On Music

A few thoughts (and more) on music:

Necessary preface: there are some people who are genuine polymaths (‘persons of encyclopedic learning’). I will mention one such person below. But I am not one. I am interested in a lot of different things, but I am hardly an expert in any of them. I am in the old ‘jack of all trades but master of none’ category I am afraid. But that does not stop me from writing about a wide range of issues, as regular readers will know.

And like most people, I do enjoy music, even though I am not a talented musician nor an expert in music theory, history and practice. I am very grateful for the gift of music. Sure, like all the good gifts of God, music can be perverted, abused and misused. But I appreciate good music and good musicians – both Christian and non-Christian.

They can help you to chill, and even help uplift you, especially during tough times. I sometimes share some pieces that I have enjoyed on the social media. If folks enjoy them as well, fine. If not, they can go about their day. (Oh, and listening to them with a good sound system helps greatly.)

Here I want to do a few things: look briefly at some of the biblical material; draw your attention to one noted scholar; and finish with a few of my particular likes. So this is a bit of an eclectic piece, and it obviously only scratches the surface about what can be said about music.

Scripture and music

We find much in the Bible about music. I see that in the ESV at least the word – or forms of it – is found 29 times: music, musicians, etc. Music of course can be used in the worship of God, as in 1 Chronicles 15-16. And more passages come up when you search for such terms as lyre or harp or tambourine or castanets or cymbals, etc. Thus we get psalms such as these:

Psalm 71:22 I will also praise you with the harp for your faithfulness, O my God; I will sing praises to you with the lyre, O Holy One of Israel.

Psalm 81:2 Raise a song; sound the tambourine, the sweet lyre with the harp.

Psalm 92:3 to the music of the lute and the harp, to the melody of the lyre.

Psalm 144:9 I will sing a new song to you, O God; upon a ten-stringed harp I will play to you,

Psalm 150:3 Praise him with trumpet sound; praise him with lute and harp!

And another famous passage has to do with how music was used by David (playing the lyre) to deal with evil spirits harassing Saul. As we read in 1 Samuel 16:23: “And whenever the harmful spirit from God was upon Saul, David took the lyre and played it with his hand. So Saul was refreshed and was well, and the harmful spirit departed from him.”

Scruton and music

The late, great conservative Christian philosopher and polymath Roger Scruton has written often about the arts and architecture, in addition to all the other topics he so capably tackled. I recently noted that while I have 22 of his books, I had none of his 4 volumes on music. They are:

The Aesthetics of Music, 1997
Understanding Music: Philosophy and Interpretation, 2009
Music as an Art, 2018
Wagner’s Parsifal: The Music of Redemption, 2021

So I have begun to remedy that omission. Here I will quote from his 2018 volume. In his chapter on “Music and the Moral Life” he says this:

I begin from the question whether musical idioms can exhibit moral virtues and moral vices. It is obvious that we describe musical idioms in this way, and it is worth reminding ourselves of some familiar examples. The idiom of the Gregorian chant is almost universally acknowledged to be spiritual and uplifting. The style of Bach’s keyboard works is scholarly and dignified. The classical idiom of Haydn and Mozart is courtly, well mannered and correct. The idiom of Beethoven is passionate and defiant. New Orleans Jazz is lively, invigorating, innocent. By contrast Death Metal is oppressive, dark, morbid. Indie music is complacent and easy-going; the American songbook is sentimental and nostalgic.

Image of Music as an Art
Music as an Art by Scruton, Roger (Author) Amazon logo

Hmm, many of you may not even have thought of music in terms of morality. And for many folks, this might be just a bit too much: a philosophy of music? Let alone a philosophy of dancing? All that and more is the sort of thing that Scruton covers in this and his other books on music.

But not everyone will prefer such a hardcore philosophical, academic, and technical discussion of music. Most will just want to listen to it and enjoy it. But there are plenty of other volumes out there on music that can be mentioned of course. Let me speak to just one of them.

In a recent recommended reading list on Christians and the arts, one of the volumes I listed was fully about music. I refer to Christian Music: A Global History, rev. ed., by Tim Dowley (SPCK, 2011, 2018). Christians especially will appreciate this detailed and helpful study of the history and variety of Christian music, going right back to the music of ancient Israel.

That reading list can be found here: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2022/07/21/christianity-and-a-theology-of-the-arts-recommended-reading/

Me and music

For what it is worth, I like many sorts of music, including classical, the blues, early rock, some contemporary Christian music, Dixieland jazz, swing and Big Band, rockabilly, and black gospel. And I have played a few instruments over the years, but never became proficient in any of them.

As I mentioned above, I will sometimes share some music (usually via a link to a music video) with others on the social media. As is well known, the enjoyment of something is often greatly enhanced when you share that experience with others.

Watching a beautiful sunset is so very enjoyable, but it seems even better when you can share it with another person. So that is what I sometimes do with some of the music I enjoy. Here I might offer just a few links to pieces that I will so often go back to, from a wide array of musical genres.

Let me start with two songs I featured at my wife’s recent memorial service. As to classical music, so many pieces could be selected from. One song she loved and all music lovers would appreciate is Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto, 2nd Movement: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vUkHf2GskqM

And a complementary Christian worship song I only just discovered a few weeks before her funeral is “Trust In You” by Lauren Daigle, covered by Elenyi: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q1xlpcu3gsU&list=RDQ1xlpcu3gsU&start_radio=1

As to some of my other tastes, here is a real mixture of musical varieties:

You can’t go wrong with a Stephane Grappelli and Django Reinhardt tune: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9CDoJFmdFgA

There are plenty of the old blues champions one can feature, but many newer groups are also of interest: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tBmVtW5qxGs

I quite enjoy New Orleans, or Dixieland, Jazz. Here is one of many I could offer to your ears: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K4YtnTQ8GGY&list=RDEMYDex0bjy5ZVzxnglOrkthg&index=5

And I keep leave out this terrific version of the old classic, “Sweet Georgia Brown”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s3c0A6YmIIc

As to a toe-tapping Black Gospel tune, check this out: “Have Thine Own Way Lord” done by Dr Charles Hayes & The Cosmopolitan Church of Prayer Choir: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8fF2XFzw6tY

A somewhat older Christian classic from Phil Keaggy is “Your Love Broke Thru”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7bWtAP6yb2I

But some folks might prefer the Keith Green version of it: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vVjHrenMEaM

Or consider a new take on an old wartime classic from the Andrews Sisters: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NhyunNsNikE

Maybe some vintage boogie woogie piano is to your liking: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tBmVtW5qxGs

Some French swing jazz might perk you up: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yLy7QTC1PhM

Lastly, this song that went through my head as I headed to my wife’s funeral: Keith & Kristyn Getty, “He Will Hold Me Fast”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BsA_UPXnluw

OK, so I am all over the place here, and you may dislike some or all my offerings. And many are clearly of the toe-tapping variety! Hey, it is my website so I can post what I like! But feel free to let us know what some of your fave songs or pieces are, be they Christian or non-Christian.

Well, with all that said, I think I might now listen to some music! And I will do that right here at my desk, with my desktop computer and the nice sound system attached to it that a son had given me.

[1406 words]

12 Replies to “On Music”

  1. Hello Bill,
    I lost my husband of 43 years last year, and for his funeral I chose Keith Green’s ‘There is a Redeemer’ and the Gettys’ ‘There is a Higher Throne’, both of which bring me to tears when I hear them, but especially the Gettys’ song. Along with my talk at his funeral, the words of these songs very clearly presented the gospel and the truth of God’s word, for all in attendance to hear. They are such beautiful songs and I hope that hearts are touched and softened, for anyone that listens to them.

  2. That version of “Sweet Georgia Brown” is a cover of the Stephane Grappelli and Django Reinhardt version I have on CD. Very good cover but not as good as the original. Astounding that Django did all that with, I believe, two fingers missing and no one that I know could hit sweet blue notes like Stephane.

    Interesting stuff music. I often wonder just how much cultural influence has on what people think sounds good. We think Japanese music sounds harsh but the African slaves brought to the US thought the equal temperaments scale we use is harsh and regularly bent notes to fit their recollection of what sounded good as did the early Celts.

    I have played music all my life and I have noticed a change over the last century or so in that classical musicians have picked up on this and opera singers and violinists these days will actually flatten notes perhaps a few cents to make them sound better and less harsh under certain circumstances. They are definitely right to do so.

    It is also extremely interesting to hear pre-Bach classical pieces played on the original instruments the pieces were written for because the old instruments sound so much better. They were made and tuned by ear for what sounded good in certain keys whereas modern instruments are strict and accurately tuned to be equal temperaments. That and the early composers knew incredibly well how to make the best use of the earlier tonal qualities of the instruments which have now changed with the modern instruments.

    Many people don’t appreciate just how much tonal qualities affect the music and if you have learned something from the notation only, without hearing what was passed down, you can easily miss the subtleties that make it that much better.

  3. Unfortunately I don’t think many Christians think about the morality of certain music and musical genres. I’m a person against CCM and one way some try to deflect criticism from CCM while acknowledging the immorality of the regular versions is to play a C and ask “was that a regular C or a Christian C???” Basically saying since the note itself has no morality attached to it neither can the music created by a series of notes. I have a host of book on music from the Christian perspective and understand the damage can be in the TUNES as well as the WORDS.

    Music is made up of two main parts the tune and the words but we too often have ONLY prescribed immortality to the words believing the tune to be morally pure and thus you can separate the tune and the words and use the tune and not run afoul of morality. Each type of music will have a noticeable sound (rock, rap, metal, pop, etc) the Christian versions will still be recognizable as being part of the type.

    A better test than the above is take two musicians, one mainstream & one Christian, mask them and have them play a new song not released with no words. Then ask “which song was the (mainstream genre) and which song was the (Christian genre)???” I’ll bet instead of laughs you’ll get blank stares and a bunch of people looking at people around them.

    Satan has traps all around us many quite enticing. Add to the in the late 1800’s I believe it was seminaries were infiltrated and started slowly changing things. Slowly morality and sin were shifted towards were we got to in the late 1900’s and early 2000’s.

    Some say satan’s greatest trick was convincing people he doesn’t exist but I think convincing people he’s to impatient to take time to do things over decades or centuries is at least as good. We don’t take satan seriously his abilities and patience so we don’t take our faith seriously. If you underestimate your enemies strength you won’t build up your own. And if your strength is insufficient your enemy wins.

  4. You open your post with a disclaimer saying: “I am interested in a lot of different things, but I am hardly an expert in any of them. I am in the old ‘jack of all trades but master of none’ category, I am afraid.”

    I beg to disagree, Bill.

    You have excellent academic credentials in theology and philosophy; and, unlike most graduates after they leave university, you’ve never stopped reading and studying.

    In your August 9 post, “On home libraries”, you mentioned how, in the course of your life, you’ve acquired “8,000 or so books, the majority … to do with religion and theology. Nearly 900 of my books are biblical commentaries.”

    Just off the top of my head, I can’t think of anybody in the southern hemisphere who writes as lucidly and regularly as you do on so many things of eternal value, such as Christian theology and daily living, the sanctity of human life and the value of marriage.

    In your commentaries on politics and culture, you cover a whole range of issues ignored by the mainstream media. I’d rather have your expertise than that of the majority of secular commentators any day.

    You regularly introduce us, your readers, to great historical figures and important books that, left to our own devices, we might never have come across.

    Your half century of acquiring and reading the very best authors on theology, bioethics and culture has served you well and greatly enriched the lives of your readers.

  5. Being a Dylan fan before I was a Christian in 77. When he released his Gospel albums I loved I believe in You, Saving Grace, and When He returns. Love Keith Green and was privileged to see him back 1980 in Melbourne. Love his version of the Lord is My Shepherd. So sad that he and his two children went to be with the Lord at such a young age. Too many songs to mention of Keith’s.

  6. I don’t listen to music – except as it arises in other activities e.g. TV shows, and not even always then, so this is purely theoretical for me. (I prefer the sound of birds or rain i.e. nature)

    As regards Death Metal being oppressive, dark, and morbid, is it the music that is such, or is it the visuals associated with it – lots of black leather, blood, bones, and death stuff, or so I presume, and the accompanying ‘singers’ screaming out lyrics which if comprehended – and frankly you’d probably need the text to decipher the screaming, are rather disturbing? If it is the latter then wouldn’t it be possible to have ‘Christian Death Metal’ music? Or am I showing my gross ignorance about a subject I have next to no contact with?

  7. Thanks Andrew. Well, I suppose a person who is born colour-blind is a bit less qualified to discuss the colours of the rainbow than some others! But for what it is worth, I actually am aware of one person who was involved in Christian Death Metal – his aim was to reach others for Christ in that camp.

  8. Rev Steve Stockman from Northern Ireland is an expert commentator on spiritual lessons in secular music, with his excellent works “The Rock Cries Out” & “Walk On” on U2’s music.
    Looking at his recent posts, sadly he has gone woke.
    I liked Lauren Daigle’s music, until I found she too became work, supporting LGBTI causes.

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