Musical Styles and Commonplaces in a Contemporary Youth Songbook

By Cunningham, W. Patrick | Sacred Music, Fall 2009 | Go to article overview

Musical Styles and Commonplaces in a Contemporary Youth Songbook


Cunningham, W. Patrick, Sacred Music


Since approximately 1966, the majority of North American parishes and schools have engaged in an experiment to make "more relevant" the music used at Masses and other liturgical gatherings attended by significant numbers of young Catholics (ages below thirty). Despite this almost universal attempt at improving the response of young Catholics to Catholic worship by the use of musical styles variously described as "lite rock" and "sacro-pop," Catholic demographics have stagnated. According to the 2009 Kenedy directory, the growth of the Catholic population in the year 2008 was only 1.5 percent. Pew Research Center's Forum on Religion & Public Life reports (1) that nine percent of the adult United States population, or about twenty-eight million Americans, were raised Catholic but are now Protestant or unaffiliated with any church. Evangelical churches have been using "contemporary" services with their youth for several decades. Recent research by evangelicals (2) shows that over 60 percent of their young people leave their churches after high school.

Beyond this historical data, current Catholic church practice in youth ministry appears to be moving even further in the direction of institutionalizing "sacro-pop" and the use of rock bands at youth-oriented Masses. The Life Teen movement, in particular, encourages what they call "vibrant" music in youth-oriented Liturgy. (3) They publish a two-dollar newsprint songbook called Choose Christ (hereafter CC) that contains music they recommend for such worship services and Masses. Most of the music contained therein is published by Oregon Catholic Press (hereafter OCP). Accompaniments, arrangements, and Nashville-quality CDs of the productions are available at significantly higher costs.

The purposes of my study, which involved listening to almost all, and examining each, of the songs in the 2009 version of this songbook, are to determine if there are common musical and theological characteristics of the melodies, accompaniment, and lyrics of these songs and what those characteristics may be. Beyond that initial objective, I wished to determine if those common characteristics have any relationship to those traditional Catholic and Protestant styles of music that have sustained churches and ecclesial communities in the past, and whether the differences between the music might help explain the recently observed low retention of the young by both communions.

THEOLOGICAL CHARACTERISTICS OF THE CATHOLIC RR STYLE

The Life Teen music philosophy (4) emphasizes the resemblance between the music recommended by the movement and the music commonly listened to by teens and young adults:

   Teens listen to a great deal of music everyday. Although some of it
   may be objectionable, it is all produced very well and has
   incredible sound quality. To inculturate the liturgy for teens, a
   Youth Mass uses musical instruments that teens are used to hearing
   on a daily basis. The tone is still prayerful as teens respond by
   participating and actually singing at Mass.

Thus, the style of music is identical to the rock-and-roll (hence RR) heard continually by the youth, but the RR is "baptized" by what the composers consider to be Christian or Catholic texts.

On the OCP "Spirit and Song" website, RR composers frequently write about the composition process. They also give YouTube interviews on the subject, so we can generalize about how Catholic RR comes into existence. There are two starting points customarily used: 1) the composer "gets" a chord progression, with or without a melody, and then finds a text to set; (5) 2) the composer sees a short text from the liturgy or scripture, creates a rhythmic pattern and chord progression that matches it, and then finishes off the song with melody and additional words. The additional words are usually the composer's own, since the scriptural or liturgical text, if any, does not fit the composed music. …

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