Music, a Road to Faith:
I. The Transforming Power of Music

hymn, church music, chant

 “This so-called ‘music,’ they would have to concede, is in some way efficacious to humans. Yet it has no concepts, and makes no propositions; it lacks images, symbols, the stuff of language. It has no power of representation. It has no relation to the world.”  Oliver Sacks, The Power of Music ¹

“Sing unto the LORD with the harp; with the harp, and the voice of a psalm.  With trumpets and sound of cornet make a joyful noise before the LORD, the King.” Psalm 98:5,6 (KJV)

“Did you write the book of love,
And do you have faith in God above,

If the Bible tells you so? 

Do you believe in rock n’roll, 

Can music save your mortal soul?

Don McLean, American Pie


I have been instructed by my spiritual director to study “De Musica Sacra et Sacra Liturgia, Instruction on Sacred Music and Sacred Liturgy,” issued by the Sacred Congregation for Rites in 1958.   Before giving my reflections on this document, I thought it appropriate to retell how music has shaped my devotion to the Church.  There will be links to my favorite music: liturgical, hymns and other. I’d be grateful if readers would note in comments their favorite music. (See here for an early account.)

I won’t say much about the psychology of music or how music affects the brain. A lot of work has been done in functional imaging, but I’m not sure we know much more now than when Pythagoras noted the beautiful mathematical relations between harmonious intervals. However, for those interested in pursuing the subject, references are given below².

In the second article I’ll discuss in a general way music as part of the liturgy, the good, the bad and the indifferent.  I’ll try to connect this discussion with the document of 1958 (and is that prescription followed now?). And now, to my own experience.


My first encounter with the power of music in liturgy came at a 40 Hours devotional service. (See Top Down to Jesus) . I had been preparing for entry into the Church, and although on rational grounds I had come to believe in the Resurrection and its implications, there was an important dogma I found  difficult to understand, transubstantiation, the change of the substance of the host into the body of Christ. As the monstrance was carried in during the procession of the 40 Hours service, Pange Lingua was played, and I read in the missal

“Præstet fides supplementum, Sensuum defectui.”

Enough of my high school Latin came back, “faith will supplement the deficiency of the senses,” and I realized in my heart, that the wafer, the host, was the body of Christ, that it was mystery beyond science and philosophy, and my eyes filled with tears.   I must emphasize that it was the music and the situation that moved me.

Other liturgical music has struck to my heart in ways no homily or theological text seems to do. During my first Easter Vigil Mass  The Litany of the Saints was played, and an overwhelming vision of the history of the Church and all its holy people came to me. During  Vespers at St. Vincent Archabbey (attended during retreat as a Benedictine Oblate) or Evensong services at  the St. Thomas More Anglican Usage Parish, a great peace and understanding comes over me as I listen to the strong voices chanting the psalms.


Other music, not  liturgical — Bach (the B minor Mass,  Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring), Mozart’s Requiem, Ralph Vaughan William’s Dona Nobis Pacem —  will bring me to thoughts of God. Hymns that I want to be played at my funeral have made their mark: Amazing GraceShall We Gather by the River,  Jerusalem my Happy HomeThe Lord of the Dance (old and corny pieces from evangelical churches, for the most part).

And there are those I have played with the instrumental group at Church: It is Well with my Soul, Panis AngelicusMozart’s Ave VerumThe King of Love My Shepherd IsOld 100th and so many others.  (I played the alto clarinet, not well, but enough to provide harmony–a bass voice, since I can’t sing on key.)


One thing should be clear: it isn’t the music by itself that is moving, but the total situation: liturgy, congregation, and the words. I could read

“Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound,That saved a wretch like me.I once was lost but now am found,Was blind, but now I see.T’was Grace that taught my heart to fear.And Grace, my fears relieved.How precious did that Grace appearThe hour I first believed.” Liberty Lyrics John Newton

It would be moving, but it is the combination of the words that reflect my own experience AND the music that brings me to tears of joy. I could read the verses of Tantum Ergo and Pange Lingua, but it would not be meaningful without the presence of Christ’s body, the procession, the Benediction, and the congregation sharing this experience.


Am I being overly sentimental and not truly devoted to the austere beauty of liturgy in my reaction to such music–too catholic (with a lower-case c)? Some Church liturgists might think so.

“It is not surprising that Church leaders have doubted whether the feelings which music arouses are truly religious.  Music’s power to fan the flames of piety may be more apparent than real…”Anthony Storr, Music and the Mind   

The Hebrews did not worry about music being a distraction from devotion to the Lord. David danced in the procession to the altar and the psalms say “Sing to the Lord a new song, play the lute, the lyre and the harp, sound the trumpets”. St. Augustine, entranced by music, was concerned that this power might enable the senses to overcome the intellect in worship:

“So I waver between the danger that lies in gratifying the senses and the benefits which, as I know, can accrue from singing….I am inclined to approve of the custom of singing in church, in order that by indulging the ears weaker spirits may be inspired  with feelings of devotion. Yet when I find the singing itself more moving than the truth  which it conveys, I confess it is a grievous sin, and at those times I would prefer not to hear the singer(emphasis added)” St. Augustine, Confessions

The last sentence in the quote is the foundation for the expulsion of music from the Church in Calvinist sects (read “The Warden” by Anthony Trollope). I cannot subscribe to that view. I am one of St. Augustine’s weaker spirits. I believe God gave many many gifts to man in giving him intelligence: language, mathematics, art, and most valuable, music.

Music has the power to heal the soul (as Oliver Sacks shows in Musicophilia) and to bring one closer to God. We give joy to God when we rejoice in music, not only to praise Him, but to rejoice in life (l’Chaim).


¹This quote, to show what a strange gift  music is, comes from Arthur C. Clarke’s classic “Childhood’s End”, in which an alien species comes to guide mankind from childhood to maturity.   The very intelligent aliens do not understand the power of music.    They go to a concert,  listen politely and come away wondering.


Robert Jourdain, Music, the Brain and Ecstasy: How Music Captures Our Imagination

Oliver Sacks, Musicophilia, Tales of Music and the Brain

Anthony Storr, Music and the Mind


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6 thoughts on “Music, a Road to Faith: <br>I. The Transforming Power of Music”

  1. Well, Being a trained church musician,I’d like to add a bit of professionalism to the subject.
    Their is a definite separation between REAL sacred music and secular style which is now prevalent in the Roman Church. Most unfortunately, the clergy have NO study and little knowledge of sacred music, so essentially, they allow almost anything.
    The text of some the modern songs(they are generally, not hymns) is frighteningly self-centered. Many do not mention Jesus, Christ, God et al.
    Read the text of “All are welcome” as compared to “Praise to the Lord’. All are welcome is speaking to the people, Praise to the Lord speaks to… THE LORD in worship. Read the texts for yourself and compare. The difference between a ‘praise band’ and a rock group in many cases is nill. Almost 2000 years of established Sacred music have been abandoned by most. Who are you REALLY trying to please?

    1. Thank you Denuta for your insightful comment. Although I am not a trained musician, I agree. And it is amazing that even though a priest may be trained musically, they might not exercise their training or taste to choose appropriate music for the liturgy.

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  4. I currently am reading a Taft book about the way the Byzantines saw Liturgy. The amount of singing in it is astounding. One antiphon took three hours in one portion of a Liturgy. The people knew the tune and the words (which is critical).

    I personally recovered from a bout of depression while listening to oldies. It’s the melody that speaks to me.

    1. Thank you Fr. Bauer for your comment. The melody speaks to me also. And it’s a shame that many hymns composed recently, like much of modern popular music, lack that essential ingredient.

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