Music Worship

The Didactic Power of Music

It’s the music itself that’s teaching us.

Music is very much a part of the worship life of any gathering of Christians. It is an important component in our offering of adoration to God. The Bible repeatedly invokes music in praise of God, and among the many references we could cite, one of the better known is the command given in Ephesians. “Be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord.” (Eph 5:18-19)

The way we do this has changed radically in little more than a generation. Much of evangelicalism uses some blend of “praise and worship music” along with more traditional hymnody, though in some gatherings, traditional hymns are now rare.  However, the strain that sometimes goes with these musical decisions can be quite considerable, even to the point of splitting a church. The contemplation of music as a facet of church life is usually fraught with difficulties. Many consider it a non-essential, and so it is negotiable – until one’s own musical predilections are trampled on.

What I hope to show is that the consideration of music as a part of Christian worship is rarely done with much thought beyond setting Christian texts to music that is comfortable to the majority of people in a congregation, or to music we like. I will show that this is an insufficient treatment of the topic, and that it is vital that Christians engage music at a deeper level. We do this by finding the place of music within culture, as well as by giving fuller regard to the power of music over the soul. Lastly, in that popular music is by its very nature embraced by the majority, and that it is a distinct phenomenon of youth, I believe there are special challenges in the guidance of adolescents through the musical landscape of today.

Christians should have no argument with the view that music can have an emotional and spiritual effect on listeners. It is from the scriptures that we get a very early example when David’s harp playing sooths Saul’s troubled spirit.  Indeed, we could see this as the first recorded instance of music therapy. The entire discipline of music therapy rests on the assumption that music can and does have an impact on its hearers. A lot of research exists in this area, but it isn’t generally known by the non-specialist. But even if we aren’t experts in this, everyone has musical experiences. Our observations of listeners’ reactions tell us something of the music’s effect.

The case of the late conductor Herbert von Karajan is interesting. He had receptors attached to him as he conducted an orchestra. They picked up changes in breathing and heart rate, and interestingly, his pulse became quicker during the slower and softer sections of the music. Von Karajan was also a private pilot, an activity that brings considerable excitement and some risk. However, when the same tests were performed on him as he flew, much smaller changes in breathing or heart rate were present.[1] The fact that von Karajan was so unaffected by flying, yet was markedly influenced by music testifies to the power of music over both the mind and the body. While it is common to regard music as able to express, what we want to note here is that music is able to impress, and powerfully so.

The effects are not just physical, but emotional, too. Alf Gabrielsson, a psychologist at the University of Uppsula in Sweden, has done research around strong emotions in music. Citing the work of colleagues, he notes:

“Physical responses, such as thrills, shivers, and changes in heart rate are often mentioned in descriptions of strong experiences and are commonly associated with strong emotional arousal. Tears or lump in the throat were provoked by melodic appoggiaturas, shivers or goose pimples by sudden changes in harmony, and heart race occurred in connection with acceleration and syncopation.”[2]

The early Greeks also took the effect of music very seriously. Plato and Aristotle both taught that certain character traits could be cultivated by listening to certain music. In the Republic, Plato discusses with Glaucon the musical education of his charges. He identifies those modes [scales] which are to be preferred over others:

“Which are the modes that express sorrow? Tell me; you are musical. Modes like the Mixed Lydian and Hyperlydian. Then we may discard those; men, and even women of good standing, will have no use for them. Again, drunkenness, effeminacy, and inactivity are most unsuitable in Guardians. Which are the modes expressing softness and the ones used at drinking-parties? There are the Ionian and certain Lydian modes which are called ‘slack.’ You will not use them in the training of your warriors? Certainly not. You seem to have the Dorian and the Phrygian left.”[3]

It is not important here to agree with Plato about the effects he assigns to given modes. (I will later give reasons about why I think Plato is mostly correct, but that his advice must be slightly altered for a particular culture.) Rather, the point is that he believed that a certain mode had power to impart an ethos to its hearers. His student Aristotle likewise held that music had a force that was to be respected and harnessed in the education of the young.

“Nor will there be any room for doubt about the matter, if it can he shown that music produces in us certain conditions of character…And further, when we listen to imitations, we all acquire a sympathy with the feelings imitated even apart from the actual rhythms and melodies.”[4]

Aristotle largely followed Plato in his prescription of certain modes as beneficial and the proscription of others as harmful to the ethos that was desirable in the young. They both see music as about to shape, form us, not just to express.

There are two salient points to note in this consideration of the ancient Greeks. First, they were not concerned with training musicians. The training they consider is of a moral nature. Robin Barrows describes the educational environment of Athens at the time of Plato, who notes that the goal of Athenian education was to raise a kaloskagathos. The term means a noble and good man, and included training in gymnastics, grammar, and music. Of paramount importance was that he be well-mannered and moderate in his behavior. In short, the goal of was to instill the ethos of nobility.[5] While the training of Athenians at this time did not include Christian truth, it is not at all inconsistent with the scriptural goals of moderation, self-control, and setting the mind on that which is good. Secondly, what Plato and Aristotle, (and Pythagoras before them) are concerned with is the music itself, quite apart from any text that might be sung to it.

In the mid 1980s when Tipper Gore, the wife of then-Senator Al Gore prodded her husband for Senate hearings on behalf of the Parents’ Music Resource Center, her concern was solely with the vulgarity of the lyrics in popular music. While her efforts were successful in getting warning labels affixed to records with offensive words, the music remained unaltered, and it is the music which carries the message.

Ron Powers was raised in Hannibal, Missouri, the hometown of Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn. After a series of murders in town perpetrated by teenage boys, Powers set out to chronicle how the city had evolved, or rather devolved from what he had known as a young man, to its current state of rebellious and angry youth. Powers interviewed some of his high school friends about their memories, as well as weaving his own recollections into the book. Speaking of those years, Powers said:

“We were the first rock and roll class to enter Hannibal High. Bill Haley and his comets had electrified the nation the previous year with “Rock Around the Clock”, but nobody, at least at Hannibal, quite knew what to do with those tingling waves. None of us wanted to get caught reacting to that. It might not be permissible. It wasn’t permissible, but in 1956 the context was forming, and the momentum that would render ‘permissible’ forever irrelevant. Elvis brought out ‘Hound Dog’ that year, and that dirty wail, that beat, those rattling drumrolls got inside my skin, down below my beltline, and made me want to mash my foot down on some accelerator and peel out forever.”[6]

What Powers relates here agrees with what the ancient Greeks had to say about the didactic force of music. He says it was the music, not the words that he found so compelling. The beat of the music had insinuated itself deeply into his psyche so that he wanted to do things. By his own account, the music had a real effect on him.

Secondly, he knows that his reaction to the music is outside some bounds of permissibility. This is entirely in keeping with the ethos of popular music, and I’ll have occasion to examine this further. While his remarks are no doubt intended as a bit of nostalgia, could they also contain a harbinger of the later behavior that he rightly abhors in some of today’s young Hannibalites?

These observations about the didactic power of music are especially important when it comes to adolescents. As one journalist opines, “the music you listen to today is what you loved in your teens and 20s.”[7] The musical habits formed in one’s youth have peculiar appeal throughout ones life. This is a fundamental reason why the music teenagers listen to is of profound importance. Several writers have chronicled this,[8] and we can see it by consumer habits that music is very important to young people. Technology has only made made listening easier. A 2019 study found “smartphones are by far the most popular way teens are listening to music: of the two hours and five minutes teenagers average listening to music every day, one hour 11 minutes is on their phone, although 24 minutes is still traditional radio.”[9]

Listening can be a passive activity, done while performing some other task, but that doesn’t mean the didactic force isn’t there. Dolf Zillmann and Su-lin Gan studied theses effects and note that controlled research found greater acceptance of deviant behaviors in college students after exposure to defiance-laden, rock-music videos.[10] This is not to suggest that this effect is rampant in young people, but it does show that what we hear or watch has an effect. As we examine the ubiquity of technology, we will see that its influence has been so pervasive that the medium foists itself on anything that uses it as a conduit. As Marshall McLuhan said a generation ago, “the medium is the message.”

The other aspect, too often overlooked, is that it is not the music alone, but the situation in which we find the music that gives it meaning. It is incumbent upon adults to help young people sort out the messages they receive from this packaging. Have adults done what we can to help younger listeners discern the context, the message of music? Or, have we left young people unable to process these messages with the discrimination required? If we don’t talk about this, the youth are not the only ones who will suffer for it. I will next look at why we need to think about musical syntax and idiom.

Photo on Unsplash by Kelly Sikkema

[1] Anthony Storr, Music and The Mind (New York: The Free Press, 1992), 25.

[2] Alf Gabrielsson, “Emotions in Strong Experiences with Music” in Music and Emotion (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), Patrik N. Juslin and John A. Sloboda, eds., 433.

[3] Plato, The Republic, Francis MacDonald Cornford, trans. (London: Oxford University Press, 1980), 86-87.

[4] Aristotle, The Politics, trans. J.E.C. Welldon (London, MacMillan and Co, 1883), 237.

[5] Robin Barrows, Plato and Education (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1976), 12.

[6] Ron Powers, Tom and Huck Don’t Live Here Anymore: Childhood and Murder in the Heartland of America (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2001), 159.

[7] Sara Sklaroff, “One Nation Under a Groove”, U.S. News and World Report, July 8, 2002.

[8] See Simon Frith, Sound Effects: Youth, Leisure and the Politics of Rock ‘n’ Roll for a discussion of this point.

[9] Stuart Dredge, “Study finds music still rocks for US tweens and teens”, retrieved April 15, 2021.

[10] Dolf Zillmann and Su-lin Gan, “Musical Taste in Adolescence”, in The Social Psychology of Music (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), David J. Hargreaves and Adrian C. North, eds., 162.

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