Rules? Nope.

Here’s a good rule for cooking. It should be in every basic cookbook, and taught in first year cooking-theory classes:
Do not drizzle melted Velveeta over sushi.

No chef needs a rule book to know that melted Velveeta is not a proper sauce for Sushi, and every chef knows how to make a decent Filet Mignon. Bad teachers and amateurs talk about creative chefs as if they “know the rules and know how to break them.” That’s ridiculous. There are no rules. The great chefs know how food works, and how people work, and how food and people interact with each other. They know that certain foods feel right at certain times of the day, or certain times of the year. They know what they are trying to do with their food. They understand what kind of restaurant they work in. They know what people are expecting, and they know that sometimes people expect too little.

You can’t learn this in a book (though a book isn’t a bad place to start) and you can’t just copy what some other person has done (though that is not a bad place to start, either). It only come from spending time working with food, experiencing it from both sides of the counter, seeking out the best food possible, studying the science of food, studying successful chefs.

Grammar. Music composition. Fashion. Visual arts.

We have been trained in our schools that these fields are governed by strict rules, which we must learn. Only the masters, who really understand the rules, can “break them.”


The rules exist for purely pedagogical reasons- to try to distill the essence of what has already come to be known as good style among those people who are steeped in the tradition and understand the genre. Palestrina didn’t study Fux. Homer didn’t consult Aristotle.

There can be no final rulebook on what is and is not “good sacred music” or “appropriate liturgical music.” Some things obviously are, and some things obviously aren’t. But there can be no catalog of prudish precepts: thou shalt not syncopate, thou shalt not exceed 117 beats per minute, thou shalt eschew secondary dominants.

To look for such rules – “How can I know that such-and-such is appropriate?” – is to abdicate responsibility for the exercising of personal judgement, and (more) to abdicate the responsibility that each of us as church musicians has to conform our minds and our tastes to the tradition that we have received.

19 Replies to “Rules? Nope.”

  1. There might not be specific "rules" as you state – but there are very thoughtful "guidelines" as set forth by the Church. So there is SOME criteria (criterion?) for what is good/appropriate sacred music. Read Archbishop Sample's address from the Colloquium. Or just read Vat II documents! The attitude that "there are no rules" and that something is appropriate for sacred worship just because it moves me or I say/think/feel that it is appropriate has gotten us into the mess that we're currently in! To say that there can "be no final rulebook" on sacred music is ludicrous! It is possible that I've just completely missed the point. Or it is possible that you are being obtuse and I have misunderstood.

  2. I use the "Are you smarter than a 5th grader?" approach. That is, sit a kid down and ask him to listen to a piece of music sans lyrics and then have him indicate in which setting it is appropriate. I contend he will get it right almost every time. Rock music belongs in a dance club, Sousa belongs in a parade, Mariachi music belongs in Mexico (or at least a place with a Mexican theme), etc. The usual GIA Catholic McDitties he will put just about anywhere but a Church (Nursery room, summer camp, merry-go-round, etc.) I'll never forget when a traditional chant was played on the radio and my four-year-old, who had never heard chant in a liturgical setting, said, "That sounds like church." Foolishness is often a learned habit.

  3. Adam, while I agree that music directors should be able and willing to make their own decisions, I think that aspect of their role is very often abdicated. Instead of a real formation, folks follow the "music suggestions" offered by publishers.

  4. True. I remember arguing with someone about LifeTeen liturgical music suggestions. She was trying to tell me that LT didn't have a musical style. So I went online to their site and pulled up one of their suggested liturgy programs. Sure enough, in addition to the multi-media nonsense they recommended, the song list was twenty P&W/CCM titles and one hymn that could be considered remotely traditional.

  5. Adam,

    I will underwrite the cost of your son's first year of piano lessons if you promise never to mention the word Velveeta again.

  6. Ah, 1950s childhood memories. Want to hear about my mother's Velveeta fudge? Gag on that. People think I came East to study with gurus at Juilliard and WGU but the truth is I was fleeing those recipes.

  7. Actually, Velveeta Sushi doesn't seem that bad to me. One of my favorite Sushi rolls is the obviously Americanized Philadelphia roll- a standard California roll replacing Philadelphia Cream Cheese for Avacado. Works well.

  8. "Palestrina didn't study Fux. Homer didn't consult Aristotle."

    Neither could have happened anyway. Palestrina (1525 – 1594) could never have read the 1725 masterpiece on counterpoint by Fux, and the Homer who flourished about 850BC was well before the Aristotle born in 384BC.

  9. Leaving aside considerations of pasteurized processed "cheese food," I think Adam is making an excellent point. Freedom is a fearsome thing and the last several decades saw wholesale liturgical abuse excused as an exercise in freedom. Many of us have thought, "Ah, if only we had rules, if only we knew what exactly was the right thing to do…"

    Well, it just doesn't work that way. And I, for one, am happy about it. I love a wide array of music, much of which could tastefully and legitimately (ha, just for you "rule" folks) be used appropriately in sacred rites. The fact that other pastors, composers, publishers, music directors, liturgy committees have made dreadful choices, both yesterday and today, doesn't mean that we slam the door shut on the freedom that the Novus Ordo gives us. It means that we have to do better ourselves (not much we can really do about those other people).

  10. On t'other hand; there is a difference between LIBERTY and LICENSE, and many people get these confused – not just in liturgical matters, but everywhere in life. The Church, in her wisdom, has given us guidelines (rules, if you will) on Sacred Music, which tell us that Gregorian Chant comes first, then sacred polyphony of the Roman school, and other musics are more or less appropriate based on the closeness to or distance from these to points; the only thing that seems to be downright forbidden is "theatrical music". It is up to the Musicians to choose what they feel is best suited based on the critera in these documents; and, if they do so honestly without saying "but I really, REALLY, like XYZ, so it can't be inappropriate", they may find that many of their favorite hymns/songs/anthems/masses/etc., whether traditional or contemporary, are inappropraite for liturgical use.

  11. Rereading your post with a little different context I understand the point that you were trying to make. Further, knowing the sort of audience for this particular blog it doesn't seem do dangerous as it might otherwise. However, were you to float this article alone to many of our colleagues who don't have any solid grounding in liturgy OR music (such a sad state of affairs) this would read like an open invitation to do whatever they please because there "are no rules" (which isn't altogether true). And your suggestion that it should be "obvious" what is or isn't appropriate would fall far short of the mark outside this blog. How many people do we know in church music positions that weren't even music majors (or minors) or are anything near what Justine Ward would call a "finished musician"??? They spend most or all of their liturgical career thinking those two things. There are no rules. It should be obvious. But as we have seen far too often, it is NOT obvious.

  12. Maybe it's not so much an idea of creating new rules, but closing, modifying, or refusing to live in liturgical loopholes.

  13. Which speaks to my point about how many of our colleagues have NO formation in the liturgical culture (therefore it is not obvious to all, or even most). And I will be giggling all day at one of your quotes. "Fool-proof" is something I rarely see written, so looking at those two simple hyphenated words (I believe) spells it all out so simply and puts a nice point on the subject. Add that to your satirical dinner menu and you've – unfortunately – described many parish music programs.

  14. And Charles – I love the last sentence of your response about intuition and a knowledge base. Including the "finished musician" reference. I'm introducing the Ward Method to my parish schools and she uses that term in the forward to book one. I think it a rather eloquent moniker.

  15. I have no patience with those who trash talk velveeta, or any pasteurized processed cheese food.
    I don't know if I can be friends with any of you any more…

    And wasn;t Norman Maine "finished"?

    (Save the Liturgy, Save the World)

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