Music in the Roman Catholic Mass

Jonathan Schranz, Director of Music at St George's RC Cathedral, Southwark, explains the role of music within the liturgy of Solemn Mass

Music and the Mass

The essential theology of the Roman Catholic Mass is the ‘sacramental presence of Christ’. The concept of sacrament is vital in understanding why the Mass is so important for the Catholic community.

A sacrament is about making visible something that is invisible. For Roman Catholics, the Mass makes visible the love of God in the form of bread and wine – the offering and sacrifice of Christ on the cross is made present at Mass. During the Eucharistic prayer at the centre of the Mass, Catholics believe that these become the sacramental presence of Christ: they are no longer bread and wine but the real presence of Christ himself.

The Roman Catholic Church has made clear its perspective on the place of music in the Mass:

Liturgical worship is given a more noble form when it is celebrated in song…pastors of souls will therefore do all they can to achieve this form of celebration.

Musicam Sacram, 1967

The music is always subservient to and reflective of the liturgical action taking place at any given moment: there is never music for music’s sake, it always has a purpose.

…sacred music is to be considered the more holy in proportion as it is more closely connected with the liturgical action, whether it adds delight to prayer, fosters unity of minds, or confers greater solemnity upon the sacred rites.

Sacrosanctum Concilium, Chapter VI

Solemn Mass

The Solemn Mass (or High Mass) is the fullest form of the Mass: usually celebrated by a priest along with a deacon, with most of the mass parts being sung rather than spoken, and incense used. It is common in most parishes to have at least one Solemn Mass per week, and in cathedrals and larger parishes this is often led by a choir.

Order of Mass

The Mass is made up of two main parts: the Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Eucharist. It begins with the Introductory Rites and ends with the Concluding Rites.

Another way of dividing a Mass is into its “ordinary” parts – those texts which are part of the Mass on a daily basis – and its “proper” parts – the texts of prayers and selection of Scripture readings proper to the specific feast, feria or other occasion being observed.

The Mass Ordinary includes the Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus and Agnus Dei, usually sung by the choir.

The sung Mass Propers include the antiphons at the Entrance, Offertory and Communion, the Responsorial Psalm and the Gospel Acclamation.

The order of Mass is given in the Roman Missal, with readings and psalmody listed in the Lectionary. The same order and readings are used throughout the world, in Latin and in the vernacular, moving through a three-year cycle of liturgical years.

The Church acknowledges Gregorian chant as specially suited to the Roman liturgy: therefore, other things being equal, it should be given pride of place in liturgical services.

Sacrosanctum Concilium, Chapter VI

Gregorian Chant

Gregorian Chant is the music most suited to the Mass. The tones to which the priest sings the various dialogues (e.g. “The Lord be with you”) are ancient melodies, treasured by the church. In monastic communities it is not uncommon to have the entirety of the Mass sung to Gregorian Chant, prioritising the Gregorian antiphons over hymns, for instance. However, in most churches we find a mix of musical styles present in any given Mass, with Gregorian Chant most commonly used for the Gospel Acclamation and various sung dialogues.

Congregational singing

Congregational singing is an important part of Catholic worship. In a Solemn Mass this can take the form of sung responses, congregational mass settings, hymns, responsorial psalms and the gospel acclamation. The choir may also sing many of these alone, depending on the style of worship preferred at that particular church.

Many cathedrals and parishes make a distinction between Sunday ‘Family Mass’, often around 9-10am, and ‘Solemn Mass’. At a Family Mass one can expect more congregational singing along with provision for children’s liturgy groups, and potentially a music group or folk band leading the music. At Solemn Mass there is more likely to be a choir and organ leading the singing, with choral settings alongside congregational hymns.

Congregation at Mass at Westminster Cathedral

Come to Mass

Roman Catholics have an obligation to attend Mass every Sunday, but those of other faiths and none are welcome to attend Mass also. Most parishes and cathedrals offer multiple Masses per day, but one is most likely to find a sung mass at a cathedral or large parish offered on a Sunday morning, or in the evening on a Solemnity.

As Roman Catholics believe that the Body and Blood of Christ is received during the Mass, Holy Communion at Mass is distributed only to baptised Roman Catholics who have made their First Holy Communion. Non-Catholics, or Catholics not in a position to receive Holy Communion, are welcome to come forward to receive a blessing from the priest. This is usually indicated by crossing their arms across their chest.

Many cathedrals and churches livestream their weekly sung Mass either on their website or on YouTube. The website offers an excellent catalogue of said and sung masses being livestreamed daily.


Photographs on this page © Marcin Mazur/