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My Philosophy of Music

Okay, I acknowledge that is a rather pretentious-sounding title, when all I want to do here is make a few comments regarding the idea of God-glorifying music. But these comments really do reflect a philosophy, and I'm not sure there's a better way to describe these comments.

Carvin electric guitar photo

Music as an Image of Divine Creativity

I believe that music is a gift that echoes the creativity of God Himself. That creativity is full of wonder, mystery, and joy.

Many Christians tend to be utilitarian with regard to the arts. On this view, music is, at best, a vehicle to convey lyrics that honour God. I suppose that, carried through to its logical conclusion, this view would not approve of instrumental music, except perhaps in the case of very familiar hymn tunes which would bring the words to mind anyway.

As you may have guessed by the very fact that I have devoted a section of my personal site to music, I do not think that way at all.

I have made a connection between God's creative acts and ours. Our art images His. One of the things to consider regarding God's artistry is that He is not utilitarian. This does not mean, to be sure, that anything God creates is devoid of value. But it does mean that the sort of value which God imparts and imputes to many aspects of His creation are not of a utilitarian sort. Although we are to "make use" of His creation in a certain sense, that does not mean that it can all be "used" in some pragmatic, task-oriented fashion.

One of the grandest things about the works of God's hands is the utter beauty that is so brilliantly on display in so many places. In a utilitarian sense, such glorious beauty is not particularly useful. And yet, in a Trinitarian sense - that is, in the reality brought into being by the God that really exists - glorious beauty is useful. It is useful as an instrument and occasion of joy. It is useful in shouting forth the glory and goodness of God. It is useful in a symbolic fashion - not in the narrow, didactic sense in which we often employ the terminology of symbolism, but in the broader sense of signs and tokens that participate in the reality of which they are symbols. Man is a symbol of God, and he is simultaneously, and precisely as that symbol, a participant in God as well.

I do not say, then, that music has value "for its own sake," because that is misleading. All value is imputed. And music cannot, by the nature of the case, impute its own value. Value is something that is first imputed by the Creator Himself, and then secondarily we, who are made in His likeness, are given the power to impute value, and are to do so in faithful imitation.

On Imputing Value Faithfully

But what does that faithful imitation of God's imputing of value look like? We are all stumbling here, to some degree, for our appreciation of beauty is shallow and small compared to that of God.

If art is an imitation of God's own creative acts, there are some things that I think are fair to say regarding what good music could be.

Creational scope

First, God's creativity is boundless in variety. I think we should be wary of any notion that only a narrow swath of musical styles or genres could possibly glorify God. In contemplating the creation, we are confronted with a vast array of God's works. Some of these works are towering and majestic - in this regard, mention is frequently made of the great mountains. Some of God's works, on the other hand, are delicately beautiful (many of the flowers on those mountains, for instance). Others of God's works are beautiful in - if we dare say this - a rather comical way. (If you can think through the entire animal kingdom and not come up with anything that resembles this, either you need a great deal more familiarity with animals, or you need a great deal larger sense of humour.) Others of God's works can only be described as "none of the above."

Taking another angle, much of what God has done is obviously complex, and each aspect of the complexity contributes to the beautiful, glorious whole. We need look no further than the wonders of the human body itself to recognize this - a multitude of parts and systems working together. And on the other hand, many of God's creatures are deceptively simple in appearance (until, of course, we get up close - with a microscope, if need be), and their glory is in their simplicity. Or rather, perhaps it may better be stated that their glory is that the complexity with which God has invested them is no coherent that we are misled into nearly missing the complexity altogether.

Perhaps my two favourite kinds of music reflect these two angles. I have had, for a number of years, a deep for certain applications of the genre of progressive rock (known quite generally as "prog"), particularly in its instances that build upon towering complexity borrowed heavily from classical music. (In fact, whatever love I have for classical music, I pretty much owe to prog. By the way, if you saw "progressive rock" and thought, "Ack!! Rock music! Evil!" note that I have a few comments on this issue further below.) I am deeply fascinated by the creative power of an artist (or group of artists) that can lay hold of a vast array of musical sounds and concepts, some of which may seem impossible to fit with some of the others, and see that all melded together into a balanced whole.

Perhaps my second-most favourite musical style is folk music. Folk music at its best, for all its beauty, frequently comes off as almost artless. And yet, you know it isn't. When it is done well, there is an underlying complexity that only a great deal of skill and adherence to a longstanding musical tradition can make possible.

I like to think that in some small way, my appreciation of prog and folk is something of an imaged approximation of the way God imputes value to His created works (and ours).

Creational intentions

Variety, of course, can scarcely be a sufficient standard. What I have attempted to show is a particular sort of variety, although it is really quite impossible to enumerate the many ways in which God's creation is variegated. But it is clear enough that variety could potentially include literally everything, and we know that not everything man creates (including in the realm of music) is good.

Still, I have already given hints at some of the creational intentions which are (I think it is safe to say) universally present in God's own variegated creation. I know the phrase "creational intentions" is altogether too vague, but what I am getting after is the idea of an "inner logic" or shape to the created object. And this idea of an inner logic is already taking us a particular direction.

I believe that good art involves taxis - not the plural of "taxi," as in Yellow Cabs, but the ancient word meaning (roughly) order. Taxis is embodied in all sorts of ways which relate to beauty - symmetry, balance, correlation, and so on. It seems evident to me that all of God's works involve such taxis, although it is more transparent to the casual observer in some cases than others.

Applying this to music, and particularly where the rubber meets the road for me in terms of my own musical tastes, I would like to comment on the progressive rock legacy.

For those not familiar with progressive rock, or at least the terminology, this genre arose in the late 1960s with pioneers such as Yes and King Crimson. The 1970s are generally considered the prog heyday, and the genre was represented by ELP (Emerson, Lake, and Palmer), Jethro Tull, Kansas, (early) Rush, Pink Floyd (to a great degree), and a host of others.

By those who are not fans of the genre, prog was a field dominated by pretentious, obscurantist musicians who made music that essentially amounted to self-gratification (getting high on one's own complexity) and little else. In many cases, I think it not unjust to echo Paul's affirmation of the Cretan prophet: "This witness is true. Therefore rebuke them sharply."

Of course, the operative phrase there is "many cases." Let me explain a bit further how I am appropriating our discussion so far and applying it to the prog scene. There are reasons why some people came to think of prog as pretentious and obscurantist: some of it really was (and is). To a great degree, prog could be described as a reaction against "three chord rock'n'roll" that allowed any teenager with a garage the opportunity to become a "musician." The almost universal thrust with prog was to run fast in the other direction (at varying speeds, however - it's always important to incorporate several time signatures). From the beginning, prog was built on fusion, taking apparently incompatible musical styles (such as jazz, classical, and rock), and combining them, and the more complexity involved in this already complex project, the better.

The danger in all of this is that something gets lost sight of. And that is that music is supposed to be beautiful. There is complexity for the sake of beauty, and then there is complexity for the sake of complexity. At its worst, prog can slip into the latter. I have been told of groups in which the musicians all played different time signatures and different keys. I'm not going to try to imagine whether it is possible for such a mix to have beauty and taxis. It sounds too suspiciously like an exercise in complexity for complexity's sake. It is very difficult to do, indeed. But why? That is the question.

Now, I don't think that it is fair to characterize progressive rock as a genre that simply exists on this level. As I noted, it is my favourite genre of music, and I despise what I have just described. What I have been talking about is the temptation attendant to those who live and breathe the rarefied virtuoso atmosphere of this particular style of music. And in truth, even groups that sometimes descended this low probably did not do so consistently. But my point nonetheless stands, that the performance of complex acts is not itself an activity which warrants imputing value to them. Reproducing thirty levels of incongruous industrial noise would also be highly complex, but it would not (contrary to certain enlightened opinions) be art.

One more point in connection with complexity should probably be raised here, however: beauty and taxis may be present in abundance, but the more we live in a culture that is driven by cheap "prettiness" (although now, in the current alternative phase, it may more aptly be said that our culture is driven by cheap ugliness), that beauty and taxis may well not be appreciated by the masses. Really good music that does not disguise its complexity is too exhausting for many in our culture. A lot of people are not patient enough to listen to a symphony, or even a 15 minute prog song. We want the musical equivalent of a Big Mac, we want it now, and we cannot understand any other sort of diet.

I recognize that I have gone from the too-general (beauty, taxis) to the too-specific (obscurantist musicians playing in 13/8 and 9/4 time simultaneously while doing handstands on a bed of nails and whistling through their noses in another key). But I think that it is clear enough that there really are standards of value that can be ascertained by those who are willing to think and listen carefully.

In short, then, what I look for in music is beauty and taxis. In the case of complex music, I certainly don't mind hearing the complexity - indeed, I find it thrilling to hear all of those elements that, virtually by way of miracle, somehow come together into a grand mosaic of artistry. And in the case of something like folk music, I look for beauty and taxis, as well. The beauty and taxis of an Emmylou Harris or Lucy Kaplansky song will not, to be sure, much resemble that of a grandly symphonic piece by Yes, but it will nonetheless be a beauty and taxis appropriate to itself. Just as, as we noted, God's own creatures display a wide variety of glory (cf 1 Cor 15.38-41).

Rock'n'Roll??

I've saved drawing direct attention to this issue until now, and I have no intention of providing any sort of essay defending rock music here. But as evident from the above, I am not one of those who thinks of rock music as "of the devil," although I am certainly no advocate of the lifestyles or demeanour of most rock musicians. On the other hand, I am no advocate of the lifestyles or demeanour of most athletes or those in the acting profession, either. Our cultural gods are worse examples than those of Homer.

But the question here is not whether rock musicians are wicked people. I'm sure there are wicked plumbers and wicked appliance salesmen. The real question is whether this is a genre that has some sort of intrinsic evil character.

Rather than provide a stunning defense, I will simply leave you with a few observations.

1. All music of fallen human beings is marked by greater or less degrees of evidence of man's fallenness.

2. Unlike matters of taxis, balance, and so on, the sweeping condemnation of rock music as a whole seems to me to be absolutely capricious. I see no way of identifying a judicial standard to (e.g.) how prominent drums may be, or how noticeable syncopation can be before it becomes unacceptable.

3. The anecdotes that frequently fly around as "proof" of the deleterious effects of rock music (e.g. Africans asking the missionary daughter why she is calling up their ancestral spirits, plants dying etc) appear to me to be a combination of frivolous legends and utter irrelevance. Why don't we have the name of this missionary gal, anyway? And exactly what rock music was played to these poor plants, and at what decibel volume - and what exactly does the experiment prove, other than that loud, percussive noises are not good for plants?

4. I make no claim that listening to rock music on a steady 24/7 diet is healthy, particularly in certain of its forms. There are many reasons for this, none of which has to do with any supposed intrinsic wickedness to the beat. Life as God gave it is full of variety, and I wouldn't recommend enjoying each of the things available in His creation on a 24/7 basis, either. (Standing underneath a roaring waterfall, for instance, can be exhilarating, but continued exposure could be deafening.) In our present culture, we have an unprecedented and widening gap between entertainment and art (which is one reason why I appreciate prog so much; it aims at maintaining that union). One of the biggest problems with how rock music is often "used" in our culture is related to this issue. We are entertainment addicts, all while (largely) thumbing our noses at genuine art. But even this observation only underscores the fact that the problem is not something called "rock music" per se, since progressive rock, at least, stands quite radically apart from this phenomenon.

In short, I find the "all-rock-music-is-bad" position to be arbitrary and unhelpful. It seems to me to be one of those all-too-common legalistic shortcuts Christians often resort to, rather than training themselves in discernment. A generation or two ago, it was "all playing cards are bad," and the movie theater was taboo, no matter what was playing. And dancing, well. . . .

Better by far is that we train ourselves and our children to learn to think, to revel in our good God who overflows with all sorts of delightful gifts, and ask how that abundance can be (and is) reflected in human culture. If we do that, perhaps the charges of joylessness that so often haunt us will be levelled with a lot less justice, and they will be less likely to stick.


For further thoughts on my view of music, particularly modern music, see my article at the Biblical Studies Center, "A Creational Perspective on Modern Music: Introductory Thoughts."