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What Does the Church Teach About Music At Mass?

With many varying musical preferences in a parish, we pause and ask, what is the most appropriate music for Mass? Below is a simple collection of modern Church teaching on the topic of Sacred Music. Click on each topic to learn more:

What is Sacred Music?

By sacred music is understood that which, being created for the celebration of divine worship, is endowed with a certain holy sincerity of form. (Musicam Sacram, #4, 1967)

Importance of Sacred Music
  • Sacred music, being a complementary part of the solemn liturgy, participates in the general scope of the liturgy, which is the glory of God and the sanctification and edification of the faithful. It contributes to the decorum and the splendor of the ecclesiastical ceremonies, and since its principal office is to clothe with suitable melody the liturgical text proposed for the understanding of the faithful, its proper aim is to add greater efficacy to the text, in order that through it the faithful may be the more easily moved to devotion and better disposed for the reception of the fruits of grace belonging to the celebration of the most holy mysteries. (Tra Le Sollecitudini, Pius X, 1903)
  • The musical tradition of the universal Church is a treasure of inestimable value, greater even than that of any other art. The main reason for this pre-eminence is that, as sacred song united to the words, it forms a necessary or integral part of the solemn liturgy. (Sacrosanctum Concilium, Second Vatican Council, #112, 1963)
Gregorian Chant
  • [The qualities of Sacred Music] are to be found, in the highest degree, in Gregorian Chant, which is, consequently the Chant proper to the Roman Church, the only chant she has inherited from the ancient fathers, which she has jealously guarded for centuries in her liturgical codices, which she directly proposes to the faithful as her own, which she prescribes exclusively for some parts of the liturgy, and which the most recent studies have so happily restored to their integrity and purity….

The ancient traditional Gregorian Chant must, therefore, in a large measure be restored to the functions of public worship, and the fact must be accepted by all that an ecclesiastical function loses none of its solemnity when accompanied by this music alone. Special efforts are to be made to restore the use of the Gregorian Chant by the people, so that the faithful may again take a more active part in the ecclesiastical offices, as was the case in ancient times. (Tra Le Sollecitudini, Pius X, 1903)


  • The Church acknowledges Gregorian chant as specially suited to the Roman liturgy: therefore, other things being equal, it should be given pride of place in liturgical services. Sacrosanctum Concilium, Second Vatican Council, #116, 1963)
  • Down the centuries, Gregorian chant has accompanied liturgical celebrations in the Roman rite, has nourished men’s faith and has fostered their piety, while in the process achieving an artistic perfection which the Church rightly considers a patrimony of inestimable value and which the Council recognized as “the chant especially suited to the Roman liturgy.” (Letter to the Bishops on the Minimum Repertoire of Plain Chant “Voluntati Obsequens” Sacred Congregation for Divine Worship April 14, 1974)
  • Finally, while respecting various styles and different and highly praiseworthy traditions, I desire, in accordance with the request advanced by the Synod Fathers, that Gregorian chant be suitably esteemed and employed as the chant proper to the Roman liturgy. (Sacramentum Caritatis, 42, Benedict XVI, 2007)
  • The main place should be given, all things being equal, to Gregorian chant, as being proper to the Roman Liturgy. (General Instruction on the Roman Missal, #41, 2011)
The Use of Latin
  • Particular law remaining in force, the use of the Latin language is to be preserved in the Latin rites. But since the use of the mother tongue, whether in the Mass, the administration of the sacraments, or other parts of the liturgy, frequently may be of great advantage to the people, the limits of its employment may be extended… (Sacrosanctum Concilium, Second Vatican Council, #36, 1963)
  • Steps should be taken so that the faithful may also be able to say or to sing together in Latin those parts of the Ordinary of the Mass which pertain to them. (Sacrosanctum Concilium, Second Vatican Council, #54, 1963)
  • “The Roman Church has special obligations towards Latin, the splendid language of ancient Rome, and she must manifest them whenever the occasion presents itself” (Dominicae cenae, # 10, John Paul II, 1980).
  • Speaking more generally, I ask that future priests, from their time in the seminary, receive the preparation needed to understand and to celebrate Mass in Latin, and also to use Latin texts and execute Gregorian chant (Sacramentum Caritatis, #62, Benedict XVI, 2007)
  • Also see “Importance of Gregorian Chant in the Parish” below
Other Forms of Music
  • Polyphony agrees admirably with Gregorian Chant, the supreme model of all sacred music, and hence it has been found worthy of a place side by side with Gregorian Chant…(Tra Le Sollecitudini, Pius X, 1903)
  • The Church has always recognized and favored the progress of the arts, admitting to the service of religion everything good and beautiful discovered by genius in the course of ages — always, however, with due regard to the liturgical laws. Consequently modern music is also admitted to the Church, since it, too, furnishes compositions of such excellence, sobriety and gravity, that they are in no way unworthy of the liturgical functions.
  • Still, since modern music has risen mainly to serve profane uses, greater care must be taken with regard to it, in order that the musical compositions of modern style which are admitted in the Church may contain nothing profane, be free from reminiscences of motifs adopted in the theaters, and be not fashioned even in their external forms after the manner of profane pieces.
  • Among the different kinds of modern music, that which appears less suitable for accompanying the functions of public worship is the theatrical style, which was in the greatest vogue, especially in Italy, during the last century. This of its very nature is diametrically opposed to Gregorian Chant and classic polyphony, and therefore to the most important law of all good sacred music. Besides the intrinsic structure, the rhythm and what is known as the conventionalism of this style adapt themselves but badly to the requirements of true liturgical music. (Tra Le Sollecitudini, Pius X, 1903)
  • Other kinds of sacred music, especially polyphony, are by no means excluded from liturgical celebrations, so long as they accord with the spirit of the liturgical action…Composers, filled with the Christian spirit, should feel that their vocation is to cultivate sacred music and increase its store of treasures. Let them produce compositions which have the qualities proper to genuine sacred music, not confining themselves to works which can be sung only by large choirs, but providing also for the needs of small choirs and for the active participation of the entire assembly of the faithful. (Sacrosanctum Concilium, Second Vatican Council, #116 and 121, 1963)
  • Other kinds of sacred music, in particular polyphony, are in no way excluded, provided that they correspond to the spirit of the liturgical action and that they foster the participation of all the faithful. (General Instruction on the Roman Missal, #41, 2011)
  • When vernacular singing is concerned, the liturgical reform offers “a challenge to the creativity and the pastoral zeal of every local church.” Poets and musicians are therefore to be encouraged to put their talents at the service of such a cause, so that a popular chant may emerge which is truly artistic, is worthy of the praise of God, of the liturgical action of which it forms part and of the faith which it expresses. The liturgical reform has opened up new perspectives for sacred music and for chant. “One hopes for a new flowering of the art of religious music in our time. Since the vernacular is admitted to worship in every country it ought not to be denied the beauty and the power of expression of religious music and appropriate chant. (Letter to the Bishops on the Minimum Repertoire of Plain Chant
    Voluntati Obsequens” Sacred Congregation for Divine Worship April 14, 1974)
Criteria for Other Forms of Sacred Music
  • Sacred music should consequently 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…the more closely a composition for church approaches in its movement, inspiration and savor the Gregorian form, the more sacred and liturgical it becomes; and the more out of harmony it is with that supreme model, the less worthy it is of the [liturgy]. (Tra Le Sollecitudini, Pius X, 1903)
  • Therefore sacred music is to be considered the more holy in proportion as it is more closely connected with the liturgical action, whether it adds delight to prayer, fosters unity of minds, or confers greater solemnity upon the sacred rites. (Sacrosanctum Concilium, Second Vatican Council, #112, 1963)
  • The texts intended to be sung must always be in conformity with Catholic doctrine; indeed they should be drawn chiefly from holy scripture and from liturgical sources. (Sacrosanctum Concilium, Second Vatican Council, #121, 1963)
  • Certainly as far as the liturgy is concerned, we cannot say that one song is as good as another. Generic improvisation or the introduction of musical genres which fail to respect the meaning of the liturgy should be avoided. As an element of the liturgy, song should be well integrated into the overall celebration. Consequently everything – texts, music, execution – ought to correspond to the meaning of the mystery being celebrated, the structure of the rite and the liturgical seasons. (Sacramentum Caritatis, 42, Benedict XVI, 2007)
The Organ
  • Although the music proper to the Church is purely vocal music, music with the accompaniment of the organ is also permitted (Tra Le Sollecitudini, Pius X, 1903)
  • In the Latin Church the pipe organ is to be held in high esteem, for it is the traditional musical instrument which adds a wonderful splendor to the Church’s ceremonies and powerfully lifts up man’s mind to God and to higher things. (Sacrosanctum Concilium, Second Vatican Council, #120, 1963)
Other Instruments
  • In some special cases, within due limits and with proper safeguards, other instruments may be allowed but never without the special permission of the Ordinary [i.e. local bishop]. (Tra Le Sollecitudini, Pius X, 1903)
  • Other instruments also may be admitted for use in divine worship, with the knowledge and consent of the competent territorial authority…This may be done, however, only on condition that the instruments are suitable, or can be made suitable, for sacred use, accord with the dignity of the temple, and truly contribute to the edification of the faithful. (Sacrosanctum Concilium, Second Vatican Council, #120, 1963)
  • In permitting and using musical instruments, the culture and traditions of individual peoples must be taken into account. However, those instruments which are, by common opinion and use, suitable for secular music only, are to be altogether prohibited from every liturgical celebration and from popular devotions. Any musical instrument permitted in divine worship should be used in such a way that it meets the needs of the liturgical celebration, and is in the interests both of the beauty of worship and the edification of the faithful. The use of musical instruments to accompany the singing can act as a support to the voices, render participation easier, and achieve a deeper union in the assembly. However, their sound should not so overwhelm the voices that it is difficult to make out the text…(Musicam Sacram, #63-64, 1967)
Importance of Gregorian Chant in the Parish
  • Pastors of souls should take care that besides the vernacular “the faithful may also be able to say or sing together in Latin those parts of the Ordinary of the Mass which pertain to them.” (Musicam Sacram, #47, 1967)
  • Nor should we forget that the faithful can be taught to recite the more common prayers in Latin, and also to sing parts of the liturgy to Gregorian chant. (Sacramentum Caritatis, 62, Benedict XVI, 2007)
  • Exerpts from Voluntati Obsequens (Letter from Rome to Diocesan Bishops in 1974)

[At the time this letter was written, most parishes and dioceses’ around the world had abandoned the use of Gregorian chant in response to the reforms. This was never the intention of the Council. In response, the Holy Father called bishops around the world to return to the popular use of Chant in the liturgy by providing them with a simple selection of chants that every parish could easily learn]

Our congregation has prepared a booklet entitled, “Jubilate Deo”, which contains a minimum selection of sacred chants. This was done in response to a desire which the Holy Father had frequently expressed, that all the faithful should know at least some Latin Gregorian chants, such as, for example, the “Gloria“, the “Credo“, the “Sanctus“, and the “Agnus Dei“.

…the liturgical reform does not and indeed cannot deny the past. Rather does it “preserve and foster it with the greatest care.” It cultivates and transmits all that is in it of high religious, cultural and artistic worth and especially those elements which can express even externally the unity of believers.

This minimum repertoire of Gregorian chant has been prepared with that purpose in mind: to make it easier for Christians to achieve unity and spiritual harmony with their brothers and with the living traditions of the past. Hence it is that those who are trying to improve the quality of congregational singing cannot refuse to Gregorian chant the place which is due to it. And this becomes all the more imperative as we approach the Holy Year of 1975, during which the faithful of different languages, nations and origins, will find themselves side by side for the common celebration of the Lord.

Interested in the sounds of the different styles of sacred music directly referenced in Church documents? Click here for some sound selections.