The Best Music for Life and the Liturgy (Guest: Peter Kwasniewski)

Music is integral to the human person and integral to divine worship. What is good music and what is bad music? What kind of music is best for everyday life and what is best for worship?

Crisis Point
Crisis Point
The Best Music for Life and the Liturgy (Guest: Peter Kwasniewski)


Dr. Peter Kwasniewski holds a B.A. in liberal arts from Thomas Aquinas College and an M.A. and Ph.D. in philosophy from the Catholic University of America, with a specialization in the thought of St. Thomas Aquinas. Dr. Kwasniewski has published extensively in academic and popular venues on sacramental and liturgical theology, Catholic social teaching, issues in the modern Church, and the history and aesthetics of music; he is also is a composer whose sacred choral music has been performed around the world. He is the author of many books, including his most recent, Good Music, Sacred Music, and Silence: Three Gifts of God for Liturgy and for Life.



(Note: We provide this transcript as a service to our readers, but we do not guarantee 100% accuracy in the transcription. Feel free to contact us if you notice any errors.)

Eric Sammons:

Music is integral to the human person and integral to divine worship. But what is good music? What is bad music? Both in just regular life, but also in the liturgy? And what kind of music really should we be looking to as what we should use in our worship, but in life in general? That’s what we’re going to talk about today on Crisis Point. Hello, I’m Eric. Sammons, your host, Editor and Chief of Crisis Magazine. Before we get started, I just want to encourage people to smash that like button and to subscribe to the channel.

So we have a return guest today, Dr. Peter Kwasniewski and I could go through his bio, but the most important thing I found is that he is… Let me find this. He’s a composer who’s sacred choral music has been performed around the world. He’s the author of, of course, a lot of books of which we’ve encouraged everybody to get literally every single one of them and read them. But this might not even be his most recent because he puts them out like every week, but one of his most recent is this one I have right here, which is called Good Music, Sacred Music and Silence: Three Gifts of God for Liturgy and for Life. It’s from Tan Publishers. Welcome to the program, Peter.

Peter Kwasniewski:

Thank you, Eric. It’s always good to be here. And it was good to see you recently in Chicago.

Eric Sammons:

Yes, that was great. We’re old enough that those things matter to us, seeing people in person.

Peter Kwasniewski:


Eric Sammons:

I still get a kick out of my kids, they don’t seem to think it’s as important as I do to actually meet people and talk to them in person, but I guess that’s just a generational thing. Now, I know that you’re well known of course in the Catholic world for your work on the liturgy, just in general for traditional Catholicism, but one of the things that you’ve been involved in for a very long time, of course, is music. You sing at masses, I believe, if I’m correct, you’re in the choir of your own parish. And so this is a topic I think that seems very important to you about music. And so I want to just start off very generally, then we’ll get more specific, more Catholic is music… I see a debate sometimes that some people consider music almost like just a nice add-on to life. It’s not really essential. It’s not really that big. It’s nice if you have it, but it’s okay if you don’t. What is the role of music really in human existence in general?

Peter Kwasniewski:

That’s a small question, but we can try to tackle it today. And by the way, this is really my most recent book, truly.

Eric Sammons:

Okay. It really is. Okay, very good. Hey, we got the most recent one this time.

Peter Kwasniewski:

I don’t even have another one yet in the pipeline, so this is probably going to have that status for a while.

Eric Sammons:

Very good.

Peter Kwasniewski:

No, so your question is a crucial one. I just want to start by saying that the entire philosophical tradition of the West agrees that music is something extremely important in human life. Not just a decoration, not just window dressing, not just a sort of take it or leave it thing. But if you look at Pythagoras and Plato and Aristotle and Boethius, Augustine, Aquinas, Kant, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Josef Pieper, Joseph Ratzinger, I’m just throwing out a whole bunch of big names that occurred to me at the moment. These are big names from all across more than 2000 years of history. All of them maintained that music was an uniquely powerful form of art in that it penetrates into the soul more deeply, right into the passions and deep thoughts of the heart, more than any other form of art.

So architecture, painting, sculpture, they remain external to us. We can admire them, we can look at them, we can be dazzled by them or disgusted by them as the case may be. And a poetry literature, we read those, we do take them into our soul, but they’re still in a certain sense extrinsic to us, and they do move us, but not as immediately. But when we hear music, the music goes right into our ears, into our mind, into our souls, and it moves us. It moves us in accord with itself. What do I mean by that?

Well, if you hear music, let’s say dancing music, swing dance, you start tapping your toes and it kind of makes you want to swing dance if you’re not averse to dancing. If you hear marching music, it kind of makes you either want to march or watch other people march because what they’re doing makes sense out of the music. If we go to church, which of course we’ll get into more later on, ideally, we would want to have music that helps us pray, and that puts us into the frame of mind that is required for prayer. So music has this unique way of making us like itself or making us respond to the character of the music. Do you see what I’m saying?

Eric Sammons:

Right. What’s interesting about music to me is growing up, I wasn’t a musical person. I played the saxophone in the band and things like that, but I wasn’t really that into it, but I was very much into math. And it wasn’t until later I started to realize the connection between music and math. I can’t even explain it that well, but something about it, because obviously there’s noise, you hear noise and that doesn’t affect you any, but when you hear music, it does affect you, as you were saying. And I feel like part of that is something about the mathematical connections, how it’s very ordered, music is very ordered. Even what we’d probably call bad music is still ordered because it’s not just noise.

Peter Kwasniewski:

Yes, exactly. So you’re pointing to a really important aspect of music as well, that the music has a rational logical structure to it. Noise, fuzz, white noise is, if you look at it on an oscilloscope, there’s no order to it, but when you hear a note, a pitch, a particular pitch, and then you hear a series of pitches that form a melody, we’re talking about tonal music, any kind of recognizable melody, even something as simple as Happy Birthday, the song, there’s a logical progression to those notes.

And each note has a relationship to the next note, whether it’s a one step or three steps or five steps, a third, a fifth, an octave. We talk about these different kinds of relationships in music, and each one of those relationships can be expressed as a mathematical ratio. And what’s fascinating is that, and this is something that goes all the way back to the Pythagoreans, the ancient Greeks are the first ones to figure this out, that the relationships or ratios of music that sound purest and most pleasing to us, namely the octave, the fifth, the fourth, these are the simplest numerical ratios.

And when you get to smaller relationships, like a half step on a scale, going from a white key to a black key on a piano, it’s a less simple ratio, 246 over 253 or whatever it might be. And what that suggests is that the things that we find consonant or harmonious or beautiful are grounded in reality. They’re not just subjective. And in my book, I actually make a big deal out of that because I argue that when you analyze music in a more philosophical way, you can see that some music is well-ordered or better ordered than other music, both in terms of its inherent structures and also in terms of whether it has a virtuous effect on us or a virtue begetting effect on us or not. So we can go into that if you’re interested.

Eric Sammons:

Yeah, actually that’s exactly what I was leading to, is that I think that the common belief of most people today, modern man, is that music is 100% subjective. Meaning that, yeah, you might not like it, but I like it. You might like classical music, but I like rap music. Or you might pop music, but I like rock or whatever the case may be. And it’s 100% subjective. There is no such thing as good music, objectively good or objectively bad, it’s just whether or not you like it. But what you’re suggesting I think is something a bit different from that. And so dive in that a little bit about how can something be objectively good or objectively bad music.

Peter Kwasniewski:

Yes. So I not only disagree with that a little bit, I disagree with that absolutely. And the whole first part of the book is my attempt to put forward every argument that I’ve ever come across or ever thought of as to why there are objective differences between different styles of music, even between different composers, and that it really has an impact on our moral and spiritual lives.

So first of all, the objection that you raise or the opinion that you described is simply a symptom of modern relativism in general. Most people think that about most things nowadays. They think it about all the arts, there’s no such thing as better or worse, there’s just how you feel about it. And C.S. Lewis was already refuting that decades ago in his book, the Abolition of Man, where he was talking about this theory that he criticized that when we say that waterfall is beautiful, we don’t mean that the thing itself is beautiful, but that it makes us feel a certain way. It makes us feel good. And that’s why we call it good.

This is pure relativism, right? Pure subjectivism. And of course that has a trajectory that goes back centuries in terms of philosophy. I mean, it goes back to Descartes and Kant and other philosophers who in a sense trapped man within his own mind and his own judgments and seemed to think that we could never really attain to objective reality. We couldn’t know the truth about things, and therefore we couldn’t know what’s good and what’s bad about things either except maybe by a hunch or a guess or by utilitarian measures. If you keep doing something and it hurts you, then it must be bad. Some kind of very blunt measure like that.

Well, getting to music in particular, here, I think what we have to look at is the effect of music on the passions or the emotions or the feelings. You could use any of those words. Because that whole tradition I talked about earlier from the Greeks down through modern philosophers, they all agree about one thing, they disagree about a lot of other things like Plato and Nietzsche disagree about a lot of things, but they do agree that music is a kind of… it’s hard to express it. Music is a moving image of our passions. Written into the spirit of the music is passions like anger or joy or sorrow or lust.

It’s not as if you can look at the music notes and find lust or sadness or joy. You can’t find it in a simplistic way. But the effect of the rhythms and the harmonies and the melodies on you stirs up those emotions. And in fact, there is a likeness. If you have music that’s very heavily driving and has a strong beat and it has sort of distorted guitars and it’s kind of a dark hue, this is music that people listen to either because they’re depressed or they want to be depressed.

And there’s something in the very character of the music that lends itself to that. And somebody who doesn’t want to feel that way would find that music repugnant. If they already feel that way, maybe they would find it consonant with them. They would feel, I don’t know, even comforted by it. But similarly, if you take a great piece of classical music and you take something like a symphony by Mozart or Beethoven or piano piece by Chopin, you will find in that piece, you can find sweetness, strength, light, elation, all kinds of, not just obvious emotions, but even subtle emotions you can find in this great music. It expresses, you might say, a great breadth of human feelings and reactions to life and to reality.

And I think this is just something we have to intuit this from experience, when you look at different subcultures, you can kind of identify the metalheads and the country music fans and the rap listeners and the classical music listeners. They have discernible traits among them. And I think what that suggests is that music is a character shaping force. It makes us somehow like itself. I do go into more detail in the book about with examples and so forth, but that’s maybe just a general answer to your question.

Eric Sammons:

And I grew up in the eighties, I was a teenager, and so I listened to what was in already called classic rock, so the 1970s and 60s and I listened to some of the 80s stuff. Now today, I can’t stand any modern music, pop music stuff like that, really. But I do, if I’m on a road trip, a lot of times I like listening to, for example, classic rock or something like that. And I often have to skip through the playlist because some of them are just so bad or whatever. But a lot of them just… So I guess my question for you is, is there something wrong with that? And it’s okay if you think, no. I’m trying to get where is the kind of the line, I’m not listening to heavy metal or some of that nasty rap music or something like that, but sometimes I’ll listen to something like The Beatles or something like that. So where is the line there?

Peter Kwasniewski:

Yeah, there’s a lot to be said about this. The first thing I want to point out is that we have seen degeneration in popular music even in the rapid span of about 50 years. I was just talking with a good friend about this. When I was in high school… And I talk about this in the book because I want people to understand that I’m not somebody who is born listening to Beethoven and attending the traditional Latin mass. I went to a liberal Novus Ordo parish and I was listening to the Beatles, The Police, U2, progressive rock bands, Genesis, Yes, whatever. I listened very widely. I listened to Steely Dan, I was into jazz. Nearly any kind of music out there. I even listened to some rap music, that was just a short period in high school because everybody else-

Eric Sammons:

I had about a year of being a Public Enemy fan. I grew out of it.

Peter Kwasniewski:

The only kind of music I never listened to at all was heavy metal. That just never had even the slight bit of appeal to me, but just about every other kind I listened to. And I was just recalling, there are some songs by The Doors, Jim Morrison, he’s in some ways in his own period, he was the ultimate bad boy and he was. He was doing drugs constantly, I’m sure he was sleeping around. He seems to have committed suicide. I think his death is shrouded in a certain amount of mystery.

But he’s a terrible example for young people, obviously. But if you listen to some of his songs, they have brass instruments in the background, and they have sophisticated harmonies and rhythms and the words are clever and sometimes even sweet. All of that is gone from pop music. That was just 50 years ago whenever The Doors were performing, I don’t remember exactly what the year was. And so I’m just saying that there’s been this tremendous decline in the quality of music even in our own lifetimes. And that should tell us something. It kind of mirrors the decline of the culture in general.

When we were kids, homosexuality was kind of a fringe phenomenon. Now we’ve got transgenderism and transhumanism and the whole culture is plummeting. And this is what I’m going to say, music is a barometer of culture. When culture is high and lofty as it was in the Middle Ages, in the Renaissance, in the Baroque period, even in the Enlightenment to a certain extent, the music that corresponded to that general culture was high. It was sophisticated, it was beautiful, it was subtle. It demanded talent and taste. It had all these characteristics. These are all human perfections. These are things that we should want to have. And it’s a problem in us if, for example, we’re capable of appreciating St. Thomas Aquinas in theology or let’s say Evelyn Waugh in literature or Charles Dickens or Shakespeare, but our musical diet is the equivalent of McDonald’s and Twinkies and soda pop, right?

So I guess I would advocate that I think that people need to elevate their cultural life in general. This is part of human perfection. It’s part of the perfection that God wants to see in us. It’s not strictly necessary for salvation, but of course there’s a point beneath which you might start to harm yourself spiritually. And it is true that lofty culture, Romano Guardini says, normally speaking, God wants the faith to be permeated with a lofty culture, right? Well, where does that come from? That also comes from a secular, lofty culture. There’s a kind of interplay that goes on here.

But you were asking me about the road trip music. I guess I want to make this claim as well, music isn’t the only moral influence in our lives. If it were the only moral influence in our lives, then I would say yes, people should absolutely stay away from certain forms of pop music because it expresses a worldview that isn’t a Catholic worldview generally. And not just the lyrics, but also something about the musical style as well.

However, we have influences from our family and friends, we have influences from our faith, from our practice of religion. We have influences of things that we’re reading and thinking about. And music is just one influence. So you could have bad taste… I’m not saying you, but one could have bad taste in music, but be surrounded by so many good influences that it wouldn’t actually harm that person very much. But there’s also a possibility, and we see this of people who in a sense throw themselves into a musical subculture, and that is actually the main determining factor in their lives. The kind of people who go into mosh pits or dance clubs or whatever, the music actually seems to be a huge influence on their character and on their lifestyles. And in that case, it would be much more dangerous, right?

Eric Sammons:

Yeah, and I think that’s a great point because it’s a little bit more of a balanced view that it’s not a matter of, okay, I listened to one song by The Beatles and now therefore I’m like destined for denying Christ one day or something like that. But I do think you see people who get very much into certain types of music, and it does impact their whole life. Like you said, kind of the culture of people really into heavy metal or into rap or country music, you can tell certain personalities and they start acting a certain way. Now, in general though, before we move on, I want to move on to sacred music here in a minute. But how would you say in general then music should be properly used in one’s life outside of the liturgy, just in normal life?

Peter Kwasniewski:

Right. So one of the things points I make is, as I was just saying earlier, that we should actually challenge ourselves to improve and cultivate and elevate our tastes in the arts and hear specifically music, because these are human perfections, because they expand the reach of our minds, they nourish our hearts, I would say. They actually just make us into fuller people. And in a way that a lot of popular forms of art, modernist, postmodernist, capitalist influenced art, tends to have the opposite effect of shrinking our emotional horizons and shrinking our mental horizons.

So in this book, I actually make very concrete recommendations about how to start your own library of classical music, where to start listening. I make lists of pieces, specific pieces. Try this piece, you might like it a lot more than you think you will. So I give almost like step-by-step instructions about how you can elevate your musical taste and your musical life. And it’s definitely possible.

I had a musical conversion in high school. I went from listening to all those groups I was mentioning before, to listening to Vivaldi and Mozart and Handel and some contemporary composers as well. It wasn’t instantaneous, but it definitely is possible. And I’ve seen it happen with college students whom I’ve taught at Wyoming Catholic College. They would come into my music course listening only to the modern music, modern bands. And I would start introducing them to everything from Gregorian chant to all the way down to Arvo Pärt and Henryk Górecki and certain modern composers and even living composers. And by the end of the semester, most of them said to me, I love this music that we’ve been listening to, and now I’m listening to it too. And enjoying it preferentially in their spare time.

So I think that this musical enrichment, it’s not an elitist thing. It’s not asking people to become snobs, that it’s not about that at all. Right? And so in terms of what role music should play in our lives, I would make two points. One is we should listen to a better, fuller, richer diet of music and not be so narrow as to confine ourselves to what’s on the radio station or on your favorite Spotify playlist or something. You should expand our horizons.

But also we should try to be musical ourselves, not just passive consumers and recipients of music from recordings, but we should, if we can, and everybody can, to some degree, we should learn how to play an instrument, or if we’ve played an instrument, we should try to get back to it. Or we should encourage music making in our families, even if it’s something as simple as singing Christmas carols at home around Christmas-time. Music should come into our lives and we should be performers and enjoyers of our own music and not just always relying on canned recordings. Does that make sense?

Eric Sammons:

Yes. Yeah, definitely. Okay, so now we’ve talked about music in regular life, but what about sacred music? Now, this is probably one of the more debatable topics in the Catholic world, is the place of music in the liturgy, particularly. I think most people would agree that over the past 50 years, there’s been some really terrible music at mass, really bad stuff. Even in parishes that I think most of us would consider good parishes, the priests are Orthodox and the people are trying to be faithful to the Lord, there can still be some really bad music.

And so I say that, but what’s that definition? I just instinctively say, it’s bad music and a lot of people instinctively say that, but they don’t even know why they think it’s bad music for mass. And so I guess the question just to start off is, what is the purpose of music in the liturgy? And then we can talk about then what makes good music in the liturgy.

Peter Kwasniewski:

Sure. Yeah. I think that we can start by observing that the reason why we’re in such a rut with music in church, Catholic Church music is that people become habituated to the music that exists, that’s been provided for them. And it sort of ossify or freezes into the way things are done. And nobody wants to rock a boat about that. And when people come in either priests or musicians, and they try to change and improve things, it upsets, it ruffles a lot of feathers. Even if there are also many people who dislike the music, there are always those who are accustomed to it and who feel somehow comforted by it. It’s kind of what they associate with church now, sadly. And so it seems to me that this is precisely because music goes into the soul as deeply as it does, as we were just talking about.

If the pastor decided to change the color of this or that paint scheme in the church, people probably wouldn’t care that much as long as it wasn’t fluorescent or something really obviously offensive. But change the music, and boy, you’ve got World War III on your hands. So this is what we often experience. But the underlying problem is that most Catholics, and this includes the clergy, they’ve studied neither what the church teaches about liturgical music and there’s an extensive body of teaching, and I cite it frequently in the book in part two, and haven’t studied church history, so they don’t understand how liturgical music developed and why it developed the way that it did.

What the church teaches about music is quite simply this. It is supposed to be the handmaid of the liturgy that is, it’s supposed to serve the general purposes of the liturgy, which are the glorification of God and the sanctification and edification of the faithful. And more specifically, it’s supposed to do that by giving to God the best we can and giving to ourselves what is going to conduce to adoration, contrition, supplication, thanksgiving, praise, and basically to meditation. That is to being put in a meditative frame of mind so that we can lift our minds and hearts to almighty God.

And even if you just start there, you can see a couple of things. First, that to create second rate, folksy pop diddies for church is not giving God the best we can give him, it’s giving him trash, frankly, in a lot of cases. I say trash on the basis of anybody who knows anything about how to write a piece of music and about what church music should be. But secondly, the musical styles that are so frequently found in the churches, they’re kind of directed towards getting the people excited or worked up or somehow tapping their toes or entertaining them. And all of that is completely contrary to the quieting and instilling of the mind and the lifting up of the mind to God in prayer. So basically, a lot of the styles of music we see are actually antithetical to the liturgy and to the purpose of music in the liturgy.

Eric Sammons:

It seems like in the Catholic Church, at least in America, and probably in Europe as well, I would guess, there are three general types of church music you have. You have the really bad kind, which is just the 1970s Marty Haugen type diddies that I think everybody who’s watching this probably just recognizes that those are problematic. On the other end of the spectrum, you have Gregorian chant, your beautiful hymns, classic hymns, things like that. But then there is that middle part, which I think is probably the most controversial, which is what I think the general term would just be praise and worship music.

So I know I went to Steubenville, and so you have the music there where the lyrics are orthodox, the intention behind them really are to worship God. But I know there’d be many, and I personally, I don’t want to really go to a mass with that anymore, and there are many good people though, who are, yeah, that’s a good type of music for mass. I know you talk about praise and worship in the book, so I just want to ask you then, what is your kind of view of praise and worship music and its place in the liturgy?

Peter Kwasniewski:

So I argue in the book that it has absolutely no place in the liturgy. And the reason for that is, again, this is something that I get from Joseph Ratzinger, and Ratzinger is in a way my guiding light on many of these questions because he wrote so profoundly about sacred music, he understood it deeply and wrote about it brilliantly. But he points out that in sacred music Logos, which means word, reason, and is of course the name given by St. John, the evangelist to the second person who blessed of Trinity in the beginning was the word the Logos. That Logos should have primacy. And that means two things. First, that the words themselves should have a kind of primacy and what those words are traditionally in church music are words of scripture.

Sometimes you can find non-scriptural texts, but probably 95% of the time when you’re talking about the Gregorian chant for mass, the words are taken straight from scripture. So it’s God words. It’s not, ooh, ah, I love you, Jesus, ooh, ah. It’s not this kind of very sappy emotional stuff that barely rhymes and has almost no content to it except… It’s like Hallmark greeting cards. It’s a dumbed down kind of music. It doesn’t give primacy to the divinely revealed Logos. And then connected with that is just the emotionalism that goes along with this style of music.

It’s music that throws us back on ourselves at our emotions, and it causes us to confuse an emotional high or even an emotional comfort with actually worshiping God and being sanctified. Well, those are not the same things. All of the great spiritual masters will often say, we are most being sanctified when we’re in a dark night when it’s dry as dust, when God is putting us through the furnace of difficulty and doubt, that’s when we’re most sanctified, not when we have comforts and when we have warm fuzzy feelings.

And similarly, the object of worship is to go out of ourselves towards God, not to be thrown back into our emotional lives so that we start to think that because we feel a high when we sing praise and worship music, therefore we’re holy, or we’re actually doing what is pleasing to God. That’s a dangerous assumption and a dangerous parallel. And we know from experience, like talking to charismatic Catholics that the idea of having an emotional high with the way we worship is something that can wear out pretty quickly. Some people, it wears out quickly, some people it lasts longer.

But a lot of charismatic types, if I can just use that as a shorthand expression, they sort of feel the need after a while to graduate to something deeper and something more stable and something less emotive. For example, Eucharistic adoration, quiet, silent, Eucharistic adoration. Or even the Tridentine Mass. There’s that famous article at First Things, which if anybody listening to this hasn’t read it, they should go and read it. It’s called Tradismatic Trentecostals. It’s a funny article. It’s written by somebody who went to Steubenville, talking about how big of an appeal the traditional Latin mass has for charismatics.

And one of the points he makes is they may still enjoy singing their peppy guitar music when they’re hanging out having a Bible study or when they’re sitting around a campfire. And I’m not going to argue against that. I still don’t think it’s very good music, but I’m not going to argue against it necessarily. But when they go to church, they realize we are in the awesome presence of Christ himself, our Lord, our King, our God. What is appropriate now is to fall on our faces in adoration and not to whip out the guitars and start strumming them. That’s not the appropriate response to the burning bush, to Mount Sinai. And Gregorian chant, which we can get into in a moment. Chant is music that bows down and worships, right. That’s what it does.

Eric Sammons:

Yeah. Well, I think the article, wasn’t that written by Clem Harrold?

Peter Kwasniewski:

Yes, exactly.

Eric Sammons:

Yeah. He’s a friend of mine. I remember that. That was a great one. I think you’ve already kind of answered this, but I wanted to ask just specifically, there’s a big argument for cultural importance in the mass. So for example, people say, well, in Africa, you see African types of music at the mass, and this seems to be a very good thing. And likewise, in America, you could see in different cultural communities, you would have certain type of music at mass. So why is it that you seem to be arguing for a more universal language, musical language at mass, and what is your argument against the cultural level of music that people are familiar with and part of their culture at mass?

Peter Kwasniewski:

Right. So really you’re raising the question of enculturation, is the technical term that would be used for it. In other words, the need or the desire to enculturate a liturgy into the local customs and arts of people, right? Well, there are a lot of things that can be said about that, but the first thing is an anthropological fact, which is that in every religion, and now this is true not only of every branch of Christianity, apostolic and sacramental branch, Eastern and Western, but also every religion, simply speaking, whether it’s far Eastern or Judaism or Islam or whatever, all religions have chant as their most basic kind of religious music. Why is that?

Because generally, chant is monophonic. That means it’s one voice. It’s something that can be sung either by a soloist or by a group of people singing in unison. And it’s a style of music that is suited to pronouncing or announcing words, namely the sacred words of the ceremony, whatever the religious ceremony is. And it might be the words of sacred scripture or whatever the words are of the ceremony. And so the chanting of sacred texts is the most basic form of music in liturgy, and that’s what Gregorian chant is to a very highly developed degree, more highly developed than any other chant tradition in the world of any religion.

And so that is something that goes deeper than any one given culture. Chant itself Catholic, let’s say Western Latin chant was born out of a confluence of Hebrew chanting and Latin, Roman and Greek music. So Hebrew, Roman and Greek, basically Jerusalem, Athens and Rome, all of those strands came together to form the base of Gregorian chant. So it’s already quite multicultural in its origins. And as it developed, it was simply the music of the Catholic Church wherever it went. It didn’t matter what country you were in, what tribe. Remember, Medieval Europe was made up of all these different tribes that all spoke different languages and had very little to do with each other genetically, but they were all chanting the mass and the liturgy of the hours using somewhat the same chant. There were regional variations of it. So I guess you could say there was a pluralism, but it was fundamentally Gregorian chant as we would recognize it today.

And when the missionaries took that music to Central America and South America in the 16th century, when they took it to Africa in the 19th century, all of the Native people grabbed onto that. They loved it, and they used it themselves. It did not come to them… It wasn’t like petty coats and gray wigs and Mozart operas. It’s just this fundamental, beautiful chant that goes with religious ceremonial that any people, any race, any culture, can absorb and appreciate.

So that’s what I’m saying, Cardinal Sarah talks about how there are tons of people in Ghana to this day who have whole chant masses memorized, and they can just whip them out at mass. They still sing them with gusto today, even after Vatican II, even after the Novus Ordo was imposed. You see what I’m getting at here is it’s a false alternative to say, Gregorian chant is something western and European, but the Africans, they need drumming and whatever they’re going to do that’s different. No, I even think that’s a subtle form of racism, personally.

The Zaire right, let’s just be frank about this, the African enculturated rights were designed by European liturgists. This has all been documented. You can read about it on New Liturgical Movement. If you search African enculturation, you’ll find it. It was Belgian theologians who were thinking to themselves, what would these black African Catholics really like? Well, they would really like rhythmic music with drums, so let’s make sure they get some of that in their mass. It wasn’t the Africans who were saying, oh, no, we don’t want to have Gregorian chant anymore, please give us enculturated music. So there’s a big lie that’s been put forth to defend enculturation, when really it’s been a top-down in position in a lot of cases from liturgists who study at, say, Sant’Anselmo in Rome. They’re the ones who think that everybody needs to have their localized rituals and music.

Eric Sammons:

You explain well, the chant, I didn’t know that it was in all religious, basically serve all religions have some form of chant, and the formation of the Gregorian chant. Now, of course, the Vatican II called for the primacy, something about the Gregorian chant in encouraged it in the mass, and it is used in the west. In the east, they of course, do chant, but it’s not Gregorian chant, as I understand it, I’m showing a little bit of my ignorance here, not knowing exactly. So what is it specifically about Gregorian chant that makes it stand out to get such a high place in liturgical music and in the church?

Peter Kwasniewski:

Yes. When we’re talking about the eastern chant, you can just say Byzantine chant, or even more specifically, you could talk about Ruthenian chant, you can talk about Coptic chant, right? So basically every ritual family has its own style of chanting, but they have common characteristics. Usually the chant is composed in different modes, many different modes, which mean it’s tricky to try to… I don’t want to be too technical about this, but a mode is a certain combination of whole steps and half steps in a scale. And the mode that you’re using gives a certain flavor or character to the emerging melody that uses that set of notes.

So just maybe a really concrete example, because everybody knows what a piano looks like. If you play a melody just using white keys, that’s going to have one sound. And if you just played the black keys, that’s going to have quite a different sound. The black keys by themselves, that would be called the pentatonic scale. It’s a scale of five notes. So in chant, most types of chant have multiple modes like this. Gregorian chant has eight modes, and these eight modes, they have a lot of subtle differences, and even not so subtle differences between them, which make the melodies of chant sound to our modern Western ears often rather strange, because we don’t use these modes anymore, or at least we don’t use many of these modes. We use a couple of them, you could say, because a couple of them became the major minor keys historically, but a lot of these modes we don’t use anymore.

So chant has a strange sound because of its modes, and that actually makes it well suited for the activity of worship, because it makes it different from secular music. It makes it sound different. When we go into a church and we hear the chanting begin, we know right away I’m in a church. Just like when we see the priest come out with a beautiful chasable, and when he takes out this shining gold chalice, suddenly it’s like we are not in ordinary life anymore. We are in the heavenly realm. And so the chants modes contribute to that.

But also the chants free rhythm contributes to that sense of specialness. In all later western music from the Renaissance onwards, the composers work with a time signature. In other words, X number of beats per measure. And why do they do that? Well, because if you’re trying to coordinate multiple musicians, they all have to know what beat we’re on so we can all stay together, especially in the moment you get music in parts, multiple voices, multiple instruments, you have to start counting and say, okay, now we’re going to count four beats per measure or however many beats per measure it’s going to be.

Gregorian chant is monophonic, as I said before, it’s one long melodic line, and its rhythm is determined by the rhythm of the words. Since the words of scripture are not in a meter, it’s not like metrical poetry like Iambic pentameter, it’s just whatever combination of short and long syllables, the word happens to be in. The chant that follows these words is metrically irregular. You can’t tap your foot to it. It kind of floats along like a bird in the sky. And so that meandering, free floating, non-metrical feeling of chant is also very different. It’s different from any other kind of music that we have in the west.

Another thing I guess I would point to about chant is, it’s anonymity. We don’t know, for the most part, who wrote these chants. These chants were composed by anonymous monks, cannons, priests, bishops, who knows who they were over a period of a thousand years. And so it also has a wonderful humility to it. We can’t say, oh, it was Marty Haugen who wrote this particular piece, right? No, it just comes to us from the depths, the myths of antiquity. So it has a kind of chastity and humility about it, I would say, a kind of purity, right? Self-effacement, right, the chant is there just to proclaim the word of God and to put us in a meditative and adoring frame of mind. It’s not there to draw attention to itself, like a performance of entertainment music. Those are just some characteristics and among others that make Gregorian chant peculiarly suited for liturgical music.

Eric Sammons:

Yeah, it is. Something I’ve noticed and I’ve grown in noticing it over the past 10 years or so, is that sense of when you walk into certain churches, you know immediately you’re in a church, and other times you don’t. And the three things I always notice are the sights, does it look like a church or does it look like an airplane hangar? The smell, if it smells like incense, it immediately makes it, but also the sounds, the music. Does it sound like a bad piano bar in the 70s, or does it sound like something heavenly?

And I think that as soon as you hear that Gregorian chant, I think just subconsciously you’re, okay, this is not, quote-unquote, the real world for lack of a better way of putting it. I’m not walking down the street in the bar district or something like that.

Peter Kwasniewski:

Right. Yeah. I really want to clarify this point, because sometimes when people say the sorts of things that we’re saying right now, it’s easy to think that we’re being overly spiritualizing, that we’re somehow saying the material world’s a bad thing and we should try to escape from it. It sounds like a form of escapism. When we go into church, we’re just ignoring the real world and all the problems and sufferings of the real world, whatever. No, this is not what we’re talking about.

We fallen human beings have a tendency to be materialists. You could say, a fallen human being is a materialist, namely, they think material reality is more real than spiritual reality. Well, let me tell you, it’s not. God is infinitely more real than anything that exists in the cosmos, from the highest angel to the least subatomic particle and our soul, our intellectual soul, which is immortal and will survive the death of the separation from the body that we call death, that soul is way more real than my body and your body and all of the books that are surrounding me and everything in the world.

So what we need to do in a way, because we tend to be materialistic in our perceptions and our desires, we need to bend the stick backwards, bend it the opposite direction, so that when we’re in church, which we don’t do that often, even if we go every day, we are reminded of the ultimate spiritual realities, our mortal soul, almighty God, the blessed Virgin Mary, all the angels and saints. Sin, grace, all these things are invisible, but more real than the visible things.

And so that’s the sense in which say the Byzantine liturgy sings in the famous hymn, now set aside all earthly cares. Let us set aside all earthly cares, namely, let’s not have our minds back in the world of business and commerce and entertainment and recreation and whatever, indulgence. Now we’re here to adore God, and so we have to sort of pull ourselves or have ourselves be pulled in the opposite direction to our normal tendencies. That’s not escapism, that’s just a sane and healthy balance and realism in life, right?

Eric Sammons:

Yeah, spiritual directors have always recommended going on retreat usually once a year, something like that. And I feel like in a way, mass should be a mini retreat in the sense that you are escaping, so to speak, because you need that to kind of recharge your batteries and nothing else, but more importantly, to worship God and put him first, because naturally, because of just what we need to do in the world, we don’t think of God first always, but it would do that.

Now, I want to just move to practical real quick, and that is, okay, so obviously if you go to a traditional Latin Mass, you’re going to get the type of music we’re talking about. But I think though there are at least some regular Novus Ordo parishes, diocesan parishes that are trying to implement this type of music or want to. If a pastor is listening to this, or even layperson, how do you transition to this type of music in a regular diocese in parish?

Peter Kwasniewski:

Yes, and I’m glad you asked that question because I really want to make it clear to everyone who’s listening to this interview that this book is not just written for traditionalists. In fact, I was very careful not to write it in such a way that it might seem to be that way. Obviously, I talk in passing about… I talk about the traditional at mass, I talk about the Byzantine liturgy, I talk about the Novus Ordo, that’s all in the mix, but the focus of this music is on why beautiful music is important and why we have to clean up our act when it comes to sacred music in church. That’s what it’s about. And also somewhat about silence too, but we might have to leave that part unspoken if we run out of time anyway.

So I have a chapter, for example, on a practical program for musical restoration. Here are the steps you can take. Here’s why we should take these steps. Here’s how they could be explained to people. I wasn’t born yesterday. I understand that changes like this are difficult and they require clear and comprehensible reasons to be given. I do think a lot of Catholics, not all, but I think a lot of Catholics will respond to good arguments if they’re made.

Heck, that’s the reason I write books, because I want to equip people with good arguments. If you want to know why chant is the best liturgical music, I’ve got a whole chapter on that subject in here. If you want to know why pipe organ is the right instrument for church and not piano and not guitar, I give you a chapter on that giving all the reasons both from the magisterium and just from philosophy and theology.

So there are arguments and there are ways to formulate those arguments in homilies or in bulletin columns that can prepare people for changes and for transitions. I’m also not naive. I understand that we’re in a very tense period in church history where even the best ideas and initiatives of pastors can get shot down by their bishops. And this is a terrible situation because as I’ve heard you talk about, Eric, it’s almost as if we have a system in place that is determined to maintain mediocrity. Like whatever we do, if anybody sticks his head higher than anybody else’s, boom, it’s going to get locked off. It’s like there’s a machine to do this.

So I’m not saying it’s easy, but I also do know dozens and dozens of cases of parishes that have improved their sacred music over the years right up to the present, it is possible. It’s not easy, but it’s possible. The other thing I want to mention is I have a bibliography in this book where I give practical suggestions about… Let me just go here. I have a whole list of websites with useful resources about Gregorian chant, vernacular chant, where you can find good hymns, free pipe organ music, on and on and on. I’ve got all these references in here. So this is definitely meant to be not just a theoretical book, but also a practical one.

Eric Sammons:

Yeah, definitely, I would encourage, especially a pastor, maybe a new pastor who knows the music isn’t that great, but also knows the political minefield it would be to make changes to it. If you get this book or if you’re a layperson and you know your pastor wants that, then get the book for him to just help on the practical steps of, okay, it’s not going to happen overnight, it’s not going to be like one Sunday you’re doing Marty Haugen, next Sunday you’re doing good full Gregorian chant, but you can move towards a more worshipful, a better sacred music.

So yeah, the book is a title, Good Music, Sacred Music and Silence. We don’t have a lot of time, but let’s silently meditate on the last note. But you bring up silence though, as that’s obviously one of your three things, and that might seem a little bit odd that we’re talking about on one hand, noise, I know that’s not what music is, but it’s not silence technically speaking, yet they’re connected. And so why don’t you just speak briefly though on why did you include silence as a whole section in this book about music?

Peter Kwasniewski:

Yes. I was inspired by a comment of Joseph Ratzinger, which I quote in here, I can’t find it, I was looking for it, but I can give the gist of it. He says that the greatest music… and he’s speaking not just about sacred music, although that’s the most obvious example, “The greatest music arises out of a certain kind of silence and it leads to certain kind of silence.” What does he mean by that? I think what he means is that if you’re going to say something in music that’s beautiful and profound, and we have thanks be to God, we have hundreds, thousands of examples of such pieces of music from our tradition, from hundreds of years of repertoire. You have to have a certain depth of soul. There has to be a silence there, a space of earnest and serious thought and engagement with reality and with the reality of yourself and reality of God and the world out of which this music can emerge.

Nothing great is like an instant just add water phenomenon. There’s no formula that produces a great work of music. It has to come out of a deep meditation and a deep soul really. I just don’t know how else to say it. And similarly, a great piece of music, and I’ve experienced this in concerts, at the end of it, people will be in this sort of state of awe, like wow. And then a few seconds later, the applause begins, right? Because it’s brought them to this kind of, almost like this abyss of wonder and amazement and exultation and applause almost seems like a trivial thing to do, but you have to because you want to show your appreciation. But in a way, you’ve been brought to this edge that the edge of what we can express humanly.

We run out of words because words can only say so much. And we even run out of music because music can only say so much. We get to this threshold. Ultimately, it’s the threshold of the infinite and the eternal of God himself that all great music is pointing towards. And that leaves us speechless, it leaves us breathless. And with sacred music in particular with Gregorian chant, a chant seems to emerge from stillness. It just sort of starts beginning. It’s almost like you don’t even notice it, it’s just like, oh, wow, there’s this chant going on. Where did that come from?

It didn’t start with a clash of cymbals. It starts almost like it emerges organically from the ground, and then when the chant is over, it vanishes again into the surrounding prayerful silence. And so it’s really marvelous. And I’ve seen this countless times in experience how chant and silence in the liturgy go hand in glove. They fit each other so well. And you don’t get that sense with a lot of today’s contemporary church music where it’s like it’s noisy. It starts up and it kind of shatters the silence. And then when it’s over, it’s almost like a bad hangover. It’s like, okay, this just ended and now what? So it kind of draws attention to itself and to the performance of it in a way that is quite different from how true sacred music should function.

Eric Sammons:

Yeah, I would encourage people who haven’t. I find that the song Latin mass… so for those who aren’t really familiar with this, what I’m talking about, it’s sometimes called the high mass and essentially traditional Latin mass, but there is singing included with it. And often the choir is singing separate from what the priest is saying. But what I find beautiful about it is there is this beautiful balance between sacred music and silence during the mass. Even during the sung mass where everything is sung in a sense, you have, for example, during the Roman cannon when the priest is doing the consecration and that part, it’s complete silence.

And typically, at least in my experience, when you go to a sung mass or song mass, it’s usually complete silence before and after mass as well. There’s not talking in the congregation, anything like that. And I just find that there’s something about that, that beautiful balance that it almost oscillates in a sense. And you have this silence and music combination that… I’m not very good at explaining this, I’ll be the first to admit, but there’s something about it that I just find very beautiful and does lift one’s heart to the worship of God. And I think that of course, that’s what the intention of it is to do, because it has this silent adoration, but also it gets to the point where you want to say something, and so you sing out your adoration, your praise to God.

And so that just something I wanted to throw out there as a recommendation for somebody who’s listening to us who might not have ever gone to a sung mass if you have the opportunity to go to a sung traditional mass. Low mass has its virtues as well, I’m not denigrating that, obviously, but I just encourage people to, if you live very far away, for example, find a Sunday and go to one. And I think you’ll see it instantaneously. It’s not like something you need to go a bunch of times just to recognize that part of it.

Peter Kwasniewski:

Right, exactly.

Eric Sammons:

Okay, so we’re going to wrap it up there, but I want to encourage people, so from Tan Publishers, I will put a link in the description for people so they can get directly from Tan. Obviously you can get it at Amazon, stuff like that. But I encourage people to always get from the publisher or from the author directly, but Good Music, Sacred Music and Silence: Three Gifts of God for Liturgy and for Life by Peter Kwasniewski. And also, I’ll put a link into your personal website. Can people buy it from your website or should they buy it from Tan?

Peter Kwasniewski:

So people can actually get it from my publishing company, which is called Os Justi Press. If you go there, you can find my books as well. That’s just a temporary expedient until I have a personal website that can do book orders. But anyway, so Os Justi or Tan or Amazon, et cetera.

Eric Sammons:

Okay. And I’ll put links in, not to Amazon, but to the other one.

Peter Kwasniewski:

Yes, I understand.

Eric Sammons:

Well, thank you very much for coming on today, Peter, I really appreciate it always. I probably learned the most myself when I’m interviewing you, so I always like it when you come on because I come out with, oh hey, this is something I didn’t know. It’s great.

Peter Kwasniewski:

That’s so kind of you to say, thank you very much.

Eric Sammons:

Okay everybody, until next time, God love you.

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