I, like many of you, have been involved in music
ministry since my childhood—long before we
called it music ministry. While I’m old enough to
vaguely remember Mass in Latin with its traditional
chants, my liturgical formation took place in
the early 1960s, just after the implementation of the
new rite. I come from a musical family. My mother
was in the traditional choir and my brother led the
folk group. This diversity has been a blessing, as I
am comfortable worshipping with many styles of
My passion for music and liturgy became a
vocation. After completing graduate studies in
sacred music and liturgy, I began working in our
diocesan Office of Worship, and my perspective
began to change. I no longer had the luxury of
focusing on the repertoire of one parish community.
I had to select music for diocesan liturgies that
was comfortable and familiar to an assembly coming
from diverse geographic areas and music traditions.
Although I was increasingly aware of a
polarization in liturgical styles, I knew my position
demanded that I remain impartial. My personal
taste in musical style was unimportant. I needed to
create a liturgical environment that invited all to
participate in sung prayer.
Over time I became aware of several "tools"
that could be used to achieve this goal. For instance,
using the metric and hymn tune indices to marry
unfamiliar but appropriate liturgical texts with
well-known melodies, using call and response or
adding additional refrains to teach new music
within the liturgy, or elaborating instrumentation
to complement a simple melody.
Many of these tools were useful when I became the weekend
music director at a small parish near my home. Like many of
you, this was in addition to my full-time job. When I started this
position more than three years ago, I was faced with two big
The first challenge was that several years ago attendees at
the 7:30 am Sunday Mass had been given the option of voting on
whether they wanted music on Sundays. After voting "no," they
added themselves to the many early Sunday morning "silent
Masses" around the country. According to the liturgical documents
of the Church, sung liturgy is normative and, although
"not every part that can be sung should necessarily be sung at
every celebration" (Sing to the Lord: Music in Divine Worship [STL], 115), silent Sunday Mass is not an option.
As a member of the Office of Worship staff, I could not, in
good liturgical conscience, model a silent Mass on Sunday. As a
pastoral musician, however, I knew the risks of pulling out all
the stops with a congregation who had grown to appreciate the
serenity of silence. I was determined to be gentle while adding
music to the early morning Mass.
My second challenge had to do with where the Psalm would
be proclaimed. The practice in this turn-of-the-century Gothic
church was for all music leadership to come from the balcony—accompaniment, choir, song leading, and Responsorial Psalm.
I felt the Psalm should be proclaimed from the ambo in keeping
with the liturgical documents. As I was both psalmist and
organist at three of the four Masses, I found myself with the
logistical challenge of being in two places at once: accompanying
myself on the organ in the balcony while proclaiming the Psalm
from the ambo. I wanted to model good liturgical praxis but not
change too much too quickly. I knew from painful experience
how that experiment could end. I determined to choose my
I decided that, when there was not another psalmist, I would
sing the Responsorial Psalm a cappella from the ambo, because
the symbolism of the ambo as the place for the proclamation of
Scripture is important catechetically. I also chanted the Gospel
Acclamation from the sanctuary using a variety of well-known
melodies. Staying on pitch did not concern me, since voice was
my primary instrument in college. I was concerned that the
assembly might be unwilling to sing without the support of an
accompanying instrument. After much contemplation, I decided
that a simple, repeated melody with a limited range would work
best for the Psalm.
After considering many options, I found that the St.
Meinrad Psalm Tones would help me solve both problems. The
music for each verse of the Psalm consists of the reciting tone,
one or two preparatory notes, and a dotted note that corresponds
to the final accent of the verse. Each mode has six measures
available. The user is instructed on how to adapt the
melodies for stanzas with two to six lines in a consistent formula.
While all eight tones are based on the Eight Gregorian
Modes, some feel more "major" than others and work better for
the more festive liturgical seasons. The assembly is able to pick
up the refrain of the Psalm easily. Generally, only two measures
are used for the melody of the refrain—the first and last. The
Psalm tones also would prove useful when introducing the
Liturgy of the Hours to the parish.
We’ve been using these tones for the Responsorial Psalm
for more than three years, and the result has been most unexpected.
I expected to hear complaints that the melody for the
Psalm was boring; I expected to hear complaints about singing
anything at the early Mass; I expected to feel bored myself with
such simple melodies. None of these expectations came true.
What happened was amazing! The assembly started singing.
Just as surprising was the fact that they began to listen
intently to the verses. The sound of the assembly was surprising
at first—gentle and prayerful, but confident, as if they had
known the song forever. I saw faces looking up and listening as
the prayer unfolds.
For the first time in my experience as a psalmist, I felt connected
in a true dialogue with the assembly. I began to pray the
Psalms as I proclaimed them rather than focusing on the details
of musical arrangement.
As psalmist, the freedom of singing a cappella allowed me
to enhance my proclamation of the Psalm according to need.
Depending on the readings and liturgical season, I might
emphasize one passage by increasing or decreasing volume,
slowing the tempo or adding an exaggerated pause. The assembly
responded to this. Their faces came out of the worship aids.
Frequently I see individuals listening with their eyes closed to
the verses, then joining in song for the refrain.
Although I vary the Psalm mode at the other Sunday
Masses by liturgical season, for example, Advent is Mode I, Lent
is Mode II; Ordinary Time varies according to psalm type and
text, Christmas Mode V, etc., I have continued to use the most
common setting—Mode VIII at the 7:30 am Mass each week.
Amazingly, I have never heard a complaint that the melody is
tedious. I don’t think that most people even notice it is the same
each week. I even use Mode VIII for the Memorial Acclamation
and Great Amen. Using that mode allowed us to sing the same
melody when we moved to the third edition of The Roman
Missal. Since only the words changed for the Memorial
Acclamation, I was able to focus on teaching the longer pieces of
the Order of Mass.
After introducing these simple psalm tones for the
Responsorial, I began using traditional tunes for the
processional, for example, "O Come, O Come Emmanuel" during
Advent, "We Gather Together" during Ordinary Time, and
"Jesus Christ is Risen Today" during Easter Time. It was as
though the positive singing experience of the psalm tones created
a trusting environment in which I could slowly introduce
other familiar Catholic repertoire. Though I have not heard
complaints, I have heard the voice of the assembly participating
in sung prayer. It is more beautiful to my ears than any choir or
Why was an assembly that voted to have no music at the
Sunday Mass participating in sung prayer, even when they had
no supporting instrument? I believe to some degree the answer
lies in the qualities of plain song chant. The following are the
advantages of using these simple melodies:
- Limited range. The limited range of the Psalm is accessible
to almost everyone, and therefore does not draw attention to
the limitations of a singer’s range. Weak psalmists sound better.
The notation for the St. Meinrad Psalm Tones available on the
Internet (http://saintmeinradmusic.org/downloads/Meinrad_Psalm_Tones.pdf) is printed in a "higher" and "lower" key,
so even less talented singers sound good. Of course, when an
individual intones the Psalm a cappella, any starting pitch may
be used. The limited range also makes folks in the assembly
feel safe to enter the song and hides individual voices from
exposure. Tonally challenged singers blend with the assembly—so do big voices.
- Versatility. Psalm tones have many uses. We have used psalm
tones when we wanted to sing a text that was associated with
a hymn tune or chant that wasn’t in our repertoire. For instance,
my pastor has used one of the tones for the Exsultet and for
the Song of Farewell. At the opening of the Palm Sunday liturgy,
the assembly chanted the Hosanna to Mode V. When using
the Celtic Alleluia as the Gospel Acclamation, we insert the
Gospel verse of the day using the first and last measure (of the
four-bar system) of Mode VI.
- Minimal rehearsal time. The chants reduce the need for
extended rehearsal with the psalmist, thereby leaving more
time to prepare other choral pieces.
- Assembly preparation for chanted Liturgy of the Hours.
Listening to the psalmist sing the full four- or six-measure
modes makes chanting Morning and Evening Prayer easy.
The assembly already knows the melodies.
- Noble Simplicity. The elegant simplicity of these chants
dignifies any devotional prayer or liturgical function. They are
so easy to learn or repeat that even non-musicians can begin
to incorporate them into their prayer. Our Legion of Mary uses
some of the Psalm tones they’ve heard at Sunday Mass to chant
the Rosary together! Though this might not work at every
parish, these simple chant tones have greatly increased participation
in sung prayer at our church. I believe the tones have
also led the assembly to a greater appreciation of not only the
text of the psalms, but also to the texts of other traditional
chants associated with the liturgical year. The St. Meinrad
Psalm Tones worked well at our parish for many reasons, not
the least of which is that the parish repertoire leans toward
the traditional. I added a little gospel style during Easter
Time and an occasional folk Mass, but the mainstream style
A musical liturgist needs to have several tools available.
Experience is a tool that should not be overlooked. I have been
grateful that my predecessors have shared their experience with
me until I possessed enough of my own. The following are lessons
that have been handed to me along the way.
- Choose music selections that enable the assembly to sing over
those which only interest the music ministers.
- Fall in love with the sound of a singing assembly.
- Learn to listen to the singing (or silent) assembly. If you listen,
they will show you what they like and what type of support
they need. Let all other music serve as accompaniment to the
- Understand that the function of liturgical or ritual music is
different than performance music.
- Take time to get to know the assembly before imposing your
musical preferences upon them.
- Look for song texts and melodies that already work at the
parish and build from there.
- Search for what is right in the parish music program, not for
what needs to be fixed.
- Understand that liturgical music belongs to the assembly.
- Understand service, humility, and vocation.
- Understand music as an art in service to the liturgy.
As music ministers and liturgists, we offer our talents and our
knowledge in service to the liturgy. When we learn to love the
sound of the body of Christ in sung prayer above all other
instruments, we begin to find new tools to support the singing
assembly. If you haven’t become familiar with the use of Psalm
Tones such as the St. Meinrad Psalm Tones or the Conception
Abbey Psalm Tones (which accompany the Grail Psalter), you
might consider using them in your parish. These melodies can
greatly enhance the sung prayer life of your community. If our
measuring stick for the success of sung worship is the "full, conscious
and active participation by the assembly" (Constitution on
the Sacred Liturgy, 14) rather than performance-quality musical
execution, psalm tones are one of the most versatile, inexpensive,
and prayerful tools available.
is the director of the Office of Worship for the Diocese