Monday, November 23, 2015

Music 2 - Music Defined

Words are very important to me both in my chosen vocation – preaching – and my avocation – writing. I learned the hard way as a young pastor that I cannot preach on a subject without first carefully defining it. My hearer may well carry in his mind a different understanding of a term that I am using. In such a case I will shed no light into in his mind. I will only engender confusion. John Milton Gregory in his classic The Seven Laws of Teaching points out the absolute necessity of this by asserting that one entire law is that of language – it must be in common between the teacher and the student.

For these reasons it has become my settled custom when introducing a subject to particularly define it. The deeper of a discussion I intend to undertake the more emphasis I place upon that definition. Thus it is that I begin this lengthy blog series with today's post title: Music Defined.

Let me begin by saying that when I use the word "music" in this series I generally mean instrumental music. Lyrics may accompany music but they are not music in the strict sense by which I mean by the term. After all, lyrics are fairly straight forward. We may agree or disagree with the poetical quality of a song's lyrics but whether those lyrics are bad or good, sinful or righteous, helpful or destructive, does not take an art critic. It simply takes someone with a basic understanding of speech. No, when I say music I mean the (mostly) mechanical sounds, the vibrations that strike your ears apart from whatever words accompany those sounds.

What is music? Foundationally, music is an emotional language.

when words fail music speaks

Each of the two words in my preferred definition is likewise important. That music is an emotional thing is readily apparent in Scripture. At the risk of boring you with a long list notice these instances:

Job 29:13 The blessing of him that was ready to perish came upon me: and I caused the widow’s heart to sing for joy.
Ps 67:4 O let the nations be glad and sing for joy: for thou shalt judge the people righteously, and govern the nations upon earth. Selah.
Ps 71:23 My lips shall greatly rejoice when I sing unto thee; and my soul, which thou hast redeemed.
Ps 95:1 O come, let us sing unto the LORD: let us make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation.
Ps 98:4 Make a joyful noise unto the LORD, all the earth: make a loud noise, and rejoice, and sing praise.
Ps 126:2 Then was our mouth filled with laughter, and our tongue with singing: then said they among the heathen, The LORD hath done great things for them.
Ps 137:3 For there they that carried us away captive required of us a song; and they that wasted us required of us mirth, saying, Sing us one of the songs of Zion.
Pr 29:6 In the transgression of an evil man there is a snare: but the righteous doth sing and rejoice.
Lam 3.14-15 The elders have ceased from the gate, the young men from their musick. The joy of our heart is ceased; our dance is turned into mourning.
Isa 49:13 Sing, O heavens; and be joyful, O earth; and break forth into singing, O mountains: for the LORD hath comforted his people, and will have mercy upon his afflicted.
Isa 52:9 Break forth into joy, sing together, ye waste places of Jerusalem: for the LORD hath comforted his people, he hath redeemed Jerusalem.
Isa 65:14 Behold, my servants shall sing for joy of heart, but ye shall cry for sorrow of heart, and shall howl for vexation of spirit.
Jer 31:7 For thus saith the LORD; Sing with gladness for Jacob, and shout among the chief of the nations: publish ye, praise ye, and say, O LORD, save thy people, the remnant of Israel.
Zep 3:14 Sing, O daughter of Zion; shout, O Israel; be glad and rejoice with all the heart, O daughter of Jerusalem.
Zep 3:17 The LORD thy God in the midst of thee is mighty; he will save, he will rejoice over thee with joy; he will rest in his love, he will joy over thee with singing.
Zec 2:10 Sing and rejoice, O daughter of Zion: for, lo, I come, and I will dwell in the midst of thee, saith the LORD.
Mt 9.23-24 And when Jesus came into the ruler’s house, and saw the minstrels and the people making a noise, He said unto them, Give place: for the maid is not dead, but sleepeth. And they laughed him to scorn.
Jas 5:13 Is any among you afflicted? let him pray. Is any merry? let him sing psalms.

Most of these are about the emotion of joy. Well they should be for we are God's people, and we ought to live in joy as we live in Him. But we also see several examples in the above list of a direct connection between music and sorrow. For instance, in Matthew 9 Jesus entered Jairus' house to raise his daughter from the dead and found a musical group playing appropriately somber music. He asked them to leave. Such funereal music would not be necessary once the little girl was brought back to life.

To this Martin Luther agreed, saying, "Music is to be praised as second only to the Word of God because by her all the emotions are swayed." Dan Lucarini comes to a similar conclusion in his book, Can We Rock the Gospel?, "Music is one of the ways by which we can give audible expression to our common emotions such as joy, sorrow, love, sympathy, heroism, and compassion, and as we turn the pages of the Bible, we find it used in all of these areas." Christopher Hogwood, a conductor, instrumentalist, and musicologist who died last year, said, "Music is the use of sound to move the human soul." The Grammy award winner Jewel explained it this way, "You always feel better when you sing. Music touches people's hearts. You know, it doesn't go through your mental capacity, it just moves you and it will let you cry. It's worth it doing a show and when you touch a crowd and move yourself at the same time." Leo Tolstoy, the nineteenth century Russian wordsmith would have agreed with Jewel, saying, "Music is the shorthand of emotion."

What is critical to understand – both for reading this series and for general application in life and church – is that music is not just emotional. It is an emotional language. It is the use of non-verbal sound to convey, to express, to communicate, even to produce certain emotions. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow grasped this when he stated, "Music is the language spoken by angels." By this he meant that instrumental music produced in him sublime feelings.

Dr. Emil Guthiel, a mid-twentieth century psychologist, wrote of an example of this in his book, Music and Your Emotions. "Bingham, in an experiment based on data obtained from 20,000 persons, reported the effects produced upon their moods by a variety of 290 phonograph records. The conclusion from all these data was that a musical composition not only produces a mood change in the listener but it induces a markedly uniform mood in a great number of persons in a given audience."

Shelley Katsch, an advocate for music therapy, sees a similar dynamic. She expressed – in a book co-authored with New York mental health counselor Carol Merle-Fishman – it this way: "Music defines our likes, dislikes, physical appearance, mood and means of expression... One of the most poignant gifts of music is its ability to elicit the most tender emotions. In this way it communicates directly to our hearts and souls." David Tame in his book The Secret Power of Music (which I have not read but is on my Amazon wish list <hint, hint>) explains, "There is surely no doubt that music actually conveys very real and sometimes very specific emotional states from the musician to the listener."

Love and Time
Music is what feelings sound like. If I am melancholy, stoked, contemplative, or passionate I can find music on Pandora that matches my mood exactly within seconds. (By the way, spend the five bucks a month to get the commercial free version. It is so worth it.) I work and live in words but sometimes even words are not enough for me. Music alone can say what I am feeling. Hans Christian Anderson said, "Where words fail, music speaks." Victor Hugo, another master wordsmith understood this as well. "Music expresses that which cannot be put into words and cannot remain silent." One of my favorite twentieth century composers, Leonard Bernstein, said, "Music… can name the un-nameable and communicate the unknowable." My emotions must burst forth but nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs are entirely insufficient. So I play music. 

Yip Harburg, the lyricist for such well known works as "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?" and "Over the Rainbow", understood not only the power of words but the power of the underlying tune itself. He said, "Words make you think a thought. Music makes you feel a feeling. A song makes you feel a thought."

Dr. Norman Weinberger, a professor of neurobiology at UC Irvine, offered the following evidence. He paired pictures of depressing art with sad music and not surprisingly ended up with sad students. He then paired depressing art with happy music and ended up with happy students. Not done yet, he paired cheerful pictures with happy music and got happy students. Finally, he paired cheerful pictures with sad music and got sad students again. In a paper on the subject he summed it up this way, "Music doesn't simply convey intended emotions that we can recognize, but rather induces genuine emotion in the listener."

This is patently obvious as revealed in almost every movie you have ever seen. The writers work in words, but the the producers and directors work in moods. They convey those moods using lighting, pace, and especially music. An otherwise innocuous scene becomes truly grim when the scary music at the upper end of the scales begins to play. Happiness, peace, security, love, fear, anger – all these and more are conveyed to you without words via instrumental music.

If all of this is true – that music is an emotional language, that it communicates, that it speaks outside of and beyond the lyrics – then the question you must ask yourself about the music that flows into you and through you is this: What is it saying? What is it telling me? How is it influencing me? What is it communicating to those around me? Your choice of music both communicates to you and through you to others how you feel, how strongly you feel, what you believe, and what is important to you at the moment.

You had better choose it carefully. It is saying something.


  1. The scriptural references you used refer to singing (as in words) and not musical notes or sound as emotional language as you have defined it. There is a disconnect there.

    1. That is a valid point but I do not think it substantially changes the thesis I laid out above. There are clearly examples in the Bible - some I mentioned above and some I did not - that reference instrumental music and some that connect it in an emotional context.

      Music is an emotional language. Lyrics add a dimension to that but they do not change its fundamental truth.

    2. Actually it does.

      You went to great lengths to define it then refenced a host of Scripture that deal with singing (words) and not notes.

      It will hurt your conclusions based on your definition.

    3. I thinks words/lyrics are key to music's power, but only at the onset. Once a lyric has been established with a melody line, it seems to be there permanently. The tune then elicits the emotion where in is the great power (and danger) of music. The emotional language is then carried primarily by the musical side, not the lyrical side.