Saturday, June 20, 2009

What Does the "Science" Say?

I recently wrote that Catholics are deeply unsatisfied with the status quo of music in their parishes – and I based that claim on my own extended experience in talking to Catholics about their music issues at their parish. Some people questioned my claim and asked for a “scientific” backing in the form of surveys and polls.

This scientific evidence is said to carry more weight than, for example, measuring how many laughs that a stand-up comic gets by making fun of Catholic music since the 1970s.

I’ve long looked for empirical evidence that would run either direction on the national or regional level, but never really found that tell-all piece of science that would size up what Catholics really think about music at Mass. In fact, I seriously doubt that such a thing is possible.

There are good reasons for this. There sheer heterogeneity of the liturgical experience around the country doesn’t lend itself to scientific examination. Think of your own town or even your own parish. There are many different Masses in each parish and it is nearly impossible for the newcomer to know for sure what is going on.

One might attend the 11:00am Mass for a full year without even being aware that there is a Mass at 8:00an that features a Gregorian schola, for example. Over time, people tend to stick with the Mass time they like best and come to tolerate whatever musical experience that comes with, without looking at other choices even within the same parish structure.

If it would be difficult enough for a researcher with a clipboard to gain a full picture of the liturgical experience in one parish, and assess the preferences of the people as regards that experience, the problems multiply without end in trying to do this across an entire region much less the entire country.

This is one reason that people tend to argue so much on the subject of what life was like before Vatican II: the experience is as varied as the individuals involved. Some places had full propers in Gregorian chant every week and others never heard a proper text sung.

Some attempts have been made to size up Catholic preferences. In 2006, the National Association of Pastoral Musicians sponsored a poll on the favorite Catholic song. Already we might detect the problem. Catholic music for liturgy is not just a series of songs. Catholic music is ritual music that gives an audible lift to the prayer within the Mass.

To poll for the favorite Catholic song is like polling Shakespeare scholars on their favorite limerick (“There was a lord from Dunsinane, Who thought to dispose of his thane…"). In other words, it really amounts to a change of subject.

The results were nonetheless interesting. The headlines blared that “On Eagles Wings” came in as the favorite, but a closer look shows that those polled could only pick one song and the winner was picked by only 8% of the people – the single highest percentage but hardly decisive. In total 670 songs ended up on the list! Two of the top ten are not even associated with the Catholic tradition at all (“Amazing Grace” and “How Great Thou Art”).

What the top picks really demonstrate is what music is played most often, so the results might represent preferences but not meta-preferences, in the same way a food survey of prison inmates might not yield results that a gourmet chef could use to prepare meals at a 5-star restaurant. They might be picking from an existing stock of goods but relaying some ideal that they have not experienced and do not know is possible.

I must say that any institution that would commission a survey on the favorite Catholic song is completely missing the point of Catholic music. We are not a song-singing people insofar as liturgy is concerned, or, at least, we should not be. The Mass is not designed to accommodate a series of outbursts of songs. The Mass is an integrated prayer that achieves its highest state of nobility when sung.

I would make the same critique of the St. Anthony Messenger poll in 1995, in which the publication asked its readers to mail in comments on their favorite music. The editors got an earful, and it was all over the map. The most-picked song was “Be Not Afraid,” but people also sent in complaints about the absence of traditional music, whatever that might be.

The most instructive of these surveys that I’ve seen, and certainly the most detailed and thorough, comes from a 1995 Indiana University doctoral dissertation by Barbara Resch. She was seeking to discover the musical preferences of young people in many faith traditions, and her method was to play a snippet of music and ask what is most appropriate for church. Nearly 500 young people were involved in her study.

She reports that she had expected their choices to reflect their own choices of popular music. This did not happen. Across a huge diversity of people from all over the country, what she found was that the young people chose choral music, not instrumental; music sung by a group of singers rather than a soloist; and music characterized by a simple musical texture and understandable text.

Rock, jazz, and country was overwhelmingly rejected by these young people as music appropriate for church.

I suspect that what made the difference is the introduction of the proviso: appropriate for Church. This calls upon people to make a judgment that is not entirely solipsistic. They are being asked to think about the bigger picture. This is very different from asking about favorites or about personal preferences.

In the Catholic world, the call for sacred music and dissatisfaction with the commercial status quo seems to generally correlate with maturity in the faith – at least this has been my observation. Hardly anyone says: “we should have chant in church because it is my favorite kind of music.” The commentary is usually broader: chant is the music of the faith, it is sung prayer, it is the music that most perfectly expresses theological and liturgical ideals. It is the music that is most appropriate.

Even if we could somehow take a survey to assess current opinion, and there is no sense stopping efforts to do this and there is always something to be gained by garnering as much information as possible, even though the results will end up flawed, there ought to be some way to weigh the results alongside issues of maturity and knowledge.

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