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. 

1 comment:

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