Appropriate Planning: Sacred Vs Secular


Today I would like to explain the meaning of a couple of terms that are important when dealing with concert programming, event planning, and preparation of liturgy. A solid understanding behind the concepts of Sacred Music and Secular Music will help one appreciate the purpose and function behind the music and will aid in the preparation and selection of music.


Sacred music is music that has a religious theme. It can span a wide variety of genres from Gregorian Chant in the middle ages to Christian rock and pop music in the 20th and 21st century. The majority of historical music was written for the Catholic Church and those traditions that emerged from it during the 16th century. The most important representative example would be—as mentioned above—Gregorian chant which is essentially prayer set to a melody. It could be described as elevated prayer. This music is 100% functional and fulfills its role in the Catholic Mass. Some sacred music is instrumental. Bach’s Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring is a common prelude for weddings, funerals, and other church services. It is beautiful but unlike Gregorian chant it does not fit the description of heightened prayer. Concert pieces such as Handel’s Messiah would also fall under the category of sacred music because of its religious theme. One would rarely if ever include these works during a religious service because of their entertainment appeal. Instead they would be programmed in a concert. Remember, the purpose of a religious service is not primarily entertainment.


Secular music on the other hand is music with a theme other than religion. The subject matter may range from love songs, drinking songs, songs about nature or other pleasures, or storytelling. Prime examples would be Italian Renaissance madrigals, virtually all operas, and dance movements such as marches or waltzes. Listen below to Orlando di Lasso’s madrigal Matona, Mia Cara.

It is important to understand this division in musical subject matter for proper musical planning of religious services, events like weddings and/or funerals, and concerts. For example it would be inappropriate to use Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue as the prelude to a church service. Likewise playing the melody to a popular opera—no matter how beautiful or lyrical—would be inappropriate as reflective music during communion. The composer Franz Liszt, who despite his promiscuous reputation was devoutly religious, complained once that he overheard the organist in the cathedral improvising on a theme from Auber’s Fra Diavolo (Brother Devil). By being sensitive to the purpose and functionality of music one can make better use of it.


As a church organist who often advises couples in their musical selections for their weddings I have to be vigilant that all pieces are wedding appropriate. Often the couple will have a piece that they call “our song”. Often this music has great personal significance for the couple because it was the first piece they danced to, or it was playing on their first date, or it was playing during their first kiss. Frequently, however, this music is not relevant to the sacrament of Holy Matrimony in the church. It would simply be inappropriate to sing Unchained Melody during the offering. That song is secular and it would be better to use a sacred melody. There are of course venues throughout the country that will provide you with a customized wedding program that includes whatever music you prefer, but generally the churches will not do this.

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