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This is part two in a series of posts on music in the Catholic Church. Part One covered my background and experience of Church music growing up.

So what does Church music look like today? Well it’s often very much that traditional hymn-singing I talked about.

But there are a few other types of church music…

Raise your hands

One mode of modern church music is what I think of as “Happy-Clappy” style. That’s too disrespectful a name really, but it’s the kind of music where you’re singing songs rather than hymns, the words aren’t based on scripture but are much more informal and secular-sounding, the music is more poppy and modern. Often there are actions (I must confess I cringe just saying that) and there’s a lot of clapping and waving arms in the air.

For a long time I was absolutely dismissive of this.

There’s a body of church music coming from African-American Gospel music, which is more upbeat, lively, and, well, ‘clappy’. I respect that as a genre and a mode of worship, although it isn’t one I’ve ever identified with. I think that’s the influence behind the rise of guitar-based poppy music in Catholic churches, often as part of youth outreach efforts, or children’s masses.

In dedicated family or children’s masses I think the agenda is different, and I think that style of music definitely has a place there. But until recently I would have been pretty resistant to its inclusion in any other masses, where I feel it’s mostly a distraction.

Waking up

I was given cause to rethink this by my experiences in Madrid this summer. The music at our catechesis sessions during the WYD week was organised by the Sion Community of young Catholic evangelists. Their performances and contributions were impressively polished and confident, but the music was very much in the Americanised pop music vein: guitar-led, with (at times) trivial poppy words.

I went along with it, clapping with most of the rest of the congregation, giving it a chance as best I could. And while it didn’t move me, I looked over at the choir leading the song, at the looks of joy and peace on their faces, and I thought “Well, clearly this is doing something for them beyond just enjoying playing music. There’s something to this…”

Unfortunately the next day things took a turn for the worse: a song replete with actions, about ‘jumping in the water’. Totally frivolous lyrics and cringey actions. The session opened with this, and I could tolerate it well enough as an energising way to get people woken up. During the rest of the session there were a few more songs, not quite as over the top, but still “happy-clappy”.

Then, during communion at mass, they handed over to a guest choir from one of the groups attending the sessions. I’m not sure who they were, or where they were from, but an all-girl choir of about 8 started singing a gentle anthem in beautiful 4-part harmony, and something in my brain perked up and said “Oh wow. Actual music! and I felt instantly peaceful and more in touch with my spirit than I had throughout the mass to that point. I did feel guilty for being judgemental – but then music is such a personal thing, and I was simply realising what did and didn’t work for me.

So having seen the potential and the power of the happy-clappy side of things, I had a stark reminder that it simply isn’t the style of church music which really connects with me.

The crucial question

This was brought into crystal clear focus by an insightful question from a friend. Talking to him about the music in the services during the week, we agreed that some of the guitar-based stuff was a little too poppy for us. I was speaking quite carefully, feeling guilty and hesitant about my preference for more contemplative, respectful, traditional music in church. I said I just wasn’t sure the more upbeat stuff was what worked for me. He then posed the simple question:

“Does it help you pray?”

And my answer – instinctively, instantly, no hesitant or doubt – was: No.

No it doesn’t. I like some of it, and I respect the musicians and their contribution, but no, it really doesn’t help me to talk to God. In fact, it seems like a complete distraction from connecting with God.

This was a really useful insight for me. I wouldn’t often have thought or spoken of church music as helping me pray – but of course it can, and it should.

So the week in Madrid helped me see the positive side of a style of church music I’d always simply dismissed. It also made clear to me that it isn’t the style for me, and helped me see why.

More importantly, the week also allowed me to discover a couple of styles of church music which really do work for me. More on those next time…