Music Worship

Music is Culture

Culture can be an imperious force

In the previous two posts I put forth the idea that music has didactic power quite apart from any words we may add, and that music has idioms, syntax and semantics that work in similar ways to language. To conclude, I want to consider more concrete ways in which culture is at work here. While musical sounds may in themselves be neither moral nor immoral, the culture has provided associations and connotations to music. It is these connotations which make hearing the music in isolation extremely difficult if not impossible. The only experience some people have of a given musical syntax is through the media filter of television or film, or other elements of culture. That combination can mean the connotations are deeply rooted. The emotionally laden inferences can be powerful indeed, and Christian music, (or rather, music Christians use) whether hymnody or more contemporary music, is likewise permeated with these inferences.

Connotations are at work on multiple levels as we listen to music. While not an official edict of the government, there has been a ban on the music of Richard Wagner in Israel ever since the state was founded. Wagner’s anti-Semitism is well documented, as is Hitler’s love for Wagner’s music. There is some evidence that Wagner was played at Dachau as a way to re-educate Jews.[1]  As a result, Jewish survivors of these camps have such strong connotations with the music that the ban on playing Wagner has been by pretty much common agreement. Zubin Mehta, then music director of the Israel Philharmonic tried to play Wagner in 1981, but angry listeners rushed the stage, some of them lifting up their shirts to display the scars from their days in the camps. It was not until 2001 that Daniel Barenboim, (who is himself Jewish and an Israeli citizen), played Wagner at a major concert event in Israel. Barenboim and the orchestra played the overture to Tristan und Isolde, but not after a public debate right there in the concert hall just before they played. The next day Barenboim was harshly denounced in the Israeli press, by the mayor of Jerusalem, and censured by the Israeli Parliament. One cannot hear anti-Semitism in Wagner’s music, but the connotations are nonetheless there for a certain listening constituency and they are quite strong.

More specific tokens are able to carry musical association as well. The early church competed within the arena of pagan Rome and Athens, with the worship of Apollo and Dionysius. The cult of Apollo was closely associated with the kitharos, a harp-like instrument, while the Dionysian worship was accompanied by the aulos, an instrument similar to the flute. The sound of these instruments alone was enough to convey meaning. So much so, that one of the early church fathers, John Chrysostom said, “Where the aulos is, there Christ is not.”[2] For him, the connotations of the sound of the aulos were enough that he could not countenance it as serviceable for Christian worship. We may discount this as small-mindedness, but it can be difficult to overcome emotional responses such as this, or to regard our emotions as not relevant to worship. The idea that Christians must engage the world therefore cuts two ways in this regard. It is important that we recognize the environment in which the gospel is preached, but also to note that our perceptions, particularly musical perceptions, are quite often informed by that same world we seek to evangelize.

The Ethos of Popular Music

If we recall the earlier descriptions of musical syntax and idiom, we can identify that popular music no less than others has its own syntax, idioms, and metaphors, and that these all contribute to the ethos of the music. Harmonically, popular music is actually rather conservative. There has never really been any atonal pop music. Melodically as well, it is fairly conventional. This leaves rhythm, and it is here that popular music finds its distinguishing voice.  It perhaps a cliché to say that this music is all about the beat, but even writers sympathetic to pop admit that the prominent feature is the beat.

In the earlier examination of narrative, I noted that much of the meaning we perceive with music comes from the culture. While this is true also for rhythm, with rhythm the significance is found in both its intrinsic nature, as well as with the cultural context, far more so than harmony or melody. Music psychologist Carl E. Seashore describes a “motor impulse for rhythm, an instinctive tendency, chiefly unconscious and largely organic”.[3] He continues that

“It stimulates and it lulls, contradictory as this may seem. Pronounced rhythm brings on a feeling of elation which not infrequently results in a mild form of ecstasy, or absent-mindedness, a loss of consciousness of the environment. It excites, and it makes us insensible to the excitation, giving the feeling of being lulled. This is well illustrated in the case of dancing. Seated in the comfort and enjoyment of pleasant conversation, the striking up of a waltz is a call which excites to action. It starts the organic, rhythmic movements of the body the moment it is heard, and one is drawn, as it were, enticingly into the conventional movements of the dance.[4]

What Seashore points out here is the inherent nature of rhythm. Young children do not need to be encouraged to react physically to the music they hear. They do so quite apart from being coaxed, so much the more if it is music where the rhythm is easily discerned. This reaction is often seen in adults as well. Secondly, Seashore indicates the naturalness of the dance element in rhythm. The invitation to the dance is inherent in hearing the waltz. Not too many people dance the waltz today, but this factor is still very present in popular music – it is simply a different kind of dance, because a different kind of music, but the body is nonetheless called into action. This in itself is not a negative. Our entire being is to be used in God’s service, and this certainly includes our physical selves. But it is the kind of physical reaction called forth by the music that can be problematic.

Allan Bloom’s 1987 book The Closing of the American Mind is of interest to us at this point for a few reasons. Bloom is not writing from a Christian perspective, nor is his goal at all to lament a bygone era of innocence. In his chapter on music, which excoriates rock as a vapid and a deleterious influence on young people, he notes that “My concern here is not with the moral effects of this music – whether it leads to sex, violence or drugs. This issue here is its effect on education.”[5]  This makes Bloom in some sense a dispassionate witness when it comes to a discussion of the spiritual effects of music.

However, in that my concern is with the effects of music beyond education only, I think what Bloom has to say is pertinent, since the behaviors he mentioned are part of the popular music ethos.  Bloom’s survey of music and its character is informed to a large extent by his position as a university professor, coming into frequent contact with young people. Bloom observes:

“Young people know that rock has the beat of sexual intercourse. That is why Ravel’s Bolero is the one piece of classical music that is commonly known and liked by them. In alliance with some real art and a lot of pseudo-art, an enormous industry cultivates the taste for the orgiastic state of feeling connected with sex, providing a constant flood of fresh material for voracious appetites. Never was there an art form directed so exclusively to children.”[6]

All music has rhythm and a metric pulse, but the degree to which the beat is characteristic of pop music is what sets it apart. The same major and minor chords that have been used for centuries are very much at home here, but the prominence of the beat is the more distinctive musical idiom of pop music. Bloom continues,”But rock music has one appeal only, a barbaric appeal, to sexual desire – not love, not eros, but sexual desire undeveloped and untutored.”[7]

It is difficult to argue that this message hasn’t been bolstered by the marketing and presentation of the music. While it’s not true of all pop music, there is nonetheless an element of sexuality in much of it. Historians and critics of pop music have heard this accusation enough times that even those friendly to the genre seem compelled to acknowledge this with a “Yes, but” type of argument. Theodore Gracyk is one who thinks he has found the chink in Bloom’s armor. His book Rhythm and Noise, an Aesthetics of Rock, devotes several pages to the discussion of Bloom’s thesis. He notes:

“But pulse cannot be the sense of ‘beat’ that Bloom identifies as sexual, for virtually all music has a steady rhythmic pulse, and most of Mozart’s music has the same pulse as that of Jerry Lee Lewis, Public enemy, or Metallica.”[8]

In other words, since the basic materials of music used by Mozart and Metallica are the same, Bloom’s idea about the beat having sexual connotations cannot stand. However, Gracyk undermines his own position when he states that “He [Bloom] must be concerned with the way rock musicians have handled meter and accented the rhythm.”[9]

While I cannot speak for Bloom, I would concur that this is exactly the issue. We earlier saw that the musical syntax of both Bach and Shostakovich was the same in that they both wrote in E minor, but then there are vast differences in the way they proceeded from there. The meta-syntax was the same, but the particulars, and their idioms are quite different. The same is the case when we consider rock. Gracyk himself goes on to describe the particulars of syncopations, the emphasis on beats 2 and 4 that is so characteristic of rock, but dismisses any meaning these might carry.  I would agree with music therapist Juliette Alvin, who writes, “Rhythm is the most dynamic, therefore the most conspicuous element in music. It is combined with pitch and tone color and gives them final significance.”[10] Music can exist without harmony, even without melody, but not without rhythm. It is the most elemental of all components and carries the most fundamental message of the music.

Gracyk’s basic premise is that there is nothing inherent in the music to give it a sexual significance. But the way in which rock has handled the beat has very often sexualized it. The music doesn’t exist in a void, and all of the connotations that go with it can play a very large role in our perception of it. There was nothing anti-Semitic about Wagner’s music, but the Holocaust survivors had very definite ideas about it. Simon Frith writes that “if rock sometimes does mean sex it is for sociological, not musicological reasons.”[11]

Frith is correct, but his assumption also seems to be that a listener can disassociate the sociological and cultural aspects from the music itself, and return the music to some sort of neutrality. Whether we can decouple the connotations from music is not a clear-cut answer. For some, yes, but for others, it may be much more difficult. While we don’t often think of music as a “stronger/weaker” issue, perhaps we should.

I am skeptical about whether this is possible, or if it can be accomplished, it is by no means an easy task. The meaning is in both the music itself and in the culture in which the music is located. This does not mean that all popular music is rendered unfit for Christian use. Culture itself isn’t stagnant, and the connotations one generation has with some music might not be the ones younger people have. In other words, if we can shed connotations that some find unhelpful, it may take a very long time. But the church is a multi-generational family, and to tell the older believers to just get used to it is neither loving, nor a solution. Similarly, the older saints must realize that their associations aren’t shared by all.

Where many Christians are falling short is even acknowledging anything is happening at all levels of music. This is the challenge for the use of various music styles in the church.  My appeal is not “this sort of music cannot be used in Christian worship.” I am not saying pop music can never be part of Christian worship, but it is also too simplistic to label “Christian music” as whatever music one prefers, paired with Christian lyrics. There is much more going on. We should encourage Christians to think about music in this way; not with a view to prohibiting something, but primarily toward understanding the phenomenon.

Indeed, many churches have confronted the problem, but have adopted solutions that actually avoid the issue. Having a contemporary service and “traditional worship” is one such example. This is just dividing the congregation according to preference, and a de facto (albeit friendly) church split. But it accommodates rather than educates. To think about the place of music in worship is to ask the question, what do we import with the music we bring into our worship?

Photo by Quaid Lagan on Unsplash.

[1] “The Concentration and Death Camps”, retrieved April 23, 2021.

[2] James McKinnon, Antiquity and the Middle Ages, (Englewood Hills: Prentice Hall, 1990), p. 81.

[3] Carl E. Seashore, Psychology of Music, (New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1967), p.139.

[4] Ibid, p. 142.

[5] Allan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind, (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1987), p. 79.

[6] Ibid, p 73-74.

[7] Ibid, loc. cit.

[8] Theodore Gracyk, Rhythm and Noise, An Aesthetics of Rock, (Durham and London, Duke University Press, 1986), p 132.

[9] Ibid, p. 133.

[10] Juliette Alvin, Music Therapy, (New York, Basic Books, 1966), p. 67.

[11] Simon Frith, Performing Rites: On the Value of Popular Music, (Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1996), p. 23.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *