From the Archives: Musing About Music

Reposted, with permission, from DBTS Blog. Originally posted in 2013.

WikiAnswers poses the question, “Why does music exist?” then self-replies: “Because it brings happiness to people all over the world.”

We must grant that WikiAnswers is scarcely an authoritative reference source, but it does offer a window on popular culture. It reflects that a common reason (and perhaps the most common reason) for the societal “doing” of music today is to forget the pain, grief, anxiety, dreariness, and simple ennui of life and enter an imaginary world where one can have the emotional experience of his choice—usually a happy one. Ironically, the historically central idea of “music” (fr. the Grk. μοῦσα, to muse, think, remember, or reflect) has been transformed in the last century into its own etymological opposite—an occasion, whether active or passive, for not “musing,” or, supplying the alpha privative, a venue foramusement. This is not to say that music as amusement or as a means of forgetting is always bad (see in principle Prov. 31:7), but it does reflect a total reversal of the Western tradition concerning the central purpose of music.

Of course, history only slightly improves on Wiki in terms of warrant. Still it is interesting to know that the perceived function of music from the classical period to the rise of populism was as an aid to musing and remembering, or perhaps better, as a means to creating the affective distance necessary to fostering reflection.

The theme of music as an abstract idea is rare in Scripture. The Greek term μοῦσα appears only once in the NT (Rev. 22:18). More common NT terms reflect instantiations of music: ᾄδω (oding), ὑμνεω (hymning) and ψάλλω (psalming). Hebrew is slightly more fruitful—the most common Hebrew word group for music, the שׁיר word group, includes in its scope not only “singing,” “playing,” and “songs” but also the more abstract idea of “song.” Most of what we know of the purpose for “song,” though, we learn from the songs: they provided a platform for mutual and reflective praise, joy, thanksgiving, lament, hope, victory, and the recollection of the works of God.

Music had a didactic purpose too (so Col. 3:16). This is interesting, because nearly all agree that propositional and prosaic forms of communication are more efficient and precise than non-propositional and poetic forms of communication—at least in the transmission of denotative meaning. So why music? Quite simply, because music adds a connotative and rhetorical dimension to communication that mere words cannot, or at least not efficiently. Among these,

  1. Music engages the whole person in spiritual discourse, slowing the flow of information to the mind, facilitating reflection, awakening chaste affections,* and encouraging appropriate motions of the will. In short, it allows the musician to muse.
  2. Music is also an effective mnemonic device. With its penchant for artistic cadence, repetition, rhyme, poetic devices, etc., music helps us visualize and remember the propositional content that attaches to it.
  3. Music balances immanence with transcendence. Music causes the individual musician to step back, consider abstractly his place in the universal metanarrative, and then resolve to fulfill his duty/destiny.
  4. Music creates a requisite sense of community. Music helps us see not only how we fit into transcendent realities, but also how we share experimental solidarity with others (whether fellow-Christians, fellow-countrymen, fellow-soldiers, etc.) in common worship, grief, joy, hope, recollection, affirmation, or action.

Assuming that these are the intended functions of music (and both secular and biblical song prior to the twentieth century seems to bear this out), it follows that we should analyze our songs to discover whether they do these things well. This means more than ascertaining that the denotative propositions that attach to music—the words—are good and true and worthwhile (though we certainly cannot neglect this); it means that we must also consider whether the music that attaches to the words does all that it ought to do. This is an ethical question that we cannot afford to leave unanswered. And so I force myself to answer questions like…

  • In my selection of music am I more concerned about musing or about amusing? In other words, does the music cause me to remember/reflect or to forget/release?
  • Do I make musical choices based on whether they will awaken my affections or stimulate my emotions?
  • Is my music strictly about the here-and-now or, conversely, strictly about the wholly other? Or does it attempt to integrate the immanent with the transcendent?
  • Does my music complement the lyrics and cause me to remember—both as I sing and afterwards?
  • In my choice of music am I more concerned with personal expression or with expressing public and experimental solidarity with a community?

The fact is, God never tells us why he created music, why he made man a musical being, nor why he demands music of us. It is likely that these reasons mirror the reasons why he created ethics, made us ethical beings, and demands ethics from us—to reflect his image! We all know that we should do ethics well and to that end we submit to an endless stream of books and articles that attempt to untangle the gray areas of ethics from the standpoint of both Scripture and natural law. We know that there is a right and a wrong way to do ethics, even when these prove elusive. We know further that public consensus on ethical matters is not wholly trustworthy, and at times is wholly untrustworthy: when waves of ethical novelty shake society, we scrutinize their underpinnings and offer superior alternatives.

But when it comes to aesthetics, discussion of the gray areas is increasingly thought to be off limits. The only aesthetic standard permitted, it seems, is that of contemporaneity. Popular taste and preference prevail, and public consensus can never be wrong. When waves of aesthetic upheaval shake society, we are expected to submit to them without censure or even reflection. I find this perplexing.

It is impossible to escape the fact that the function of music has changed radically in the last century—in ways that have never before been seen in the history of mankind. And the church is understandably having a hard time adjusting. While reflection and resistance have occurred at times in the Christian community, the Church as a whole seems to have reached an alarming watershed—a consensus decision that (1) there is no profit in philosophizing and theologizing about aesthetics, that (2) the threat of being aesthetically “of the world” does not exist, and that (3) the threat of not being aesthetically “in the world” is by far the greater crisis of the evangelical church.

We must be frank in admitting that some who have attempted to parse the paradox of Christ and culture in the aesthetic sphere have done so poorly. But this does not give us a pass, as ministers of the Word, from being proactive in parsing the paradox and thinking meta-musically. And even when we tire of shrill and uninformed voices on both sides of the debate, we surely must not become angry or dismissive toward those who persist in the exercise. We may not all come to common conclusions (like ethics, music can be quite abstract), but we cannot be so foolish and atheological to imagine that aesthetics have at long last been detached from ethics within the Christian worldview.

Notes

* Gerald McDermott (Seeing God: Jonathan Edwards and Spiritual Discernment p. 40) summarizes the difference between affections and emotions in the following chart. I would like to suggest that the chart extends beyond the affection/emotion dichotomy to include ministry as vocation/avocation and music as musing/amusement:

Affections

Emotions

Long-lasting

Fleeting

Deep

Superficial

Consistent with beliefs

Sometimes overpowering

Always result in action

Often fail to produce action

Involve mind, will, feelings

Feelings (often) disconnected from the mind and will

 

1883 reads

There are 4 Comments

Darrell Post's picture

Yesterday a thread on booze, today music...is SI trying to set a record for the most replies in a week? Can you post another Billy Graham thread tomorrow to put it over the top?

John E.'s picture

For what it's worth, I'm a big fan of the questions the author poses. Not that anyone will (or should) care, but I may write something seeking to honestly answer those questions in regards to my own music "diet."  

G. N. Barkman's picture

Christian music is a challenging subject.  Opinions seem to outweigh facts, especially when facts are less than clear.  One thing is clear to me however, namely that music itself communicates a message separate from words.  This is clear from observation, but also from Scripture.  For example, when Israel was dancing around the golden calf, and Moses and Joshua came off the mountain, the music  utilized in pagan worship communicated a message.  Joshua thought it was the sound of battle.  Moses correctly identified it as singing.  (Exodus 32:17,18)  The fact that their singing could be mistaken for battle tells something about their musical style.  It was raucous and it communicated conflict.

There is certainly room to discuss exactly what different styles of music communicate. Messages communicated by music are not as precise as those communicated by words, but are nevertheless real.  I conclude that the argument which says that music is neutral and only the words are significant is wrong.  Music is not neutral.  It is admittedly more difficult to read, but its message is far from neutral.  From that point forward, things are not quite so clear, at least to me.

G. N. Barkman

Bert Perry's picture

Dancing, Darrell!

Seriously, given that huge portions of the Old Testament are written in lyric form and are often specifically referred to as "songs",I welcome this.  Moreover, Snoeberger NAILS it when he notes the didactic purpose of the sung or lyric word; how many earworms can we sing while we struggle to memorize Scripture? 

We might infer that good music is, to a degree, that which succeeds to communicate Scripture to the hearts and minds of those who sing it.  It would, therefore, give a lot of guidance to both sides of the wars on music.  If you listen for half an hour and have no idea what you listened to, or if the song is un-singable, you need to have a gut check and ask if the song, whatever the genre, is doing what it's supposed to do.

I'll hold off on my pet peeves for now.  :^)  

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

Help keep SI’s server humming. A few bucks makes a difference.