Music and Art

It is commonly believed that music is “one of the arts” or “one of the fine arts.” This is a relatively recent association in Western culture, perhaps 250 years old. The connection is rarely found in non-Western cultures. While it’s true that music and various forms of art involve creativity in a general sense, there seems little connection other than that.

The skills involved in creating visual art (understood as the manipulation of shape and color to create a visual effect of some kind) were inherently practical almost from the beginning. Early humans closely observed nature, plants, animals, geography, and each other. They had the ability to use hands and visual imagination to create tools, clothing, maps (even scrawled in the dirt), identifying marks, sketches of animals, etc. These skills are not fundamentally different in kind from those of artists; they are different only in application.

What was the inherent practicality of music, and from what “less musical” root does it spring?

Music involves a way of listening mostly dissimilar to any other way of listening. (How do we explain the apparently latent ability of humans 40,000 years ago to have been taught to hear and understand complex harmony that wouldn’t be “invented” until the last century? There is room for an imago dei discussion here.)

Because of its unique character, singing involves ways of using the voice that are unlike normal conventions of speech. Playing a musical instrument is a form of tool use, but it demands levels of precision (spatially and temporally) and exhibits levels of complexity related to internalized structure that transcend virtually any other tool use by orders of magnitude.

This point deserves some elaboration. There seems to be no other human activity that involves the level of precision demanded by musical performance. As a form of tool use, its uniqueness can be seen by comparing the learning curve for a musical instrument to the learning curve for any other tool. Is there another tool that a person begins to use at the age of 5 or 6, and begins to achieve some reasonable proficiency in about 15-20 years? A tool in whose use further skill and sophistication will develop over the next 40 years or more? I can think of no tool where private lessons are offered (and often taken) for a lifetime.

Remarkably, this tool use is not simply an athletic thing, a mere celebration of fine motor coordination. Rather, it is directly related to an internalized structure (something more than a mere “concept”) of sound and sound relations, tied within the musician to physical gestures that produce an audible version of that structure, and perhaps notational norms for communicating it.

While art seems to be a direct outgrowth of human powers of observation and manipulation, and has its roots in practical activities directly related to human survival, musical perception and creation seem to have little relationship to “practical” skills related to hearing and sound creation.

What are the implications of these observations for faith integration and music?

If we dispense with the canard that art and music have some a priori relationship (short of deliberate reference made by artist or musician), then faith integration approaches that are appropriate to art (chiefly those that assume representation) will not be useful for music. Representational art is intended to communicate, not to confuse… usually.

If someone wishes to make an analogy between music and abstract, non-representational art, that might be accurate. Since abstract art presents faith integration problems of its own, that analogy won’t be particularly helpful.

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