Friday, December 28, 2012

The Sounds of Acceptable Worship: Part 4—What Experts Say Regarding the “Neutrality” of Music

Is music neutral? Let’s take a look at some interesting (and shocking) quotes from health care professionals and other well studied, trained and respected minds. These people are and were no amateurs…and certainly, no dummies.

Dr. Richard Pellegrino, neurologist ("What’s Behind the Subliminal Power of Music?" Billboard, Jan. 23, 1999: pp.4, 23): 
“People really do get ‘hooked on a feeling.’
And what a powerful feeling it is: Music talks to us, and we talk back. The grimaces and contortions made by performers and listeners alike are direct responses to music that moves us, a way for the subconscious mind to respond to music's message. And, like spoken and written language, music can impart information. Extensive research has shown that exposure to certain kinds of music improves visual and spatial reasoning, memory, and learning…
Many songs that ring up large sales not only produce endorphin highs but relate so well to listeners' emotional lives that people create strong and long-lasting associations between those songs and other events and people in their lives. The songs become anchors. They trigger a flood of emotions and images: some from experience, some from daydreams. These images have the ability to instantaneously produce very powerful changes in emotional states...
Take it from a brain guy. In 20 years of research, I still cannot affect a person's state of mind the way that one single song can.”

Dr. Roger Scruton, research professor at the Institute for Psychological Sciences:
“'The ways of poetry and music are not changed anywhere without change in the most important laws of the city.' So wrote Plato in the Republic (4.424c). Music, for Plato, was not a neutral amusement. It could express and encourage virtue -- nobility, dignity, temperance, chastity. But it could also express and encourage vice -- sensuality, belligerence, indiscipline.”

Dr. Mathew H.M. Lee, director of Rusk Rehabilitation Institute at New York University Medical Center:
“We've seen confirmation of music benefits in helping to avoid serious complications during illness, enhancing patients' well-being and shortening hospital stays.”

Deforia Lane, musical therapist (“Music's Surprising Power to Heal,” Readers Digest, Aug. 1992)
“Of course, music is not a magic, but in a hospital or at home, for young people or older ones, it can be a potent medicine that helps us all"

Dr. Max Schoen, (The Psychology of Music):
“The medical, psychiatric and other evidence for the non-neutrality of music is so overwhelming that it frankly amazes me that anyone should seriously say otherwise.”

Dr. William Kilpatrick (Why Johnny Can't Tell Right From Wrong: And What We Can Do About It ):
“Would anyone assert that '(You Ain't Nothin' but a) Hound Dog' has the same 'soul' as Gregorian chant? The one inspires to prayer and contemplation, the other to shouting and stamping. Not that there’s anything wrong with shouting and stamping once in a while, but children these days tend to be raised almost exclusively on that sort of music. Besides, they don't need much incentive to shout, stamp, whine, and demand. They do these things naturally. Why should we want music that validates and confirms such juvenile states?”

Center for Hearing and Communication:
“Studies show that exposure to noise is associated with elevations in blood pressure.”

Plato (The Republic):

For the introduction of a new kind of music must be shunned as imperiling the whole state; since styles of music are never disturbed without affecting the most important political institutions.

Plato (Laws):
"Through foolishness they deceived themselves into thinking that there was no right or wrong in music -- that it was to be judged good or bad by the pleasure it gave . . . a spirit of law-breaking." (Plato, Laws).

Aristotle (Politics):
“Music directly represents the passions or states of the soul – gentleness, anger, courage, temperance... If one habitually listens to the kind of music that rouses ignoble passions, his whole character will be shaped to an ignoble form. In short, if one listens to the wrong kind of music he will become the wrong kind of person; but conversely, if he listens to the right kind of music, he will tend to become the right kind of person.”

What Professional Musicians Have Said:

Dame Gillian Weir, world-renowned organist (on the high number of beats per minute of much modern-day music):
“You are, in effect, hypnotised by this thing, and there is no question but that it produces addiction.”

Dmitri Tiomkin, famous for his motion-picture scores and dramatic ballads (ca. 1965):
“The fact that music can both excite and incite has been known from time immemorial...Now in our popular music, at least, we seem to be reverting to savagery...and youngsters who listen constantly to this sort of sound are thrust into turmoil. They are no longer relaxed, normal kids.”

6th Century musician Anicius Manlius Severinus Boëthius (De Institutione Musica):
“Music is part of us, and it either ennobles or degrades our behavior.”

60’s artist Frank Zappa (Life Magazine, June 28, 1968):
“The ways in which sound affects the human organism are myriad and subtle…The loud sounds and bright lights of today are tremendous indoctrination tools.”

Pop Superstar Billy Joel:
"Music is essentially the manipulation of sound ... It has the power to make people feel sacred.  It also has the power to make people feel profane.  You know all the things they were saying about Rock 'n Roll in the early days, saying 'It's gonna subvert our youth.  It's gonna make 'em all wanna have sex.  It's gonna make em all go crazy'?  They were right."

Jimi Hendrix (LIFE MAGAZINE, October 3, 1969, p. 74):
“Atmospheres are going to come through music because music is in a spiritual thing of its own. It's like the waves of the ocean. You can't just cut out the perfect wave and take it home with you. It's constantly moving all the time. It is the biggest thing electrifying the earth. Music and motion are all part of the race of man… But I can explain everything better through music. You hypnotize people to where they go right back to their natural state which is pure positive—like in childhood when you got natural highs. And when you get poeple at their weakest point, you can preach into the subconscious what we want to say. That's why the name ‘electric church’ flashes in and out.”

In the light of such clear confirmation from the experts, and even from musicians themselves, it is indeed a wonder that some professing Christians continue insisting that music is a harmless, neutral medium. The Bible makes it clear it isn’t, health care professionals say it isn’t, musicians admit it isn’t. Why, then, are Christians the only ones playing dumb?

But I can just see professing believers willingly shutting their eyes and ears to the unmistakable evidence above, and instead all too happily pointing out the fact that I have only quoted one single verse of Scripture so far. “What do you mean ‘the Bible makes it clear’? I don’t agree with your interpretation of 1 Corinthians 14:7-8. Do you have more Scripture to show me? If not, then you can’t prove that music is neutral.”

Admittedly, my natural response to such an argument would be a discouraged sigh of frustration, and a desire to not continue convincing said persons any longer. I’ve been through this before with many a professing Christian, unfortunately only to receive a similar irrational reaction. “Club frustration” sums it up. But for the sake of those sincere souls who are truly eager to learn more about this important issue—and who are not looking to simply justify their love of a certain lifestyle and genre of music—I will present next more scriptural support for the unique power and non-neutrality of music. 

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

The Sounds of Acceptable Worship: Part 3—Is Music Neutral?

Today I will be delving deeper into the conclusion of the last part of our series. It is common to hear nowadays that music is simply a neutral tool in the hands of men, and that therefore the type of music one listens to does not matter; the only thing that matters is what the lyrics of the song are saying. This manner of thinking is especially prevalent in modern Christian circles. As a result of this philosophy, the contemporary Christian music scene is filled with artists of every kind of music subculture and genre—everything from Christian rock, to Christian techno, to Christian bluegrass and country, to Christian punk, to Christian hip hop…even Christian screamo, hardcore and metal.

I, of course, strongly differ with this point of view. As I previously demonstrated, music communicates a message, and therefore it is not neutral.

Now, just to clarify: when I refer to music as not being neutral, I am not referring to the moral sphere. I am not prepared to say that a sound, in and of itself, can carry an inherently sinful quality. It is my present understanding that individual sounds, notes and chords have no intrinsically evil nature about them. I would even go as far as to say that the sound of an angry yell, in and of itself, is not necessarily evil (though it can be effectively argued that 99% of the time it is evil—the reason being that it the majority of the time it comes from a sinful heart with sinful intentions). I am allowing for the enormously rare possibility for there to be an appropriate time for an angry yell. However, an angry yell would not be appropriate in the majority of contexts of society and daily life—and it would especially not be appropriate to present angry yells to a holy God as worship to Him. But more on that later. 

In stating that music is not neutral, I am instead referring to the scope of human emotions. Music is not emotionally neutral. It clearly conveys a certain idea, a feeling, a state of mind. And in so doing it has the power to influence a person emotionally, by circumnavigating the human intellect and directing itself straight into the seat of one’s emotions: the soul. There it can persuade a person to feel whatever the song is suggesting one to feel. Thus, music has an even more powerful effect on a person than words could ever have.

Movie soundtrack composers know this—they use music to manipulate audiences all the time. This manipulative tactic is also often used in modern Christendom as well…during church altar calls. Light guitar or piano tunes are usually played to induce people to come to the “altar” and make a “decision” for Christ (so much for the power of the Gospel).   

The following excerpt is from an article by Bob Jennings entitled, Music—A Message (available in Written Briefly, a short e-book which you can freely download HERE):

But does music communicate? Does music matter? Does it convey a message? Let's try to demonstrate that music matters. Let's try to establish that music does communicate – apart from the lyrics, apart from the listener's connotative memories, and apart from the musicians' morality and motives. Granted, the individual notes, like bullets, are quite neutral. It is, rather, a matter of what is done with them. It is a matter of how they are used, that is,

1. the NOTATION (what notes are played),
2. the RHYTHM (how long they are played),
3. the VOLUME (how loud they are played), and,
4. the BEAT (an emphasis on some notes and/or percussion).

These are the elements that give music a message. A given piece of music, then, ministers an attitude, creates an atmosphere, stirs a mood, and makes an effect. Music expresses a worldview.

THE NOTATION communicates. Play C-E-G on the piano; then change just one note to play C-E-F. It is a different effect. It is a different mood, isn't it? One sound speaks resolution and rest, while the other, warning and tension. You don't need to know a thing about music to feel this. No one needs to have an ambulance siren interpreted. There is an inherent message in the sound. Yes, music talks.

THE RHYTHM communicates. For example, look at church hymns. "Leaning On the Everlasting Arms" has similar content to "My Faith Has Found a Resting Place". Yet, because of the rhythm put to it, the first is cheerful and even lends itself to clapping, but not so for the latter which conveys resignation. In this way, music talks.

THE VOLUME communicates. Take a trombone. Play one note softly. Then blare out that same note. Something is communicated thereby. Crescendos are put on the score for a reason. Increasing the decibels will give quite a different effect. Contrast the delicate reflections of an instrumental quartet with the expansive tide of a philharmonic orchestra or the overpowering electronic 'heat' of a rock band. In this way, music talks. It moves us.

THE BEAT communicates. Tribal musicians work their warriors up into a murderous frenzy with nothing but their drums! The marching band, with nothing but their drums, can make your pulse race with a sense of foreboding power. The accent in our speech – simply the way we say something – can reveal a whole different message or attitude to the listener. The quality of sound talks to us.

The uncanny power of music over the human soul makes it a dangerous tool in the hands of sinful man; it can be used for the glory of God, or to hypnotically influence people to evil feelings, emotions and desires. While sounds in a musical piece (apart from vocals or lyrics) may not be sinful in and of themselves, they certainly can cause a person to sin. That music is not neutral should be unmistakable by now. But as if the above information weren't enough, we will examine next what the professionals have to say about music. 

Sunday, December 23, 2012

The Sounds of Acceptable Worship: Part 2—Sounds Communicate

As we saw in the first part of our series, the Lord, a verbal and musical being, has enabled all His creatures to worship Him through sounds and song. And as human beings created in the image of God (Gen.1:26), we have been given the capacity to worship God through sounds more than any other earthly created being. This is because we have been given the ability to communicate through sounds more than any other earthly created being. A bear and a lion may roar when aroused, but they cannot produce orderly words to convey their feelings. A cricket and a bird may chirp, but they cannot produce complex oratorios or cantatas. A domesticated dog or chimpanzee may be able to express their desire to be fed, but they cannot verbally articulate their hunger.

Man, on the other hand, has the capacity to utilize sounds in multifaceted ways. Not only can he arrange particular sounds in orderly ways to construct meaningful words and phrases, but he can also accentuate specific sounds within these words and phrases to convey the precise emotion, mood, attitude, feeling, or idea he desires to express. For example, making the statement, “You’re not hungry,” will have a significantly different meaning than asking the question, “You’re not hungry?” 

Verbally, the only difference between both sentences is a change in the tone of voice.

Hence, we see that not only words communicate—sounds themselves communicate. We see this very clearly in Scripture. One example:

1 Corinthians 14:7-8: “If even lifeless instruments, such as the flute or the harp, do not give distinct notes, how will anyone know what is played? And if the bugle gives an indistinct sound, who will get ready for battle?”

The context of this passage is the believers’ need to utter intelligible speech in order to be understood by others and thus be able to edify the church. But interestingly, the passage compares human language to instrumental sounds. It shows us that as words are used to transmit information, sounds in music (apart from any lyrical content) are used to do so as well.

Of course a keen fellow may object, “I agree that sounds communicate, but they are entirely subjective. They communicate different things to different people. Just how a language may be completely meaningless to one person, but completely meaningful to another. After all, that’s what the context of the passage is talking about!”

The second part of this objection is certainly true. One language may indeed sound like mindless babble to one person, but be perfectly understandable to another, as we see in 1 Corinthians 14.  

And granted, the information that a particular sound communicates can be dependent on the meaning that a culture, a society, or even an individual, gives them. For example, the sounds of the verbal tones used in languages may differ greatly (e.g., the tone of voice in asking a question in Mandarin does not sound at all like the tone of voice expressed when asking a question in English). So in that sense, certain sounds can be subjective.

However, the first part of the above objection is not entirely true. There are certain sounds that are not subjective. There are certain sounds that transcend culture and people group and language—and are understood by all. While some sounds communicate certain things to certain people, and other things to others, many sounds are universal.

-A forceful, angry yell sounds like a forceful, angry yell to anyone from any culture or background—it never communicates “joy and happiness”.
-The loud, startling noise of an ambulance siren does not communicate “peace and tranquility” to anyone anywhere.
-The utterly distressed and hopeless bawl of one grieving a loss will never be understood as an exuberant shout of joy.
-It is hardly likely that the melodramatic violin melodies of a romantic movie soundtrack will communicate “anger”, “frustration” or “aggression” to any listener.

Undoubtedly and undeniably, individual sounds have a unique and powerful ability to communicate. And thus music, which is comprised of a sequence of sounds, also has a powerful ability to communicate, to transmit information without words. And like certain words, phrases and sentences can have an effect on our emotions (because of the information they’re transmitting), so can certain noises, sounds and melodies. Music has the power to influence our emotions. Therefore, it is apparent that music is anything but neutral

Friday, December 21, 2012

The Sounds of Acceptable Worship: Part 1 — Created to Sing

Before we begin examining contemporary Christian music through a biblical lens, let’s take a brief look at what the Bible tells us about sounds and music:

Music Comes Directly from God

Did you know the Lord sings? Yes! 

Zephaniah 3:17: “The LORD your God is in your midst, a mighty one who will save; he will rejoice over you with gladness; he will quiet you by his love; he will exult over you with loud singing.”

Music is the Lord’s “idea”; musical sounds and melodies directly emanate from Him. 

All God’s Earthly Creatures sing.

He has also given His creation the capacity to sing, to make melodies, and to worship through music. The Lord gives life and breath to all things (1 Tim.6:13, Acts 17:25). All His creatures return this “breath of life” to Him through worship. In fact, all of creation is commanded to worship Him:

Psalm 150:6: “Let everything that has breath praise the LORD! Praise the LORD!”
Psalm 117: “Praise the LORD, all nations! Extol him, all peoples!”

One of these expressions of worship, of course, is singing:

Psalm 66:1-2: “Shout for joy to God, all the earth; sing the glory of his name; give to him glorious praise!”

Psalm 67:3-5: “Let the peoples praise you, O God; let all the peoples praise you! Let the nations be glad and sing for joy, for you judge the peoples with equity and guide the nations upon earth. Selah. Let the peoples praise you, O God; let all the peoples praise you!”

God’s heavenly creatures also sing to the Lord:

Job 38:7: “…when the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy?”

Most commentators believe the term “morning stars” to be figuratively referring to angelic beings, rather than literal stars. Regardless, this passage is more clear:

Revelation 5:8-9: “And when he had taken the scroll, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb, each holding a harp, and golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints. And they sang a new song, saying, ‘Worthy are you…’”

All of God’s creation “sings”:

Psalm 65:12-13: “The pastures of the wilderness overflow, the hills gird themselves with joy, the meadows clothe themselves with flocks, the valleys deck themselves with grain, they shout and sing together for joy.”

Psalms 96:11-13: “Let the heavens be glad, and let the earth rejoice; let the sea roar, and all that fills it; let the field exult, and everything in it! Then shall all the trees of the forest sing for joy before the LORD, for he comes, for he comes to judge the earth. He will judge the world in righteousness, and the peoples in his faithfulness.”

Psalm 98:7-9: “Let the sea roar, and all that fills it; the world and those who dwell in it! Let the rivers clap their hands; let the hills sing for joy together”.

Isaiah 44:23: “Sing, O heavens, for the LORD has done it; shout, O depths of the earth; break forth into singing, O mountains, O forest, and every tree in it! For the LORD has redeemed Jacob, and will be glorified in Israel.”

The intricate and ordered sounds and movements of nature are described as songs and praises of joy unto the Lord.

In glory, the saints will continue to joyfully sing to the Lord for all eternity:

Revelation 14:2: “And I heard a voice from heaven like the roar of many waters and like the sound of loud thunder. The voice I heard was like the sound of harpists playing on their harps, and they were singing a new song before the throne and before the four living creatures and before the elders. No one could learn that song except the 144,000 who had been redeemed from the earth.”

Revelation 15:2-4: “And I saw what appeared to be a sea of glass mingled with fire--and also those who had conquered the beast and its image and the number of its name, standing beside the sea of glass with harps of God in their hands. And they sing the song of Moses, the servant of God, and the song of the Lamb, saying, "Great and amazing are your deeds, O Lord God the Almighty! Just and true are your ways, O King of the nations! Who will not fear, O Lord, and glorify your name? For you alone are holy. All nations will come and worship you, for your righteous acts have been revealed.”

Thus we see that sounds and music are no accident, and neither are they purposeless or meaningless. They flow directly from the character and being of God Himself. He is a verbal being, and as such He has privileged His creatures with the capacity to not only communicate through sounds, but also to worship Him through them. 

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

The Sounds of Acceptable Worship: Introduction

As of today, I will embark on a series of teachings about a highly controversial topic in modern day Christendom: Christian music. I hope to answer important and relevant questions for believers today—such questions as:

 “What does the Bible say about music?”
“What music and musical styles should we listen to as Christians?”
“Can I worship God through any type of music?”
 “Is music neutral?”
“What about Christian rap, metal and rock n roll?”

I will also respond to statements often made by believers, like:

“The rhythms and beats of a song aren’t important; the only thing that matters is that the lyrics are God-glorifying.”
“Many people are hearing the Gospel and being saved in [favorite artist’s name]’s concerts. There is so much fruit. The Lord is has to be pleased with their music.”
“We need to conform to the culture in order to reach them for Christ. That’s what Paul did!”

In reality, the question of how we should approach God in worship shouldn’t be so controversial. It is, however, because most Christians almost always engage this issue with much passion. This very often results in unreasonable behavior. Debates centered on the music controversy sometimes even result in personal attacks, unnecessary qualms and division between Christians. All this is owing to the fact that whenever the habits or practices so dear to one’s heart are called into question, it is hard for such a person to look at a matter objectively. Emotions are involved. Biblical, objective reasoning tends to give way to subjective opinions and attempts to justify one’s behavior, lifestyle and choices. When it comes to an issue like music, even a believer known for his consistent walk with the Lord and diligence to study the Word may go hermeneutically berserk, irrationally clinging to an unbiblical point of view—throwing away all biblical principles of interpreting Scripture by eisegetically mangling biblical texts to conform them to his point of view.  Rather than “test everything” (1 Thes.5:21) by searching the Scriptures diligently like the Bereans (Acts 17:9), this type of person may rather cling even tighter to his own beliefs without wanting to give them much thought or look deeper into the issue. He may become defensive toward those who dare question his point of view, and respond to any arguments against his views with accusations and ad hominem attacks aimed at the debater himself, rather than at the arguments his debater is propounding. Instead of sincerely seeking the Lord in prayer, and searching out wise counsel from godly men, he may rather run to, and surround himself with, those of his own persuasion—a “support group” of sorts.

I’m not a fan of modern psychology by any means, but this field of study has coined a term to describe the aforementioned dilemma: cognitive dissonance. When one comes across new information that directly contradicts one’s beliefs or behavior, such a person’s reaction will be to either: 1) conform to this new information, accepting it, however difficult and uncomfortable it may be, or 2) find some means to suppress the new information to reduce the uncomfortable tension—such as by attempting to justify his existing beliefs or behavior using inconsistent pretexts…or even by choosing to immediately dismiss and ignore the information altogether.  

I mention this because you, dear reader, may find yourself reacting in such a way to the information I am about to present. You may begin to feel uncomfortable, and even angry. You may feel like simply dismissing it as another rant from a “legalist”. Questions may begin to race through your mind, such as, “Is he saying such and such an artist is in sin?”, “Is he saying I am in sin?”, “Is he saying this or that instrument/music style is sinful?”, “Is he saying I can’t worship God through this or that type of music?” I kindly beseech you to please continue reading my posts before coming to any conclusions as to what I am actually saying. And please take the time to carefully examine everything I mention with the Bible. Our authority is God’s Word, and not man’s opinions.  Man can, and does, err—no matter how much he may be used of God. And the simple truth is that I can err, which is why you need to test everything I say with Scripture. If I write something unbiblical, please feel free to throw it out. If I write something that makes you feel uncomfortable, search the Scriptures to see if what I am saying is so, regardless of how you feel. Pray and ask the Lord for wisdom. 

One of the verses I quoted above says in context:

“Do not despise prophecies, but test everything; hold fast what is good. Abstain from every form of evil.”
(1 Thessalonians 5:20-22)

I sincerely hope and pray you will heed to the above admonition.