Music as the Human Experience
The year is 1741. Summer has come and gone, a season of sleepless nights, fasting, and soul-emptying composing for a certain 56-year old English musician. The night is September 14th, and Georg Frederic Handel drops his head in utter exhaustion, tears streaming down his face. His servant enters the room carrying the plate of food his master never eats, and, seeing the great composer bowed before him in such anguish, he stops dead in his tracks. Handel turns to face his startled servant and cries out, “I did think I did see all Heaven before me, and the great God himself.”
The composition is Handel’s Messiah, perhaps the greatest and most popular piece of music ever written in all of western culture. Handel had just finished composing the climax of the entire work, the Hallelujah Chorus.
When 21st century minds think about music of any genre, be it classical, folk, jazz, country, rap, etc., we tend to narrow our focus to one particular aspect of the music, specifically, how the music makes us feel. We make this question the basis for how we judge a piece of music: if the music arouses a certain emotion from us, we’ll probably be more inclined to like the music, whereas music that doesn’t affect us as strongly is far more likely to be discarded and never listened to again. This has become a basic principle for listening, and for understandable reasons: nobody wants to listen to a piece of music and be in exactly the same mood or have exactly the same frame of mind that they had before they played the music. Of course, the mode of listening that we adopt has important consequences for the people who make the music, i.e. the composer (music is a market, after all, and this basic economic principle must apply; if demand for music changes, the supply of music must change alongside it). Put yourself in the shoes of a songwriter: if the average music fan is only listening to music that elicits emotion or gets him to feel a certain way (enter every “chill” or “feels” playlist on Spotify), how might you change your writing style to accommodate these changing preferences? You’d probably write more chill, soulful music, or whatever the market’s demanding, right? You might use music to describe difficult circumstances around you or even to represent rough patches in your own life, and you’d want these emotions to be presented in the clearest way possible in any recording or live performance. In the realm of classical music, 20th century Russian music is one example of the treasure trove that is Romanticism, whereas modern times have seen the rise of megastars like Taylor Swift, Miley Cyrus, Eminem, etc., all of whom brilliantly exploit our desire for raw emotion in music.
This little thought experiment well illustrates some often overlooked relationships in a composition’s life cycle: the relationships between the composer, the performer(s), and the listener. All three of these players will have a permanent impact on a piece of music. Let’s break this down: when the music is being written by the first player (the composer), it’s like a lump of clay. It has no form or meaning (yet), and it’s waiting to be expertly crafted by the artist. From there, it’s the responsibility of the second player (the performer), to effectively “breathe” life into the piece and present it to the audience in the most artistic and heartfelt way possible. The audience, the last player in our abstract little model, is purely the receiver of the music; as such, it has the power to determine the popularity of a piece of music, how often it’s played, and also (to a lesser extent) how it’s played.
These are the three primary ways that anyone can experience music, regardless of the genre or time period. However, Christians have historically believed that every time a person comes in contact with music, that person is actually coming in contact with a fourth player in the musical power structure, a seldom acknowledged, but critical member. Specifically, Christians believe that it’s the Lord God himself, the creator of music, who is the active participant in any and all of these experiences.
The Theology of Composing
“The end and final aim of all music is nothing other than the glorification of God and the refreshment of the soul.” -Johann Sabastian Bach (1).
The personal and professional lives of Bach, Handel, Beethoven, and countless other world renowned classical composers are all in resounding agreement. It is God and God alone through whom and for whom their music was written. It’s easy to say this in a trite way, but the magnitude of the statement above shouldn’t be lost on us; if the testimonies of the composers themselves have anything to say about it, there is a real sense in which God is actively breathing through music, in much the same way that he breathed through the prophets, apostles, and authors of the Old and New Testaments. We would hardly ever equate the two (I don’t like to think about all music as being “God inspired”), but perhaps this is an idea that deserves some credence. Franz Joseph Haydn, the great Austrian composer most famous for his “Creation” symphony, is unreserved in describing his reliance on God while composing:
“Never was I so devout as when I composed The Creation. I knelt down each day to pray to God to give me strength for my work…when I was working on The Creation I felt so impregnated with Divine certainty, that before sitting down to the piano, I would quietly and confidently pray to God to grant me the talent that was needed to praise Him worthily.” (2)
Antonin Dvorak puts music and divine inspiration into even closer relation. In a commentary on his Mass in D Major, Dvorak quipped:
“Do not wonder that I am so religious. An artist who is not could not produce anything like this. Have we not examples enough in Beethoven, Bach, Raphael and many others!” (3)
The point here is not to claim that all truly great music must by definition be divinely inspired and come from the pen of religious composers, but the quotes above should at least confirm in our minds that the grand tradition that is western classical music was largely based on one singular idea: the worship of God and the refreshment of the soul.
Still, encountering God isn’t just a nice formality that allows a composer to write a pretty melody or finish a piece by a deadline. The worship of God is the heart and soul of classical music, and, even more radically, it’s the very fabric of the entire study of music, the foundation so basic that we’ve quit acknowledging it over time. It’s true that not all composers share this view, but no composer standing on the shoulders of Beethoven, Bach, or Mozart can deny the centrality of the Christian faith in their lives or the value that those three men placed in divine inspiration. So, to get “back to the basics” of music, lets take a look at the two things that everyone would agree are the two building blocks of composing: melody and harmony. The importance of melody is pretty obvious; all of us would say that melody is the thing that gives a piece it’s character and its beauty. It’s the thing that most immediately pleases us. Harmony, though, is a bit more difficult. Harmony is subtle, it’s almost never catchy, and it’s always playing second fiddle to melody. By themselves, melody and harmony don’t create the most satisfying sounds and can seem either too simple or too random, but the combination of the two gives us this wonderful, diverse, perfectly simple and yet perfectly complex thing called music. The Christian, however, isn’t surprised by this mysterious and perfect union of melody and harmony, in fact, he is always aware of the combination of the simple and complex, the unity and diversity all around him in the universe he lives in. Isn’t music, after all, simply another avenue through which the Lord God manifests his supreme creativity and wisdom? In their book “Art and Music”, Grove City College professors Paul Munson and Joshua Drake say this about how music leads us directly to the worship of a sovereign God:
“Music presents us, directly, with propositions about sound and time (a certain pattern of notes can reach a certain end via a certain design) and, indirectly, with propositions about the Lord of sound and time (this pattern has this capacity because of his wisdom, his power, and his goodness).” (4)
The theology of music composition is really no different than the theology of a leaf, or the theology of a bright spring day. They all have the same perfect simplicity and complexity that say certain things about the God who created them. Yet how often we forget it!
The Theology of Performing
So, the composer has encountered God and composed his piece. How the piece will actually sound, though, will never be fully known by the composer; by putting black dots on a piece of staff paper, all he is doing is giving directives to the real determinant of how the music sounds, the performer. The performers take the sheet music and from then on have the freedom to add, subtract, or improvise onto the original score. In many ways, the thing that differentiates a player from a musician is the ability to add, subtract, and improvise when fitting. Consequently, the reason two performances of the same piece never sound the same is because there is no perfect realization of how a piece should sound, as determined by the composer. There is no objective reality of a piece of music, there are only interpretations of it.
And so the performer, in a very real sense, is the one who breathes life into the music. He takes the directives of the composer and follows them within the boundaries of his own skill set and unique artistic taste. This picture, the picture of a musician taking the seed of the music, the directions of the composer, and then slowly (falteringly at first but eventually to near perfection) giving it it’s form, is not unlike the picture of the Christian walk. The first step in the process is the gift of the seed, the seed of faith. When we have the seed, can we rightly be called Christians in the same way that notes on a piece of staff paper is called music? Of course not. Notes only become music when a musician begins to play them, and the seed of faith only produces a Christian when he begins to exercise his faith. James 2:14-17 puts it this way:
“What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.”
Christianity is an on-going, never ending performance of faith. We won’t ever reach the ultimate realization of faith in this lifetime and no two performances of faith will look the same, just like no piece of music is ever performed the same way and to the exact specifications of the composer. But there must be a performance. In his article “Performing Music, Performing Faith”, author James Crockford describes this idea perfectly:
“It is no good having a theoretical Christianity – some beautiful idea in your head of what faith would ‘sound’ like if you ever performed it – if all this is never translated into love in action.” (5)
As a Christian, I am commanded to thank God for the seed of faith within me—and then to act upon it.
The Theology of Listening
Whether or not you followed any of the previous points, the theology of listening should be the most intuitive for all of us, the one that makes the most sense. Listening to music is, after all, a kind of “spiritual experience”, isn’t it? We all have songs we discover that we just can’t get enough of, or that we have a completely unique and personal connection to. If you’ve ever been asked by a stranger or friend why you have such a personal connection to a song, though, can you ever give a satisfying answer? Can anyone ever fully relate to how you feel about your favorite song, the way you you might sing along with it, laugh with it, or maybe even cry when you hear it? No, because listening to music is a deeply personal experience. It is likely the most self-conscious, inward focusing, and piercing of all the arts. Jeremy S. Begbie, a Divinity School professor at Duke University, draws out this idea a little further:
“Musical experience is an experience of permeation, sounds internalize themselves in us—in body and mind—whether we want them to or not. The authentic religious experience, likewise, is not the experience of an object we can shut out at will but of the permeation of our being by the infinite.” (6)
What Begbie is saying is this: listening to music is a religious experience exactly because of it’s inexpressibility, it’s ability to pierce our souls without the permission of our minds. Does this sound familiar? It might, because it’s perfectly consistent with what Christians hold about the piercing nature of the gospel to those that believe it; we don’t believe the gospel out of convenience, fear, or because it “made sense at the time”, we believe the gospel because it pierced our souls and was made irresistible to us by the work of the Holy Spirit. This does not mean, though, that Christians can’t rationally defend their faith (it would be silly to say that my favorite song is trash just because I can’t explain exactly why it affects me the way it does), but it does mean that a person’s first spiritual encounter, that moment when he first begins to believe the gospel, is not a replicable or describable experience. I did not become a Christian because my Dad was able to describe his first conviction of the gospel, I became a Christian because the same thing happened to me separately and in a different way.
A music experience is a glimpse of this. Read how E.T.A Hoffmann, a 19th century music critic, defines music in his review of Beethoven’s famous 5th Symphony:
“[Music] is the most romantic of all arts, one might almost say the only one that is genuinely romantic, since its only subject-matter is infinity. Orpheus’s lyre opened the gates of Orcus. Music reveals to man an unknown realm, a world quite separate from the outer sensual world surrounding him, a world in which he leaves behind all precise feelings in order to embrace an inexpressible longing.” (7)
Has there ever been a more religious statement in any music commentary? Hoffmann uses so many terms—the “unknown realm”, the “infinite”, the “world separate from the outer sensual world”, the “embrace of inexpressible longing”—that all perfectly describe the hope and joy of the Christian. It’s well within the role and capacity of music to remind the Christian of these things, or to give the non-Christian a small taste of what we believe can only be found in Christ.
The Worship of a Music-Loving God
“Music is a higher revelation than all wisdom and philosophy.” (8) -Ludwig van Beethoven
Now comes the take home point, the summary, and the clearest, most obvious thing that could possibly be said: God loves music. God loves art, and he has created it with the capability of revealing things to us about ourselves, about Himself, and about the nature of following Him. Nothing in music is accidental: the melodies and harmonies that define a chord, the art of performing, and experience of listening, it’s all a glimpse into the eternal goodness, wisdom, and bounty of our heavenly Father. On top of that, music is one of the primary ways that we are commanded to communicate with God, as Psalm 150:1-6 shows:
“Praise the LORD! Praise God in his sanctuary; praise him in his mighty heavens! Praise him for his mighty deeds; praise him according to his excellent greatness! Praise him with trumpet sound; praise him with lute and harp! Praise him with tambourine and dance; praise him with strings and pipe! Praise him with sounding cymbals; praise him with loud clashing cymbals! Let everything that has breath praise the LORD! Praise the LORD!”
The entire book of Psalms is full of the same message: a great way to communicate with God is through music. Christians have believed and must continue to believe that music is not impartial to God. It’s completely and utterly subject to God, and everything about music exists because of God and draws attention to Him. Of course, this doesn’t apply only to sacred or classical music; whatever the genre, artist, or date, it’s all under the domain of God and owes all of it’s beauty and creativity to Him.
And so let us rejoice. Let us praise him with music and dancing, giving thanks to the God and Father of music.
1. Kavanaugh, P. (1996). Spiritual Lives of the Great Composers. Grand Rapids, MI.
4. Munson and Drake (year).
5. Cockroft, J. (2016). Performing Music, Performing Faith. Crayford, UK.
6. Begbie, J. (2007). Resounding Truth: Christian Wis- dom in the World of Music. Grand Rapids, MI.
7. Ho man, E.T.A. (1999). The Sublime Beethoven. Retrieved from http://bostonreview.net/arts-culture/ dmitri-tymoczko-sublime-beethoven
8. Kavanaugh, P. (1996) Spiritual Lives of the Great Composers. Grand Rapids, MI.