In defence of the pipe organ

A few days ago, a post appeared on Facebook, correcting people who promote and subscribe to one page’s post claiming that the piano is not allowed to be used in the Holy Eucharist even in livestreamed Masses. This correction quickly turned into an apologia against the organ.

The anti-piano post founded its claim on Musicam sacram 60. The anti-organ post, on the hand, founded its correction on the same norm, just the second paragraph. In reality, Musicam sacram 60 is just a rehash of Sacrosanctum Concilium 120. Both single out the pipe organ because it is the king of all instruments, allowing others to be admitted on the condition that they are “suitable, or can be made suitable, for sacred use, accord with the dignity of the temple, and truly contribute to the edification of the faithful.” Half a century after this clause saw the light of day, people still consider it the magna carta for admitting all other instruments, even those previously forbidden, even those patently unsuited, into the sacred liturgy, to the utter detriment of the organ.

The arguments pushed forward in this apologia are redolent of that unarticulated belief that the Church of today existed only after the aggiornamento. Everything in the past, except Holy Writ and the few papal bulls worthy of mention, deserves no attention. This limited emphasis drives people to search for authorities only in the recent past, not knowing that a treasure trove of scholarship lies beyond the temporal boundary, where reside the pithy and mighty pronouncements of John XXII in Docta sanctorum, Benedict XIV in Annus qui hunc, Pius X in Tra le sollecitudini, and Pius XI in Divini cultus, to name a few popes who wrote about sacred music.

Holy Mother Church already outlined the instruments that fall within the context of the aforesaid clause. On 14 February 1749, Pope Benedict XIV issued the encyclical Annus qui hunc, providing guidance on how to ensure the fruitful celebration of the Holy Year of 1750. In it, he instructs bishops to forbid the timpani, the natural horns, the trumpets, the oboes, the flutes, the piccolos, the orchestral harps, the mandolins, other instruments more indissolubly associated with the theatre. He instructs them likewise to only allow the violone, the violoncello, the bassoon, the violas, and the violins, as these instruments strengthen and sustain the voice of the singers.

Sacredness of sacred music

Calling sacred music “sacred” merely by the words sung is reductive, myopic, and ignorant. The sacred texts are sacred in and of themselves. Sacred music, on the other hand, is sacred because of three qualities: holiness, which means the total exclusion of profanity in itself and in its manner of execution; excellence of form, which means the fulfilment of the purpose of the Church’s admission of music into the liturgy, that is, to lift the minds of the faithful to the heavens; and universality, which means the general characteristics to which sacred music tend, that every nation, regardless of language, derives only goodness from hearing it. That Saint Pius X outlined these qualities in his landmark bull Tra le sollecitudini of 22 November 1903 doesn’t diminish their importance, or render them outdated. After all, norm 4a of Musicam sacram, which we still quote, summarises the three under one quality it calls “holy sincerity of form” (in the English translation; the original Latin uses still uses the Pian terms holiness and excellence of form).

So, yes, the qualities stand. And if holiness is the first criterion, the guitar and the piano almost immediately get disqualified in the eliminations round. (No wonder they don’t even appear in Benedict XIV’s encyclical!) They and their varied forms figure in almost every profane activity modern man participates in, from the theatre to the bar, from parties to concerts, from variety shows to drinking sessions. This is the downside of the easy and the familiar, profanity pedestrianises them. Setting aside for the supreme act of worship that we offer to God a musical instrument that is reserved to the most solemn and most momentous occasions of our life makes sense. Dissociation from anything profane ensures that no mundanity tarnishes an instrument’s dignity in so sacred an action as the public prayer of the Church. This makes the organ a suitable instrument to unimpeachably communicate the sacredness of the liturgy.

Sacred music and the pipe organ

Stating, however, that the organ is a sacred instrument builds a strawman. The Church’s sacromusical scholarship never establishes the organ as a sacred instrument. Rather, Holy Mother Church favours the pipe organ, above all other musical instruments, as the instrument most suited to the liturgy. Supreme Pontiffs of the past never canonised the organ. (How can they? Up until the eighteenth century, the papal chapel did not admit any musical instrument, not even the organ.) Calling it sacred leads us only to note in it an attempt to cast the organ as a holy oppressor, cancelling other instruments on account of their failure to attain sanctity. And this obsession with elevating an object of opposition to a make-believe status virtue-signals humility, and deftly masks an appeal to mercy. Public outcry and compassion almost always favour the underdog.

Now that we’ve smashed the strawman, we can tackle the outlandish claims.

First, that the organ is an instrument most suited to the liturgy is neither perception nor subjective conjecture. The first axiom of sacred music is that the music proper to the Church is purely vocal. It follows that any music not produced in the human larynx is merely ancillary, that is, they exist to support the voice, not replace it. The music of any instrument, fashioned by human hands, falls under this category. And yet, of all these instruments, one rises above the rest. That is the pipe organ. Why so? Simply because it is the analogue of the human vocal apparatus. Air passes through the windpipe, and the vocal cords vibrate, producing sound. Similarly, in the organ, pressurised air flows through the pipe, and vibrates within the column, producing pitch. And we say analogue because the human larynx is infinitely superior to the pipe organ. How so? Man needs only one set of vocal cords to sound various notes; a pipe organ needs hundreds of tubes to produce different pitches. Above all, the human voice can articulate words, that is, the sacred texts themselves.

Objectively speaking, the human voice, on which the music purely proper to the Church is founded, depends on air and wind to produce sound. It is, therefore, no wonder that the first dissertations and legislations on the use of musical instruments in the liturgy were confined to wind instruments. By this alone we can exclude strings, under which guitars fall, and percussions, under which pianos fall. There is nothing perceptive or subjective in ensuring the place of the organ in the liturgy. No other musical instrument replicates the architecture and operation of the human larynx. Beyond the organ, subsequent discussions on what instruments to allow in the liturgy focused on suitability. Pope Benedict XIV expresses the golden rule for this: Musical instruments “should only be used to strengthen in a certain manner some force of the words of the chant, that their sense be more and more instilled in the minds of the listeners, and the minds of the faithful be moved unto the contemplation of spiritual things, and be stirred towards God and the love of divine things.”

Pipe organ and human experience

Next, we get to the economic dimension of this opposition to the pipe organ. As expected, it juxtaposes pet adjectives, such as expensive and immobile, against antonymous pet adjectives, such as practical. These are magic words that favour transience and the cult of fads, a subconscious rejection of permanence and the eternal. When we buy a digital keyboard, we go to a music store, try what’s available, select one that, more often than not, came out of a mass production factory, pay, and leave. That’s it. No strings attached. But putting up an organ generates jobs and builds lasting relationships, from the builders who install the organ, to the tuners who tune each pipe, to the organists who man the console and pulsate the organ, down to the technicians who repair and maintain the organ. The notion of a practicality that escapes the symbiosis engendered by a pipe organ can only nucleate in a mindset that sees a parish not outlasting the lifespan of the faux keys of a piano or the tautened strings of a guitar.

Then it segues into the anthropological dimension by referring to the clash between antiquarians and the common churchgoer. Putting antiquarians in the plural and the common churchgoer in the singular might suggest that antiquarians outnumber common churchgoers, but, quite interestingly, that achieves the opposite effect. The confidence to raise this argument is rooted on the presumption that partisans of the pipe organ are no longer the majority in the churchgoing public. This is where we say, anyone who makes bold claims, shaded with appeal to an unquantified majority, but presenting no real statistics, is just making an opinion. Placing Catholic interest in the pipe organ, masterfully likened to the typewriter, within the realm of antiquarianism, implies that the pipe organ was once prevalent, but now has departed the currency of time as to alienate itself from the common churchgoer. But then, we just don’t accept this observation. We ask the question: Whose fault is it that that happened? Do we blame the pipe organ for not going out of its way to meet and encounter the common churchgoer? Or do we blame the people in charge of liturgical music for not ensuring that the pipe organ continues its acquaintance with the common churchgoer? Choose your answer wisely. Only one of the two options has free will.

Suppose actual statistics support the thesis that the pipe organ has indeed become irrelevant, unfamiliar, and out of touch with human experience. What of it then? What should be the Catholic reaction to this situation? The answer is clear. Restore the pipe organ. There must be a reason why the pipe organ is the only instrument mentioned in Musicam sacram and Sacrosanctum Concilium. These documents are not concerned with trivial things. Hence, the organ is of paramount concern. All other instruments are, well, secondary and trivial (that’s why they are not even enumerated!), obtaining an importance proportionately inferior to that of the pipe organ. Long have we trifled with the trivial! It’s time we seize the opportunity to hoist what’s important. We can, of course, invoke free will, and discard the organ on the basis of its perceived irrelevance, and it may not weigh on our consciences for now, but this blatant invitation to disobedience will surely figure in our particular judgment. Human experience does lead us to many places.

Then again, how come human experience ought to be the barometer for deciding what is best to use in the liturgy? If human experience were solely to determine the Church’s teachings then we’re bound to accept contraception and abortion as morally acceptable. What a relief it is indeed that the Church’s authentic musical choices have never been governed by human experience alone. Their basis, first and foremost, is the anatomy of man, the only creature fashioned in the image and likeness of God. As singing requires reasonable ability to phonate properly and produce pitches pleasing to the ear and appropriate to the text, so pulsating an organ demands tantamount ability in order to produce harmony that supports the singing, excite grave veneration towards the Sacred Mysteries and assist the interior articulation of the intention of souls. And that is our benchmark. We set aside the best and the highest for the liturgy. We never go down the easy road, when the difficult is not beyond human artifice and ingenuity.

Pipe organ and reality

So far, we’ve tackled the scholarship upholding the primacy of the pipe organ. But what is the situation on the ground? The apologia does not disappoint in this province. Athwart it casts the relevant questions. And so, we offer our answers.

Yes, not all churches have pipe organs. Yes, playing it demands a skill quite different from what we learned from our piano teachers. Yes, not all digital keyboards have organ settings. But these are remediable situations, not insurmountable impediments. The solution to these should obviously not be agnostic to particular circumstances. Parishes of generous means can always allocate funds to install an organ and train an organist. These two must go hand in hand. It is simply preposterous to put up an organ with no plans of hiring an organist. Parishes of moderate means can get a digital keyboard. Make sure its settings include church organ and pipe organ. If the current keyboard has none, well, chuck it out, put it inside the rehearsal room or the multipurpose hall, and get a new one. Parishes of lesser means can always go back to the basics: vocal music. We will not go as far as to advise them to use the guitar. If theologians and liturgists of old rejected the flute and the harp on the basis of their association with the theatre, a respectable art form, then we have to subject the guitar, which graces roadside conventicles conducted over booze, to the same standard.

Yes, yes, it’s easy for us to vomit all these things, because we’re not running the parishes. But there’s a simple lesson for this situation. If it’s outside our means, then we mustn’t insist. This is a simple reality we want to shove back to the faces of the naysayers after they’ve shoved in ours the acutely real anti-organ scenarios they are fond of enumerating. At the end of their jeremiad, the only human sensation left in us forces us to complain: “Katapusan na ba ng mundo? Hindi na talaga kayang gawan ng paraan?” People retreat to the defeatist corner, surrendering to incapability, when action is undesirable, when it endangers their most cherished principles and advocacies, which are not necessarily principles and advocacies honoured by the Church.

Now, what if there are no instruments at all (because Father has to travel for hours by foot just to say Mass)? No problem! Remember what Saint Pius X taught, and what the Fathers of the First Plenary Council of the Philippines taught? The music proper of the Church is purely vocal! Sing the proper and ordinary texts of the Mass! The Church has done that for hundreds of years. The Italian historian, Father Ludovico Muratori, describes how the Jesuit missionaries of Latin America trained the natives to sing for the Sacred Mysteries. The absence and scarcity of musical instruments was never a hindrance. It was instead an incentive for the indigenous communities to build their own versions of these instruments. Says the cliché: When there’s a will, there’s a way. Have the years we spent in pastoral music, which we never forget to mention in passing, rendered us incapable of singing without accompaniment? Forgetting the basics of the celebration of the Eucharist, which is the centre of the communities of the faithful, defeats the purpose of focusing on basic ecclesial communities.

Sacred music and spirituality

After this outline of an interior unwillingness to render to the organ its proper place, comes an inane question prefaced by an earth-shaking expedition to tap into the spiritual realm. Does the pipe organ speak and express the faith? Any answer to the question “Does the piano speak and express the faith?” or “Does the guitar speak and express the faith?” is as good as ours. It is again an invitation to relativise the faith, to philander with the notion that its articulation and expression ought to latch on material things. Questions such as these attempt to bite more than what they can chew. The purpose of employing musical instruments in the liturgy of the Church is rather simpler. Cosmic, but still simple. On this, we borrow the words of a Spanish Jesuit theologian, Father Gregorio de Valencia: “To stir the interior affection not only of one’s self but also of others, especially of the multitudes, who sometimes thus far are feeble, that they may be roused unto the perception of spiritual things, not only by the singing of voices, but by organ and musical instruments as well.”

Improvisation, as we know, is a euphemism for liturgical abuse. It positivises evil. Even before the community quarantine, to which we are now consigned, that has been a big problem. In view of this quarantine, our bishops only suspended public Masses and our obligation to assist on Sundays. They never suspended the laws governing sacred liturgy and sacred music, because, frankly speaking, that is beyond their power. In fact, we’ve never heard of any Filipino bishop issuing a formal instruction on sacred music. That is the reason why we are in this quandary in the first place. People assume they have canonical authority to run the establishment in open contradiction to the Magisterium. Very appropriate for this is Saint John Paul II’s warning in Mosso dal vivo, his chirograph on sacred music issued on the centenary of Saint Pius X’s Tra le sollecitudini, 22 November 2003: “The musical aspect of liturgical celebrations cannot, therefore, be left to improvisation or to the arbitration of individuals but must be well conducted and rehearsed in accordance with the norms and competencies resulting from a satisfactory liturgical formation.”

Pinpointing the exact point where the general desire to improvise springs from is not easy. The symptoms suggest that it comes from the fact that we’ve become too familiar with music in the liturgy to the point that losing that music renders the liturgy to our perception less solemn, less edifying, less interesting. In other words, alien. The problem with familiarity is its propensity towards complacency and faulty toleration. The congregation likes this, the congregation likes that. Are these predilections even aligned with the norms of the liturgy? Attempts to justify our answers route us back to the question of human experience, its unwarranted canonisation, and its flawed spirituality.

As a final bonus, we get to read psalm 150, detached from its historical context, and presented as though it singlehandedly ought to guide our decisions on sacred music. Its purpose, we can divine from its strategic position, and that is to provoke us into asking: “Hey the psalm tells us to praise God with harp and trumpet, but why are these instruments forbidden? The psalm mentions many instruments, why doesn’t it speak about the organ, the king of all instruments?” Questions such as these tend to be revolutionary in our age, and program us to challenge authority. This is the problem of woke liturgical intellectualism. It is anchored on present issues, but divorced from the flow of time. It militates on behalf of issues that have already been settled. Saint Thomas Aquinas answered this question long ago in the Summa. Head over to II, II, q. 91, art. 2 for a splash of refreshing context: “In the Old Testament instruments of this description were employed, both because the people were more coarse and carnal—so that they needed to be aroused by such instruments as also by earthly promises—and because these material instruments were figures of something else.”

As a final note, we leave three reflections:

First, the pipe organ started its journey towards perceived irrelevance when the liturgical establishment interpreted Musicam sacram 60 as an amnesty for all forbidden instruments. That misconception altered the ecology of sacred music. The behaviour of biological and ecclesiastical ecosystems is the same. Introduce a new species. Expect the endemic species, usually superior and rarer, to dwindle. What the brown tree snake has done to Guam’s native bird population is the same thing inferior musical instruments are doing to the pipe organ.

Second, upholding the pipe organ does not invalidate the traditions of the Eastern Church. The vocal nature of sacred music comes out more clearly in the East than in the West. Where liturgical chant is alive, there the necessity for musical accompaniment obtains less import. The Church understands this, and She has long ago spoken about this, in the voice of Pope Benedict XIV. Where the use of musical instruments is not the norm, they must not be unadvisedly and forcibly introduced.

Third, behind the firm opposition to employing the organ hides the fear of losing livelihood. Discarding the organ deprives communities the opportunity to execute a vast repertoire of sacred music. That creates a dearth, a demand for new compositions. To this market niche respond groups that churn out pieces that pretend to meet communitarian necessities and liturgical standards at the same time. A few select we can except for their genius, but the norm remains. Emotional and financial investment bends sympathies towards mediocrity. Holiness is not measured by the ability to affect emotion by pathopoeia, the kakayanang umantig ng damdamin.

We end this with a reminder from Pope Benedict XVI’s speech Dieses altehrwürdige Gotteshaus, on the occasion of the blessing of the new organ of Regensburg’s Alte Kapelle on 13 September 2006: “The organ has always been considered, and rightly so, the king of musical instruments, because it takes up all the sounds of creation—as was just said—and gives resonance to the fullness of human sentiments, from joy to sadness, from praise to lamentation. By transcending the merely human sphere, as all music of quality does, it evokes the divine.”

Ut in omnibus laudetur Dominus.


Second Ecumenical Vatican Council, Constitution Musicam sacram.
Second Ecumenical Vatican Council, Constitution Sacrosanctum Concilium.
Pope Benedict XIV, Encyclical Letter Annus qui hunc.
Pope Saint Pius X, Apostolic Constitution Tra le sollecitudini.
Father Ludovico Antonio Muratori, Il cristianesimo felice.
Father Gregorio de Valencia, S. J., Commentaria Theologica III, disp. 6, q. 9.
Pope Saint John Paul II, Apostolic Constitution Mosso dal vivo.
Saint Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica II, II, q. 91, art. 2, obj. 4.
Pope Benedict XVI, Speech Dieses altehrwürdige Gotteshaus.


3 thoughts on “In defence of the pipe organ

  1. Darryl Reyes

    This is by far the most exhaustive, extensive, and scholarly treatment of the controversial post. Thank you for this well-done response. I pray the piano mob will open themselves up to the wisdom found here.


    1. Silvestre

      Hopefully this would reach those Mass accompanists saying: “what is important is that we are praising God”, “we dont have the skill to use the organ”, “kung hindi organ hindi ba aabot sa Diyos” blabla. The congregation is now tired hearing secular instruments at mass!


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