National Catholic Register


Silence Surely Beats Sacred Muzak

I wish to address a trend that is just now beginning to grow as a practice in Catholic churches.

BY W.A. Young

April 8-14, 2007 Issue | Posted 4/3/07 at 10:00 AM


I wish to address a trend that is just now beginning to grow as a practice in Catholic churches.

There is still a chance that it may be nipped in the bud — and so I write upon it before, perhaps, I have laid a solid groundwork for an understanding of the principles by which such a practice should be rejected by those who have an administrative or performing capacity in the Catholic Church.

This is the burgeoning practice of playing recordings of music in church — most often of Gregorian chant — as “piped-in” background music during the hours when a church’s doors are open and there is no Mass. Churches are beginning to imitate the commercial practice of playing Muzak, and they often begin by playing recordings of chant.

One would like to be able to say otherwise, but the arguments that fairly criticize commercial Muzak apply fairly to playing sacred music as Muzak in churches. The critique of pervasive technology has been set forth by writers since the middle of the 20th century: Jacques Ellul, Malcolm Muggeridge, Marshall McLuhan and George Grant — to name a few. Their words stand as a witness and warning that technology can ultimately dominate every environment and every person, leaving no room for the sublime.

The secular world in America has for the present lost the battle against Muzak and its abuses.

The commercial world already abuses Muzak in a way that is totally irrational. Muzak itself tends to abuse. As soon as someone gets sick of any aspect of it, it is changed, but not given up — because it is perceived as a necessity. It is always approached with more care in the beginning than in the end and it always reaches the stage of the ridiculous — and is still not given up.

Muzak in church will be subject to the same abuse that already dogs the commercial sphere. There are many serious, rational and provable arguments that show the folly and subsequent disaster involved in the use of church Muzak. Each of these arguments takes time to set forth and I will here give only a snapshot of one or two of them.

Music is made by people — by musicians. The more you use recordings to replace real musicians — no matter that you don’t have the money to keep musicians available in person — you contribute to the decline of the real practice of performing music. It naturally follows that you contribute to ignorance of the performance and analysis of the very music you are spreading.

Not only do you add to ignorance of performance, but you also set up a form of competition to the live musician. It is easier and cheaper to replace live music with recordings. You reinforce whatever economic or social force it was that drove you to use Muzak in the first place. (That social force turns out to be, ironically, technological life in the rest of the world.)

The above — which could be proven in more extensive writing — does not even address the question of whether truly sacred Muzak is possible. Is it possible that a music which expresses devotion can be set out by a machine — for an audience that can devalue that music at will? (That is, the audience may more easily interrupt it, ignore it or not be present at all for its performance.) Can music played by a machine for no one — can that music be called sacred? Does that music express anything in the heart of a living person that can be called devotion?

All over this country, in the secular world, every day and every night, machines play music — often for no one or else for those who do not listen, replacing the live musician — as ignorance about music grows, and serious musicians cannot find work.

At the Cathedral in Santa Fe, N.M. — truly one of the seminal places of Catholic history in the United States — Muzak is already playing. And it has already departed from playing Gregorian chant. Those praying in the church have no choice but to hear it.

The specter of technology which spreads by its own inner logic — so that eventually it dominates every environment, leaving no room for the sublime — is raised. Gregorian chant is sublime, you say — but I say: When it is played by no one and forced on everyone, someone will change the music. The one thing you won’t have is silence in which to pray, but you will have a machine playing music.

Even if it is not changed, you will still have a machine playing your sacred music — and there comes the specter of uncontrollable technology — into church too.

Webster Young is a

classical music composer.