Does music communicate? While there are a few would argue otherwise, there is a growing body of scholarship that indicates audiences can understand the emotional tone of a given piece of music with astonishing predictability. However, this matter isn't the main point of this article; rather, let's accept the idea that music communicates emotion and run with it. What then? For the worship leader who believes our communication matters, we should explore how we might be able to evaluate a given musical expression.
Before beginning, there are some who will welcome this discussion for all the wrong reasons. They suppose that accepting the idea of musical communication will send all the "evil" styles of music scurrying back under the rock, and others, in reaction to them, try to minimize and dismiss the idea of musical communication altogether. For both, music is often spoken of as a disconnected thing, fixed in time and space, and for those who prefer to ignore musical communication, it is ephemeral and completely subjective - irrelevant to the verbal message of a song.
The first group are those who who try to parse every note, every rhythm, and every harmony, evaluating the parts to make a moral judgment if it is “good” or “bad.” In this way the musical expression is deconstructed according to the various rules that have become accepted by that particular community. This disconnects the music from the other essential aspects of communication, particularly its context (more on this later). In so doing, the ability to discern its actual emotional communication is undermined considerably.
Their approach is very similar to my college music theory class, where we studied how music was constructed by analyzing various musical expressions. Occasionally, we would notice that some great composer would break one of the “rules” of music theory, and I remember asking the professor why Bach could break a “rule.” He first explained that the rules were formulated post hoc to generally describe and explain why certain music sounded good, then he made two points: 1.) He did it in a way that sounded good and 2.) You aren’t him.
In that class, our compositions were not judged on the basis of the first point, “Does this sound good.” Instead, they were evaluated on the basis of whether we conformed to the rules of music theory. For that class, the rules were prescriptive rather than descriptive. This was a good thing, and while it was important to help our class as we were learning to make music, it isn't where musical composition is supposed to live.
Because it is a descriptive discipline, music theory is itself largely dependent on the cultural context in which the music was composed. It is also dependent on the cultural context of the one who is seeking to formulate the categories and structures of what made a particular selection of music sound good. At the same time, it tends to disconnect the music from its history, context, and expression, which are essential to understanding its emotional content.
Coming back to the initial discussion, in some conservative circles there are those who approach the issues surrounding morality in music from this same kind of clinical, arbitrary, and disconnected perspective; they seek to evaluate the moral content of music on the basis of elemental considerations like style or rhythm. In the process they end up proposing some sort of a musical taxonomy that can be followed if a composer would like to make “godly” music; the result is that they are really offering an additional set of music-theory rules. The only difference is that these rules end up becoming moral absolutes, and their additions to music theory are practically elevated to the status of revelation.
These prescriptions do not come from Scripture; in fact they are actually derived from descriptions of cultural artifacts from some cultural context that is considered superior. Their efforts cannot be adequately defended. In order to establish such a theory of intrinsic morality in music, we would have to be able to establish that a given tone and rhythm pattern communicates the exact same emotion universally in all cultures and that the communicated emotion is universally immoral in every context. Some have taken up this challenge in an attempt to demonstrate this, but since the Bible is silent on this matter, they are left producing a convoluted construction of philosophical ramblings and pronouncements.
If we hope to do better than that, we must consider all aspects of a musical expression together in order to understand its communicative content. Interestingly, this idea is consistent with what we understand about linguistic communication, and if we approached music in this way, the Bible would have a great deal to say about it. But can we really justify using language as a basis for our approach to understanding music? I think it is not only possible, but preferable.
Consider this: all spoken languages have a kind of music, where the rising and falling of tones determine the nature of the communication. For example, the words, “I love you” can be spoken to express a question, a statement, or even the exact opposite of what might be thought upon a bare reading of the words. Repeat the words in these ways, out loud, and you will hear the change in music in each expression. This is one reason that musical aptitude is a good indicator of potential skill in learning language, and it means that we can treat spoken word as a form of music!
Worship leaders, in particular, must be very careful both with what we communicate and how we communicate it, because we are joining the gospel and its truth to the musical expressions of worship. We must evaluate it, and this requires that we consider each of four essential aspects of all communication:
* Agent - the person who intends to communicate.
* Agency - the means the agent uses to communicate.
* Audience - the person(s) who are the recipient of the communication.
* Context - including history, occasion, and venue.
Each of these must be understood in relation to their various contexts, and all four must be included if any adequate evaluation can take place. In addition, since no emotion is in and of itself sinful, we are really addressing is whether or not a given expression is appropriate. Things may be inappropriate because it is not the right time or place ("fire" in a crowded building vs. on a rifle range); it might be inappropriate for a given audience ("no" to a parent vs. a drug dealer); it might be inappropriate in its form (a humorous poem set to music vs. presented in a legal brief); and it might be inappropriate for a particular person (refusal from a parent vs. from a child).
Additionally, it might be inappropriate because of degree (too much or too little) or because it doesn't have the right purpose (edification vs. destruction). It is important to note that in addressing these various categories, we are really trying to establish whether a given communication is appropriate in a particular context. To help us along the way, we can answer four essential questions that are covered by an abundance of Biblical principles:
* Is this communication appropriately expressed by this person?
* Is this communication appropriately expressed in this manner and by this means?
* Is this communication appropriate for the edification of the human audience and for the glory of God?
* Is this communication appropriate for the occasion, timing, and venue in which it is given?
The problem with this approach is that there is no cut-and-dried rules that govern the emotional / musical element of communication. That will be uncomfortable for some, since, for example, there is no way to Biblically eliminate the use of particular instruments in all situations (like drums). This often causes some significant angst for those who believe that contemporary Christian music is operating without regard to Biblical principles. Sadly, this issue has become so emotionalized and political that reasonable discussion on the topic is almost entirely ruled out, regardless of which side you are addressing.
If we can manage to start such a conversation, the categories and questions offered above should provide ample direction for discernment, and the Biblical principles that would govern the answers will provide guidance for our choices in worship and our personal lives. Then, if we want to move past the heat and have a fruitful discussion, we must adopt three essential traits of Christ-likeness: 1.) Die to yourself so that you can live toward God, 2.) Love God with all your heart, mind, and strength, and 3.) Love others sacrificially.