Non solum: Who Should Pick the Music?

Sing to the Lord: Music in Divine Worship  (US Bishops, 2007) treats “Who Prepares the Music for the Liturgy?” at nos. 119-121, quoted below. The pastor or priest has ultimate responsibility, but he is to work with others and may well designate others to carry out the work of music preparation.

What do you think? Who should pick the music? How widespread should the consultation be? How do we best select music that meets the ritual, musical, and pastoral requirements of the liturgy?

Who Prepares the Music for the Liturgy?

119. Preparation for the celebration of the Sacred Liturgy, and particularly for the selection of what is to be sung at the Liturgy is ultimately the responsibility of the pastor and of the priest who will celebrate the Mass [See GIRM, no. 111]. At the same time, “in planning the celebration of Mass, [the priest] should have in mind the common spiritual good of the people of God, rather than his own inclinations.” [GIRM, no. 352]

120. In order that there “be harmony and diligence in the effective preparation of each liturgical celebration in accord with the Missal and other liturgical books,” [GIRM, no. 111] the pastor may designate that the director of music or a Liturgy or music committee meet regularly to make the preparations necessary for a good use of the available liturgical and musical options.

121. When a Liturgy or music committee is chosen to prepare music for the Liturgy, it should include persons with the knowledge and artistic skills needed in celebration: men and women trained in Catholic theology, Liturgy, and liturgical music and familiar with current resources in these areas. It is always good to include as consultants some members of the worshiping assembly so that their perspective is represented.




  1. I submit that the music director in consultation with the pastor pick the music. More people than that is tedious work.

      1. @Anthony Ruff, OSB – comment #2:
        So do I agree with #1 The music director should know his/ her community well enough to be able to program the music choices which allow the assembly to pray.
        The music director should know the liturgy/ liturgical year well enough to make choices to support the work of the liturgy and reflect the feast/season, as well as being musically knowledgeable!
        Therefore, I support the view expressed in the first comment that the music director In concert with the priest should determine the music choices.

  2. Sing to the Lord: Music in Divine Worship does not seem to know that the last sentence was added to the latest edition of GIRM 111, which makes it clear that choosing the music is not up to the priest.

    GIRM 111. There should be harmony and diligence
    among all those involved in the effective
    preparation of each liturgical celebration in accordance
    with the Missal and other liturgical books,
    both as regards the rites and as regards the pastoral
    and musical aspects. This should take place
    under the direction of the rector of the church and
    after consultation with the faithful in things
    that directly pertain to them. However, the
    Priest who presides at the celebration always retains
    the right of arranging those things that pertain
    to him.

    1. @Paul Ford – comment #3:
      Is that really contradictory? One can certainly consult and collaborate while retaining the responsibility of making decisions.

  3. In my experience, pastors have fully trusted me to make the liturgical and musical judgments, but I usually need help with the pastoral judgment. Agreed – no need to get beyond the music director/pastor collaboration.

    1. @Doug O’Neill – comment #4:
      This has been my experience, as well, and I also agree that “too many cooks in the kitchen” can be a bad thing. I certainly don’t mind the occasional suggestion from the pastor, but have had the rare difficult experience with a visiting priest or two pushing to include or exclude certain pieces without a full understanding of the assembly’s specific liturgical needs. At the other end of the spectrum, the “music by committee” approach often leads to lots of people pushing their various agendas without having any real responsibilities for making it work. (It is often the strongest personality, and not the highest level of expertise or responsibility, that wins out in such “committee” decisions!) I think it is a good middle ground for the Music Director to choose the music, but in collaboration with the Pastor, and this is why it is important that there be a great deal of trust between the two. Liturgy committees are wonderful for preparing celebrations in which all the elements work together and all ministers are on the same page. But music selection should be done by the Music Director.

  4. Doug, I don’t believe I was pointing out a contradiction. The priest has the right to arrange the things that pertain to him. What he doesn’t have is the right to arrange things according to his own personal inclinations.

    GIRM 352. The priest, therefore, in planning the celebration of Mass, should have in mind the common spiritual good of the people of God, rather than his own inclinations. He should, moreover, remember that the selection of different parts is to be made in agreement with those who have some role in the celebration, including the faithful, in regard to the parts that more directly pertain to each.

    Lectionary for Mass: Introduction 78. In arranging the liturgy of the word, then, the priest should “consider the general spiritual good of the congregation rather than his personal outlook. He should be mindful that the choice of texts is to be made in harmony with the ministers and others who have any role in the celebration and should listen to the opinions of the faithful in what concerns them more directly.”

    1. @Paul F. Ford – comment #7:
      Thanks for the clarification. But what about when a decision made for the “common spiritual good of the people” is not necessarily what a majority of them want? That’s not just the pastor’s own inclinations. After all, we don’t always make decisions that are for our own good.

      1. @Doug O’Neill – comment #11:
        I believe that there is wisdom in asking people what kind of music helps them best to pray. It’s not the only source of wisdom, but neither is what some church document or liturgy professor says. All of my accumulated wisdom, learning, and experience is still inadequate and needs the input of others, from both universal and particular perspectives. In other words, the people in my parish know something that I don’t about making those pastoral decisions.

      2. @Scott Pluff – comment #14:
        I fully agree, and I do in fact ask advice from parishioners to help make that pastoral judgment. I don’t want to suggest that being autocratic is best. At the same time, I hope that parishioners trust my experience, training and knowledge, and are open to new ideas presented to them. Ideally, dialogue and collaboration lead to spiritual growth.

  5. I agree with comment #1. Are all seminarians formed in the areas of liturgical music so as to be able to make “liturgical, pastoral, and musical judgments” in the ways that are necessary? (see nos. 126-136 in Sing to the Lord) Wouldn’t it be better to have a lay minister choosing music – someone (or some people) who is (are) trained in those particular areas?

    1. @Brian Kapp – comment #8:
      Much depends on the particular parish. Where there is a professional credentialed church musician, that person is almost always the most qualified to make the musical judgment. Priests get musical training, but in order to properly make a musical judgment, one should have knowledge of music theory and history. No seminary teaches that as extensively as music schools do.

  6. In every parish where I’ve served I have been a committee of one to choose music. This allows the most consistency and a broader view of the parish (weekend, weekday, school, PSR liturgies) and of what’s going on outside of the parish walls. Most volunteer liturgy committee members lack this wider perspective and lean toward their personal favorites.

    That said, I intentionally seek people’s input on the music repertoire. I’ve used online and written surveys as well as open discussions about music to gather input, then I am free to exercise my judgment from there. I approach a parish’s repertoire of hymns, songs and acclamations as a collection to be curated, not subject to all my own predilections. But I’m occasionally guilty: if I am planning a parish’s Midnight Mass on Christmas, you can bet that we will sing, or learn to sing, Of the Father’s Love Begotten.

  7. When our liturgy committee would meet to prepare for an upcoming season, the music director was always present. We would share our ideas for music – from the viewpoint of the folks in the pews. He always found this helpful when he returned to his desk to craft the music program. But he made the decisions – rarely, the pastor might veto a piece of music. Our delightful Irish pastor abhorred “O Sacred Head”. The only time he put his two cents worth in.

  8. With respect to the working relationship between the church musician and pastor, I recommend reading “The Sound of Our Offerings”. One of the few universal elements found in all of the communities studied (I believe 9 total, of differing sizes, denominations, circumstances, all noted for their long-standing success in music ministry) is a collaborative relationship between the cleric and musician. This includes regular dialogue and an atmosphere of mutual learning.

    The topic of this post is “who should pick the music?” I’ve had to delete some off-topic posts about music in general or what music is appropriate for Catholic worship or what the philosophy of sacred music should be. The topic is: Who should pick the music?

  10. I regard myself as a pastoral musician whose instrument is the voice with which I give thanks and praise to God. I have attended countless seminars, liturgy weeks, and NPM since being ordained in 1973. Although I do not read music and lack a great deal of knowledge about the technicalities of pastoral music, I do feel well equipped to make the pastoral judgment with regards to selecting singable music that an assembly is likely to be able to make its own. I have delegated the individual selection of musical pieces for Sundays, Holydays, and other sacramental celebrations to the music director but only after we had forged agreements on certain principles of selection. It works out pretty well except on the occasions that she decides to depart from those principles. While I am open to discussion about “new things”, I really dislike being surprised during the Liturgy.

  11. The most pleasing process I’ve experienced is a small music committee. Planning takes place on a few levels. New repertoire is surfaced and hashed out by the group. People outside the group, including parishioners, are welcomed to make suggestions.

    New Mass settings are a parish-wide discernment by as many of the music ministers and parishioners as commit to be involved.

    Both of these methods ensure a higher ownership from people.

    I would prefer to accept repertoire suggestions from the clergy and work them into the committee format. Unless such priests were willing to be more involved in the more tedious work of selection.

    I’ve encountered very, very few clergy who have a finger on the pulse of music planning. The average unpaid parish choir director is more likely to possess the pastoral touch and an awareness of the repertoire. There are exceptions either way, but I still have an associate in our parish who keeps asking to do “Christ Be Our Light” and “Loving and Forgiving.” Nice songs, Father, but they are OCP pieces not in our hymnal.

  12. I am not clergy or a liturgical musician. I have sharp musical preferences, but those are irrelevant when ministers sit at a table and work out the liturgical music for a season or year. My only choice is either to attend Mass at a particular church or not attend. My decision to not attend a particular parish must be done charitably and not to disparage the clergy or lay ministers of a parish.

    I would suggest that those who plan liturgical music avoid a overly homogenous musical style. It’s important to include some variety, even if this variety is infrequent. Otherwise, parishes could be branded derogatorily as the “guitar church” or the “praise band church”, for example, and avoided by those who do not appreciate these styles. I recognize and accept that most parish will not chant in Latin from the graduale. On the other hand, sometimes an occasional leap into something different helps to retain parishioners.

  13. Ideally it would be a team, and ideally it would be based on thematics, and ideally those themes would be more than “it’s Advent so let’s only sing Advent hymns.”

    To often it is a you-do-your-thing — I’ll do mine. This has unfortunately been the norm in so many parishes I have worked in … the pastor does not sing and doesn’t care to sing. As long as there is no Alleluia verses during Lent we are good.

    Recently you wrote articles about the book “Rebuilt”. For a short time I worked in a Catholic parish which had a worship team, planning months ahead, implementing new music and songs … keying all to growth and development with solid scriptural themes. It was a blessing. Right now they would be preparing for Lent 2015 and beyond … well over the rainbow for the majority of parishes I have been at who are probably looking at next week and whose planning amounts to “what did we do last year cause Advent’s coming.”

    My current parish music director is seriously trying to plan ahead but there is little interest from the pastor or liturgy committee to even consider it. I feel her frustration. She studies and prepares with more intensity than most homilists but there are Sunday’s when “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” would have fit better than “Lift High The Cross” and there was nothing she could have predicted or could do about it.

    I thank God that she is the one making the decisions. I fear otherwise it would just be a last-minute “Oh yeah, what should we sing today to get this thing started? …. and let’s not sing the parts of the Mass … they take to long.”

    I know she would like more support and I am astounded that she simply does not pack it all in. It makes an amazing statement about her love of God’s people through the music liturgy.

  14. Who should pick the music? I like what is said in 121: “persons with the knowledge and artistic skills needed in celebration: men and women trained in Catholic theology, Liturgy, and liturgical music and familiar with current resources in these areas.”

    Given my interactions with Catholic clergy, I would venture a guess that a fair percentage of them do not fit this definition. Some lack the artistic skills, others lack the familiarity with current resources, and still others feel adrift when trying to make musical choices. The best of these clergy recognize this and delegate this task to more competent laypeople (choir directors, organists, etc.). Those who do not recognize the gifts that they lack end up doing damage to the very people they are seeking to reach.

    (And I’ll note in passing that the same holds true for my Lutheran clergy colleagues as well, but that’s not the topic here . . . )

    I’m saddened, though, that the question of the gifts necessary to make good decisions around music in the liturgy comes two paragraphs after saying this ultimately is the responsibility of the priest. Perhaps this assumes that the priest possesses all these gifts, but as I said above, this assumption does not match what I have observed among Catholic clergy.

  15. If a cantor is asked to lead he or she should have some input within the other guidelines. No matter how appropriate a hymn may be, if the cantor is not able to sing it effectively, it’s a bad idea. We need apprpropriate music, but it also needs to be done well.

  16. One major problem in this whole area is the fact that the music director is planning much further ahead than the presiding priest. In a typical parish, music will be planned by the music director at least a month in advance, longer for major celebrations such as Christmas, so that adequate rehearsal time can be given. But the presiding priest’s homily will not have been planned longer than a few days in advance. And yet how wonderful it would be if these things could be in sync!

    I long ago lost count of the times I realized, while listening to the homily, that what was planned to be sung during the presentation of the gifts or the distribution of communion would now not be such a good fit, and that another piece or hymn would be much better. If only I had known where the priest would be going in his homily!…. but in practice most priests do not share their homily preparation with anyone else, and some of course do not prepare their homilies at all but simply stand up and speak extempore. Then you also have the problem where a number of different priests over a weekend will preach very differently about the same set of readings.

    I do recommend to musicians that if it is possible to change the music in the light of the homily that you have just heard, then do it. The work that went into rehearsing the planned music will not be wasted, and it will no doubt be usable on another occasion. But this solution, while ideal, is by no means always possible.

    I think that a large proportion of priests have no idea what goes into planning and preparing music (St John’s Seminary in Camarillo is a happy exception, but in most seminaries one of two students or a faculty member are responsible and the rest of the seminary community never get involved at all). First of all, they don’t realize that musicians go through, or should go through, the same process of reflection on the readings of the day that they go through, or should go through, themselves when they are preparing their homilies. Secondly, they would be very surprised, and most probably annoyed, if the music director approached them a month or six weeks before the day in question to ask them what they thought they would be preaching about on the day. (And yet how wonderful that would be: both comparing notes on the scriptures together!)

    For that reason alone, it seems to me that the best practical solution is for the music director to do the planning, because it needs to be done much further in advance, and for the priest’s involvement, where necessary, to be more “global” and less concerned with actual details. That also means pastors trusting their musicians (and replacing them if they can’t be trusted!), it means visiting or auxiliary priests being content to preside in accordance with the expectations of the community (I have seen far too many cases where Fr X drives in to celebrate a Mass and then tries to change everything to what he wants), it means musicians who are sensitive to their communities and in tune with their pastors, and it means communities who respect both their clergy and their musicians and trust that they are doing their best to lead them on the pathway to God.

    1. @Paul Inwood – comment #25:
      This points to a problem with the homiletical preparations of the preacher. If the music is selected weeks or months in advance, it is incumbent on the preacher to consider what will be sung as much as what will be read when preparing the homily. When I was doing my doctoral work, I did a lot of one-week-here, one-week-there moving between parishes, covering for people on vacation, at conferences, and so on. When I spoke with the local arrangements person (sometimes the pastor, other times the organist, still others the church secretary), I always made it a point to ask not only what liturgical setting would be used but what hymns and anthems would be part of the service. More than a few times, a particular musical selection helped focus and strengthen my homiletical preparation immensely.

      All too often, the question of “Who picks the music?” is answered in terms of power. More properly, it should be answered in terms of gifts. Who knows the repertoire and skills of the musical leaders? Who knows the singing abilities of the community? Who knows the resources at hand? Who knows how to blend worship into a seamless event (rather than a stop-start mishmash)?

  17. As a music director or chief liturgist in a parish, you shouldn’t do music choices alone, but it does happen. It is the listening to parishioners that is vital and if the pastor is good at that then go to that oracle. The music director has to dance in their job as a leader and a follower not just because it is a vital part of people’s worship but because of what it does to people’s worship.

    Oh…by the way, #7…but a bishop can! And does!

    1. @Ed Nash – comment #26:

      Marty Haugen tells the story of being a guest director of music at a parish where the bishop was on visitation. Marty went into the sacristy before Mass and asked the bishop if he would like a briefing on what music would be sung during the celebration. “Oh no,” responded the prelate, “I won’t be taking any notice of what you are doing.” “Well, in that case,” replied Marty, “we won’t take any notice of what you’re doing either,” and turned on his heel and walked out.

      As a non-catholic guest director of music, he could get away with that…

  18. I agree with the idea that the music director should select the music. Our director is always prepared at least a month in advance and provides the music plans to the priests. In addition, there is a weekly parish staff meeting on Thursday mornings at which she refreshes everybody’s memory, especially the priests who likely as not haven’t done much sermon preparation yet.

    For the larger celebrations – Christmas, Easter, All Souls and Lessons and Carols, she brings in the choir director, chief cantor, and two or three other principal musicians to help do the planning, at least three months in advance.

    Admittedly, our young people’s band and the think-we’re-still-young-people band (oops – Contemporary Choir) work independently with the music director.

  19. Maybe it’s time to consider all of us singing from the same book and promote a national service book hymnal or, better yet, a modern style of the liber that includes a few settings of the peoples’ sung parts of the Mass and a few hymns that all (mainline) Christians hold in common. The ecological waste and the wasted time and huge amout of money spent to “create” and use for the throw away worship aids and song books in indefensible. Seems to work for Lutherans, Methodists, Episcopalians, Canadians, and others. Why not Catholics?

    1. @W. W. O’Bryan – comment #29:
      The German-language hymnal Gotteslob is an excellent example of such a national hymnal, and its latest edition incorporates more material for use on one’s own outside of Mass. Most of the book is standard across all regions; there’s also a diocesan section reflecting music of the particular region. It can be seen in use in this (rather compelling, IMO) video of Mass from last Sunday in Cologne Cathedral:

      1. @Scott Knitter – comment #31:

        Gotteslob has been something of a mixed blessing in the past. For example, the 1975 edition effectively stifled all liturgical music creativity in German-speaking dioceses for 20 years and more. The book was imposed by the bishops and nothing was allowed to be sung which wasn’t in the book. (Today that situation has changed and dioceses have their own supplements in the new edition, bound in with the core of the main book.) This meant that there was no point in composing or trying to publish anything new for the Roman Catholic German-speaking market since it couldn’t be used (at least in theory — a tiny number of churches did use their own local repertoire, but this caused a lot of acrimony). There was also controversy because those whose material was included made a lot of money from royalties, whereas those who were excluded were left out in the cold. There were rumours of bribes to get material included in the edition…

        All in all, an unhappy episode which is now history. It does, however, indicate the dangers inherent in a national hymnal. In the USA such a hymnal would be impossible because its size would be prohibitive and it would need to cater (impossibly) for all the major ethnic groupings as well as the total spectrum of the English-speaking market if it were in any sense to be a truly national hymnal.

        That’s another reason why Rome’s ill-conceived core repertoire/directory requirement (Liturgiam Authenticam 108) never came to anything. There are some things which simply cannot be regulated.

  20. “Who picks the music?” At my parish I do. I am the Music Director and our priest has asked me to. I pick music selections and send an email to the choir members as well as the church office. The office has veto power which has only been used once in the last year. For the selection of mass settings, we only use two or three per year, changing at the beginning of liturgical seasons. These are approved by the office at the beginning of Advent so that we have the year planned out for mass settings from the beginning. My priest obviously spends much time on his homilies and meditates upon the readings. I read the readings and use the Antiphons for guides before selecting any hymns. We always use the psalm of the day rather than substituting psalms. By focusing on the readings and antiphons the songs and homilies are remarkably in sync with each other. People have actually asked if Father and I consult about songs each week because of the coherence. The only sore spot that comes up is that occasionally a parishioner will want to hear a favorite song more frequently. I say I will use it as soon as the song fits the readings. There are two songs I’ve been asked never to sing. I didn’t like them anyway . Father sometimes points out a particular song: “That was a good song. They really sang.” The veto we had was when I tried to use America as a recessional song just after 9/11 for sentimental reasons. No problem. We did sing America near the 4th of July and on Memorial Day weekend.

  21. Something else to consider: not all who lead parish music ministry have a background in liturgy. I worked with an organist who played the same Mass parts (Danish) for 17 years. Our parishioners didn’t know there were other Memorial Acclamations because he always used the same one. And he selected hymns five minutes (literally) before Mass started. He did this while pulling the numbers for the hymn board out of a drawer in the sacristy. And his choices consisted of less than forty hymns for the entire year, including Marian and national hymns.
    Working with someone who is a trained musician and has studies liturgy and theology is a blessing. But people like this can be: hard to find and difficult to support.
    BTW: one of the reasons that homily preparation is more immediate than the ideal of advanced music selection has to do with the fact that preachers are called to preach from the perspective of current events. Connecting the day’s scripture with what’s going on in the people’s lives is an important part of the dynamic.

  22. One help in connecting music selection and homily preparation is the use of the Psallite Song for the Table, which deliberately connects the gospel of the day with the communion procession. Priests have told me how helpful the antiphons are for giving them the theme of their homily.

  23. I just use my subscription to I say a little prayer , and then I choose hymns from there, with an occasional new hymn or song put in every now and then. People think I am some sort of spiritual mystic because the hymns that are chosen “fit” the readings so well. I am ultimately the one who chooses the music, with occasional advice from the pastor, congregation, or choir.

  24. I would love to gain the wisdom of this group on another aspect of this question. In many of our rural communities, parishes don’t have a music director, but various music groups. The practice often has been that each group select the music for the Mass at which they are ministering. Would you advise this? Would it be best in that situation that a person from each group come together to choose common music for each weekend? In some cases, two parish groups could be choosing two different Mass settings. Does this disunify a community? These are all questions I have been pondering as I prepare a workshop for a rural tri-parish cluster, in which only one of the parishes has a paid (part-time) music director.

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