Is the Organ Really a Sacred Instrument?

Pianos and guitars are comparatively cheap, and money is tight. Those of us who believe the organ is a sacred instrument have to take the question – “is the organ really a sacred instrument?” – and make it real, a spiritual matter for our pastors and parish councils.

The Second Vatican Council’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, the document shaping modern Catholic liturgy, has much to say about the music of the Mass, including this: 

In the Latin Church the pipe organ is to be held in high esteem, for it is the traditional musical instrument which adds a wonderful splendor to the Church’s ceremonies and powerfully lifts up man’s mind to God and to higher things (Article 120).

The pipe organ is the only instrument admitted to the Roman rite without question.  Others have to be examined for their suitability “for sacred use.”  This declaration implies that somehow the organ, alone within the western tradition, is a sacred instrument.

Can instruments be sacred? 

Can this really be true?  Why should any instrument be sacred, or not sacred?  And how is it sacred?  Is it intrinsically – or, as some aestheticians would term it, “ontologically” – sacred, in the very nature of its being?  Or is “accidentally” sacred, a quality somehow acquired but not strictly deriving from the nature of the instrument?

Once these were questions for philosophers.  Practical church musicians would hardly be bothered because we took the answers for granted.  Of course the organ is the only sacred instrument of the western tradition.  Of course every church should have one.  But we cannot take that for granted any longer.  Pianos, guitars, and all manner of other secular instruments have invaded the sanctuary. 

So the philosopher’s concerns have now become practical for church musicians.  Pianos and guitars are comparatively cheap, and money in small parishes is tight.  Those of us who believe that the organ is a sacred instrument and that its presence or absence in church affects our spiritual welfare cannot win that battle.  We have to take on the philosopher’s question – “is the organ really a sacred instrument?” – and make it real, a spiritual matter for our pastors and parish councils.  On this field we can win.  But the philosopher’s questions are, well, philosophical, abstract and hard to explain compared with the bottom line of a church’s music budget and the obvious practicalities of a digital piano.  How shall we argue convincingly that the choice of instrument for church matters more than those?

Let’s consider the field of battle.  Against our proposition that  “the organ is a sacred instrument and therefore the only proper permanent choice for a church,” opponents will deploy three arguments:

1) Only the words of sacred music make it sacred.  Instruments don’t sing words; therefore the choice of instrument for accompaniment doesn’t matter.  

2) The perception of the organ as a sacred instrument is purely subjective; it may sound sacred to you, but not to me.  Therefore we are free to discard the expensive and immobile pipe organ in favor of something more practical.  

3) The pipe organ has become irrelevant, unfamiliar, and out of touch with human experience, like the typewriter, something that interests only antiquarians, certainly not the common churchgoer.

The first argument is a specific application of a music theory called absolutism.  Absolutism postulates that musical tones can mean nothing at all.  They cannot refer to anything in the real world except themselves.  A tune is a tune and that’s all it is.  It is not about anything, does not point to anything, except itself.  Since the music, as music, has no meaning by itself, all the meaning of a church song must come from that part that does have meaning, the words that are sung.  If a good melody sets Psalm 90, then it is a good sacred piece.  

To test this argument, try a thought experiment. A friend is planning a wedding, and you are asked to advise on the most suitable choice of music for the wedding procession at the beginning.  The friend gives you three pieces of music he especially likes to choose from.  You must pick only one:

1) A slow and stately march played by organ and trumpets in a major key (e.g., any Baroque French Overture

2) A flashy piano piece (e.g., any etude of Chopin)

3) A slow piece in a minor key

I have made this experiment several times with undergraduates, not particularly trained in music, and the result is always the same: a unanimous choice for the first selection.

Absolutism cannot stand up to this result.  For if there is no meaning in musical sounds, then it shouldn’t matter which of the three pieces is used as the wedding march, because there are no words to convey meaning.  But a unanimous vote obviously indicates that those students understand some propriety between the music and the wedding procession.  In some sense, the slow and stately march means, or can mean, “wedding procession” much more appropriately than either of the other two choices. 

Another thought experiment: imagine that we are composing music for a mission to somewhere in the southern United States.  So, in the spirit of liturgical inculturation, we set “Glory to God in the highest” to the tune “Dixie.”  The instant reaction: this is a terrible idea.  “But why should it be?” we ask the absolutists.  “Dixie” means nothing, and the words make the tune sacred.  Few would agree that the tune, just the tune, of Dixie means nothing.  It is a terrible idea.

What we have discovered in these two experiments is that pure music, without words, has what is called “semantic range” after all.  It may have meaning, a range of meanings, as most words in a language have ranges of meanings.  The Baroque march may contain the meaning of “wedding march” within its semantic range – although that is not necessary – but the tune Dixie cannot contain the meaning of any sacred text within its semantic range.  Sacred words, even the holiest, can never guarantee the suitability of a song for worship or liturgy.  The music matters.  Any aspect of it – its melody, harmony, meter, rhythm, and certainly its timbre, the kind of sound it makes – can convey meaning.  The sound of an organ is not neutral, a blank slate.

What about subjectivity, the idea that “sacredness” is an individual perception? The proper response is: “the perception of the organ as a sacred instrument is not merely subjective, but intersubjective,” a subjectivity shared among a community, and this makes all the difference.

Understanding “sound tokens”

To understand why, we have to understand how pure sounds, such as the sound of a pipe organ, become “sound tokens,” carriers of meaning, as does human speech.  Speech is full of sound tokens called words.  Everyone agrees that the sound tokens of a natural language such as English or French have meanings associated with them.  How they acquire those meanings is the key. 

English speakers call the clothing worn on our feet “shoe.”  “Shoe” is a sound token.  Phonologists (language sound scientists) would objectively describe this particular sound token as beginning with a palato-alveolar fricative and ending with a high rounded vowel.

Now semanticists (language meaning scientists) believe that in natural languages the relationships between their sound tokens and their meanings is arbitrary.  There is no a priori reason why a sound token beginning with a palato-alveolar fricative and ending with a high rounded vowel must point to the kind of covering put on our feet.  That could just as well be indicated by some other combination of sounds as, in fact, in other languages, it almost always is.  French speakers use the sound combination chaussure to point to it.  In French, the sound token beginning with a palato-alveolar fricative and ending with a high rounded vowel points not to shoes, but to cabbages. 

Arbitrary meaning of sound tokens explains why languages are so powerful, why they can talk about anything, because anything can be associated with some sound token that is just arbitrarily invented for that purpose.  But arbitrary meaning also implies subjectivity.  If there is no necessary relation between a sound token and what it means, then that relation is not objective, and speakers and listeners must believe that some such relation exists to perceive those meanings when they talk and listen.  But how is it then, if the meanings of sound tokens in a language are arbitrary, that communication ever succeeds?  

Communication succeeds because the perception of meanings of the sound tokens in a language is not only subjective, but intersubjective.  Speakers of English agree among themselves that beginning with a palato-alveolar fricative and ending with a high rounded vowel will refer the thing we wear on our feet.  The agreement to let the sound token “shoe” work this way is communitarian.

This means that in the practical world of everyday speech, the intersubjectivity of commonly held meanings of words is a powerful thing.  It is just as powerful, in the practicalities of everyday life within a language community, as absolute meanings, as if the meanings of words were absolutely determined.  The meaning of “shoe” can be personal if you wish, but the cost of making it is cutting yourself off from the English-speaking world, a very high cost, so in effect, its intersubjectivity is just as effective as absolute truth.

The sound of a pipe organ is a sound token too, and the perception of what it may signify is not merely subjective, but intersubjective, and its communitarian meaning may be just as forceful as the meanings of words in a language community.  We can resist communitarian meanings only at the very high price of resigning from the community.  

Semantic association and distinction

But, our friends will object, we have only demonstrated that the pipe organ may have some meaning commonly understood.  Why should it mean “sacred”?  For two reasons: semantic association and distinction.

No native speaker of English learns the meaning of “shoe” by looking it up in a dictionary.  No, we learn it from hearing our parents say “shoe” every time they put the things on our little feet.  We learn the communitarian meanings of sound tokens through the experience of contexts of actual living.  The role of context in this learning is crucial, because in context we not only associate the sound token with what it represents, but we also learn the proper situation for its use. The more constrained and the more consistent the context, the more specific the meaning of the sound token.  If shoes were occasionally worn on the head, then semantic range of the sound token would be broader, but they are not, and so have come to mean foot apparel almost exclusively.

Music historians believe that the pipe organ was introduced into churches about the tenth century.  Why this happened no one knows, and it doesn’t matter.  The fact is that the pipe organ was the only instrument, the only non-vocal source of music, officially allowed in churches for centuries.  This history allows the semantic operation of association.  The context of hearing the pipe organ was clear, constrained, and consistent.  Its association with sacred spaces is as strong as the association of shoes and feet.

To have as precise a meaning as possible, a sound token, whether “shoe” or pipe organ, must be distinct from sound tokens of similar meaning.  To define a sound token well is to set the limits of its semantic range, what makes it different from other things.  “Slipper” and “boot” have something in common with “shoe” but they are not the same.

The pipe organ has at least two properties of strong distinction.  One is its location in churches.  Its very immobility has guaranteed that it has always been heard in churches, building a semantic association of course, but also a semantic distinction that sets it apart from any other sound, voices included.  The second distinction is of course the timbre (or the set of timbres) of its sound.  Nothing comes close to the grand sound of a pipe organ.

So we can declare that the organ sounds sacred because it has been associated with sacred liturgies, exclusively, for ten centuries, and because that is where members of western societies have always experienced that sound, it has been made distinct from all the other instrumental sounds of the secular world.  We can concede without fear that the organ is not intrinsically or “ontologically” sacred because of this, but for the practical purposes of dealing with communitarian meanings in the real world, it might as well be.  In the real world, that the sound of a pipe organ instantly conjures images and sensations of sacred spaces is still taken for granted by smart people who are not even musicians.  How many Hollywood movies use the organ sound in the background of a scene to say “now you’re in church?”  The director wants to ensure that we are award of the sacredness of the space without declaring it in the dialogue, and he wisely chooses the most economical sound to do this.

And in showing the churches in their films, these directors reinforce and renew the semantic association of organ and sacredness.  It is worth emphasizing and remembering that the specific meaning of any sound token at any moment, be it a word or a musical instrument, depends heavily on the context of its use.  Even one as clear as “shoe” may alter its meaning significantly if it is uttered by a car mechanic looking at your brakes or by a man with a hammer standing next to a horse.  The most important context for the pipe organ is its location in churches of western religious traditions.

“If that is so,” rejoin our friends, “could not the piano too acquire a sacred semantic and replace the organ in traditional western churches?  If we bring the piano into churches, people will begin to know the piano as a sacred instrument just as effective as the pipe organ.”  They have a point.  Semantic ranges are plastic and can change, if the context of their usage changes in a consistent way.  Just think how much the English words “chip,” “awesome,” and “issue,” have changed in just a few years.

Actually, sacred music history has known this kind of experiment in the early seventeenth century, when opera, a new music become wildly popular, began to move into the churches in the form of sacred concertos and church cantatas, eventually growing into the symphonic masses of Haydn and Beethoven and gargantuan Romantic conceptions such as the Verdi Requiem.  “I like Verdi, but not in church,” responded Pope St. Pius X.  The graft of opera onto liturgy never really took because it never sounded quite appropriate, never sounded solemn enough for the divine liturgy.  

The problem was semantic distinction, and I suspect that the piano will have the same problem.   Let us be clear.  No sound token is intrinsically sacred, not even the pipe organ, not even Gregorian chant.  No sound token is intrinsically secular, either.  And sound tokens may change in their communitarian perception, their semantic range for the language community that adopts them.  In theory, therefore, yes, it is possible that the piano sound could come to own a sacred semantic as powerful and clear as that of the pipe organ.  How would this happen?  Association of the piano sound with sacred places is a necessary condition but it is not sufficient, as the experience of opera in churches shows us.  Semantic association must be accompanied by semantic distinction.  The piano must not only replace the organ in religious spaces as the predominant liturgical instrument, but also lose all the piano’s other associations, reinforced by everyday experience, with saloons, bars, cocktail lounges, concert halls, practice rooms, student recitals, living rooms, children practicing, and all its other present roles in the secular world.  As long as it retains those associations, it can never acquire a robust and clear sacred semantic and never sound solemn in church, just as operatic masses never did because they never abandoned the theater.  For all practical purposes, the piano will remain a secular instrument for the foreseeable future.  When played in church, it brings all that secular semantic baggage right along with it.

Relevance and transcendence 

It is on this very point that relevance, the third argument, also fails.  The relevance argument proposes that the symbols in churches, including its sound tokens which are musical symbols, must be tightly connected with the secular world in order to make the entire religious enterprise appear to be important in the lives of believers.  Symbols that originated in the ancient world of Greece and Rome or in the middle ages, such as the pipe organ, cannot hope to be spiritually relevant to moderns.

If we want our worship symbols, including the music, to mean something sacred, then relevance stands in flat contradiction to semantic distinction.  A central meaning of “sacred” is “not secular.”  To sound sacred, music therefore must be semantically distinct from the secular world.  That does not entail that it has no relation with it whatsoever. Organ music uses the same scales and rhythms that most secular music uses, and yet its unique sound and other idiosyncratic qualities give it sufficient distinction to retain the meaning of “sacred,” alone among all instruments of the western tradition.

Article 120 is correct.  We need the pipe organ.  For Catholicism and other sacred traditions, symbols enrich crucially our religious experience and religious life.  Article 8 of the same Constitution states that “In the earthly Liturgy we take part in a foretaste of that Heavenly Liturgy which is celebrated in the holy city of Jerusalem toward which we journey as pilgrims, where Christ is sitting at the right hand of God.”  In other words, we do not go to Mass just to experience another meeting of like-minded friends and acquaintances, just to find support, just to see the things and hear the words and music so similar to what we might hear on a television show.  We go to have a “foretaste” of the next world.  We go for transcendence.

In Eastern religions, transcendence can mean, simply, escape from the world. Catholic liturgy has a more delicate task.  We cannot reject the world; God created it and personally intervened to save it.  Catholic liturgy is therefore born of the world, and its elements, both real and symbological, and worldly things.  But to have that foretaste we can never be satisfied with a liturgy that is only of earth.  It must transcend, build a bridge to the heavenly world, even if it lasts but a moment.  Thus the Roman vestments, the medieval architecture, the elevated language act as crucial “not of this world” symbols.  But music – intangible, invisible, creating its own flow of time free of the world’s time—can outdo them all in its power to transcend, as long as it is a music with a distinctly sacred semantic range.  That is why we need the pipe organ.

That is why we should resist pianos in church, despite all their economic advantages.  Piano music for a Catholic liturgy must greatly reduce the transcendent quality of the experience, for reasons both technical and objective.  To compose music responsibly for the piano of any kind, even if sacred words are attached, any competent composer must rely on piano idioms, the kinds of melody, harmony, and rhythm that sound “pianistic.”  As soon as that is done, those same idioms that show the composer to be professionally competent betray the semantic distinction, because those idioms bring along all those piano associations from the secular world.  The bridge to the next world is undermined before it is begun.  How can we contemplate the next world, the transcendent, while we constantly hear musical symbols, the most powerful symbols in liturgy, of the wine bar and recital hall?

All this assumes that the pastor understands the gravity and nature of the issue when the continuation or replacement of a pipe organ in a church is considered.  We have outlined the principal arguments, our defenses of that “traditional musical instrument which adds a wonderful splendor” to any religious proceeding: the defense against the argument that “only the words matter”; against the argument that “sacredness of sound is subjective”; and against the argument that “the organ is no longer relevant”.  But in most practical parish situations we’ll not have time or opportunity to lay all this out.  So we have to make our arguments quick and hard, convincing but brief.

If our friends say that only the words of a song make it sacred, ask them to imagine the Lord’s Prayer set to “Dixie,” or actually, any other tune that you believe brings along similarly objectionable semantic baggage.  They will not be able to imagine such a setting with a straight face, and so they quickly see that music, as well as the words, affects the meaning of a piece.  To turn the point away from the negative, one might point out right here that the connotations of the organ, with its long sacred history, are entirely positive and uplifting.

That already begins the “subjectivity” argument.  Another thought experiment.  Is the meaning of the cross, the most common Christian symbol, subjective?  Well, yes, but that does not prevent it from having a communitarian meaning for all Christians as well, so that we might all find it truly awesome.  The pipe organ, more than any other instrument, lays claim to that same kind of universality, like it or not.  Would your parish council consent to removing all the crosses because they are ontologically subjective?

As for the relevance argument, which could be the most frequent of all, we might play a bit of some church song that originates in the piano world and point out the ways that it resembles commercial music of television, radio, movies.  Do we really want music of this type to praise the Most High?  Is this the best we can do?  Then turn the semantic distinction of the organ sound into a virtue (without using the term “semantic distinction”).  It can take worshippers out of this world.

Finally, there is the matter of “liking it.”  God gave us all free will, a particularly low form of which is called “taste,” and we cannot help reacting to things that we hear and see, but still, expressing one’s liking for the music in a liturgy is in some sense like saying that one dislikes the “Our Father.”  What really matters is whether the music is good for the liturgy, whether it is good sacred music, good for our spiritual welfare, and it is in those matters that we must stand up for the organ.  In the Western world, the organ really is a sacred instrument. 

Related at CWR: “Liturgical Music Today: The Best of Times, the Worst of Times” (Oct 25, 2013) | An interview with Joseph P. Swain, author of Sacred Treasure: Understanding Catholic Liturgical Music.

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About Joseph P. Swain 0 Articles
Joseph P. Swain is author of Sacred Treasure: Understanding Catholic Liturgical Music (Liturgical Press, 2012), associate professor of music at Colgate University, and director of music at St. Malachy’s parish in Sherburne, New York.