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What to Sing and When?
A Hierarchy of the Sung Liturgy: Keeping Sunday Holy

What do I sing at Mass, And When?

We can begin with a review of the beautiful Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, Sacrasanctam Concilium and official Church teaching on music in Musicam Sacram.

Perhaps the most important contribution in Musicam Sacram (MS) 1967 is that it specifically retains the distinctions between Solemn, Sung, and Read Mass (No.28), and that the Sung Mass is to be preferred on Sundays and Solemnities, even more than once in the same day. (No. 27)

Furthermore, MS develops three levels of the Sung Mass, so that if a priest is not yet capable of singing the entire Mass, he may at least have in place the First degree for greater participation.  The Second and Third degrees, it states, should not be sung without the First. (No. 28)  The three classes, or degrees of music at Mass, and their order of preference, places as of highest importance those sung parts of the priest that are in dialogue with the people and integral to the Mass.

These are therefore (MS 29):

The First Degree – The Sung Acclamations

The dialogue of priest, deacon and people are among the most important musical parts of the Mass:


The Presidential Prayers (Collect, Prayer over the Gifts, Post-Communion Prayer)


“The Lord Be With You” / “and with your Spirit”, at many times, particularly the Gospel Acclamations

Preface and Dialogue, and its response: the Sanctus

Our Father and its embolism

Sign of Peace

Blessing & Dismissal

“Great importance should therefore be attached to the use of singing in the celebration of the Mass…
every care should be taken that singing by the ministers and the people not be absent in celebrations
that occur on Sundays and on Holydays of Obligation.”  GIRM 40


The Second Degree – Mass Ordinary

The second degree focuses on the Ordinary of the Mass, the parts that do not change.  These principally belonging to the Congregation, although the choir may also sing an ornate chant or polyphonic setting on occasion.




Agnus Dei

General Intercessions

The Kyriale Romanum is the “people’s songbook” or collection of chants for the Mass Ordinary.  It contains 18 settings, the Requiem Mass, tones for the readings, Te Deum, and other chants.

The Kyriale is available in PDF Download, or both softcover ($12) and hardcover ($25) here.

The Third Degree – Mass Propers

The third degree is essentially the parts traditionally ascribed to the choir, the Mass Propers. Many parishes want to begin with this, but the Church has been clear that these should not be sung without the 1st and 2nd degree, namely the Clergy Acclamations and the Congregation’s participation in the Ordinary.  The 3rd degree:

Entrance Antiphon (Introit)
Gradual R. Psalm
Alleluia, Sequnce
Communion chant


The Graduale Romanum or Gregorian Missal is the “choir’s songbook” containing all the Mass Propers and Ordinary for Sundays and Solemnities.  This is not a TLM resource; it is the music of the Roman Rite!

Does your parish own one?  

Volume I | Volume II


The General Instruction of the Roman Missal gives a clear hierarchy for Entrance, Offertory & Communion Chants:

1. Chant Antiphons from the Graduale Romanum/Gregorian Missal or Roman Missal

2. Chant Antiphons from the Graduale Simplex

3. Psalmody

4. Another suitable or seasonal chant


What about Hymns?

Hymns belong to the Liturgy of the Hours. The 1970 GIRM had an inaccurate translation of the word cantus (1970 = song; 2011 = chant).

Devotional hymns are loosely included within above #4, albeit they have only been in use a very short time.  The Low Mass practice has only been in the U.S. from approximately 1930s – present.

One must keep in mind that devotional hymns should not REPLACE the scriptural prayers intended for use…the proper prayers for each and every Mass: “Rorate, Laetare, Requiem, and Gaudete Sundays” are in fact the first word of the Introit and Mass prayers!

In Conclusion

With a better understanding of these three levels, we see a continuation of what earlier generations held in high esteem as qualities of Sacred Music – that it forms an integral part of the Holy Liturgy, in its ability to be holy, beautiful, and universal.  Gregorian chant receiving 1st place, Sacred Polyphony 2nd, and devotional music a distant 3rd.  Singing God-centered Sacred Scripture with appropriate, flowing rhythms, stepwise melodies and beautiful harmonies are the keys to being faithful.

We also see the value in each Pauline gift: everyone has a role as clergy, congregation, or choir.  The Liturgy functions much better with each fulfilling their prayer in tandem with another, rather than an overpowering cantor in a microphone, or a celebrant who quickly rattles off the spoken prayer, intended to be sung. As St. Augustine reminds us, “singing belongs to the one who loves.

Sunday Liturgies should be sung, for truly the Roman Liturgy is a SUNG Liturgy.  Sunday is our time to give our best to our Lord!

Heirarchy of the Sung Liturgy

A simple and printable version


“The renewal and the reform of the sacred liturgy is absolutely key and essential to the work of the new evangelization.”

Most Rev. Alexander King Sample, Archbishop of Portland, Sacred Music Colloquium at the Cathedral of the Madeleine, Salt Lake City, June 2013

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