About Church organ music
  • Hi everybody. This is my first post. I have been baptised Orthodox but I am currently in the process of becoming Catholic. I am going to lessons with a Catholic Priest and am studying the faith and the catechism. I have been a musician most of my life - mostly with the classical guitar. I have a merit in grade 8 classical guitar.
    I told my Priest that I want to start playing music in the Church, to accompany the singing. I wanted to play guitar, like they use a guitar in the service of another Catholic Church I used to frequent many years ago but he told me that they do not need nor want a guitar being played at the service and instead, a new organist because the current organist is very old, and will stop playing the organ during Mass within maybe a year, I was told by the Priest.
    Some years ago, and although I have not been playing the piano in my life, I totally and utterly fell in love with the piano. And I started writing music on the piano. Before that, I was writing music and songs on the guitar.
    When it came to the piano, I just used to write music - basically. I did learn a couple songs on the piano and I sang them in concerts a couple years ago in my old band that I am no longer a part of and I learned the first 45 seconds of the first movement of Beethoven's music sonata by hearing and replaying the music constantly and then finding the notes on the piano but that was it. Everything else I play on the piano is music I've written.
    Although I can read music on the guitar, without a problem, (it's been a while though!) I cannot read music on the piano as I am unaware of the bass clef. For me, the piano was a way to be creative and write music. I took a few lessons, learned a few things with regard to harmony and just kept on writing music. The piano for me is my greatest love and when I write music on the piano and when I play the music I've written, it gives me such joy, such love and such happiness, that it makes me complete. The piano, for me, is a grace unto itself. It is so beautiful. The first time I walked into a Catholic Church, I totally fell in love with the music and the singing, the Church organ was something I had never heard before, it was so beautiful and I fell in love instantly.
    I told the Priest that I do not know how to read music on the piano, and also that I am not so comfortable on the piano as I am with the guitar (because of my lack of expertise and experience on the piano). I explained all this to the Priest and he told me to consider and give it some thought, whether or not to play the organ in Church. He told me that I can meet up with the musicians in the Church and the lady who plays the organ in the Church, and they can help me and guide me. I also told the Priest that I can take lessons, learn how to read music on the piano, and learn the music played by the organist in Holy Mass, with the help of a piano teacher. But I have a few concerns.
    How difficult is the church organ music played during Mass? Is it mostly chords? And how much music, and how many songs are there to learn? Given my situation, do you think I can manage to learn everything I need to learn, and be able to succeed in this, with the help of a piano teacher? I do not wish to get paid for playing the organ at all, I just want to contribute to the Church, in any small way I can.
    Please advise. God bless you all.
  • Music_James,

    Welcome to the commenting side of the forum.

    I sense a real enthusiasm to contribute to the Church.

    Given that you come from a venerable musical tradition which has no accompaniment (or had none?) by instruments, I suggest that you slow down, take a deep breath, watch, listen and learn from those who already do the work you aspire to do. I encourage you to attach yourself to the nearest Traditional Latin Mass.
    Thanked by 1cesarfranck
  • m_r_taylor
    Posts: 209
    Hello! Welcome!

    I don't have a lot to contribute but I will say you should go ahead and meet up with those musicians in the church and have them show you the music and such - that will give you a much better impression of what is needed from an organist.

    I would say not to rush, take it slow and learn at a pace you feel you can sustain. Organ playing does need to sound fluent and well-practiced, or else it risks becoming distracting to the congregation. Happy you are a fellow music lover!
  • Hi Chris. Thank you for your response. I am not sure I understood what you said about having no accompaniment by instruments. Although I am going to weekly lessons with a Catholic Priest in order to become Catholic, I will accompany this with visiting Mass, even though I won't yet receive the Holy Eucharist. I intend on learning from those people, if I am to go down this path.
    Hi Taylor. Thank you for your response and your advice. It means a lot.
  • chonakchonak
    Posts: 8,499
    Hi, James.

    I think Chris was referring to the Orthodox musical tradition, which is mostly without instruments, as was the tradition in the early church for several hundred years. In the first few centuries of Christianity, the use of musical instruments was something associated with the rituals of pagan religions, so early Christians shunned it. [Fr. Basil Cole, OP, wrote about this bit of history in his book "Music and Morals".]

    The musical tradition in the Roman church puts priority on singing as does the Orthodox tradition, and in the Roman rite, the characteristic vocal music -- the heritage of music that really belongs to the Roman church -- is Gregorian chant. There are multiple forms of vocal music in the various Orthodox churches, such as Byzantine chant.

    After some centuries, the Roman church came to accept the use of the pipe organ broadly. Paganism had died out, and the stigma associated with musical instruments also waned.

    The organ has been accepted in Catholic worship for 1000 years or more, but for most of that time it had a lukewarm acceptance in the Church's official teaching about music. When Church documents spoke of music, the organ was permitted, but not explicitly encouraged. That is, until Vatican II: that council was the first to expressly praise organ music as part of the Church's musical heritage.

    The organ does have this distinct place: its ability to present a sustained tone gives it a similarity to the human voice, so it is able to encourage singing in a way that the piano, a more percussive instrument, cannot match.

    A good summary of Catholic principles of sacred music is in the Vatican II document Sacrosanctum Concilium, in paragraphs 112-121.
  • Bill,

    Yes, that's what I meant. "Accompaniment" takes on other baggage these days.
  • Hi Thank you for your response. The singing done in Greek Orthodox Churches is without any instruments because I was told by a old friend of mine that the instrument can become an idol - or something to that degree. But yeah, your right about how fitting the organ is with the singing. Although I don't think good things came about with the Vatican II, such as removing the Archangel Micheal prayer that was prayed at every mass prior, I think the addition of the organ was a noble and good change. It makes Mass more beautiful.
  • roy2
    Posts: 13
    Hi Music_James, there is a lot to learn, but it is definitely worth it! And if you have a supportive pastor, you should give it a try.

    Is the current organist willing to help? One option is maybe you can focus on learning one small part of the mass (e.g. Agnus Dei/Lamb of God). When you are ready, then hop in to play that during mass while the current organist plays everything else. Continue doing that every week. Then spend the next week(s) learning the Memorial Acclamation until you know it very well, then also play that. Over several months, maybe you will be able to play all of the parts of the mass that remain the same every week. This will give you confidence. Don't worry about the parts that change every week yet.

    In the meantime, work on learning to read music on the bass clef.

    There are resources online, e.g.

    Or check the library for books that teach you how to read music. Do ALL the exercises. The only way to learn how to read music is to do it.

    After you have learned all the parts of the mass that stay the same, then begin to work on the parts that change from week to week, e.g. responsorial psalm, and the music at the entrance, offertory and communion.

    If your church uses hymns, there are resources that provide simpler versions of music than what is typically published. For example:


    You mentioned that you do not wish to get paid for playing the organ, but I wonder if the pastor has a budget that can be used to subsidize your lessons with a teacher (preferably an organ teacher)?

    I hope that gives you some additional ideas.
  • chonakchonak
    Posts: 8,499
    James, if you're interested in the prayer to the Archangel Michael, a book about its origin appeared a couple of years ago from Catholic writer Kevin Symonds. The prayer was composed by Pope Leo XIII, who in 1886 ordered it to be recited after spoken Masses, so it only goes back that far.
  • And, the St Michael Prayer is
    said after said masses at the Cathedral of Our Lady ofWalsingham.
    Thanked by 2tomjaw francis
  • Thank you all for the help. I will consider all of this. God bless you.