For the past several months, parishes throughout the United States and around the world have been implementing changes to liturgical practices in time of pandemic. As dioceses around the United States began shuttering church doors, the bishops of Texas (where I live) made the decision to follow suit. Effective Wednesday, March 18, 2020, the Cardinal-Archbishop of Galveston-Houston, Daniel Cardinal DiNardo, issued a notice to parishes that public Masses would be suspended. With groups no longer able to gather, church choirs were disbanded, seemingly temporarily. Mass was celebrated with a skeleton crew: the priest celebrant, perhaps a cameraman, possibly a server or lector, and maybe an organist, a cantor or even a quartet of singers. As the pandemic continued to unfold, reports arose of COVID-19 spreading from a choir rehearsal in Washington, which began to captivate the attention of choir directors around the world.
When public Masses were permitted to resume in Houston on May 1 (by order of the Governor of the State of Texas and by the Ordinary), pastors and musicians weighed the various factors about attendance, social-distancing, age of members, and the developing news stories about aerosol spread of COVID-19, to make decisions about singing. In other places, liturgical singing was outright banned. The State of California Department of Public Health issued directives to places of worship to “discontinue singing (in rehearsals, services, etc.), chanting, and other practices and performances where there is increased likelihood for transmission from contaminated exhaled droplets.” In other places, while choirs would continue to be suspended, parishes continued to have a cantor assist at Mass, as was the case for a number of parishes in Houston. Decisions had to be made about if and what to sing. Pastors and choir directors were forced to examine their practices in light of available scientific information. What were the factors that contributed to these decisions about singing?
Singing and Transmission of Disease
Capturing the attention of choir directors and pastors across the country, we have the anecdotal story of a church choir from Washington State, where 53 out of 61 singers at a choir rehearsal in early March were infected with the novel coronavirus. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) initiated an investigation in the matter, as reports say that a symptomatic person attended the rehearsal. However, the CDC concluded:
“Choir practice attendees had multiple opportunities for droplet transmission from close contact or fomite transmission, and the act of singing itself might have contributed to SARS-CoV-2 transmission. Aerosol emission during speech has been correlated with loudness of vocalization, and certain persons, who release an order of magnitude more particles than their peers, have been referred to as superemitters and have been hypothesized to contribute to superspeading events. Members had an intense and prolonged exposure, singing while sitting 6–10 inches from one another, possibly emitting aerosols.”
In addition, there had already been reports of illness spreading at choir rehearsals in Europe.  Subsequently, on May 5, a much-touted webinar was held in conjunction with a number of major singing organizations in the United States: the National Association of Teachers of Singing (NATS), American Choral Directors Association (ACDA), Chorus America, Barbershop Harmony Society, and Performing Arts Medical Association (PAMA). The topic was “What Do Science and Data Say About the Near Term Future of Singing?” The health experts in this panel described singers as “super-spreaders,” asked questions about whether singing was even possible until vaccination stage, and discussed medical science related to singing. Additionally, organizations around the world have initiated studies into the transmission of disease by singing as well as by wind instruments.
While this article does not intend to detail the results of an exhaustive list of scientific studies on aerosols and singing, there are continuing efforts in this area that should be noted. First, a coalition of over 125 performing arts organizations initiated a series of studies at the University of Colorado in Boulder. Initial results were released in July 2020, followed by a second preliminary release on August 6, 2020. From their first press release, “Among its most significant considerations, the study recommends masks be worn by all students and staff in a performing arts room—even while playing instruments when possible—and that no talking should be done without a mask on.” The second study is said to confirm initial results. A third round of the study was completed in December, concluding about singing that “Singers produce aerosol at similar rates as woodwinds and brass. The amount of aerosol varies depending on consonants, vowels, intensity, and pitch. Singers wearing a well fit 3-layer surgical style mask reduces aerosol emission.” These studies are aimed at considering how music making may continue or resume, and determining the mitigation efforts that are necessary.
In another study of note, the authors of a paper at the University of Bristol argue their results demonstrate that singing poses no greater risk than speaking at a similar volume, prompting the British government to alter its policies for choirs. In Austria, too, choir singing is able to resume, with appropriate adaptations. In Germany, the Munich study demonstrated that “the air is only set in motion in the area up to 0.5 m in front of the mouth when singing, regardless of how loud the sound was and which pitch was sung. A virus spread beyond this limit via the air flow generated during singing is therefore extremely unlikely. According to Prof. Kähler, the low spread of air movement is not surprising, since singing does not expel a large volume of air in jerks like sneezing, coughing or blowing. Rather, the art of singing is to move as little air as possible and still produce a beautiful and powerful sound.”
Additionally, the study team from Munich discussed the other reports of choir spread in Berlin and Amsterdam. The exact cause of disease spread is not known, and fluid mechanics Professor Christian Kähler of the Military University concluded that singing, “was not the cause of the outbreaks of Covid-19 at these concerts […] Air was only propelled about half a metre in front of a singer, and that is not far enough to cause the infection levels of these outbreaks.” If such studies are prompting the resumption of choral activities in other places, are these studies not to be considered in the United States as well?
In April 2020, the guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention contained the following warning about singing: “Consider suspending or at least decreasing use of a choir/musical ensembles and congregant singing, chanting, or reciting during services or other programming, if appropriate within the faith tradition. The act of singing may contribute to transmission of COVID-19, possibly through emission of aerosols.” 
Updated at the end of May 2020, the guidelines for faith-based organizations do not contain any recommendations against singing: “Promote social distancing at services and other gatherings, ensuring that clergy, staff, choir, volunteers and attendees at the services follow social distancing, as circumstances and faith traditions allow, to lessen their risk.” Notice the change from the first guidelines to the second: the wording about singing has been dropped.
Since the first publication of this article, the scientific community has continued its efforts to study the possibility of transmission of disease among singers and musicians (see third round of NFHS results, above). Another recent development to note is the result of a study by scientists in Munich and Erlangen who joined forces with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra. One of the results of this study shows that with wind instruments, the aerosol spread is directed more towards the front rather than to the side. The more aerosol transmission is studied, the more the musical community will have better information with which to make decisions about safe music-making, rather than banning live music altogether.
At what point do factors of public health come into conflict with the dignified celebration of the sacred liturgy? Should we limit singing at the liturgy, or even more extreme, ban singing altogether?
The Theological Basis for Singing
First among the considerations is the nature of the liturgy itself. It must be stated in such a time as this when tensions are high: this is not to discount factors of public health, but simply to note that the nature of the liturgy must be considered as a factor in decision making, as the supernatural does not automatically yield to the natural. Spiritual goods must be held in consideration along with material goods. The spiritual benefit of liturgical singing is vast. While its task is to clothe the liturgical text, “its object is to make that text more efficacious, so that the faithful through this means may be the more roused to devotion, and better disposed to gather to themselves the fruits of grace which come from the celebration of the sacred mysteries.” The liturgy, then, is by its very nature sung. Music is, as the council Fathers write, necessary or integral to the liturgy: “The musical tradition of the universal Church is a treasure of inestimable value, greater even than that of any other art. The main reason for this pre-eminence is that, as sacred song united to the words, it forms a necessary or integral part of the solemn liturgy.”  Music in the liturgy, then, cannot be interpreted as an extra or an inconsequential element. Why is this the case? It is because of the relationship of music to the rite itself, and in particular, to the word. The union of melody to text is fundamental to the nature of liturgical music, particularly in the Church’s chant tradition. “[T]he text is a sounded word that has flowered in a musical work.” The word that is communicated is, in fact, the Word, made alive in song, in an encounter with the living God.
In singing the liturgy, we participate in the very purpose of the liturgy itself: the glorification of God and the sanctification of the faithful. Singing and music are signs, sacramental signs in fact, which represent and make present spiritual realities. Singing the liturgy expresses these underlying realities. We see them expressed in sacred Scripture: The whole of creation, the entire cosmos, imprinted with song in the work of God the Creator, joins in singing the song to the Lamb seated on the throne in the heavenly Jerusalem (Revelation 5:8-13). All peoples, all nations, join in praising him (Revelation 7:9-10). The New Song has been definitively intoned, the song of Jesus Christ and his saving work (Revelation 14:1-4). This is the song that we join in singing with all of the angels and saints at every celebration of the liturgy. Cardinal Ratzinger describes the singing of the Church as a cosmic event, rightly ordered: “The cosmic character of liturgical music stands in opposition to the two tendencies of the modern age…: music as pure subjectivity, music as the expression of mere will. We sing with the angels. But this cosmic character is grounded ultimately in the ordering of all Christian worship to logos.”
Cardinal Ratzinger also describes the singing of the Church, a surpassing of ordinary speech, as a “pneumatic event,” that “Church music comes into being as a ‘charism’, a gift of the Spirit.” With this gift of the Holy Spirit, the Church expresses her love song, an image of the dialogue of love of the Trinity. Through liturgical song, once more the veil is lifted for a foretaste of the heavenly liturgy.
The 1967 instruction Musicam Sacram offers a summary of the effects of the sung liturgy: “Indeed, through this form, prayer is expressed in a more attractive way, the mystery of the liturgy, with its hierarchical and community nature, is more openly shown, the unity of hearts is more profoundly achieved by the union of voices, minds are more easily raised to heavenly things by the beauty of the sacred rites, and the whole celebration more clearly prefigures that heavenly liturgy which is enacted in the holy city of Jerusalem.” 
An Informed, Reasoned Decision
Weighing scientific information, anecdotal evidence, and theological considerations is not a simple one that can be reached without reason and evaluation. One advantage in this decision-making process is that there are various degrees to which this can be accomplished without resorting to the extreme of banning choirs, cantors, and congregational singing entirely. It does not have to be an either-or scenario. What are the material and spiritual goods of the decisions, and are they rightly ordered?
Bishop Thomas Olmsted wrote in 2012 that “when the Order of the Mass is sung, the liturgy becomes most true to itself, and all else in the liturgy becomes more properly ordered.” We do not sing at the liturgy because we enjoy singing, but because it is the fullest form of the celebration. “Liturgical worship is given a more noble form when it is celebrated in song, with the ministers of each degree fulfilling their ministry and the people participating in it.”
In fact, Musicam Sacram directs that regarding the sung liturgy, “pastors of souls will therefore do all they can to achieve this form of celebration.” What options already exist that take these matters into consideration? Let us deal with these in the order proposed in Musicam Sacram: first, the dialogues between the priest and the people, as well as the presidential prayers sung by the priest celebrant. These sung portions of the Mass are of the first level, the highest importance. For the average parishioner responding, “and with your spirit,” they are not often doing so with full voice (in the author’s experience). In fact, many people sing more lightly than they may speak. In terms of volume affecting air displacement and transmission of aerosols, the risk may be lower than it perhaps initially appears due to this, and I propose this would make for interesting research. It seems that it may not be necessary to compromise this level of the sung liturgy. A simple chanted response is more appropriately described as lightly sung speech, as opposed to full-throated high-volume singing. We have seen above that studies may now be showing little difference in virus particle concentration between speaking and singing at the same volume.
The second degree of singing in Musicam Sacram, the chants of the Ordinary of the Mass: we can say that here congregational singing becomes a question. Depending on whether they are masked or not, and how closely spaced the people are (many parishes have blocked off pews), perhaps there is a greater risk level at this point. This question may also be dependent on the heartiness of the singing in a particular parish, and therefore it may be reasonable to reserve this for a decision at the local level. Is it sufficient, perhaps, to ask that congregants sing more lightly during this time?
For the third degree of parts to be sung: this includes music for the entrance, offertory, and communion. Is congregational hymnody the answer? Perhaps the sung propers are the answer: whether the Gregorian propers, or simplified versions set in the vernacular, with choral/cantor verses. With a short refrain, these simple chants may be much more akin to speaking than singing. Is this a time when parishes could consider simple antiphons sung by a cantor, or even the full propers? There are many options available, which cannot be adequately addressed here.
Finally, to the question of whether or not choral groups should resume singing or a parish engage only a single cantor: this may be again a decision best reserved to the local level. Is it possible to sufficiently space singers with regard to current local guidelines? In some parishes, a small schola is spread out between singers. (The author has the ability and space to spread singers 20 feet apart each if needed.) Some parishes may wonder whether a choir loft should even be used, due to the question of aerosol particulates spreading into the church, or whether the choir is sufficiently distanced from everyone else. Ultimately, many of these questions are more appropriately addressed at the local level, rather than a comprehensive ban on singing which ignores the innumerable spiritual benefits to the faithful. This is where the hierarchy of goods must be considered: the spiritual goods of liturgical song.
As studies continue to unfold, it may be prudent to recommend that particularly vulnerable persons do not participate in choral groups; of course, pastoral matters remain a consideration. This is even indicated in Musicam Sacram: “The practical preparation for each liturgical celebration should be done in a spirit of cooperation by all parties concerned, […] whether it be in ritual, pastoral or musical matters.” However, we would be failing to make a well-reasoned decision if liturgical singing were to be dismissed outright, considering the extent of the theological basis for singing. As the situation continues to unfold, each local community will need to make decisions appropriate to its own situation, all the while considering the larger picture. After lockdown periods and suspension of Mass comes to an end, attention to these principles on singing can reinvigorate the liturgical celebration. Perhaps choirs and congregations will find their voice anew as masks are removed and they can once again sing with full voice. Until then it is possible to obtain information and scientific data, and also to use our capacity of reason to sift through the information, understanding the nature of singing at the sacred liturgy, in order to discern the best path forward. The whole celebration, even in these times, can indeed prefigure “that heavenly liturgy which is enacted in the holy city of Jerusalem.”
This article is reprinted from Worship at Your Own Risk: The Celebration of Liturgy in the Time of Covid-19, with the kind permission of its editors, Dr. Hans-Jürgen Feulner and Professor Elias Haslwanter, both of the Department for Liturgical Studies and Sacramental Theology at the Faculty of Catholic Theology of the University of Vienna, as well as ISD Distributor of Scholarly Books (www.isdistribution.com).
About the Book:
As a result of the Covid-19 pandemic and the range of measures taken by various governments, large parts of society were almost brought to a standstill in 2020. Even the religious services of churches and other religions could only be celebrated, if at all, under conditions that were previously unimaginable. These circumstances raise questions in the area of Liturgical Studies as a theological discipline. In 53 contributions (24 of which are in English, including one from Adoremus Editor, Christopher Carstens), Catholic—Latin and Eastern, Orthodox, Protestant, Anglican, and Jewish authors from Europe, Asia, Africa, North and South America, and from Australia and the Far East, provide insights into the liturgical practices of their respective churches and communities under these extraordinary conditions. The international, ecumenical, and interdisciplinary breadth of the contributions provide critical reflections on the experiences gained from the still ongoing pandemic, and provide constructive proposals for possible future times of crisis. In addition, relevant documents are made available in an attachment and in an online appendix. Find more information at ISD Distributor of Scholarly Books (www.isdistribution.com).
Daniel DiNardo, Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston, Message from Daniel Cardinal DiNardo. URL: https://www.archgh.org/media/14130/message-from-daniel-cardinal-dinardo-march-17-2020.pdf [Accessed 30 May 2020]. ↑
The State of Texas order by Governor Greg Abbot prohibited Texans from gathering in groups of more than 10 people. A complete list of civil orders issued during this time (applicable to parishes in the city of Houston) are found at the Harris County website. URL: https://www.readyharris.org/Stay-Safe/ [Accessed 30 May 2020]. ↑
State of California Department of Public Health COVID-19 Industry Guidance: Places of Worship and Providers of Religious Services and Cultural Ceremonies (July 29, 2020). URL: https://files.covid19.ca.gov/pdf/guidance-places-of-worship.pdf [Accessed 30 August 2020]. ↑
Cf. Lea Hamner et al., High SARS-CoV-2 Attack Rate Following Exposure at a Choir Practice – Skagit County, Washington, March 2020, in: Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report 69/19 (15 May 2020) 606–610. URL: https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/69/wr/pdfs/mm6919e6-H.pdf [accessed: 10 August 2020]. See also: Cf. Richard READ, A choir decided to go ahead with rehearsal. Now dozens of members have COVID-19 and two are dead, in: Los Angeles Times (29 March 2020). URL: https://www.latimes.com/world-nation/story/2020-03-29/coronavirus-choir-outbreak [accessed: 20 August 2020]. ↑
After a rehearsal on March 9, 59 out of 78 members of the Berliner Domkantorei (Berlin Cathedral Choir) became sick, 32 with COVID-19: German choirs go quiet as singing branded virus risk (28 May 2020). URL: https://www.globaltimes.cn/content/1189811.shtml [accessed: 20 August 2020]. See also: Amsterdam, on March 8: 4 dead after concert of the Amsterdam Gemengd Koor (mixed choir) in the Concertgebouw: https://slippedisc.com/2020/05/concertgebouw-chorus-is-devastated-after-pre-covid-bach-passion [accessed: 20 August 2020]. ↑
Cf. National Association of Teachers of Singing, NATS presents A Conversation: What Do Science and Data Say About the Near Term Future of Singing? URL: https://www.nats.org/cgi/page.cgi/_article.html/What_s_New/NATS\_presents_A_Conversation [Accessed 30 May 2020]. ↑
For instance, cf. Br.de, Bamberger Symphoniker: Wissenschaftler messen Aerosolausstoß. URL: https://www.br.de/nachrichten/bayern/bamberger-symphoniker-wissenschaftler-messen-aerosolausstoss,Ry6T6OU [Accessed 30 May 2020]. ↑
National Federation of State High School Associations, Preliminary Results of Performing Arts Aerosol Study Depict Hopeful Outlook for Future Music Activities (July 16, 2020). https://www.nfhs.org/articles/preliminary-results-of-performing-arts-aerosol-study-depict-hopeful-outlook-for-future-music-activities/ [Accessed 30 August 2020]. ↑
Cf. National Federation of State High School Associations, Second Round of Performing Arts Aerosol Study Produces Encouraging Preliminary Results. https://www.nfhs.org/articles/second-round-of-performing-arts-aerosol-study-produces-encouraging-preliminary-results/ [Accessed 30 August 2020]. ↑
Cf. National Federation of State High School Associations, International Coalition of Performing Arts Aerosol Study Report 3. URL: https://www.nfhs.org/media/4294910/third-aerosol-report.pdf [Accessed 18 February 2021]. ↑
Lauren Moss, Singing ‘no riskier than talking’ for virus spread. URL: https://www.bbc.com/news/health-53853961 [Accessed 30 August 2020]. ↑
Kirchenmusikkommission in Österreich, Empfehlungen für die Tätigkeit der Kirchenchöre (29 May 2020). URL: https://www.kirchenmusikkommission.at/home/130260/chorsingen-ist-wieder-moeglich-empfehlungen-fuer-die-taetigkeit-der-kirchenchoere [Accessed 30 August 2020]; ↑
Universität der Bundeswehr München, 8 May 2020. URL: https://www.unibw.de/home/news-rund-um-corona/musizieren-waehrend-der-pandemie-was-raet-die-wissenschaft [Accessed 30 August 2020]. Author’s translation. Original text: „Die Experimente zeigen eindeutig, dass die Luft beim Singen nur im Bereich bis 0,5 m vor dem Mund in Bewegung versetzt wird, unabhängig davon wie laut der Ton war und welche Tonhöhe gesungen wurde. Eine Virusausbreitung über die beim Singen erzeugte Luftströmung ist daher über diese Grenze hinaus äußerst unwahrscheinlich. Die geringe Ausbreitung der Luftbewegung ist laut Prof. Kähler nicht verwunderlich, denn beim Singen wird ja kein großes Luftvolumen stoßartig ausgestoßen wie etwa beim Niesen, Husten oder Pusten. Vielmehr besteht die Kunst des Singens darin, möglichst wenig Luft zu bewegen und trotzdem einen schönen und kräftigen Klang zu erzeugen.“ ↑
Cf. Robin McKie, Did Singing Together Spread Coronavirus to Four Choirs? URL: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/may/17/did-singing-together-spread-coronavirus-to-four-choirs [accessed: September 20, 2020]. ↑
Bill Chapell, CDC Quickly Changed Its Guidance On Limiting Choirs At Religious Services. URL: https://www.npr.org/sections/coronavirus-live-updates/2020/05/29/865324310/cdc-quickly-changed-its-guidance-on-limiting-choirs-at-religious-services [Accessed 30 May 2020]. The question raised in the article is whether the CDC and the White House altered the guidelines for political reasons, to motivate support from the Republican religious base, or whether this was simply too specific of a message, infringing upon First Amendment rights. ↑
Antje Dörfner, Flöten auf Abstand, Trompeten etwas Nher. URL: https://www.br-klassik.de/aktuell/news-kritik/corona-aerosolstudie-blaeser-symphonieorchester-des-bayerischen-rundfunks-100.html [Accessed 18 February 2021]. These are results of an aerosol study conducted by scientists from the Ludwig Maximilian University Hospital in Munich and the University Hospital in Erlangen with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, published in November 2020. ↑
Pius X., Motu proprio Tra le Sollecitudini (November 22, 1903), art. 1. English text: Robert F. Hayburn, Papal Legislation on Sacred Music, Harrison/NY 1978, 223. ↑
SC 112. English text: Austin Flannery (ed.), Vatican Council II: The Conciliar and Post Conciliar Documents, Northport/NY 1996, 31. ↑
Luigi Agustoni – Johannes B. Göschl, An Introduction to the Interpretation of Gregorian Chant, A translation with notes by Columba Kelly, Vol. 1, Lewiston/NY – Lampeter 2006, 2. ↑
Joseph Ratzinger, The Spirit of the Liturgy [trans. by John Saward], San Francisco/CA 2000, 155. ↑
Ibid., 140. ↑
- Congregation of Sacred Rites, Instruction Musicam Sacram (March 5, 1967), art. 5. English text: Hayburn, Papal Legislation on Sacred Music (s. fn. 17), 547. ↑
As the studies remain inconclusive at this time, it would be the equivalent of saying that no one should ever drive on the road because the risk of dying in an accident outweighs every other consideration. ↑
Most Rev. Thomas J. Olmsted, Singing the Mass: Liturgical Music as Participation in Christ, in: Adoremus 18/3 (2012). URL: www.adoremus.org/0512SingingtheMass.html [accessed: 30 August 2020]. Originally printed in four parts in: The Catholic Sun (15 December 2011; 19 January 2012; 16 February 2012; 15 March 2012). URL: https://www.catholicsun.org/2011/12/15/liturgical-music-as-participation-in-christ (Part 1) etc. [accessed: 30 August 2020]. ↑
SC 113 (Flannery, 32). ↑
Musicam Sacram, art. 5 (Hayburn, 547). ↑
The degrees of singing may be found in Musicam Sacram art. 29-31. “These degrees are so arranged that the first may be used even by itself, but the second and third, wholly or partially, may never be used without the first. In this way the faithful will be continually led towards an ever greater participation in the singing.” (Musicam Sacram, art. 28; Hayburn, 547). ↑
Note both the Bristol and Munich studies (s. fn. 12 and 14). ↑
Musicam Sacram, art. 5 (Hayburn, 547). ↑