How Do We Assess Value in Music?
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.
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.