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A Christian View of Music (Part 1)

Music is not man’s invention, it is man’s discovery. Music predated the creation of man (Job 38 ) As part of creation, music can be used to distort the Creator’s desires for His world, or rightly represent them.

There are over 290 references to music in the Bible. The Bible refers to musical instruments: Wind instruments like the flute and horn and trumpet; string instruments like the lyre and harp and psaltery, percussion instruments like the cymbals.  We read of the Songs of Moses, Songs of Deborah, Hannah, Songs of David, Songs of Asaph. We read of the great Levitical choirs organised by David. We read the Song of Solomon and find in I Kings 4 out he also composed 1005 songs. Isaiah is a wonderfully musical book – with a number of songs in it. The entire book of Psalms is a songbook – the songbook of ancient Israel and the early church, containing not only lyrics, but even the tunes they were to be sung to. In fact, fully one third of the Old Testament is Hebrew poetry – most of it to be sung.  In the New Testament we read the songs of Mary, of Simeon, of Zechariah, of the Angels. Paul in his writings sometimes quotes what was almost certainly an early hymn – many believe Philippians 2:5-11 was one such example, another being 1 Timothy 3:16. Paul commands the use of music in Ephesians and in Colossians.  The Bible finishes with Revelation, with numerous songs being sung in heaven itself.

 

Meaning and Music

  1. The Bible is clear that music communicates. The Bible is very clear on this. Certain musical forms can carry meaning and “fit” best with specific purposes. For instance Scripture speak of songs of the drunkard (Ps 69.12), songs of the harlot (Is 23.15), songs of praise (Nehemiah 12:46), songs of devotion (2 Kings 3.15), songs of celebration (1 Kings 1.18-40; 1 Chr 15.28), songs of war (Ex 32), and songs of pagan worship (Ex 32). A very graphic illustration of this occurs when Moses and Joshua are returning from Mount Sinai, and the people of Israel have fallen into idolatry down below (Exodus 32:17-18).
  2. Music communicates, not in propositions, but in affections, or emotions. Music is so able to represent an emotion that the Bible sometimes treats that emotion and the sound of the music as the same thing. “My harp also is turned to mourning, and my organ into the voice of them that weep”. (Job 30:31). Most everyone recognizes music is an emotional language. We all understood that films use mood music in the background to help us know if we are supposed to be happy, scared, in suspense, tense, excited, thrilled, titillated, saddened.

Objection: “The note C can’t inherently communicate good or evil – the sound is neutral!” Answer: Just as “notes, sounds, and rhythm” have no inherent ability to communicate “propositional truth,” likewise the letters of the alphabet or of scratching characters on a page have no inherent ability to communicate. So what? The point is that when put together, music becomes language that can communicate truth or lies.

“Propositional truth” is not the only truth with which we must concern ourselves. The truth of propositions lies in their correspondence to the reality that they describe. The truth of affections lies in their correspondence (their proportionality) to the objects to which they are attached. Right emotion is a question of truth.

All arts deal primarily in affective, rather than propositional, truth. The function of hymnody as an art is not primarily to communicate propositional truth, but rather to shape a correct, proportionate, or ordinate response to the object under consideration.  Otherwise we would simply use prose.  Music of all sorts (including hymnody) reaches the affections primarily, and the discursive understanding only secondarily.

What this implies is that all music has meaning, and therefore all music is moral. If music does not have propositions which we can study, how can we determine it meaning? Musical meaning is a complex subject, but not one that is impossible to understand. We should think about music like a combination between tone of voice and non-verbal gesturing. Some of the meaning is culturally-dependent, some of it is intrinsic, but the combination is never meaningless. Music has meaning in three ways:

  1. Its use. How music is used – for what occasion, and for what purpose, to carry what idea or message shapes the meaning we give it. A culture’s use of a certain music shapes meaning
  2. Its associations. Who uses it, what groups, what situation, in what circumstance, shapes the meaning.
  3. Its intrinsic form. Music has melody, harmony, rhythm and timbre, tempo, pitch and mode, and so forth.  These do differ from culture to culture, but not in ways that make them impossible to penetrate, because sound and the human ear are God’s creations, not culture’s.

But it does not really matter whether the meaning is associational, conventional or intrinsic. We are responsible for the correct use wherever the music is used that language is spoken.

 

  – David De Bruyn, Professor of Church History, Shepherds’ Seminary Africa

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