Music and Meaning: Some Forms Are Better than Others


Editor’s note:

We asked Harold Best and Ken Myers the same three questions:

  • Can God employ any musical form for redemptive purposes?
  • Even if God can employ any musical form redemptively, are some musical forms spiritually or morally “better” than others?
  • Are some musical forms “better” for the sake of the gathered church?

Click here for Best’s answers. Myers answers the questions not specifically but broadly:

In a letter written in 1955, Flannery O’Connor remarked, “If you live today you breathe in nihilism. . . . It’s the gas you breathe.” She went on to observe that she would have been perfectly content in this condition “if I hadn’t had the Church to fight it with or to tell me the necessity of fighting it.”

Almost sixty years later, the cultural atmosphere in which we live suffers from a much more intense state of toxicity. But many church leaders have not grown in the wisdom necessary for recognizing the forms our nihilism takes. Their churches are neither reliable allies in the fight against nihilism nor trustworthy tutors concerning the need for combat. One sign of their failure is the widespread assumption—evident in worship practices and the defense thereof—that musical forms are neutral and meaningless. Insisting that music is inherently meaningless, that all meaning in music is arbitrarily assigned, that only the words in songs provide meaning, and that true words can be suitably attached to any musical expression, is very close to saying that the universe itself is meaningless. Defenders of such claims are unwitting allies of nihilism, not its adversaries.

Postmodern nihilism is not conveyed so much by propositional claims that address the reason as by cultural forms that shape the imagination. Theologically conservative Christians adept at defending propositional truths often neglect the task of learning to discern non-propositional meaning. Paul’s command that we avoid cultural conformity and seek transformation by the renewing of our minds is not limited to honing the logical processes of deduction. It involves a more ancient understanding of the working of the mind, which included training the imagination and intuition as organs of meaning, linked to the powers of perception through the senses.

In that pre-Enlightenment understanding of the mind, music—ordered form aurally perceived—was understood to be meaningful because Creation was ordered by the Logos. In singing or hearing an ascending melody, for example, one was experiencing something of the nature of ascent. Ascending and descending are realities known in space and time that somatically represent realities beyond space and time. Heights and depths physically experienced—climbing mountains or falling into pits—are meaningful before one rationally analyzes the meaning. All of the vertical metaphors in Scripture—for example, setting our minds on things that are above (Col. 3:2), esteeming those over us in the Lord highly (1 Thess. 5:12), the ascent of incense, hands, and prayers (Ps. 141:2), and so on—rely on the experienced knowledge of ascending and descending. Such knowledge is expressed and experienced in artistic forms seen and heard as well as in more active, tactile activities.

Much musical meaning—like much verbal meaning—is metaphoric. In Psalm 19, the desirability of God’s precepts is compared to gold and their sweetness to honey. We know what that means because we have seen and touched gold and tasted honey. The meaning of those sensory encounters—a meaning we knew before we reasoned about it—provides the basis for the meaning of the propositional claims of the psalmist. The meaning of gold or honey is ineffable, but it is not imaginary or capricious. God created gold and bees to grant us access to a form of knowledge that goes beyond words, but on which words depend.

God similarly created us and the world we live in so that the sound caused by vibrations is perceived as having metaphoric (usually spatial or tactile) qualities. We speak of people with a smooth or a raspy voice, or we refer to the sound of some instruments as mellow and others as harsh. Some harmonies are perceived as close or tight, some melodic lines as open or airy. We have also been created with a musical sense, a capacity for expression and experience of metamorphic meaning through melody, harmony, rhythm, sound texture, and musical form.

The forms of musical expression in any given culture often reflect the reigning assumptions in that culture about reality generally and the human condition specifically. Musical genres of the sixteenth century, for example, are more adept at conveying complex and mysterious realities. Jacob Handl’s Nativity anthem, “Mirabile mysterium,” proclaims: “A wondrous mystery is declared today, an innovation is made upon nature; God is made man; that which he was, he remains, and that which he was not, he takes on, suffering neither commixture nor division.” The musical vocabulary available to Handl provided tools to express these intricate ideas because the cultural milieu of that time was sympathetic to and in many ways still guided by those mysteries. It’s hard to imagine this text or the realities it represents being set to a polka or a march.

Since aesthetic forms—in “high” and popular culture—are often expressions of the Zeitgeist, Christians living in confused or rebellious cultures should never assume that they can obtain reliable materials for worship or discipleship off the shelf. As Calvin Stapert has observed, “Christians today live in a society whose musical thought . . . [has] largely bought into the ideas and practices that came out of the Enlightenment and Romanticism.” Today, the mistakes of the Enlightenment and Romanticism—mistakes rooted in a defiant rejection of a Christian understanding of reality — have decomposed into the nihilism Flannery O’Connor sniffed out three generations ago. And our musical culture reflects this, not uniformly, to be sure, but more emphatically than many Christians recognize.

Can God use musical forms that evolved to express autonomy and defiance for “redemptive purposes”? Of course, but that is to say something about God, not about our responsibility to behave wisely. I believe God could use someone’s steady diet of fatty and sugary foods to improve cardiac health, or that he could use the cultivation of aggression and vengeance to promote a spirit of gentle humility. But should we give our children stones when they ask for bread, insisting that God perform a work of transubstantiation at every meal?