Harmony and Unison in the Church


Thanks to my interfaith romance, most weeks I attend both Mormon and Catholic services.  Lately, I’ve been musing on each faith’s church music.

Mormon Sacrament Meetings are simple: someone plays the piano or organ, while the congregation sings three or four hymns from a 30-year old hymnbook.  All parts — Soprano, Alto, Tenor, and Bass — tend to be well-represented.  Occasionally there’s a special musical number by the choir or an amateur musician.  On the margins, music leaders and priesthood leaders bicker about brass instruments, non-Hymn performances, and overly “fancy” arrangements.

Catholic Masses are similar.  The congregation sings four or five hymns together throughout the service; the accompaniment is usually piano or organ.  A large segment of the service is dedicated to call-and-response chants and singing – reciting the Lord’s Prayer, begging Christ for mercy.   The music is often performed by volunteers and amateur choirs, but its common for bigger and wealthier parishes to have professional musical staff.   

But for all those similarities, there’s one enormous musical disparity.  Everything congregational in a Catholic church is done in unison.  The hymnbooks only print the melody lines.  The call-and-response chants exactly echo a lead cantor.  I don’t know why this is.  Harmony doesn’t seem to be forbidden — the organs play it, and the choirs sometimes sing in parts.  But at least for the congregation, singing anything except the melody is exceptionally rare, perhaps even disfavored.

I know because I’ve experimented.  Sometimes, bored with the Catholic status quo, I start singing harmony anyway.  Invariably I get stared at. [1]  Kids wander over and compliment my voice.  Pew-neighbors ask how I learned to sign in parts; lifelong Catholics that most are, they’re surprised such singing is common in other churches.  Some remark about how Catholics are shy and terrible singers.  One man once turned around at the end of the service and joked, “now you should go next door and join the Mormon Tabernacle Choir!”  He had no idea I literally was about to walk out of that Catholic Church and across the street for Sacrament Meeting!

In trying to account for the disparity, I’ve pieced together my best historical guess.  Mormons are relatively “modern” musically (even if we’ve never updated our music in the two centuries since our founding).  We appear to have stolen our music practices from the 19th-century Methodists.  American Methodists imported the four-party harmony compositions of Charles Wesley, who in England had followed the 18th-century musical norms of the Anglicans.  The Anglicans, after splitting from the Catholic Church, had abandoned tradition and fully adopted multi-part harmony because of the state-sponsored glories of baroque composers like George Friedrich Handel.[2]

The Mormon Tabernacle Choir formed upon the Pioneers’ arrival in Utah in 1847 — but even before then, from the earliest days of the Church, we were recognized as exceptional congregational singers.  There’s even a contemporary quote on point from the itinerant Methodist preacher Peter Cartwright:

“The [Illinois] camp meeting was numerously attended, and  we had a good and gracious work of religion going on among the people.  On Saturday there came some twenty or thirty Mormons to the meeting.  During the intermission after the eleven o’clock sermon they collected in one corner of the encampment, and began to sing, and they sang well.  As fast as the people rose from their dinners they drew up to hear the  singing…”  –Autobiography of Peter Cartwright, Chapter 22: Mormonism (published 1859, describing incident circa 1840).

Meanwhile, Catholicism is ancient — and Catholics love tradition.  Just as Latin masses were the only approved masses until the 1960s, so too (it seems) was unison-music the only approved music.  Catholics adopting heretical harmonies in the 19th Century were told to stop!


“Gregorian Chant has always been regarded as the supreme model for sacred music, so that it is fully legitimate to lay down the following rule: the more closely a composition for church approaches in its movement, inspiration and savor the Gregorian form, the more sacred and liturgical it becomes; and the more out of harmony it is with that supreme model, the less worthy it is of the temple. The ancient traditional Gregorian Chant must, therefore, in a large measure be restored to the functions of public worship…” –Pope Saint Pius X, Tra le Sollecitudini (Nov. 22, 1903)

Vatican II later “acknowledge[d] Gregorian chant as specially suited to the Roman liturgy: therefore, other things being equal, it should be given pride of place in liturgical services.” And in 2003, Pope Saint John Paul II explained that “Gregorian chant continues also today to be an element of unity in the Roman Liturgy.”

Now, what Catholics do these days isn’t –really– 7th-century Gregorian chants.  (But for fun, listen to some!)   It’s closer to Middle Ages “plainsong,” but that’s still not quite right, because usually there’s accompaniment.  Still, the congregation is singing in unison, and apparently modern Catholics have theologically decided that’s close enough.

I’m fascinated by this idea that singing in unison is theological.  That there is both spiritual and musical meaning behind a billion Catholics in a million congregations worldwide coming together to confess their sins and sing praise to God together, in unison.  That despite all of their differences — and Catholics tend to be fairly Big Tent in tolerating dissent — when it comes to worship, they sing as one.

One part of me can’t help but see irony when I translate this to Mormon services. Catholics require unity in worship music, but celebrate massive diversity among individual views and lives.  Meanwhile, Mormons exude musical harmony in worship, but are often exactingly conformist in the ideal standards we demand from our congregants’ individual lives.

But a larger, more hopeful, part of me rejects this cynicism.  I believe we can find a parallel, equally beautiful, metaphorical meaning lurking behind Mormon music.  Is our music modeling that although we sing in many parts, we raise but one voice to God?

To steal (once again) from Anglican tradition, let us shamelessly cobble together verses of Onward Christian Soldiers —

Onward, then, ye people;
Join our happy throng.
Blend with ours your voices
In the triumph song:
We are not divided;
All one body we:
One in hope and doctrine,
One in [harmony].

[1] I’m by no means a trained singer, but I am a decent amateur pianist who has spent a lifetime singing and playing in community and church choirs.  I’m what my professional singer friends call a “filler voice.”  I can sight-read harmony parts in tune and not sound terrible.  Often in Sacrament Meetings my sisters and friends invent impromptu games, switching who sings which part on which verse, adding descants of tenor an octave high.  In Mormon congregations, this blends right in.  It also blends in with most Protestant services I’ve crashed, at least the ones that haven’t yet switched to Christian rock.  Not so much with the Catholics.

[2] Celebrate Handel and this Christmas season by listening to the Messiah!



  1. I love your reading of our singing as unity-in-diversity. Now, if only we’d sing with more gusto, and up to tempo…

  2. I wonder if the effect of how Catholic churches echo has anything to do with it. Unison singing can do interesting things as the echo returns, where harmonies can get a little muddled.

  3. Aussie Mormon says:

    “I love your reading of our singing as unity-in-diversity. Now, if only we’d sing with more gusto, and up to tempo…”

    And sing a few more of the songs in the Hymnbook. They did get chosen for a reason after all.

  4. In my explorations I’ve found a not-immediately-obvious problem with the harmonies out of other hymnals. Surprisingly often, they are harmony in a musical sense but not for singers–there are not enough notes (or too many) to fit the words. The LDS hymnal is pretty good, although there are some glitches, about matching all four lines to the text.
    I suppose that observation could further reinforce the unity-in-diversity theme. But I’m happy to leave it as an observation.

  5. Kevin Barney says:

    Great topic. I’ve noticed this when I attend Lutheran services, where I seem to be the only one singing a part, and people around me are duly impressed.

    My natural voice is bass, but i’ve been singing that part to the same hymns for so many years that I’ve taken to trying the tenor part just to mix it up a bit.

    Here’s a related post: https://bycommonconsent.com/2008/06/04/why-i-like-to-sing/

  6. Kevin Barney says:

    For background on this topic consider the chapter “Schooling the Tongue,” chapter 3 in Michael Hicks, Mormonism and Music.

  7. Emily Spencer wrote a terrific article in the Winter 2015 issue of Dialogue about efforts to encourage unison singing among Mormons. Definitely worth reading.

  8. I love that I’ve grown up looking at full music in hymn books and primary song books. Like Kevin I’ve begun to try out parts rather more. As a child I’d sing soprano, moving on to alto in my teens, and these days I frequently try out the tenor, now that I’m singing more than I’m playing.

  9. Congregational part singing is unusual in most of the Protestant churches I occasionally serve as substitute organist (Methodist, Presbyterian, Lutheran (ELCA), UCC, Episcopalian, mostly); congregational part singing is unheard of in the Roman Catholic church where I have substituted. Some Protestant churches have printed their newer hymnals with melody only on many, though not all hymns, providing a different edition for the organist. Most of those congregations who have done some part singing also know to switch to melody-only as soon as they hear the organist play a free (re-harmonized) accompaniment on a selected stanza (or occasionally more than one). At one time, we nearly had my Mormon ward so trained, but we preferred having the person announcing the hymn(s) indicate which, if any, stanzas to sing melody only. This led to some interesting experiences, quite different from those unison-singing experiences Emily Spencer wrote about. If I remember correctly, those test efforts at BYU aimed at enforced unison singing of all stanzas of all hymns for a several month period. Here’s the most memorable:

    Background: A reasonable number of ward members detest the hymn “I Believe in Christ.” (This is partly because of the “lousy poetry” in which some wonderful ideas are expressed, but mostly because they usually hear/sing it far too slowly.) Others love it, in part because they don’t care about “bad poetry” and the thoughts expressed matter to them far more than the usually plodding music.

    The event: With a cooperative music director, we took the hymn up to speed. Having requested melody-only singing on “verse” 4, I reminded the congregation of that with a short interlude after the third stanza leading to an accompaniment of stanza 4 in the form of a reduction of Mack Wilberg’s orchestral accompaniment. Much of the congregation sang that fourth stanza through tears. About two dozen of them (musical and non-musical alike) thanked me for the experience — including the most vocal of the hymn-haters. She encapsulated the experience well in her comment that it was the first time she had felt the congregation actually bearing testimony together. There is great power in occasional unison singing.

    To be fair: On another occasion, the stake president’s wife told me that she didn’t like it when I played alternative hymn accompaniments because then she couldn’t sing her alto part, that she would prefer that we did not do that any more. I responded to the effect that since I played for sacrament meeting once every 5 or 6 weeks (we had a group of keyboard players taking turns) and did not play a free accompaniment each of those occasional Sundays, and since many others had expressed their joy in such occasional unison singing, a request that we not do it anymore amounted to saying “I want my way all the time and don’t care what inspires others.” She accepted that graciously and never complained again. She had simply not realized the unintended import of her complaint and request.

    Since then: With a series of “music directors” who have no clue what they are doing and in fact do not lead (even to the point of sitting down before the congregation as finished singing the last note of the hymn), I don’t choose to suggest interludes or occasional reharmonizations. Participation and enthusiasm (in its etymological sense) in our congregational singing have dropped off dramatically. Still I do sometimes play an accompaniment different from what is printed in the hymnal, but without changed harmonies that would require unison singing. The bishop and visiting high councilman have thanked me for the relief from boredom. The singing generally improves on stanzas I accompany in that fashion.

    I don’t think I can support any idea that congregational part singing is always better than unison singing (or vice versa).

  10. Kevin Barney says:

    JB, I’m reasonably confident in saying I don’t believe I have ever heard I Believe in Christ up to speed. I would genuinely be interested in what that might sound like. Thanks for the enlightening comment.

  11. When I was stake and ward organist I played a reharmonization / alternate 4th verse harmony twice a month in the ward and usually once every stake conference. I also changed the registration (sound) of the organ to match the feeling of each verse for virtually every hymn. While most people appreciated my extra effort I know several people, at one time including the bishop, who told me to “please just play normal”. I explained that with an alternate harmony everybody is supposed to sing unison – and that it’s an opportunity for the congregation to feel “as one and in total unity” which he liked.

    The bishop thought I was simply showing off (although truthfully there is probably some of that) but it’s really to make our music more worshipful. I have an alternate harmony for Come Come Ye Saints that makes people cry every time I play it. Well played music, whether harmony or unison, helps us worship more completely.

    Now when I sit on the stand conducting the meeting, I’ve found that my singing in parts sometimes throws the other men off. Each verse I switch between tenor, bass, and alto (an octave down) and I think people usually enjoy it although – like my organ playing – sometimes it annoys people rather than building unity.

  12. In Australia my wife and I would sometimes attend a Samoan Ward with services in Samoan (which we didn’t understand) rather than English just to hear the singing. Everyone, it seemed, sang with heart and fervor and in beautiful harmonies, which seemed to come easily and naturally to them.

  13. Toad, it isn’t just switching parts that can throw people off in our ward. The mere fact of part singing by those who can actually sing well and confidently is responsible for the non-singing of a good number of others who need the support and anonymity of being surrounded by people singing the tune they can sing in order to comfortable participating. When surrounded by non-participating children and participating altos, tenors, and basses, they feel compelled to retreat into near or actual silence. Unfortunately, this realization has not prevented my relieving my own boredom by switching parts — most [in]famously in the hymn on which I sang bass, then tenor, then alto (at pitch) prompting a possibly over-loud comment.expressing gratitude that there was not a fourth verse. Yet if I happen to be seated near others who will among them sing all parts confidently, that can be a great experience.
    Another “unity in diversity” hymn singing experience I enjoy happens when one of our congregation sings confidently in Norwegian and I use German while others sing English. Now if I can get the Spanish, French, Portuguese, Chinese, Navajo, and other German speakers to participate that way (too bad we’ve lost our ward’s Czech and Japanese speakers), we’ll come closer to that sort of unity in diversity (but perhaps weaken the English singing).

  14. I love part singing, and find it unifying, but my experience of the Anglican services I’ve attended it generally isn’t possible there because the hymn arrangements are often different.

  15. nobody, really says:

    I’m in a branch with no piano or organ players at all. We have an electronic organ with about 70% of the hymns pre-programmed. They are up to speed, and despite calls to slow things down, we have no way to do so. The organ doesn’t care if the sopranos are dragging, and there are no implied fermatas anywhere. The tempos are crisp and joyful.

    It is beyond glorious, and I know a great many of you are indeed jealous.

  16. I enjoyed this post. Thanks, Carolyn.

    And I’m with others that wish we would sing up to tempo more.

  17. Funny, I grew up Catholic and liked the church music, when my family changed to mormon and we started attending mormon church, I hated the music, I felt like every song was singing a dirge.

  18. What didn’t we steal from 19th C Methodists?

  19. What music didn’t we get from 19th c. Methodists? Well, the tunes adopted from the Southern Harmony and similar shapenote, part-singing hymnals (including one that amuses me because it was a temperance song adaptation of a well-known German student drinking song), hymns (texts and tunes) adopted from the German Lutheran church, non-Methodist 19th c. American hymns and gospel songs adopted, hymns and carols adopted from Anglican/Church of England sources, more sources at least in LDS foreign language hymnals, home-grown LDS hymns (texts and tunes), etc.

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