Musing About Music

Reposted, with permission, from Theologically Driven.

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.

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Cultural Conservatism, Styles and Accidental Meaning

A river in China features a warning sign for visitors. Thoughtfully, the authorities included this helpful English translation: “Take the child. Fall into water carefully.”

It is possible to intend one meaning and yet convey a very different one! In other words, a medium (vehicle of meaning) may “contain” meaning we do not realize is there. And use of that medium may also send a message we do not realize is being sent.

This phenomenon has important implications for the debate over cultural conservatism (“styles” or “forms” of music, dress, speech, etc.) and the sub-debate over the fitness of styles of music for worship. Many involved in the debate seem to reason that since they do not intend any meaning by the style they are using, and they are not aware of any meaning, therefore no meaning exists and none is being conveyed. Are they right?

The case of Corinth

Before we turn our attention to the implications of accidental cultural meaning, we should pause and consider another question: does the Bible teach that styles have meaning—intended or otherwise? It does, and 1 Corinthians 11 contains an example. In this passage, not only does a medium convey meaning, but the meaning conveyed is not what some of those involved intended.

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