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Roman Catholic Song Spectrum

While I am not personally Roman Catholic, I have spent and continue to spend a lot of my time in Roman Catholic spaces, with Roman Catholic musicians, and leading song within/from/of the Roman Catholic church. There are scholars and professionals within the Roman Catholic Church who have found their life’s calling studying and leading Roman Catholic song, and from them you can find much more thorough analyses than what I could ever hope to provide ( like Sister Judith Kubicki, CSSF or Father Anthony Ruff, OSB). However, over the last decade I’ve seen a spectrum play out that I thought would be helpful to name. At the heart of this spectrum of song is somewhat of a “which came first, the chicken or the egg” question. Do churches that have certain instrumentations tend towards certain song styles, or do churches that prefer certain song styles tend towards certain instrumentation? I’m not sure the answer matters.


The Spectrum

So here’s the spectrum.

The bottom of the timeline contains the various instrumentations I’m aware of being used in Roman Catholic churches. On the left is a band with plugged-in instruments. That means a guitar that requires a DI box (or a fully electric guitar), microphones for instrumentalists, an electronic keyboard with various synth abilities, an electric bass, etc…and in order to get this group to sound good it requires a sound system with a mixer. On the right of the spectrum is a cappella singing. Interestingly this spectrum also represents a historical timeline with the a cappella singing tradition being the oldest and the “plugged in” band instrumentation being the newest to find its way into the church’s song.

The top of the timeline contains two rows. There is an interesting parallel in Roman Catholic churches that is particularly pronounced and noticeable compared to Protestant spaces due to the Roman Catholic Church’s relatively recent arrival to regular and robust congregational singing and specifically congregational song composition. The top row is the non-Roman Catholic literature that is sung within Roman Catholic Masses, and the second row is the songs and hymns written specifically for or by Roman Catholics.



Here are some songs/composer examples you might see in each category. These are just examples and is certainly not a thorough or exhaustive list.

Non-Roman Catholic Songs & Hymns:

  • CCM/CCLI Top 100 – Chris Tomlin, Kari Jobe
  • 21st Century Indie/Folk/Pop –Switchfoot, Cardiphonia, Indelible Grace
  • Strophic & Verse/Refrain Hymnody – It Is Well With My Soul, Great Is Thy Faithfulness, Amazing Grace

Roman Catholic Songs & Hymns:

  • Roman Catholic CCM – Matt Maher, John Michael Talbot, Audrey Assad
  • Local Folk Expressions – Coritos, Mariachi, Songs with Non-Western Scales/Tonalities/Instruments
  • Post Vatican II Folk/Pop – Marty Haugen, David Haas, St. Louis Jesuits, Tony Alonso
  • Strophic RC Hymnody – Hail Holy Queen, Holy God We Praise Thy Name
  • Chant – Regina Coeli, Alma Redemptoris Mater

Each category of song is originally conceptualized/designed for a certain type of instrumentation. In my experience, churches that use an organ are much more likely to sing a strophic hymn or chant than they are to sing “Open the Eyes of My Heart.” Likewise, churches that have plugged-in praise bands are less likely to sing songs by Haas/Haugen but even less likely than that to sing strophic hymnody like “Great Is Thy Faithfulness.” And then, of course, are the churches that sit in the middle with a folk ensemble of some kind (not plugged in or mic’d but with all acoustic instruments). These groups are much more likely to singing songs by Marty Haugen, David Haas, etc…than songs by Matt Maher or chant.

Of course, that doesn’t mean a particular song/hymn/chant can’t be done by other instrumentations, but the further away on the spectrum you cross, the more difficult it becomes to do that type of song successfully. To take a CCM song and do it successfully on organ, for instance, it takes much more planning, arranging, thoughtfulness, and skill than doing “Great Is Thy Faithfulness” on organ. Likewise, it takes much more time, effort, and skill to pull of singing “Great Is Thy Faithfulness” with a praise band than leading it with an organ. That is why I’ve found the middle instrumentation has the greatest capacity to sing the widest variety of song styles because they don’t have as far to go to get to either extreme of the spectrum.



So why am I pointing all this out? Well, first of all it’s helpful to name things. I wanted to name this reality to see what wisdom or new information we can glean from something that may seem obvious but I haven’t seen specifically identified. Second, I hope that this will help clarify your song choices for your parish. Do you have a rock-star organist and a well-made pipe organ? Then it makes sense to play lots of strophic hymnody, maybe a little bit of the Haas/Haugen style literature, and a sparing amount of CCM music. To ask the organist to do otherwise will create a lot of problems for a lot of reasons. Likewise, if you have a talented praise band, it makes sense that the primarily literature your congregation sings be written by folks writing for band, a bit of the Haas/Haugen style literature, and only a sparing amount of strophic hymnody. To ask the band to do otherwise will create a lot of problems for a lot of reasons.

There’s room at the table for a huge variety of song and instrumentations. Let’s embrace variety but do it smartly. Play to your congregation’s strengths and form your identity. Don’t shy away from what you’re good at or called to sing, live into it. And for those of you who are lucky enough to have a band who can rock strophic hymns, an organist who can play CCM, or any other talented musician who can adeptly cross genre & instrumentation boundaries, I say congratulations, you’re in the minority. For those who are training the next generation of parish musicians, your goal should be to produce musicians who can function on the spectrum as widely as possible.


Author Brian Hehn is the director of The Center for Congregational Song.


5 thoughts on “Roman Catholic Song Spectrum”

  1. Alan Hommerding says:

    In my experience, the personality and tastes of the pastor often have as much to do with this as any musical/instrumentation concern. The pastor is the primary liturgist of the parish, has absolute authority over it – including the hiring/firing of musicians.

  2. Ed Lane says:

    Our choices in our very liberal RC parish are limited by the theology of the hymns in question. We are big on the mission of Christians and our responsibilities pertaining thereunto. Marian hymns are rare; hymns simply of praise are not frequent, with the exception of African American spirituals; strictly devotional pieces happen typically at funerals; and strophic hymns are definitely a red-haired stepchild. We emphasize hymns based on the Beatitudes and of our Eucharistic centrality, and So lots of Haugen, Haas, etc. But there are times when I really long for a barn-burner of a strophic hymn.

  3. Ed Lane says:

    And thank you so much for this thoughtful analysis, Brian. Much appreciated!

  4. Mary says:

    I’ve got a theory that the really great pieces from each of the literature spectrum points are the ones that can be played and sound good on any instrument. For example Bernadette Farrell’s Christ be our Light: I learned it from guitar led recordings. It looks like it was originally published arranged for piano, but I’ve heard some great organ led renditions, too.

    There’s also the interesting trend toward CCM interpretations that include traditional strophic hymody, eg Amazing Grace (My Chains are Gone).

  5. Paul Farseth says:

    J. Michael Joncas’s FROM SACRED SONG TO RITUAL MUSIC, Collegeville, Liturgical Press, 1997, is relevant here. It documents some of the paths by which the Catholic Church came to authorize some of the musical forms in worship which once would have been restricted. A carefully documented and stimulating book.

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