Meaning and Music (continued)
Judging meaning in music means we pay attention to something other than our own reactions to it. Music does not become good or bad based on our reactions (some of which are automatic and visceral).
Meaning is never separable from form. We cannot change forms without changing meanings. For instance, a sonnet cannot–mean the same thing as a limerick, even if both are examining the same object. The same is true of other forms and even of whole media.
This also helps us rightly use the word style in the music debate. Style makes it sound as if something fundamentally the same is being superficially altered on the outside. But this is not the case. We should speak about different forms. Rap and baroque and not just different styles, they have fundamentally different forms, different shapes. It would be like saying that a cathedral and a hut are different styles of housing. Each form of music must be evaluated for its meaning, not merely dismissed with a pseudo-tolerance that recognises how ‘ any style can give glory to God.’
Objection: Not everyone sees songs as sensual, destructive, etc. How do we account for such different tastes, or the apparent inability to detect that music is subversive to Christian affections?
First, this inability is anything but universal. For the most part, only two kinds of people deny that some such meanings are intrinsic, and that many more are conventional. They are postmodernists (who deny all meaning) and evangelicals (including some fundamentalists). You will not find this argument-against-meaning being made either in Rolling Stone or in the journals of art and culture.
Second, the inability of today’s generation to discern the meanings of particular musical forms and compositions is equivalent to the teenager whose vocabulary is not large enough to allow him to know when he’s been insulted. Is there not something to be said for learning how a language communicates before one pontificates about what it does not mean?
Third, people can become desensitized to meanings. A person who is living at a rock-and-roll level of eroticism is not likely to appreciate the more refined eroticism of the waltz. A person whose idea of the erotic is controlled by the visual will probably not appreciate the extent to which musical sound can communicate eroticism. Glenn Miller’s “Moonlight Serenade” is deeply erotic, but I doubt that anybody whose mind is filled with Snoop Dog will detect it.
Fourth, the real problem here is not about what people know, it is about what people love. We are all of us willing to deceive ourselves to keep what we love. Youths especially become so identified with their music that an attack upon their music is construed as an attack upon their persons. If they don’t feel that they have given themselves to sensuality, or anarchy, or inebriation, then they are not likely to allow that the music in which they delight themselves is primarily about sex, or rebellion, or drugs.
– David De Bruyn, Professor of Church History, Shepherds’ Seminary Africa