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

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