Should We Be Talking About Music?
Music is an amazing gift from God. I’m not sure what would have happened to me if I hadn’t found it. I was a rambunctious, high-strung little boy who couldn’t stop asking questions and jumping off the walls. I needed an outlet for all this built-up energy. When I started piano lessons at the age of nine, something clicked. By the time I was in my early teens, my friends knew me as “the guy who plays piano.”After high school, I got a regular job, but those days were numbered. I couldn’t shake the musical bug. Around two years ago, I quit my office job to go into full-time teaching. I love it. It’s a dream job, really, watching children blossom as they develop their talents.
I count myself richly blessed as I look over my life and the wealth of experiences I’ve had. But outside of my professional life, it’s difficult to know how to relate. Obviously I think music is important. There’s a lot of controversy surrounding music, though. Let’s face it: few issues are as polarizing in the church. So it’s one thing for me to hone my own aesthetic craft—or aid students in their pursuits. But it’s something else entirely to effectively convey my thoughts to my friends and the wider community.
I’ve made mistakes forcing my opinions on others. I’ve seen fractured relationships, complete with drama that threatened to overshadow the beauty of the music we were supposed to be making. At times I’ve wanted to bury my face in my hands. Why does this all need to be so complicated? It would be easier for me to keep my feelings to myself and make sure we coexist peacefully.
So I’ve been reluctant to break my silence on music—it’s much easier to focus on my own music and teaching and not worry about anyone else. I don’t want to stir up trouble. But I still see a lot of people asking questions about music—it’s one of the most requested topics from our readers. And I think music matters. It has a significant influence in our lives and we want to understand this as well as we can. As I start this new series, I want to search for principles to guide our decisions. I’ll attempt to navigate the discussion fairly and lovingly, encouraging you to think rigorously for yourself.
When we raise musical questions, what are we trying to achieve? Some might say we’re aiming to walk in harmony (no pun intended), ensuring we steer clear of conflict in the church. That’s part of the goal, for sure. But is that the only goal? That’s the first question we need to answer. In other words, are we just dealing with matters of preference, or could our choices be important, not just aesthetically, but morally? This is the question we need to tackle if we’re going to get anywhere.
One trendy line of thinking in recent years suggests that if the words are good, style is up to individual preference. So let’s unpack this a bit. Do lyrics give music its power? And I don’t mean this in a mystical, spiritual sense. Imagine someone is reading the lyrics to one of your favorite songs—no musical accompaniment. Would that move you in the same way the song does? Probably not. Or do you choose your music based on the lyrics? In other words, do you search for lyrics that look good and then enjoy the music regardless of the style or performer? Most likely, you have favorite styles or groups that you follow. Sure, you might think their songs have particularly good lyrics, although that’s probably not why you chose their music in the first place.
If the lyrics are not the primary motivating factor, what attracts us to music, then? It’s certainly not the words, or at least not primarily, or we’d just read poetry and save a lot of time and effort. This seems like an obvious point. But here’s why it’s relevant: if the music itself creates impact, then shouldn’t we be able to judge its quality at some level?
“Well,” you might counter, “of course the style of music makes a difference. But the sort of ‘difference’ that it makes is only in terms of personal taste, such as the difference between blue and violet curtains in a house, not in terms of a spiritual or moral ‘difference.’ Music might affect me in one way and you in another.” This argument is often used in defense of one’s music choice: “Hey, it might be wrong for you, but it doesn’t make me feel that way.”
There’s a problem with this line of thinking, though. Personal preference is certainly involved. But that doesn’t mean it’s the only thing involved. While music is personal and emotional, it’s not completely unpredictable. It’s actually fairly scientific. True, we don’t know exactly how certain rhythms and harmonies affect us the way they do. But we know that they work. As a composer myself, I find the process fascinating. There is much I don’t understand. But I understand enough to know that the process isn’t random.
To summarize: If there is an advantage to putting lyrics to music as opposed to reciting poetry, then it logically follows that the style of music used in the process is important.
If it’s the style and musical mechanisms that make our music “work”, wouldn’t this result in a value hierarchy? We find some music particularly moving. And some music moves us in ways that leaves a definite positive impact. Assessing this quality is admittedly complicated. But if we establish that it exists, we at least have a starting point. We still need to determine if our choices are merely an aesthetic question, a moral question, or something in between. Either way, we need to talk about music itself.
But to delve into the discussion, we’re going to need to wait for the next post.