How Do We Assess Value in Music?

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If you’ve been reading my music series, I started by contending that we should be talking about music, then wrote a second post explaining why I think musical style matters. Now I’d like to share some of what has helped me in forming my own values in music. 

We begin by searching for the best

I’ve noticed that discussions about music often end with quibbling about what we shouldn’t listen to. Where do we cross a line? It’s a complicated question that’s hard to answer in our own lives, much less convince others. But I think it’s the wrong question. Shouldn’t we be more excited about developing positive taste than merely avoiding bad taste? As a music educator, I work to instill love for good music in my students. I’m passionate about it. So my primary objective in all my interactions with music is to find the best. I want to keep that perspective in this article.

The moral question

No one questions the idea that some music is particularly beautiful, structurally solid, and shows more skill. But does this mean that music that shows less skill is inferior morally? I don’t think so. There’s plenty of music that isn’t great in any sense but is hardly morally questionable—like the tunes the ice cream truck plays. I don’t want to confuse a search for aesthetic excellence—a worthy pursuit—with questions of musical morality. However, this isn’t to say that there is no such thing as harmful music. While I want to focus on discovering the best, I also have concerns about elements of music that negatively influence us.

So perhaps we could say there are three rough categories: 

1) Music that is supremely great and beautiful
2) Music that is less artistically compelling but not harmful
3) Music that has potential to negatively influence us

These are general categories, naturally; not all music clearly fits into one, although I think it’s safe to say there’s no overlap between the first and third. Obviously I’m most interested in exploring the first category. But it’s only the third category that I have actual concerns about. 

The primary purpose of music

To search for the best, we need to establish what music should accomplish. First and foremost, music exists for the glory of God. The Bible is full of references to music, from the exhortation to praise God with all manner of instruments in the Psalms¹ to Paul’s instruction to sing psalms and hymns with grace in our hearts to the Lord.² We can see the power of music in casting out the evil spirit when David played for Saul³ and bringing confusion and utter destruction to the armies of Moab and Ammon.⁴ Biblically, it’s impossible to miss the connection between music and spiritual activity. Now, as I argued in my last post, this doesn’t mean that all music engages in a direct act of worship. While there is music with sacred lyrics that we sing as a direct act of worship, we also listen to music, play instrumental music, and sing folk songs. Not all of these activities can be viewed as worship, certainly not in a focused way. But just as a work of art, piece of poetry, or a beautiful mountainside reflects on God’s beauty, so music should ultimately reflect back to God, even if not directly. 

Searching for a practical application 

We all agree that music is important and should bring God glory. But how? Knowing the purpose of music doesn’t answer all of our questions about how we achieve its purpose, at least in terms of specific styles. Our goal seems elusive, which is why many throw up their hands and basically say, “Just make sure you have a good heart.” This is tricky business, sure, but we shouldn’t give up so easily. Since music can move us so deeply and often in different ways, there must be some way of making value judgments. To attempt to answer the question, I want to look more specifically at how music functions, searching for a practical application for our primary purpose: the ultimate glory of God. 

We instinctively feel there’s something special about music. It moves us, striking something deep within us, in a way much different than anything we ever experience listening to a sermon, reading a book, or having a conversation with a friend. It’s in a category all its own. It’s particularly emotional. But music also engages the mind. This potent combination of thinking and feeling hits the very core of our being. Have you ever had just a few seconds of music wash over you, bringing you to tears or reminding you of a specific memory? Music profoundly affects our thoughts and emotions. So, as basic as it is, this leads to a simple conclusion: we want music we listen to to positively impact our thoughts and emotions. We will gravitate towards music that stretches and instructs us, instead of merely providing entertainment. We will look for music that strengthens us, not music that provides the most instantaneous thrill.

Emotional expression in music 

Music conveys a wide range of emotion. It can be exciting, reflective, heartbreaking, passionate, melancholic, or peaceful, just to list a few of its potential traits. This diversity of expression is one of the strongest points of music. For an example of this, consider the Psalms. While we haven’t been gifted with the original music set to the text, the emotional content of the Psalms certainly suggests a broad range of expression. Yes, there are moments of praise and thanksgiving, but there are also unmistakable strains of sadness, loneliness, depression, desire for revenge on God’s enemies, and admission of lack of hunger for God. It’s not much of a stretch to suggest that the whole range of human emotion is expressed in the Psalms.

Mode of expression is crucial 

But not all music goes about this in the same way. Some music expresses diverse emotions in well-constructed, varied ways. Other music relies on driving repetition—often primarily through rhythm—to create a hypnotic effect. Since we want our music to strengthen us mentally and emotionally, we should gravitate towards music that expands our mind. We don’t want music to temporarily make us high emotionally through excessive repetition. Such music may be thrilling, but not in a way that will enhance the ability to think and feel deeply.

The problem with repetitive syncopation

If music can wear us down emotionally, how does this happen? How does music with strong repetition pull this off? It happens primarily through syncopation: the accenting of the usual weak beats in a measure of music. For example, in common time or 4/4 meter, a standard emphasis would be ONE two THREE four, whereas a syncopated rhythm turns it to one TWO three FOUR.⁶ “Well,” someone might counter, “why does the rhythm need to follow some arbitrary guideline? Why does rhythmic emphasis need to be standard?” Well, technically it doesn’t: most modern music is heavily syncopated. But this syncopation still surprises us, going against our natural pulse. This syncopation, especially when heavily, consistently pronounced, naturally makes us agitated. So when listening to heavily syncopated music, our bodies are on edge.⁵ Can some of the effect be nullified through repeated exposure? Perhaps. But repeated experiments and research indicate that our reaction to rhythm is largely something inherent and our bodies still respond in specific ways even after we’re accustomed to it.⁷

Most modern music makes significant use of heavy syncopation.⁸ Rock, pop, country, rap—you name it. And most modern Christian music is really just a subcategory of one of these larger genres. I think it’s worth giving serious thought to the possibility that this isn’t good for us.

What do we look for, then?

One basic answer is that we look for music without the persistent syncopation. This is only a partial answer, though, since merely avoiding one negative trait won’t help us find the best music. Especially with today’s musical landscape, eliminating music with heavy syncopation narrows the field substantially, though, so we’ll have a smaller range of options. We’re looking for music that strengthens us emotionally and mentally; we just need to know how this is done.

If we break music down into its basic components—melody, harmony, and rhythm—then we can look for excellence in each category. First is melody, or the tune. This is the part of the song we remember, that we go around humming. But what makes a melody memorable? It’s hard to pin down. As a composer myself, it’s probably the most elusive part of the composition process: you know when you have a good melody, but it’s not always clear what makes it work. It takes an inventive blend of patterned progression and novelty. If it’s too homogenous or predictable, it’s boring; if it’s too random and lacking cohesion, then it’s confusing. This calls for a creative use of rhythm and cadence. But no matter how the melodic magic is achieved, a good piece of music will give clear emphasis to the melody, as opposed to a mere hammering of a rhythm or chord. 

Harmony is also important, though. It serves to highlight the melody, adding contour and greater range of color. Just as a melody must find the right balance between predictability and randomness, harmony needs to follow a logical progression, supporting the melody, while adding individuality of its own. In technical practice, this will often mean using a wider range of chords and inversions: switching the order of notes in a standard chord. There is also the possibility of counterpoint, where a secondary musical line harmonizes the initial melody but serves as a kind of distinct melody itself. 

Then there’s rhythm. As a general rule, it works best when subservient to the melody and harmony, keeping sheer physicality from dominating. This, of course, is my criticism of most modern music: the rhythm is elevated above the melody and harmony as the central focus of the music. Interestingly enough, though, I’d also argue that most modern music is actually unoriginal when it comes to rhythmic ideas; the patterns of heavy syncopation are usually predictable. In a good piece of music, there will be rhythmic variety but not in a way that dominates the melody.⁹

Where do we find this?

What kind of music most exemplifies strong melody, inventive harmonies, and varied but supportive rhythms? I think it’s clearly usually found in music of the classical tradition. While this includes the kind of standard orchestral music you’d hear in the concert hall, it also includes the best of our hymns and much folk music. 

Classical music is perhaps improperly categorized as a genre. It spans centuries, encompassing a wide range of compositional techniques that are vastly different. It’s perhaps better viewed as music that has survived the test of time. Or, from another angle, it is the music that attempts serious structure and development, instead of merely appealing to the crowd.¹⁰ When it comes to melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic originality and brilliance, there is no other music that comes close. But perhaps it makes more sense to reverse the description: music that shows high levels of melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic development is classical, by definition. 

But I don’t love classical music primarily for its technical greatness. If all it had to offer was structural complexity, no one would bother discovering it. What draws me is its incredible depth of emotion. Instead of the structure being cold and dead, it expands the creative potential. The wider palette of musical colors enables the music to speak more specifically. I love the massive range of expression found in classical music. Instead of hammering away with a predictable rhythm or chord pattern, it carefully develops its ideas, strengthening the mind as it touches the soul. Instead of feeling worn out at the end of a long piece, I’m profoundly moved and refreshed. I might shed a few tears or feel my heart skip a beat as I hear a tremendous climax. Emotional, absolutely, but in all the right ways.

I’m guessing you have some questions. Why is more complex music better? What if you don’t like classical music? Isn’t it okay to enjoy music even if it’s technically not the best? These are good questions. Stay tuned for my next post.

¹ Psalm 150

² Colossians 3:16

³ 1 Samuel 16:23

⁴ 2 Chronicles 20:21, 22

⁵ This sentiment is affirmed by many early rock musicians, including Elvis Presley. (https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/elvis_presley_389537)

⁶ Christian Berdahl gives an excellent illustration of syncopation in this video from The Distraction Dilemma series.

⁷ https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/why-music-moves-us/201302/the-beat-goes-how

⁸ https://www.ethanhein.com/wp/2015/syncopation/

⁹ I’m speaking generally here. Rhythm can be appropriately highlighted for dramatic effect, just not consistently throughout an entire piece.

¹⁰ It’s not all one or the other, though. There are numerous “pop classics” that are light and instantly likeable that are still firmly in the classical tradition. But these hits generally display notable melodic and harmonic ingenuity that made them popular in the first place.

 

 

 

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About the Author:

Drew Barnard is a musician, writer, and a lover of good conversation. He believes that a pursuit of God should lead to a whole-hearted engagement of the mind and emotions. Raised in a Christian home, Drew watched his parents move into the Anabaptist circles at a young age. After his father left the family when he was sixteen, Drew faced many questions about his purpose in life and learning how to discern God’s will. As a result of these experiences, he is passionate about seeing others faithfully serving Christ, regardless of trying circumstances.

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14 thoughts on “How Do We Assess Value in Music?”

  1. Thanks for linking to my blog, but this idea that syncopation causes “agitation” or is somehow less elevated or intellectual shows a poor and narrow understanding of music. There are sacred musical traditions from around the world based on steady syncopated beats. Within Christianity, you can find some of the funkiest grooves in the black church. There is nothing that makes harmony and melody any more (or less) elevated or intellectual than rhythm. The idea that beat-driven music is immoral or sinful has a long and ugly history in the United States, mostly used to exclude and diminish the musics of the African diaspora. I would took a good hard look in the mirror and ask yourself where this idea that the backbeat is harmful and agitating came from. Is it based on close engagement with beat-driven music, or is it received wisdom from our atavistic past?

    Reply
    • Thanks for your comment, Ethan! My critique of syncopation is meant to be directed primarily at the banal and heavily repetitive patterns of today’s popular music. In fact, as I argue in the post, I take issue with much modern music for its lack of rhythmic invention. Surely you can agree that today’s standard pop tune is hardly intellectual or elevated.

      But I haven’t argued that syncopation is immoral or sinful; in the prior post in my series, I deliberately distanced myself from those that hold that position. While I think rhythm “as a rule”—I intentionally leave room for exceptions—is best when subservient to the melody and harmony, this isn’t to say that I think rhythm is somehow anti-intellectual. However, I think it’s indisputable that rhythm is the most physical component of music. Our bodies respond instinctively to it. A heavy backbeat is very physical. This is exactly what rock musicians and fans get excited about. In much of today’s modern music, I think this isn’t good for us, since the music is deliberately creating frenzy through repetition—it’s exhausting, if nothing else.

      Reply
      • Most pop songs are indeed workmanlike and banal, but so is most art of any kind. I teach in a few music schools, and I get to hear a lot of “legitimate” “high art” music. There isn’t much you’d want to hear twice. Same goes for worship music! Good-quality art is rare and it takes some digging to find it, no matter what the medium or style. Meanwhile, the best current pop music is as rich and substantive as the best music of any other kind.

        The idea that rhythm is more “physical” than other aspects of music is a culturally specific belief descending from Western Europe, not a fact. Every aspect of music is as “intellectual” or “physical” as every other, and the brain doesn’t process them distinctly from each other. A pitch is really just a fast rhythm – anything faster than 20 Hz gets perceived as a continuous tone, but that’s an illusion, it’s still a rhythm. Frequency and tempo are the same thing. A chord is literally a polyrhythm. There is no music that is somehow distinct from rhythm.

        The backbeat-driven rhythms that create “frenzy” and “exhaustion” for you are the same ones that Black churches use for worship music. A substantial amount of American popular musical style comes straight from Black Baptist churches. Many Latin American and African Christians also use groove-based musics as well. The beats are not an accompaniment to communion with God; they are the form that communion with God takes. The idea of beats as “physical,” “instinctive,” or “frenzied” springs from Europe’s early colonial history, when they were trying to distinguish their own cultures from “lower” peoples in order to justify their subjugation. If you do not believe that rhythm is capable of the same depth, subtlety, complexity and uplift as harmony or melody, that just shows that you don’t listen to a lot of jazz, blues, funk, or hip-hop.

        Reply
        • The brain doesn’t distinguish between pitch and rhythm? You can’t be serious. I’m basing my arguments for the physicality of rhythm on modern scientific research—I’ll provide a few links below. The genres I’m critiquing are particularly westernized; it requires an egregious straw-manning of my position to attempt to connect me with colonizers trying to oppress Africans.

          https://news.stanford.edu/news/2006/may31/brainwave-053106.html

          https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3624091/

          Reply
          • The rhythms of Western popular music are coextensive with the African diasporic vernacular tradition. There is no daylight between them.

            I did some study of the neuroscience of music in grad school and the main conclusion to draw is that the field is in its earliest infancy. To say that rhythm incites body movement doesn’t mean that rhythm bypasses the intellectual parts of the brain; it indicates that the brain uses the motor cortex for music cognition. The distinction between “physical” and “intellectual” music cognition is vacuous; it’s all physical, it’s all intellectual. It’s fine to have preferences in the kinds of music you enjoy, but there’s too much history wrapped up in the equation of Afrodiasporic rhythms with mindless sensuality to ignore.

  2. Keep writing, Drew! We need this conversation.

    I think Category 1 (supremely great music) and Category 3 (potentially harmful music) can overlap. The effect of any artistic expression on the mind and soul is highly unique to each person, and is a function of artistic awareness and the capacity for abstraction. This is primarily what creates the minefield when we assess the moral pitch of a certain musical style. From your writing, I can see that you have thought about this problem. God created our souls to respond strongly to artistic expressions–so strongly that we are ever vulnerable to some level of intoxication. Not to get snagged in the theological thickets of Depravity doctrine, but our post-Edenic inclinations toward art are at once ennobled by Divine sensibilities and vulnerable to self-destruction. These contrasting responses are possible in the same soul–even at the same time. With two souls–all bets are off. Music that thrills and moves one heart to worship may easily disturb and mislead another.

    Instead of drawing moral contrasts between rhythmic tension and harmonic tension, I find it more useful to ask how a particular musical genre affects the body, emotions, & intellect of the listener. Great music stimulates all three. Syncopation can be an intellectual, as well as physical, stimulus, although I agree that in much Western popular music, it is too boringly predictable to trigger much neural firing in the prefrontal cortex. The backbeat does create a strong physical stimulus, which is no particular indictment; God created both our bodies and our minds to respond to music. What is immoral about the backbeat in pop music is its numbing banality. When a pounding, predictable rhythmic stimulus is the dominant effect of a musical style, the likelihood of mental disengagement increases, which ultimately diminishes the transcendence of human rationality. That’s as far as I can venture toward an indictment of beat-driven music and is easily far enough to offend.

    Reply
    • Hi James,

      Thank you for your thoughtful comment. I agree that it’s the pounding banality in today’s pop music that makes it most harmful. This triggers a heavily physical response at the expense of mental engagement, as you say. Perhaps my post comes across unintentionally critical of rhythm. I do think there are severe limits to how much rhythm can be developed to the exclusion of melody and harmony, but melody itself is rhythmic of necessity, nor does harmony work separate from melody and rhythm. But it’s the rhythm that much of today’s music highlights to an unhelpful degree, hence my critique.

      I’m curious how you think my first and third categories can overlap, though. I don’t see how today’s pop music could be seen as “supremely great and beautiful” by any measure, leaving aside any moral concerns. I think it’s possible that a good-hearted person could worship with any kind of music—I argue this explicitly in my prior post. But how does this make the music itself good, much less great? This seems only a comment on the potential for God to allow imperfect means to achieve good.

      Reply
      • I understand what you mean by your third category, (“music that has potential to influence negatively”) and I was merely qualifying that *any* music–even Category 1 music–has potential to influence *some* person negatively, for reasons stated above. I agree that Category 3 music has little potential to become Category 1 music, at least not till a piece has a billion views on YouTube. 😉

        Reply
        • Thanks for the clarification, James. While I think it’s possible that Category 1 music could have negative influence, this strikes me as unlikely and would reflect on warped processing from the listener—perhaps through negative association—not on the music itself. This strikes me as a bit of a technicality, though, not immediately practical for anyone genuinely trying to find good music. And of course Category 2–not to mention Category 3—would be far more likely to negatively influence the listener, due to inherent properties in the music itself.

          Reply
          • Good job on the topic Drew! I just have to comment on this idea of Category 1 music becoming Category 3.

            James said it very eloquently. “we are ever vulnerable to some level of intoxication”…… “our post-Edenic inclinations toward art are at once ennobled by Divine sensibilities and vulnerable to self-destruction.”

            Romans 1:25 speaks of the ungodly “Who changed the truth of God into a lie, and worshipped and served the creature more than the Creator”.

            I will make my point very blunt. There is no creation (good or bad), of the Creator or creature, that cannot become an idol. I could not agree more with your assessment of the value of classical music. But for those of us who have developed our taste, the music, musicians and composers can become the object of our hearts adoration. Arguably, this could leave us no better off than someone who’s heart and mind are dulled by the throb of heavy syncopation.

  3. Amen. So good to see someone finally addressing this question openly and head-on. I really appreciate these thoughts, Drew. For too long, God’s people have been ignoring the physical anatomy of music, how it affects us, not only spiritually, but physically, and where those two intersect.
    I think the question that so many of us have had to wrestle with is: One may study and learn how music affects us, and may draw a conclusion based on facts (such as its physical effects) but how can not only certain individuals, but the whole church of God, benefit from such study? Obviously, whether or not someone is concerned about their music, not everyone is going to have both the interest or the time/resources to do such searching. To me it has seemed that this is the main reason that so many have taken either a totalitarian approach or the relativist approach, since it seems “too technical” or “too involved” to search it out. It would seem to me that there is a dearth of teachers within our communities who (for either fear of reprisal or negative or inflamed reactions) should, as preachers do the gospel, teach and exhort us in this very critical area. I truly think we underestimate the power of this subject within our communities and churches to influence future generations.
    Looking forward to more thoughts.

    Reply
    • Thanks for your comment, Leon! Yes, I think the complexity of the issue has caused many to take take either the totalitarian or relativist approach, as you say. On the bright side, though, some simple considerations make the task less daunting. If we admit that our musical choices matter without expecting black and white solutions, the learning process will be less frustrating, I think. Pursuing great music is a much easier task than trying to define clear boundary lines. Both totalitarians—a nice extension of my moralist idea—and relativists would gain tremendously by focusing together on the best. Education is key, I think, as I’ll argue more specifically in my next post.

      Reply
  4. I was taught that syncopation is when the emphasis is on the off beat(not the weak beat), like, one AND two AND three AND four, and so on. Obviously, this is beside the point of your article, but your description of syncopation puzzled me…

    Reply
    • Yes, the example you cite would also be an example of syncopation. Both the “one TWO three FOUR” and the “one AND two AND three AND four” are frequently used forms of syncopation, the second being the diminution or subdivision of the first. I used the former as an example just because it’s the most basic form of syncopation—-hardly the only one, though.

      Reply

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