Why are we encouraged to limit our musical selections for sacrament meetings?
September 1999

“Why are we encouraged to limit our musical selections for sacrament meetings?” Ensign, Sept. 1999, 59–60

Why are we encouraged to limit our musical selections for sacrament meetings to hymns or other hymnlike selections?

Daniel L. Carter, a member of the Church General Music Committee.

The purpose of music for sacrament meeting is twofold. First, it is to focus on the Savior’s mission and atoning sacrifice. Second, it is to remind us of the restoration of the gospel, together with its saving principles. Music should thus be prayerfully selected with those goals in mind.

Directives on music in worship services are given to local priesthood leaders to safeguard the spiritual well-being of Church members and the purity of the worship service that the Lord prescribes. Priesthood leaders need not be overly concerned about whether or not they are musically qualified because music in worship services is a spiritual matter (see D&C 29:34). They can oversee the music program through guidance by the Spirit of the Holy Ghost.

Musical selections chosen for sacrament services strongly influence the spirit present there. The simplicity and power of the hymns is the most effective and appropriate way to come musically before Him who ransomed us. “My soul delighteth in the song of the heart,” the Lord said, “yea, the song of the righteous is a prayer unto me” (D&C 25:12). The melodies and messages of the hymns help prepare our minds to receive the Spirit of Truth and help clear our minds of daily clutter and concerns. “That may be why,” explains Michael F. Moody, chairman of the Church General Music Committee, “when you look at the outline of a normal sacrament meeting, so many of the items involve music: the prelude, the opening hymn, the sacrament hymn, special musical selections, the closing hymn, and the postlude” (“Learning and Singing Hymns,” Ensign, Aug. 1994, 79).

Our meetings are designed so that all in attendance may participate in all elements of the sacrament meeting service. We may participate in the prelude and postlude by listening reverently, entering and exiting the chapel quietly, and speaking only in whispers. We should lift our voices in song and listen attentively to the spiritual messages of musical selections performed by others during the meeting, or we can even join the choir!

Choirs were organized by early Church leaders to help the Saints learn to sing the hymns of Zion. That purpose has not changed. Participating in the choir can be a great blessing as choir members feel the spirit of the music and learn unfamiliar hymns. One couple who doubted their musical abilities reluctantly began to attend choir rehearsal. Within a few short weeks they found that as they worked through their ongoing daily decision-making challenges and other normal struggles of living, the music and messages of the hymns sung during choir rehearsals began to have a profound and positive impact in their lives.

Guidelines for choir and congregational singing, as well as for other musical selections, can be found in the Church Music Handbook. The handbook teaches that if a musical selection other than a hymn from our hymnbook is used in sacrament service, it should be “in keeping with the spirit of the hymns of the Church” (Church Music Handbook, 2). In other words, any other music chosen for sacrament services should be like our hymns or characteristic of our hymns. The music and text should carry the same spirit, reverence, and lifting power as our hymns. Michael Moody has advised, “It takes a good song, anthem, or hymn arrangement to surpass the effectiveness of a simple hymn well performed.” If you feel hesitant about whether a selection would be an appropriate choice for sacrament service, consider choosing something else you feel sure will be appropriate. When questions arise, priesthood leaders should determine the appropriateness of music selections.

One faithful Church member felt there was too much emphasis placed on using hymns as musical selections in sacrament services. She was concerned that such emphasis severely limited the cultural and artistic growth of members of the Church. She asked me, in essence, “How are we going to keep the great traditional legacy of other sacred classics if these are not performed regularly in sacrament services?”

I responded that there are numerous civic and educational institutions designed to help us develop an appreciation for great musical works. However, sacrament services are not meant to be a forum for music education or a place for demonstration of special talent. They are a place for people to come to learn doctrines of salvation, to renew themselves spiritually, and to regain strength to continue faithfully on their course toward eternal life.

Occasionally I sense that a few who struggle with Church music policy may be more concerned about promoting an intellectual musical experience, featuring an especially gifted musician, or performing an exceptional composition than about focusing on pure, simple worship. Elder Dallin H. Oaks of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles has counseled: “Soloists should remember that music in our worship services is not for demonstration but for worship. Vocal or instrumental numbers should be chosen to facilitate worship, not to provide performance opportunity for artists, no matter how accomplished” (“Worship Through Music,” Ensign, Nov. 1994, 9). However, carefully selected compositions and talented performances do have a place in worship services when “music in Church meetings [helps] members worship and feel the sacred spirit of the Sabbath and the spirit of revelation. It should not draw attention to itself” (Church Music Handbook, 2; emphasis added).

Because the gift of music has been given to each of us as a blessing, all are invited to worship by participation in the musical portions of our meetings. Music lifts the soul and can provide great healing power when we are in tune with the Spirit. In the preface to our current hymnbook, the First Presidency states: “Some of the greatest sermons are preached by the singing of hymns. Hymns move us to repentance and good works, build testimony and faith, comfort the weary, console the mourning, and inspire us to endure to the end. … Know that the song of the righteous is a prayer unto our Father in Heaven, ‘and it shall be answered with a blessing upon [your] heads’” (Hymns, ix–x).