Characteristics of music that is good for congregations?
  • Dear members,

    I am starting a list of general criteria that make music conducive to congregational singing. At one end of the spectrum is, say, the Penderecki Magnificat, probably one of the hardest pieces of vocal music yet written. At the other end would be the two-note “Amen”.

    In between these two extremes, what qualities make for music that congregations can learn and sing easily?
  • Metrical, repetitive, predictable, and super familiar. It's not a standard that we can use to select music, in my view. Catholics have never been big singers. The advent of pop music in church made people feel ridiculous singing and that's gone on for 40 years to the point that Catholics have virtually no voice at all. I'm increasingly coming to the conclusion that we just have to learn to live with this reality.

    And yet there is one major exception to this, in our experience: Psalm tones. People really do sing them and well. This is why we set the weekly Psalm to a simple tone, and use them for other other propers when we use English.
  • Clever & beautiful construction of melody makes the cong. want to sing. They love chant, if it is well done. It is so catchy: whether a simple ALLELUIA or whatever it is. Then again, there are chants that the cong. will never be able to learn, like the Offertories.
  • G
    Posts: 1,387
    A catchy rhythm, and you can dance to it!
    Ooops, sorry, I was channeling my aunt on American Bandstand. (I doubt any one here is old enough to remember that....)

    Limited range.
    Good prosody, especially in vernacular.
    In metric hymns, a melody that uses primarily triadic or stepwise motion, (non musicians should not have to pick sevenths out of the air.)
    If there are chromatic notes they should be a result of harmonic underpinnings, not just added "'cause wouldn't a blue note be kinda fun here?" (which is how far too many accidentals in modern sacchro-pop sound."
    Even periods. Consistent meter.
    Rhythmic subdivisions of the meter should be consistent, not now even eighth notes, now triplets, now a Scottish snap (although maybe snaps should be banned entirely...)

    I'm not a composer so I don't know how this last is achieved, but there is a quality to GREAT melodies, melodies that everyone can pick up but that "wear well," that they sound both unexpected AND inevitable.

    (Save the Liturgy, Save the World)
  • francisfrancis
    Posts: 8,230
    I think we as the musicians are way too concerned about getting the PIPs to sing. However, I think it is best for the church to have them sing simple chant ordinaries and psalm settings, and then the choir has the more elaborate music. If I had a preference, it would be to get away from all protestant/anglican hymns altogether, even though they are easy to sing and are even quite musical. They seem too detached from the true spirit of the liturgy in general.
  • In addition to the above characteristics, I would like to add: Stepwise Motion.

    I notice that Gregorian chant's largest interval leaps are fifths and fourths, and almost always are followed by motion in the opposite direction or a sustaining/repetition of the 'destination note' (technical term escapes me at the moment).
  • GavinGavin
    Posts: 2,799
    I suppose I would have to point out that there's different levels of "goodness". If you're talking about something that will get a good response on the first shot, I'd suggest much the same as the above:
    -Duple meter (4/4 or 2/2)
    -Pentatonic melody
    -Simple vernacular text
    -Repetition of motifs (AABA is good)

    However, if you're just talking music that is good for congregations to sing, I suppose I'd expand it:
    -Any non-mixed meter (no 7/8!) either by time signature or function (dotted dotted quarter)
    -Melody is not so important as the harmony leading it well.
    -Text is not an issue
    -Repetition need not be an issue.

    Of course, the first list is for things to do on a Sunday-by-Sunday basis when the congregation largely doesn't know the hymn. The second is just a general list for any hymns which the congregation should know.
  • David AndrewDavid Andrew
    Posts: 1,191
    What we think and what is true might (might) be different.

    That being said, I think the following sets forth what I have noticed (and in order):

    1) AABA structure (or some reasonable facsimile thereof)

    2) Fairly straight, if not downright regular, rhythm. (quarter and half-note motion)

    3) Although diatonic or triadic note motion is certainly the easiest, think of the coal miners in Wales belting out "O God, Our Help in Ages Past," which has some rather erratic motion and leaps. Seems to me that only Catholic whine about things being in the "wrong" key (you know, "This is too hiiiiiigh. . . .I can't sing that hiiiiiiigh. Can't you just dial down the transposer?" Yet they'll scream their bloody brains out on "I Am the Bread of Life" which has a range that rivals our own National Anthem.)

    4) Solid poetic texts that are beautiful, that don't have unpredictable words or rhyme schemes that will cause people to get tongue-tied. An example doesn't come to mind, but I'm sure they exist.

    JulesVanNuffel's comment about the concept of "cleverness." Seems to me that any of the really solid hymn tunes (I'm talking the Anglican tradition here in particular) aren't particularly clever. Beauty I'll buy.

    Of course, the other side of this is, the congregation won't sing well if the ORGANIST can't KEEP A BEAT or KNOW HOW TO BREATHE for phrases or KNOW HOW TO PUT THE RIGHT NUMBER OF PREDICTABLE BEATS IN at the end of each verse. But that's a separate issue. One that I'm passionate about. Can you tell?
  • KISS Rule, folks! Ala Benedict's Spirit of the Liturgy and Prof. Mahrt's mantra:
    Beauty, beauty, beauty.......
    Aside from the treasury of chants (such as Jeffrey's lovely paean to "Laetabimur") I believe clear distinctions, or rankings of hymntunes' inherent beauty can be assessed beyond the specific constructs offered rightly above. We''ve discussed ENGELBERG to EBENEZER over time, but sometimes we all just know that certain tunes are simply superior. I would cite THAXTED, DIX, KINGSFOLD, FINLANDIA, even HYFERDOL as each quite distinctive in their elements, but the whole of the tune superior to others to my taste, repeat my taste (ST. ANNE, ST. THOMAS...) OTOH, some tunes are beautiful to a fault and to many, inaccessible: SALVE FESTE DIES, ST. PATRICK'S BREASTPLATE, SINE NOMINE. That doesn't mean never use them, but employ them sparingly and with intent and care.
  • Rather than trying to point out characteristics of music that is good for congregations, why don't we let the congregations tell us themselves? By this I mean - What are the hymns or other pieces of music that your congregation just "belts out"? I mean - what does your congregation really SING!! When you've made a list of these, take a look at the characteristics of the music. I'm not talking about anything as superficial as "style" here - I'm talking about deeper structural characteristics - Contour, intervals, diminution (in the Schenkerian sense of the term), range, tonality, word setting (how melismatic is too melismatic) etc. What I am saying is that we should look to the "abstract" characteristics of such music that make it "singable" - What are the most popular tunes that people remember (sacred and secular)? Why? The same kinds of examinations could be made of true folk music and other styles of choral music. This may be as much as study of music psychology as it is musical structure. To me, this examination should bring out the "raw materials" that are useful for music that is accessible - Just like a piece of marble out of the quarry, it will depend on how the sculptor sculpts as to whether we end up with a statue of Michelangelo's David, or Venus de Milo.

    Maybe when we understand the "abstract" characteristics of congregational music better, we may fuse them with a particular style to make what Rachmaninov would call "conscious counterfeits." e.g. More "accessible" chant settings of the Mass Proper and Ordinary.

    Why is there a fixation with "predictable beats" and suchlike? I've never really understood this. I don't think that people neccessarily need "predictable beats" in the form of rigid barring - if anything, I would like to see composers experiment with rhythm that is more aligned with the rhythm of speech, which is more versatile - Is this sounding like a particular form of music that Popes have warmly recommended as the "perfect model"? I'm beginning to see why. Recent discussions on this forum have focused on moving away from hymns to singing Ordinaries and Propers, and I think we need models for congregational singing that will make this practical... or least more practical than before. Regular rhythm might make for predictable music, but the results may often be less than inspiring - While I can see the great practical value of Murray's "People's Mass", I find the rhythmic setting of the texts too "formulaeic", as if to forcibly fit any text's rhythm into a preconceived frame. Another question we need to ask is: Are the approaches to rhythm that have developed out of Latin Church Music (and especially chant) validly transferrable to music in other languages? Should we be looking at developing models for rhythm based on particular languages or language groups?
  • Palestrina wrote:
    Rather than trying to point out characteristics of music that is good for congregations, why don't we let the congregations tell us themselves? By this I mean - What are the hymns or other pieces of music that your congregation just "belts out"? I mean - what does your congregation really SING!!

    The problem here is that you’ll be factoring in people’s tastes, and most folks are not inclined to sing music that they don’t like because no one has ever taught them this is something they should do in church. And some parishes have heard X lots and lots of times but Y only a few times.

    That would be the other side of what P proposes: look at how well a tune/hymn/song is sung versus how long they’ve been singing it.
  • David AndrewDavid Andrew
    Posts: 1,191
    Ok, Palestrina, the reason for the "fixation with predictable beats and suchlike" is because after having been an organist for about 15 to 20 years, I have found that what people sing well, I mean, "really belt out" are just exactly the kinds of melodies we've been discussing. I'll admit that I find it puzzling that folks will belt out "I Am the Bread of Life;" call me a snob if you like, but I'm not about to waste even 2 minutes engaging in Shenkerian analysis of it. What it comes down to is traditional hymnody, with the kinds of structures that have been discussed above, have been belted out for many years. Typical Catholic communities have been denied any opportunity to learn some of the best of these tunes, and have been force-fed the likes of Toulan's creations, along with Haas, Haugen, Joncas et al., so after a while they sing it as best as they can. I think in the final analysis we should abandon the "study what they belt out" paradigm. On the other side of the coin, folks who won't open their mouths for love nor money on a regular Sunday will sing the old Marian and Benediction hymns with great lust. I've played for Marian Solemnities where, because it's a day of obligation, only the die-hard Catholics, typically these older folk, will attend. How is it that a relatively small congregation of older Catholics at one of these Solemnities can fill the church with more sound than a packed house wimpering and whining it's way through "One Bread, One Body?" I somehow doubt that all the Shenkerian analysis in the world would satisfy an answer.

    Here's another example. Recalling that I am the music director for a typical suburban parish, and inherited a typical suburban music program, the song "City of God" was selected for yesterday. I played the organ accompaniment, exactly as written, with exactly the number of beats and rests as appears in the pew edition. I played with a steady, regular, predictable beat, and still, because the phrase lengths and rhythms were irregular, nobody (and I mean not a single person, down to the "cantors" who were trying to "lead" the singing) sang a single rhythm correctly, and many people began to sing through the oddly-lengthed rests between phrases.

    My point? Even when we do sing chant-based melodies (hymns like "O Come, O Come Emmanuel" or "Creator of the Stars of Night" or even the mode VIII Sanctus or Agnus Dei) a regular eighth-note or quarter-note pulse tends to settle in. It seems that even with chant, the melodies intended for the congregation remain relatively regular, and I'd be very surprised if the subtleties of text stress could be clearly expressed in the singing of a large congregation, or even a small one for that matter, without having someone actually conduct them. Listen to a congregation sing the "Pange lingua" in Latin. Left to their own devices, they sing each phrase with a regular rhythm, and put huge pauses in between each phrase. Have them sing the same text to the hymntune "St. Thomas" and they'll destroy the phrase structure and break up the text in odd places with equal abandon unless it's accompanied and the organist sets the proper pace.

    If we're going to move away from hymnody (regular structures, rhythms, etc.) and talk specifically about chant, then let's talk about what requirements chant-based music for congregational singing should meet. I think, for instance, we can agree that the complex chanted Propers are intended for a schola, not for full congregation. So, what characteristics should the chant Ordinaries have?
  • Predictability and duple meter need to be balanced by flexibility and singability. I think Catholics are at a distinct advantage in the tradition of Gregorian chant which has mostly duple, but a few triple thrown into the mix. A case in point: "Eternal Father, Strong to Save", hymntune "Melita". This is an 88.88.88. meter hymn, written with all the notes equal in value. This is not really singable as is. I always insert a beat at each of the above ".", thus creating a couple of 5/4 measures. This is not a problem for the congregation, especially if they are used to it. It makes the text singable for anyone with any lung capacity at all. I've ONLY heard this hymn done in a strict 4/4 in Roman Catholic churches. Listen to the Navy Midshipmen, or any other military group singing it. Listen to ANY recording of it. Nobody else sings straight through in strictly duple meter. As a result of this approach, and since I provide all music in the Latin Mass worship aids using Finale, I never have "time signatures" turned on. It is not needed.
  • Yikes, I can't believe that "Schenkerian Analysis" actually was invoked in this thread and forum (I studied it under the late Steven Gilbert, co-author of the standard textbook used out west.) I concur with Mssr. Andrew as to its efficacy here, ahem.
    I'm really not going to add much more to the discussion other than to amplify that "performance practice" of both hymns and contemporary songs involves many more factors other than meter and basic competency. For example, I've insisted for decades that certain works require (all competency factors being equal) specific accompanimental "orchestrations" to maximize "success" in performance, thus presumably providing the best congregational support for their joining. Simply put, to choose "City of God" knowing that the organ is the sole provider of accompaniment, to me, is an inadequate situation. Yes, the attributes of organ are best suited in general to "guide" the human voice through the course of a melody, etc., etc. etc. But the song clearly demands a rhythmic propulsion that only harmonic/rhythmic instruments such as guitar and piano (or, heck, even vibes or a harpsichord!) can provide. Please don't flame out, I been regaled with many anecdotal evidence by organists expressing the contrary opinion. Conversely, I would never imagine, short of having the LA Guitar Quartet or Paul Galbraith handy at Mass, programming SINE NOMINE knowing that the lonely gee-tar would be providing the sole accompaniment. And even if Liberace was playing that tune on the mighty grand, I still would find its timbre and lack of consistent melodic fluidity lacking in order to accompany congregational singing. (Though THAT would be quite a feat given his current existential circumstance ;-)
    However, those aside, I also acknowledge that employing a hybrid combination of organ and guitar, or piano and organ, and other similar orchestral configurations can be complimentary and enabling for both hymns and songs and, to some extent, most settings of service music.
    So, again, my contention is that optimal orchestration/accompaniment specific to each work used should not be ignored when deciding what's "conducive" to successful congregational singing.
  • GavinGavin
    Posts: 2,799
    Palestrina has a good point, but I have to also point out the danger of it: the congregation's taste. My congregation will belt out the Glory & Praise stuff - almost to Protestant quality! Favorites are "Gentle Woman" and "Be Not Afraid" - which even gets deafening at Communion! And then there's the Low Mass Moldy Oldies; "On this Day O Beautiful Mother", "O Sanctissima", etc. So as I said I have to ask what we're applying this standard to: music that we sing as part of the "repertoire" or something to be introduced for a single Sunday?

    So I say notice what NEW hymns (and you'd better be using them!) get a good reception. One hymn that was an instant hit was "He is Risen" set to NEANDER. The congregation did pretty well with it. There you have fairly simple rhythm, and IIRC all stepwise motion until the last bar. Triple meter hymns such as "Good Christian Men Rejoice and Sing" tended to get ignored.

    David also has a good suggestion to consider which music got a good reception and apply it to chant. Half-jokingly, I have to say my congregation loves "I Want to Walk as a Child of the Light", so should I program Kyrie VIII? Also they don't sing for Ubi Caritas - even the large Mass won't do it. The Agnus Dei gets a warm reception, but perhaps because of tradition? And of course, inexplicably, even the most happy-clappy congregation makes a joyful noise to the Pater Noster. Although again that's tradition.
  • David AndrewDavid Andrew
    Posts: 1,191
    Seems, as is my lot in life, I've opened an interesting can 'o worms here.

    Charles,

    With no intentions of entering into a flaming session, there are as many accompaniment versions as there are publishers for "City of God." While the congregation was singing from GIA, I used the OCP accompaniment, because as it's set out, I can "line out" the melody on a strong reed and play the underlying "punch chords" on a separate manual. Wish I didn't have to justify my approach, but there it is. The accompaniment version provided by GIA is a riot of scales, arpeggios and not a regular rhythmic structure in sight. Given that the harmonic motion is based on I-IV-V-I chords over a tonic pedal, there's not a lot one can do to give it any kind of good direction. As I said at the outset, I wished I didn't have to play it at all, but there it is.

    The issue of the use of pianos and guitars (never mind "vibes and harpsichord") as instruments to support singing has been addressed time and again. Any "song" that requires a percussive instrument to help the rhythmic motion is probably not the kind of stuff that's best suited for use in the Mass anyways. And, as far as performance practice is concerned, why is it that we (the professionally-trained musicians, typically organists who also play piano) are expected to "adapt" contemporary-styled music that is poorly constructed at its core and thoroughly lacking in any substantive quality and typically written with accompaniments that are equally poor; meanwhile these clever "contemporary" musicians (typically guitarists or pianists with no formal training who can't play the melody, but just improvise based on the chord frames, fully expecting the melody to be carried by instruments like flutes, etc. or worse, by miked solo voices) are given a pass on learning how to adapt the traditional hymns (like SINE NOMINE) to contemporary instrumentation? It's a double-standard that proves the case for removing from the temple every scrap of contemporary music and the instruments used to support it.

    Gavin,

    In your example of "He Is Risen" set to "NEANDER," that's just putting new wine in old wine skins, and I'd suggest that it begs the question. NEANDER is a solid hymn tune, for all of the reasons discussed above. When you say "new" do you mean texts or tunes? (Any examples of new tune names or composers?)

    Sorry, everyone, for my rants, but it's Monday, my day off, and after a weekend of playing music that makes me peevish, I sometimes spoil for a fight. I promise to play nice.
  • GavinGavin
    Posts: 2,799
    By "new" I mean new to the congregation, which NEANDER was. As was the text. So when I talk about introducing music as "new" vs. merely evaluating the current repertoire, I'm talking about playing, for example, "Jesus the Very Thought of Thee" one Sunday, even though it's new to the congregation, and expecting them to sing on the basis that it's an easily singable tune. This is in contrast to programming Wachet Auf every Sunday of Advent, even though it's new AND melodically challenging, so that it can be learned. We still have to evaluate Wachet Auf like we would "Jesus the Very Thought of Thee", but since one is going to be a part of the repertory and the other is just used on occasion, the demands on "Jesus the Very Thought of Thee" are greater. As a counter-example, if your congregation didn't know "City of God" (Let us pray to the Lord...), you might reject it even as something to teach based solely on the complexity of rhythm.
  • Dear David, I hope you know I wasn't spoiling for a fight at all, and I understand fully your points and frustrations. I simply was trying to enter another perspective into the conversation essentially focused upon Felipe's original post that had then meandered into the "City of God" connundrum muck. You're absolutely right- as an organist you should never be asked to provide accompaniment for such music, whether its kosher to you or anyone else. But if such music is "bread and butter" at St. Meanders, then the DM should pony up and assign its performance to the appropriate instruments. Does that go down a little easier?
    BTW, the most flagrant insult in US CatholicLand publishers does, indeed, belong to OCP, which deems that when a hybrid accompaniment of organ with guitar/piano is to ensue, that the ORGANIST utilize the lead sheet chord assignments rather than the realization of the tune. That's insulting to all parties, frankly. And if a guitarist or pianist cannot "realize" the true harmonic accompaniment of hymns that CAN be successfully accompanied on those instruments, they are NOT to be given a free pass. They need schoolin' until they can.
  • "Ok, Palestrina, the reason for the "fixation with predictable beats and suchlike" is because after having been an organist for about 15 to 20 years, I have found that what people sing well, I mean, "really belt out" are just exactly the kinds of melodies we've been discussing. I'll admit that I find it puzzling that folks will belt out "I Am the Bread of Life;" call me a snob if you like, but I'm not about to waste even 2 minutes engaging in Shenkerian analysis of it."

    I am also an organist, so I am well aware of what congregations will and won't sing. I can't see why there is a massive hang-up about using Schenker-like techniques regarding "diminution." What I mean by this is that we can analyse the extent to which "ornamented melody" can be sung effectively by congregations. We can also look at ways of reinforcing tonic tones etc through this body of theory. Separate style from structure and then you have something interesting to work with.
  • Dear GPdaP, speaking only for meself-Schenkerian Analysis will always remain an abstract pursuit of interest primarily to academics. I mean that not to demean its importance to you or its adherents. From my experience, it was a requisite hoop inwhich one had to jump towards the MA and DMA. My over two decades-ago memories boil everything down to the inevitable V-I construct. "Melody" as commonly understood in the realms of both the heart and the head seemed, to me, subserviant to the diminution you speak of, but as regards the constructural intent. I got an "A," but haven't the slightest clue of how I accomplished that; and certainly know it doesn't inform my own compositional output one iota's worth.
    I'm having difficulty comprehending how superimposing such analysis (a very scientific endeavor, it needs to be said) upon "ornamented melody" would provide supposed templates for effective congregational singing.
    Again, no offense intended in my personal hangup. But I'd be more inclined to suggest that artistic heritages have their value confirmed or denied by congenital, multigenerational, shared rote memory, handed down through the ages. Call me a troglodyte, I'll answer. ;-)
  • I think I'm being misunderstood here: I'm not advocating a "reverse Schenker" approach to composition. Not at all. What I am inviting people to consider is the usefulness of some of the Schenkerian "techniques" in constructing melody. Think of the initial stages of a Schenkerian analysis, when you're "peeling away" the "ornament" to reveal deeper structures. Couldn't some of that (at least theoretically) be useful in constructing melodies? I could just about see myself using "diminution" techniques in some circumstances.

    "I'll admit that I find it puzzling that folks will belt out "I Am the Bread of Life;" call me a snob if you like, but I'm not about to waste even 2 minutes engaging in Shenkerian analysis of it."

    Maybe you shouldn't be doing a Schenkerian analysis, but I think that it might be helpful to ask the question: Why are they singing this so well? What is it about this piece of music that makes it accessible to the congregation? And as I said before, this is not merely an examination of style, otherwise we'll end up with more trite and banal music in our churches: it might be interesting to look at the interval structure of the piece, returns to the tonic, repetition structures. Do I like the piece? No! Am I willing to learn from it? Absolutely! I think that it makes sense to try and understand what makes music accessible to "average" people. Maybe somebody here knows of some serious academic research that has been undertaken in the area of musical perception by people with little or no musical training. Wouldn't it be helpful to understand how they perceive music? We would all be better placed to find music that is conducive to congregational singing, yet is appropriate for liturgical use. This is not dry academic research or analysis without any practical application: the information obtained could be VERY useful for composers in composing works that are suited to the dignity and holiness of the sacred liturgy, while being accessible to more of the congregation.

    I don't know much about theology, but I do remember reading or hearing somewhere that St. Thomas Aquinas used the techniques of an ancient Greek philosopher in his writing. Anybody on this forum who knows more about this - please jump in and correct me, or clarify! The point that I'm trying to make is that at times we can use "secular" techniques and acadamic achievements to help us in the great work of giving all honour and glory to Almighty God. Does 'Summa Theologica' suffer for the use of something from the secular world? If it does, it doesn't devalue the text, which Leo XIII recommended to all seminarians!

    "The problem here is that you’ll be factoring in people’s tastes, and most folks are not inclined to sing music that they don’t like because no one has ever taught them this is something they should do in church. And some parishes have heard X lots and lots of times but Y only a few times."

    I think I've been misunderstood. I am looking to more than 'taste' - I am trying to raise questions about what makes one piece of music "singable" in the minds of the people in the congregation over another. Style doesn't really come into what I'm trying to look at - it's more about the underlying structures in the music.

    "That would be the other side of what P proposes: look at how well a tune/hymn/song is sung versus how long they’ve been singing it."

    That is something that I think is VERY important, especially when we look at rhythm. I'm sure we all know a few pieces where the congregation creates its own rhythmic "editions" - We should be asking ourselves why they do this and what the effect of changing the rhythm is.

    "My point? Even when we do sing chant-based melodies (hymns like "O Come, O Come Emmanuel" or "Creator of the Stars of Night" or even the mode VIII Sanctus or Agnus Dei) a regular eighth-note or quarter-note pulse tends to settle in. It seems that even with chant, the melodies intended for the congregation remain relatively regular, and I'd be very surprised if the subtleties of text stress could be clearly expressed in the singing of a large congregation, or even a small one for that matter, without having someone actually conduct them. Listen to a congregation sing the "Pange lingua" in Latin. Left to their own devices, they sing each phrase with a regular rhythm, and put huge pauses in between each phrase."

    I'm not entirely convinced. That is not to say that I disagree with you - I'm just thinking about the extent to which the musical environment created by a "hymn" based approach to music has influenced the congregation's perception of chant and free rhythm. It would be interesting, in my opinion, to compare the approach to free rhythm in the congregation of Ukranian Rite Catholics living in a Western country to that of Roman Rite Catholics in the same area.