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What percentage of choral music is sacred

In trying to explain to my community chorus why we do so much "religious" music, I want to show them it's just a matter of numbers.  Most choral music (not arrangements of pop or show tunes) is sacred.  Does anyone know the approximate percentage?  Any suggestions?
Replies (11): Threaded | Chronological
on April 21, 2011 1:44pm
Hi David
I'd be interested in knowing what you find out.  Hi to all my friends in Sonoma!
on April 21, 2011 2:14pm

uh no...


There's of course a lot of sacred choral music but most?  Not even counting pop/show tunes, I would hazard a guess that less than 2/3rd of the western world's choral music would be sacred.


Maybe this is only my take, would actually be interesting to see if the matter has been looked into. A quick search at actually shows twice as many pieces marked sacred than secular but a lot of those are of course old and I suspect more secular music's being written now and in the last century than earlier.


Let's see what others have to say.

on April 21, 2011 3:13pm
Does it really matter? If they don't want to sing sacred music, they're not going to find statistical arguments convincing. Your choices are (a) stick to your guns and risk having the whiners quit, or (b) change the mix to do more secular music. Arguing is a waste of time.
on April 21, 2011 9:46pm
David:  I'm pretty sure that no figures could possibly be come up with, but partly that's because it is very much a question of definitions.
I don't agree at all with your attempting to ignore "pop or show tunes," since that would involve defining those genres while accepting settings of folk songs, popular Glee Club songs from pervious years (many of which were at one point the "pop" songs of their own time, and generally imposing an artificial exception that undermines your entire question.  If you're asking about sacred vs. non-sacred, as you seem to be, then isn't it cheating to ignore such a huge proportion of the non-sacred?  (And as a corollary question how would you treat the pop-style sacred or spiritual songs--everything from Black spirituals to Contemporary Christian and Praise music?)  I'm afraid you just CANNOT discriminate on the basis of genre without skewing the data beyond usefulness.
Then there's the definition of "choral music," which historically speaking isn't as easy as you might think.  Would you include the huge repertoire of chant, Gregorian or otherwise, simply because it is not part-music or contrapuntal?  Would you include the vast repertoire of hymns, which can be sung either in unison or in harmonized arrangements?  The music of the Christian church was sung by a "choir" from the very earliest days of the church, at first by the congregants, later by more-or-less trained monks, eventually by highly-trained singers in both the larger churches and the aristocratic chapels, but at exactly the same time by untrained volunteers in small parishes--as it is to this very day!  One scholar considers the 15th century the first in which "choral" music (sung in parts, with more than one person on a part) was regularly sung, but that ignores 1500 years of church music during which the "choir" sang chant and soloists sang polyphony (after it was invented in about the 9th century).
And of course there's the one fact that totally skews any comparison.  It was the church that concerned itself in the early days with whether music belonged in services at all, and that proceeded to answer that question in the afirmative and develop it over the centuries.  It was church musicians who came up with first mnemonic notations and then, from the 11th century, readable notations that allowed them to preserve their music as well as the music of the past.  It was the church, and later on the different churches, that valued music, preserved it in copies of copies and later in prints, while MUCH less secular song was preserved.  But if you take that as some kind of proof that 90% of the music people actually performed in earlier centuries was sacred, that's just plain silly.  It's just that none of the secular music before about the 12th century was preserved, since there was no notation suitable to preserve it, so I would make an educated guess that historically some 99% of all the music every created, played, and sung has NOT survived and died out with its creators or at least with their generations.  We have NO instrumental music before about the 13th and 14th centuries, but we know perfectly well that instruments were in continuous use, leaving us to wonder HOW they were used.
So if you want to look only at the small snapshot of time represented by, say, your own lifetime, that's one thing, but even then the amount of secular song and instrumental music simply overwhelms the amount of sacred music being produced, even when you factor in the praise band literature.  So that is yet another matter of definition:  what time period are you specifically interested in (and I would add, why do you make that choice)?
But why we tend to program so much sacred music is an entirely separate question, and it has nothing to do with statistics.  It has to do with quality!  Over the centuries, with the support of the church and then of various churches, many of the most skilled, most creative composers have been attracted to composing sacred music, so there is a huge number of acknowledged masterworks, including many that are in exapanded, long forms, and those masterworks DO attract singers, conductors, and audiences disproportionatly to their percentage of the total music produced at any one time.  And of course quite a few sacred masterworks (sacred in terms of their texts) were never intended for church use in the first place, but were created for concert use.  So no, it is NOT a matter of  numbers alone.  It is a desire to preserve the best of our cultural heritage, and to bring it to life for modern singers and modern audiences.  And of course to encourage equally great works from living composers, whether they happen to be on sacred or secular texts. 
And in fact it's EASY to program and prepare large-scale works, and prestigious to put them on.  Programming an old-fashioned variety concert is MUCH harder because we have to worry about balancing styles and key relationships ourselves rather than letting a composer do it for us.  And of course very little historical sacred music was intended for use as concert music, which means that we are taking it out of context the moment we DO program it as concert music.  But time is short and music is long, so of course we all have to make choices.
All the best,
on April 22, 2011 7:02am
David - Let me reframe your discussion in another way.  I would suggest to you that the issue is not the percentage available of significant/worthy sacred vs. secular music - as John suggests above, that's a fairly esoteric kind of discussion, and you may not arrive at any worthwhile conclusion, at least statistically (because of all the limitations you'd have to impose on the discussion).  And, as Allen points out (pointedly, I may add), no amount of numbers-shaking in front of a group unhappy about the "percentage" or "weight" of one or another style of music will be convinced by any figures you bring out (the Mark Twain adage about three kinds of lies comes to mind).  However, the real issue here may be altogether different, and one you AND the choir will have to confront.
Two experiences, one direct, one indirect but which I am now involved with addressing, have happened to me in the last ten years.  The first was with a chorus in Maryland that I had been recruited for by the director, a very fine high school choral director (acknowledged locally here in N. Virginia as probably one of the best, if not THE best, at his business).  This man had been the rehearsal director for this group before being hired on as the artistic and music director on the departure of the previous occupant of the place.  The first concert we did was a Schubertiad - a long but very satisfying evening of wonderful music, sacred and secular (a pretty substantial proportion of which was sacred, but not completely).  As time went on, I began to hear from some long-time members of the chorus that they were disgruntled because his approach was to try to bring this group to a higher level of performance, which necessitated a lot more member involvement in fund-raising, etc.  The plaint ran, "This used to be a choir that got together and had a good time and did some singing."  The second choir had a director who had been there for well over a decade, and who was also a church choir director (I recorded both groups).  About six years ago, there was a nasty falling out between director and chorus, the latter complaining that their group was turning into "just another church choir" and also complaining about the expenses of doing what the former wanted to do - grand choral works (usually involving expensive orchestras, etc.).  (In the interests of full disclosure, I am now an ex officio member of the second choir's board; I've also been the president of a community chorus board in NC.) 
The point of these two experiences?  It's a question I posed in my first board meeting with the second group, but that developed from the experience of the first:  What does this choir want to be when it grows up?  Sounds sort of silly, I suppose, but it is VERY germane to your problem.  The issue isn't really what percentage of sacred vs. secular music is out there; it's how much sacred music THIS choir sings.  What type of a chorus is this?  Is this, like another chorus in this area, a group of lovely older folks who socialize a lot and sing some - if they get it all right, great, and if they don't, it was still a marvelous time had by all?  Is this a group with ambitions to a greater and more challenging literature?  And David, what are YOUR ambitions for this choir?  Have you addressed this with the board of the chorus, and, more importantly to their and your future, with the chorus itself?  The sad truth may be that this is a complaint not about the music per se, but about your choices of music vs. their desire to sing this literature.  You may very well have addressed this with them, but since there seems to be this disconnect, either they didn't hear you, or vice-versa - or they may not have told you, or vice-versa.  This is far more fundamental than a percentage; this is about the soul and the future of the choir, and yours as its director as well. 
To bring the discussion to a further point:  I direct now a church choir (so few problems there about the literature) and an a cappella sacred music service choir.  Why that in the latter case?  Well, had I decided to go with a mix of emphases in the music, it wouldn't have made a lot of sense with all the community choirs in the area - why organize another choir if there are plenty doing this literature out there?  But, the mission of this choir is different - it's a group singing a cappella (mostly) sacred music at times and places where people have a sacred service going on, want and need a choir, but don't have one.  The focus is clear - but even here, I've had to listen carefully to my members.  Note that the very first part of the group's description is "a cappella" - and I had begun to lose sight of that, programming works that required accompaniment, until one of my most faithful members reminded me (very nicely, mind you) that we weren't doing as much a cappella music as before.  BAM!  Relook, rethink, refocus.  With the stated mission and focus, yes, you do cut out significant portions of the overall literature, but yes, you do know where you're going and what you should be doing.
Good luck - and I hope this has been useful.
on April 22, 2011 12:59pm
Ron et al.
VERY good point about trying to upgrade a choir--or any other kind of ensemble for that matter.  We had a fairly good regional orchestra here in SW Virginia for a number of years, importing a lot of its musicians (including military musicians) from Northern Virginia for concerts.  Everyone from the conductor to the triangle player was happy with the status quo.  Then the orchestra got a new conductor, with delusions of competence, and she started on an upgrade procedure.  (I was subbing on occasion, so knew a lot of the inside scuttlebut.)  She scheduled more rehearsal time, which drove some of the players out of the orchestra because they had been balancing it with other job commitments.  She "encouraged" some of the older and less competent players to leave.  She got the Board to institute paid positions for a quintet of string principals, who were then rented out for other gigs to partially defray the cost.  And they eventually started demanding real auditions instead of just someone's recommendation.
The bottom line is that the orchestra HAS gotten better--a LOT better and a lot more professional--and has attracted better players both to the orchestra and to the area, but at the expense of losing a lot of those original members.  And that is going to happen no matter WHAT you try to do, as soon as you institute "changes."
On the other hand, our community chorus (whose members take it quite seriously) has grown immeasurably over the years, not because of perceived "changes," but because of continued development brought about by a series of conductors, each one more competent, more demanding, and more skilled than the one before.  They gave a stunning performance of Haydn's "Harmoniennemesse" just last weekend.  THAT has been "growth" rather than "change."  And I'm sure some members have dropped out along the way, but new ones have joined.
When I came here to take over and rebuild a show ensemble that had a fine reputation and very high standing, I replaced a very demanding director whom people either loved or hated.  I made it clear that I was not him, and while I would try to retain what I found valuable I couldn't guarantee that everything would remain the same.  But my expectations and standards were considerably different from his, and I did lose some good people that first year because I was not him, and they were uncomfortable with that.  So i would describe THAT situation as one of "change" through "growth," with a new set of expectations.  But I knew we were on the right track after a couple of years when some of the old members came to our big Spring Homeshow and left asking themselves, "were we ever that good?!!!"
All the best,
on April 22, 2011 7:38am
Being a "numbers" person, I would think this could be estimated.  You would, of course, need to get a sense of the total number of published choral works (excluding pop, jazz, show, gospel, and even world music to keep your definition clear), as well as public domain choral works, and start counting!  You could do a content analysis (search) for key sacred terms to make the process possible.  Sounds like a master's project/thesis to me!
on April 22, 2011 9:17am
And just for fun, I searched Google (in quotes):
secular choral: 724,000
sacred choral: 1,890,000
on April 24, 2011 9:46pm
For a little bit of a different perspective: does the choir object that the music was originally intended for church services, or do people object to the texts chosen?
As a Jewish person, there are many texts in the sacred church literature, that have a universal message, that i have no problem singing, but there are others, that are very particularly Christian, that I feel uncomfortable about. Perhaps if the literature chosen had more universal texts, there would be less complaints about it being "churchy". As an example, I had my Jewish Day-School middle school choir sing the "Creo" of Fransisco Nunez's Mass. I got no objections from even the most orthodox Jewish families.
PS. Why is  "sacred" music Christian, but other liturgical music is "world music"...... (just saying)
on April 26, 2011 6:41am
Oh, Leah, don't get me started on the "world music" bit - for which my definition is, music by anybody OTHER THAN a dead, white guy!
on April 26, 2011 7:51am
I hear you Ron!
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