What does the music say?

(Andrew Dionne) #1

Originally published at: https://warhornmedia.com/2018/12/07/what-does-the-music-say/

If music is a kind of language, however limited, those who demand that we retreat from today’s popular musical styles have little regard for comprehension.

(Lance Roberts) #2

I was quite disappointed in this article. It ultimately was just saying one thing, “Music is Neutral”.

For the Christian, nothing is neutral but atomic elements. A note is neutral, like a letter of the alphabet is neutral, but once you construct something it is no longer neutral. It either glorifies God or it doesn’t. We may not be able to fully determine when a piece or a style of music is one or the other, but that only speaks to our limitations, not to how the world actually works.

Another good example is painting, the paint is neutral, the picture is not.

Again. Nothing is neutral.

(Joseph Bayly) #3

I’m pretty sure @adionne would be the last person to say that music is just neutral.

(b3k) #4

Seems as if Wilson and others like him believe that Bach’s music (again, apart from any words) is holy and capable of (indeed, well-suited to) speaking Christian specifics, while something from a more popular style (though performed with as much exacting precision as any well-performed Bach) can only get as high-minded as “Pass me a Pabst, bruh.”

I don’t see how Wilson is saying that at all, but something rather orthogonal e.g.:

This is to say that the quality of musicianship can go up, while the quality of worship can go down. The same thing can happen in the other direction—say if the church got a pipe organ instead of drum kit. This is just to say that the saints were buried under a different kind of acoustical rock pile, the pipe organ kind instead of the rock band kind. Either way, tomayto, tomahto.

Wilson is saying that both high-brow and low-brow can inhibit a congregation. Have I missed some other context behind OP?

(Andrew Dionne) #6

I wouldn’t say music is neutral. I would say that music is abstract. God gave specificity to language that He did not give to music.

(Andrew Dionne) #7

I think at this point in the article he is addressing the quality of the musicians not the question of musical semantics. That’s how I took it…

(Jeremy Vander Galien) #8

@adionne After reading your article last week I’ve been thinking about lyrics and the musical portion of songs. Lyrics are concrete. Hard. Unmoving. Objective. The music is, as you say, abstract. Changeable. Subjective.

I wonder if an error we see in worship music is that of reversing the two? Some modern worship music (and historical hymns) tend to try and communicate truth by creating a mood, tone, etc. Instead of writing concrete truth that is still poetical, songs forgo objectivity for abstraction. At the same time, some of the modern worship music is rather limited musically (not that I am an expert here, but I don’t think my ears lie and I’ve heard this repeatedly from others more musically knowledgeable). Same few cords. Same melodies. So, while trying to obtain some freedom from the objectivity of the written word, they get all boxed in musically. And this makes for music that is sentimental and boring, it moves the emotions (especially in the minor cord but leaves you empty because there is little truth (or the same truth repeated time and again). We lose both rich lyrics and musical excellence.

(Andrew Dionne) #9


I think we have to be harder on the lyrics than we are on the music for the very reason that the sounds are abstract and the words are not. So, what goes wrong with much modern worship music is the lyrics are light at best, effeminate at worst…and the music is often not too bad. But you can’t gild a lily if the lily is a pig. I think the problem is more lyrical than it is musical.

Much of music throughout history is only a few cords with simple melodies. We can’t dismiss music with such a structure. And we should never dismiss music because it is emotional; that is it’s very power and, yes, it’s danger. Here’s Augustine from Confessions on that:

The delights of this sense of hearing had a stronger grip and a greater authority over me; but you loosed the bond and set me free. Yet now when I hear sung in a sweet and well-trained voice those melodies into which your words breathe life, I do, I admit, feel some pleasurable relaxation, though not of the kind which would make it difficult for me to tear myself away, for I could get up and leave when I like. Nevertheless they do demand a place of some dignity in my heart so that they may be received into me together with the words that give them life, and it is not easy for me to give them exactly the right place. For sometimes it seems to me that I am giving them more honor than is right. I may feel that when these holy words themselves are well sung, our minds are stirred up more fervently and more religiously into a flame of devotion than if they are not so well sung, and I realize that the emotions of the spirit are various, each, by some secret kind of correspondence, capable of being excited by its own proper mode of voice or song. But I am often deceived by this pleasure of my flesh, to which the mind should not be given over to be enervated…

But at other times, when I am overanxious to avoid being deceived in this way, I fall into the error of being too severe–so much so that I would like banished both from my own ears and those of the Church as well the whole melody of sweet music that is used with David’s Psalter–and the safer course seems to me that of Athanasius, bishop of Alexandria, who, as I have often been told, made the reader of the psalm employ so very small a modulation of the voice that the effect was more like speaking than singing. But then I remember the tears I shed at the singing in church at the time when I was beginning to recover my faith; I remember that now I am moved not by the singing but by the things that are sung, when they are sung with a clear voice and correct modulation, and once again I recognize the great utility of this institution. So I fluctuate between the danger of pleasure and my experience of the good that can be done. I am inclined on the whole (though I do not regard this opinion as irrevocable) to be in favor of the practice of singing in church, so that by means of the delight in hearing the weaker minds may be roused to a feeling of devotion. Nevertheless, whenever it happens to me that I am more moved by the singing than by what is sung, I confess that I am sinning grievously, and then I would prefer not to hear the music.


(Jeremy Vander Galien) #10

“I remember now that I am moved not by the singing but by the things that are sung…” Recalls to mind Edward’s resolution that his job as a preacher was to move the affections as high as possible so long as they are moved by the truth.

I agree that the power of music to move the emotions is also its greatest danger. And I agree that much modern worship music is light and often effeminate. Another critique would be that it sings a narrow scope of theological truth. The lyrics are frequently true in of themselves, but the truth that is sung covers just a slice of the counsel of God.

So, then, we do have to be harder on the lyrics than on the music. But, to stick the question of music, what guides should we put into place to decide what much is and isn’t to be used in corporate worship? I’m asking mainly about changing musical tastes and sensibilities as time progresses. Musical tastes change as time does. What was sensible in past generations isn’t to whatever degree in the present.

I’ve enjoyed Doug Wilson commenting on musical appropriateness based on setting and context. What is appropriate in a opera wouldn’t be at a kid’s birthday party. What fits at a rock concert wouldn’t fit at a funeral. So, how do we determine what musical style fits in a local church? How much should we try to fit the music to the geographic location (I live in the far northern WI and the main musical taste here is country)? How much should we try and fit the music to the generational tastes?

(Joseph Bayly) #11

Among other things, music that cannot really be sung corporately should not be used for corporate singing. This would include Rap songs and also many of the songs in the Cantus Christi.

(Jon Swerens) #12

Hmm… could you give a couple of examples of what you mean about the Cantus Christi?

(Andrew Dionne) #13

I attended a church while in seminary that attempted to do the Anglican Chants from the Cantus Christi. After trying and trying and trying for what seemed like months on one psalm it became clear that we would never be able to sing it without focusing more on the music (because of needed concentration) than the text. But perhaps a congregation in England would have a much easier go of it. Sometimes the aesthetics of the song are so overwhelming that they attract more attention than the text (Bach would be a good example). What I think is ideal is a musical style that is understood, common, known, even simple, which amplifies the text but also recedes into the background so that the text can be the focus. A singable melody in a known style is ideal. Let the music always serve the text. Complexity and aesthetic fanciness often work against that goal.

(Andrew Dionne) #14

I have often thought that First Presbyterian Church in Jackson, Mississippi couldn’t have done more to repent of their past racism than to have a black man rap an offertory during one of their morning services. Rap, by the way, is perfectly suited for rebuke…so might be good as a musical offering prior to the prayer of confession. It’s not so good for congregational singing, obviously.

(Joseph Bayly) #15

Yes, all I was referring to was corporate singing. Sorry if that wasn’t clear.

I don’t have a copy in front of me, but I’ve got my memory of tunes that were written for choral singing, not congregational singing.

(Jeremy Vander Galien) #16

A few years back I decided to try and learn to sing songs from Cantus Cristi. I had hoped to teach myself so that I could introduce it to the congregation in order that we could learn to sing Psalms. I had come under the conviction that the church needed to sing Psalms. This was the only avenue I was aware of at this time. I spent a lot of time on this and finally (too slowly) came to realize that Cantus Cristi wasn’t going to be able to used for congregational singing.

(Josiah Batten) #17

I know I am a little late to the party, but I do have a few points I think are important.

First, while we do not always have unanimous agreement about what qualifies as appropriate music, we often have much more agreement about what qualifies as inappropriate. We may not all agree on what is good music, but nearly everyone can recognize bad music. If a particular performance of Beethoven’s 9th were full of mistakes, the vast majority of people would notice, and everyone would know the problem was not with the melody itself but with this particular expression of it.

I think this can at least help us establish a base line. We don’t want music, especially worship, to be reduced to something like preferring chocolate or vanilla ice cream. But what are the standards then? Well, at the very least if we can recognize bad music we know that there is a standard. We just might have some more work to do to figure out what it is. I don’t think anyone here wants this all reduced to subjectivity.

Second, some standards pretty obviously apply regardless of style. I sometimes ask people to listen to national anthems and compare them. If you listen to the national anthems of Russia, France, Israel, Turkey, and Brazil, they are very different in many respects. But they all have certain commonalities as well, including a sense of triumph and majesty (even apart from the lyrics). Now compare all of those to Pierre Schaeffer’s “Apostrophe.” I rest my case.

(Tim Bayly) #18

Problem is, I think “How Firm a Foundation” is an excellent hymn, and partly at least because of its bad music. To me it harmonizes the text and the Book the text lauds by music that is painfully simple. Might I dare say masculine? The very opposite of “O Sacred Head Now Wounded,” and therefore perfectly fitting for a firm foundation. Don’t know if I’m making sense? Love,

(Joseph Bayly) #19

I took “bad music” to mean poorly performed/led/sung regardless of style, or writing, etc. Perhaps I misunderstood. Care to elaborate, @josiahbatten?

Then I understood the latter part about standards to be about writing/style.

(Andrew Dionne) #20

Well, thanks…I guess, @josiahbatten, for bringing Schaeffer’s Apostrophe to my attention. I’ll not get those two minutes of my life back. Clearly, Apostrophe intends to convey a chaotic and nihilistic worldview. It is noise, lacking any of the normal elements of musical style. Comparing this with a national anthem is like comparing Hardee’s with a Michelin rated restaurant.

But compare Bach and Bob Dylan and the comparison is more like comparing the potato dishes at two five-star restaurants. They both have form, similar tonality, rhythmic drive, melody, harmony, … For some reason elitists refuse to recognize the similarities and merely proclaim (from ignorance) that Bach is vastly more complicated and, therefore, more worthy.

(Tim Bayly) #21

Pink Floyd: welcome to the machine