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Music Done Well

As of late, I have been reading St. Augustine’s treatise, On Music.  A later blogpost will give my thoughts on the whole work but one particular part in the first of the six books interested me.

He said, “Music is the science of moving well.”  As a means of necessary background, this particular treatise covers rhythm only so the definition fits well in that regard.  He goes in that chapter to make a point of the qualifier “well.”  Well does not just connote the good measuring of notes at time and intervals that are pleasing to the ear; it also connotes the proper place in which those notes are heard.

Yet it is possible for this harmony and measuring to please when they shouldn’t.  For example, if one should sing sweetly and dance gracefully, wishing thereby to be when the occasion demanded gravity, such a person would in no way be using harmonious mensuration (correct measuring of notes) well.  In other word, that person uses ill or improperly the motion at one time called good because of its harmony. (On Music 1.3)

There is not only good mechanics and sound but a proper place for those good mechanics and sound.  Good music is not harmony and rhythm alone, but proper placement of that harmony and rhythm.  One wouldn’t play, for instance, speed trash metal during the bridal procession of a wedding.  That particular harmony and rhythm, although good in itself (some may argue otherwise), does not fit with that situation.  Now I know people push these boundaries.  The 20th and 21st centuries have been all about pushing boundaries in art, but it is boundaries, i.e. harmonics and rhythms that internally control music.  Aharmony and arhythm is not music.  It is noise, a cacophony of sound with no order.  What to me, Augustine is proposing, is that not only is the order of harmony and rhythm part of music but the placement of that harmony and rhythm within a given situation.  A director would not set “Flight of the Bumblebee” during a peaceful scene with the couple walking down a beach at sunset.  It does not fit the mood.  In our insides we naturally recognize the incoherence of that.

There also occurs in our hearts and in our senses a certain deadening of that naturally recognizable incoherence when incoherence becomes the norm.  Coherence can no longer be identified.  Say for instance someone cannot tell the dream from reality.  One actually is reality and the other a figment of imagination.

This seems to have occurred in Liturgical music over the past half century.  People recognize beautiful music and wish to incorporate it into the liturgy because of its beauty, which is indeed an admirable desire, but the second part of what Augustine describes as good music requires proper placement.  Although pop music has recognizably coherent harmony and rhythm that is pleasing to the ear, it does not fit within the framework of worship.  Pop music is an earthy, passionate, and highly emotional form of music.  It keeps one firmly in earthly experience.  It does not, but its mood and movement lift someone  up to worship in God the same way the other-worldly sound of Gregorian Chant, or Mozarabic Chant, or Byzantine Chant does.  Chant lifts someone out of themselves and moves the towards God.  The lack of meter gives a certain elevation to it.  It is guided by accents and phrases connecting lyric with melody in such an extraordinarily symbiotic way.

I’m looking at this from a philosophical viewpoint, but it would seem that this viewpoint finds its way into countless church documents about sacred music.  Corpus Christi Watershed does a good job of explaining it here:

Can you tell the difference?? from Corpus Christi Watershed on Vimeo.

About Fr. Kyle

I am a priest of the Archdiocese of New Orleans. I was born and raised right outside New Orleans. I attended Catholic school my entire educational career. By the time I graduated high school, I had two paths to choose: rockstar or priesthood. I pursued both for awhile but eventually came to the understanding God's will was priesthood and my will was rockstardom. After making that decision, to allow God's will to be mine, I needed a new way to channel my creativity. I began writing as I finished up my formation for priesthood. I still play music, but priestly ministry comes first. My bride: St. Rita of Cascia Parish in Harahan, LA.

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