideration for the culture of the people and abilities of each liturgical assembly. Although it is not always necessary (e.g., in weekday Masses) to sing all the texts that are of themselves meant to be sung, every care should be taken that singing by the ministers and the people is not absent in celebrations that occur on Sundays and on holy days of obligation."
Later, the same document (in No. 312) states:
"The choir should be positioned with respect to the design of each church so as to make clearly evident its character as a part of the gathered community of the faithful fulfilling a specific function. The location should also assist the choir to exercise its function more easily and conveniently allow each choir member full, sacramental participation in the Mass."
The same principles are also valid for organists and other musicians.
All the same, there is one circumstance where universal norms have permitted pre- recorded music, if somewhat timidly, in the Directory for Children's Masses. No. 32 of this document states:
"Care should always be taken, however, that the musical accompaniment does not overpower the singing or become a distraction rather than a help to the children. Music should correspond to the purpose intended for the different periods at which it is played during the Mass.
"With these precautions and with due and special discretion, recorded music may also be used in Masses with children, in accord with norms established by the conferences of bishops."
Some bishops’ conferences have also published guidelines on this topic; for example, the U.S. bishops' conference 2007 document “Sing to the Lord” says:
“93. Recorded music lacks the authenticity provided by a living liturgical assembly gathered for the Sacred Liturgy. While recorded music might be used advantageously outside the Liturgy as an aid in the teaching of new music, it should not, as a general norm, be used within the Liturgy.
“94. Some exceptions to this principle should be noted. Recorded music may be used to accompany the community’s song during a procession outside and, when used carefully, in Masses with children. Occasionally, it might be used as an aid to prayer, for example, during long periods of silence in a communal celebration of reconciliation. However, recorded music should never become a substitute for the community’s singing.”
A similar document from the Canadian bishops' conference was issued in 2015, stating:
“33 The human voice: The human voice should always hold a primary place in the music-making of the Church. For this reason, recorded music must never replace the singing of the assembly, nor should it displace the ministry of other musicians. Only in cases of necessity may recorded music be used in the liturgy for the purpose of supporting the song of the assembly.”
It later repeats this principle when referring to music at wedding in No. 137.
Strangely, however, when citing the possible exceptions “in cases of necessity” the footnote refers to the Directory for Masses with Children, No. 32. This would appear to be an extension of a limited exception to wider circumstances.
On the other hand, the Italian bishops’ conference has gone further and has explicitly forbidden the use of recorded music in the liturgy. This prohibition even covers children's Masses by calling attention to the need for the "veracity" of important liturgical signs such as singing, and furthermore "stresses the duty of educating in song the assembly of little ones that participates in the Sacred Celebration."
For this reason, the conference states, "It is good to use recorded music to teach the songs outside of the sacred celebration, but it is not permitted to use it during Mass."
Although not constituting liturgical law, the National Association of Pastoral Musician issued a clear statement, “On the Use of Pre-Recorded Music in the Liturgy" (July 12, 1991), published in Pastoral Music, October-November 1996, 51. To wit:
“We, the members of the National Association of Pastoral Musicians, Director of Music Ministries Division (DMMD), take the position that the singing of the liturgical assembly should be led by live musicians, and not by devices that provide pre-recorded accompaniment.
“Because the liturgy is an encounter between the God of Life and the human beings created in God’s image, its modes of expression ought to be authentic expressions of living persons.
“The liturgy is a complexus of signs expressed by living human beings. Music, being preeminent among those signs, ought to be ‘live.’ While recorded music, therefore, might be used as an aid to teaching of new music, it should, as a general norm, never be used within the liturgy to replace the congregation, the choir, the organist, or the instrumentalist.”
“1. In the absence of instrumental accompaniment for the song of the congregation, the singing of the liturgy should be led by an unaccompanied cantor or a group of singers, using the ‘live’ human voice.
“We recognize that the liturgical documents provide some exception to the norm of live music in the liturgy. ‘Recorded music may be used to accompany the community’s song during a procession out-of-doors and, when used carefully, Masses with children. Occasionally it might be used as an aid to prayer, for example, during long periods of silence in a communal celebration of reconciliation. It may never become a substitute for the community’s song, however, as in the case of the responsorial psalm after a reading from Scripture or during the optional hymn of praise after communion.’
“2. ‘A pre-recorded sound track is sometimes used as a feature of contemporary ‘electronic music’ composition. When combined with live voices and/or instruments, it is an integral part of the performance and, therefore, it is a legitimate use of pre-recorded music.’
“3. To replace live musicians with pre-recorded music would be akin to replacing live homilists with recordings of theologians. Just as the homilist must hear the Word of God and proclaim it with a knowledge and understanding of the community, so too is the musician to lead the assembly’s song with a sensitivity both to the text and to the particular assembly that is singing. Different times and seasons affect the way that a particular piece of music is to be sung. Tempo and volume or accompaniment may vary according to the size of the assembly. The different thoughts and moods expressed in a hymn call for different ways of accompanying and leading the congregation from verse to verse. Pre-recorded music cannot take any of these factors into account.
“We therefore find no use for devices that provide pre-recorded organ or other instrumental accompaniments via a musical retrieval system (i.e., record player, tape player, compact disc player, etc.) In particular, we deplore the manufacture, advertising and sale of devices designed explicitly to provide pre-recorded instrumental accompaniment for the singing of the assembly during the liturgical celebrations.”
In conclusion, the principal reason the Church insist on this point is that the use of music in the liturgy is always to enhance the authenticity of liturgical prayer. Music in the liturgy can never be considered as entertainment.
It is practically impossible for recorded music to serve the function of promoting authentic prayer.
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