Music Worship

You Don’t Need Words to Tell a Story—Music Will Do

Idiom, syntax, and semantics work in music as well as words.

(Part 2 in a series on the didactic power of music.)

Far from being a universal language, music in its disparate forms is rather a polyglot that makes communication even between those in the same house sometimes difficult. Parents do not understand or do not like the music their children are listening to, and this has created some of the conflict which Ron Powers alluded to in saying that he knew his reactions to Bill Haley’s music were not permissible. This type of conflict is not at all removed when it is music with Christian lyrics in question. As noted earlier, it is the music that gives character to the words, and as most contemporary Christian music has adopted the musical vocabulary of popular music, the conflict remains, even between Christian parents and their Christian children.

While it is incorrect to speak of a universal musical language, we can bring over some of the nomenclature of language in our discussion to clarify where the differences lie. Quite obviously, music changes over time. The materials with which composers work comprise the musical syntax of the time.  On a level of finer granularity, there are musical idioms. The use of these idioms, much like their linguistic counterparts, gives a composer part of his voice. How the syntax and idioms of music form our perceptions of music is manifest at a high level. A listener somewhat familiar with Western music can hear a piece by Bach and know that it was not written by Stravinsky.

Yet, there is what might be referred to as a meta-syntax to most western music. Bach wrote a Prelude and Fugue in E minor as part of his Well-Tempered Clavier.  Dmitri Shostakovich wrote his Tenth Symphony (1953), also in E minor. More than 200 years separates these works, and they are vastly different in character and temperament, yet they share this common thread of tonality. When one hears a concerto from the classical period (circa 1770 to 1825) the prepared listener expects that near the end of a movement, after a sustained tonic chord in second inversion, an extended solo (a cadenza) will follow.

This is the well-understood syntax of the classical concerto, and it serves both to set boundaries for our perception, as well as conform to expectations. It is this that allows us to hear a piece we have never heard before, yet know when the performer plays a wrong note. We do so because we have quickly adapted to the syntax, and are able to recognize violations of it. This idea is what makes Baroque music so beneficial to children. Baroque music operates within a well-defined paradigm of rhythm and tonality, of establishing expectations, and then satisfying the same. In a children’s world, where clearly defined paradigms also rule, (or should rule), this type of music is eminently satisfying.

Operating within the syntax is metaphor. As Joseph Swain points out, “a metaphor occurs when the semantic range of one word extends temporarily the semantic range of a second to include meaning that it would not normally contain.”[1] In music, we have the semantic range of extra-musical experience portrayed through means of music. An example of this might be the modulation up a half step that is sometimes done on the concluding stanza of a hymn. This rising up of a semitone has the effect of lifting one’s thoughts, and becomes metaphorical of reaching heavenward, or grasping at that which is above.  Musical metaphor, likes its linguistic counterpart, can operate in various shades. It could be subtle resolution of one note to the next that may speak of tension resolved. Metaphor can convey both emotional and physical gesture. The feature of the musical metaphor is that it conveys an extra-musical meaning through the music.

We can see music and meaning operating together in various ways throughout history. The world of 18th century opera is one where a woman cannot recognize her own husband when he wears a mask over his eyes only, where a stage whisper at normal volume is not heard by someone a few feet away. The music undergirded these conventions through a genteel, courtly harmonic and rhythmic vocabulary.  Over a century later, opera verismo arrived, with its far more believable plots, drawn from everyday life. The stories were truer to reality– hence its name.  The musical syntax that served Mozart quite well for his operas would not do for Puccini. As the plots were more visceral and intense, a musical syntax that served this end had to be employed. Puccini’s harmonies, even the choice of orchestration all served to invigorate the story.

The continued development of western music is at one level a record of how this musical syntax has changed, and along with it, the message of the music. The point here is that music has a prevailing influence over narrative forms such as opera and song. This narrative effect also carries over to forms which are purely instrumental. Indeed, music is so powerful as to exert itself strongly over text and become a narrative force on its own.  If we listen to a song that is sung in another language, we can still be moved by it, even without understanding the words. This is one reason why the definition of Christian music as a song with a text about Christ or Christian truth is wholly insufficient. The narrative of the music must match the tone of the text. When notes and text are combined, the character of the music will color the text in a very definite manner.

As an example of this, the Haven of Rest quartet came to Chicago’s Moody Memorial Church in 1992 to perform a concert. The quartet were the resident musicians for the Haven of Rest gospel broadcast, and the program used to begin with the eponymous hymn. In a nod to the radio program, the quartet sang four verses of the hymn. The first verse was sung as one would expect—straight. The second verse took on an operatic or classical style, as they explained that Chicago was a city with a renowned symphony orchestra.

The audience chuckled a bit at this. They sang the third verse in a country and western style, which the audience found quite funny.  The final verse was sung in a rap style, and the audience laughter was the strongest of all. Without realizing why, the audience recognized this digression in tone of words and music with each verse. As the music digressed further away from the text, the satire increased. This effect is what makes the idea of a parody in song at all possible. If the text alone dictates whether a piece of music is Christian or not, then there would be nothing humorous at all in this. The music was telling the listener to think one thing, the words another.

We can ignore or dismiss this, and say that each person’s expectations and experiences are different, but the pervasiveness of pop culture, its ubiquity, makes it all the more difficult to deny these things are at work.

Photo by Lorenzo Spoleti on Unsplash


[1] Joseph P. Swain, Musical Languages, (New York: W.W. Norton, 1997), 99.

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