Why the Church Needs Music Education

By McMahon, J. Michael | Pastoral Music, April 2009 | Go to article overview
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Why the Church Needs Music Education


McMahon, J. Michael, Pastoral Music


One of the enduring liturgical legacies of the Second Vatican Council will surely be its emphasis on participation. The Council was unambiguous in its assertion that in "the restoration and promotion of the sacred liturgy, this full and active participation by all the people is the aim to be considered before all else."1 The very nature of the liturgy as a communal action demands the participation of the faithful. It is both a right and duty that flows from sacramental incorporation into Christ's Body at baptism.2

In enumerating some of the ways that the faithful take an active part in the liturgy, the Council gives pride of place to singing: "To promote active participation, the people should be encouraged to take part by means of acclamations, responses, psalmody, antiphons, and songs, as well as by actions, gestures, and bodily attitudes. And at the proper times all should observe a reverent silence."3 Of the nine modes of participation listed by the Council, the first five involve singing!

Since the promulgation of the Council's Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy Sacrosanctum Concilium, official liturgical documents have placed increasing emphasis on the critical role of singing in the liturgy. The most recent edition of the General Instruction of the Roman Missal, for example, devotes a complete section to "The Importance of Singing,"4 considering it first - along with movement, posture, and silence - as ways in which the entire assembly takes an active part in liturgical celebrations. The bishops of the United States likewise recognize the importance of sung participation in their most recent guidelines on music in the liturgy, Sing to the Lord: Music in Divine Worship. The bishops direct that "music should be considered a normal and ordinary part of the Church's liturgical life."5

A Primary Language

The Church's teaching and guidance on the singing role of the worshiping assembly and on the musical character of the liturgy itself strongly suggest that music is a primary language of Christian worship. In order to fulfill the Church's call to take an active part in the liturgy through singing, both members of the congregation and their ministers need to develop the skills used for singing the liturgy. The acquisition of these skills involves more than learning songs and responses. Preparing people for active participation includes developing an appreciation of music and musical art, learning the fundamentals of musical language, fostering a sense of joy in singing, and nurturing the practice of singing with others on a regular basis.

Because active participation in worship is at the heart of the Christian life and because music is a primary language of the liturgy, music education is an essential element in Christian formation. An integral part of faith formation surely needs to include the experience of singing together and basic training in the musical notation used for communal singing. Music education ought to be considered an essential part of catechesis. Musical formation of Christians equips them to embrace that participation in the liturgy that is their right and duty.

Formation for liturgical participation must also include exposure to the richness of musical art. Pope Benedict XVI has written: "Beauty, then, is not mere decoration, but rather an essential element of the liturgical action, since it is an attribute of God himself and his revelation."6 Education in the arts prepares men and women to experience the beauty of music, art, and architecture as a glimpse of God's presence and action in our midst.

The Formation of a Community

Like other elements of faith formation, music education is a life-long enterprise. Ideally it begins in families and social settings where singing, music, and art are valued and where children are encouraged to sing in choirs, learn to play instruments, and participate in other arts-oriented activities.

The U.S.

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