Christmas Music

I know I’m not the first to say this, but Christmas music is among my very favorite music. So much of it is just so right. Unlike so many songs where the music seems to be just a stylistically neutral vehicle for the words, Christmas music often exhibits a nearly perfect wedding of text and music (within the limitations of the strophic paradigm, of course).

I sang (try not to laugh) in my small local church choir for Christmas. We do OK for what we are, a group of amateurs with limited rehearsal time, and lots of enthusiasm. But we were elevated beyond our ensemble’s ability by the material we sang. And hardened musical warrior that I am, I confess to a few chills here and there in especially nice spots in the music.

Now, don’t get me wrong: if you’ve read previous posts here, you know that I’m deeply skeptical of communication in music. But I will say that the musical elements in many Christmas songs are ones that I respond to: modal elements, particular melodic turns that support the lyric, and so on. And let’s face it, the lyrics of many Christmas songs are just among the very best.

On the other hand, maybe it’s just because I grew up hearing this particular music in especially happy and meaningful times. However, there’s plenty of other music that I don’t like for which I should have equally good associations. So I have to believe it has something to do with the quality of the music.

Happy New Year to all!

Trying not to blog down

OK, it’s a bad pun.

I’m the “faith integration mentor” for the School of Music at Azusa Pacific University, but I also teach music theory (lower and upper division, a little of each), composition, commercial music and music technology.

I have several problems to solve in this role:

1) How to do faith integration in music myself!

2) How to help my fellow music faculty navigate the institutional pressures to do this in some recognizable way while retaining their own personal integrity and professionalism in teaching.

3) How to communicate to faculty from other disciplines that, for the most part, approaches to faith/learning integration they’ve used won’t work as well in music, or will work to music’s detriment.

Along the way, some related issues arise:

What IS faith integration in music? Is this any different than the use of music as an evangelistic tool? Or is it just a theology of music?

There seem to be lots of people who are willing to say what faith integration is NOT, but aren’t willing to say just what it IS. Why is this?

I think the answer is pretty clear: they don’t know. Neither do I. Nevertheless, I am personally determined to discover or develop some better understandings of faith integration in music. My standards for “better understanding” in this case:

1) There is a way to apply it (the “better understanding”) to teaching music (especially instrumental music, music theory, and choral music with non-religious text) that makes the experience more musical, not less.

2) The departure from norms of teaching these things (which do not include “faith integration” as understood in non-musical disciplines, or we wouldn’t be having this discussion) is not “pro forma” or an obvious “add on”, just to say we did it.

To me, the whole notion of integration implies a new wholeness that comes about as a result of multiple inputs. It is not a synonym for mixture, blend, or combination. Integration implies a mutual interactivity, more like the issue of multiple streams of genetic influence than chemical mixture (although a close analogy might be chemical compounds with notably different properties than any of the constituent elements). Who could have predicted salt from knowing the properties of chlorine and sodium? However, working backwards from understanding the crystalline structure and properties of salt, we do have a better chance of understanding some aspects of the two elements.

Ideally, a successful integration of faith and music will be like that. It will help us to know things about music and things about faith that we don’t know without the integration, or don’t understand as well.

Having said all this, I’m very uncomfortable with this language of “theories”, and “knowing”, and “understanding”. I think both faith and music exist as integrations in and of themselves, in ways that are analogous to one another, but quite different, of course. One way they’re similar is that neither is fundamentally about “knowing”, “understanding” or “theory”, though elements of these things exist in both, of course. Nevertheless, if the only way we can express their integration is in the language of “knowing”, “understanding” or “theory”, we have settled for the most shallow expressions of both faith and music as being demonstrative of the integration we seek…. surely a disappointing outcome.

I hear someone in the background chorus (life as Greek tragedy) shouting, “But there are different ways of knowing, and you’re assuming the most narrow way!”

Sadly, it is precisely, and only, that narrow way of knowing that can be verbalized or appear in print. Integration of the sort we are discussing happens only within a person. It cannot happen in mere content which is accessible to anyone who can read and has a general education.

Some problems with which to grapple:

Is it possible for music to inform faith, or only vice versa? (Again, we aren’t talking about lyrics, we’re talking about music. ) Interesting link on theology and the arts (not necessarily the same thing as “faith integration”).

If so, how?

If so, should music be limited only to that which does inform or support faith?

Is music primarily a tool to be used in the service of faith? Or is it something more?

If it is something more, how do we let it be what it can be, without making an idol of it?

There are lots more questions, of course… but at the moment my head hurts. I’m going to go listen to some cool jazz. I have it on good authority from a young friend that Jesus played the electric bass… which sounds unlikely to me, but since the scriptures are silent on this point, I really can’t argue it. (When the rocks cry out, who needs an amp?)

Music and faith potpouri #1

From time to time, when I run across links of interest, I’ll post them. Those kinds of posts may be called “potpouri” posts… if I’m consistent about it…. which I may not be. Lemme alone, I’m a musician.

At Life and Art:

“through good theology and a little creativity, Jazz music can really help in faith integration issues. For example, by its very history, Jazz can serve to help reconcile racial relations. Also, due to its rhythmic nature, Jazz can involve the body and help fight that Gnostic mind/body split that exists in contemporary Christianity. Jazz is immediately accessible. Jazz can help correct that tendency of privatization in worship. Like Black Gospel music, Jazz has that ‘Call and Response’ element. Jazz is individual yet communal and it calls one to participate.”

Hmm.. apparently not everyone believes jazz is the devil’s spawn.

Spiritual “muzak” at the Institute for Christian Thinking:

“In order to further encourage this intentional promotion of faith, campuses can include facilities such as a prayer garden, a prayer chapel, quiet spots of natural beauty on campus, and by strategically-arranged park benches that provide places for quiet reflection. This faith perspective can also be enhanced by the selection and piping in of spiritually-uplifting background music in appropriate places (e.g., in recreation areas, lounges, etc.), and by the promotion and utilization of visual media programs (e.g., overheads, slides, TV, videos, etc.) which uphold and inculcate values congruent with the philosophical objectives of the institution.”

It’s not all about CCM… or at least it’s not all pop oriented. Check out the Christian Fellowship of Art Music Composers.

Their self-description:

“CFAMC provides a non-denominational forum for information and dialogue about activities in art music composition by professing Christian composers, as well as professional and spiritual encouragement for its members. Member services include a quarterly email newsletter, “the CONCERTed offering”, periodic conferences, a substantial web page, and a free, public email discussion group. Other endeavors include online composer catalogs, networking with major musical organizations, regional CFAMC chapters, comissioning programs, student composer scholarships, recording and broadcast projects, and much more! In short, CFAMC strives to be a place for evangelical concert composers to come together to discuss the joys and disappointments, the issues and struggles of bringing their work and witness as redeemed creative individuals to the arts music world. ”

On the surface this appears to be less of a faith integration organization, and more of an evangelistic one, with overtones of mutual support and community.

These are all good things, of course… but offer no window into how a composer’s faith perspective changes the way the music is written, except perhaps in matters of text selection, or the “program” of a piece. Question: will anyone be able to tell, by listening, that any piece of music was written by a Christian?

The uniqueness of music

Music may be a uniquely integrative activity. The deepest musical understandings come from singing, playing, writing (composing), saying (musical relationships), hearing (in the sense of “the seeing ear”), reading (in the sense of the “hearing eye”) and conceiving (musical structures). Whatever kind of understanding a musician has of music (in general, or of a particular piece or style), it will always be improved by doing all of these things. These are not merely different modes of “knowing”, or expressions of different learning styles, or activities aimed at different ends. They are “interactive” and “simultaneous” methods for the internalization of musical structure and style. The ability to do them all is evidence of that internalization.

Most disciplines involve some level of this integration of conceptual structure and praxis. It is not usually central to the discipline, however, and does not usually involve unique kinds of perception and action that have little direct application to other intellectual and physical activities. Most disciplines involve precise application of general skills (intellectual and physical) possessed by most people.

To put it simply: music exhibits all the intellectual subtlety of other disciplines, while demanding integration of that conceptual subtlety with perceptual and physical skills in unique ways. This is the internalization of structure.

We’ve now come around a sort of circle on these posts. If you’ve found any of this discussion convincing, it might be a good time to read this and this, both of which are all about the implications for faith integration of music as an internalized structure.

Summary of limits in the relation of music to mathematics, language, communication and art

I would assert that music is not mathematics, or fundamentally mathematical in any special sense apart from many other disciplines or arts. It is not a language. It is not communication in any normal sense of the term. It is, perhaps, an art, but if so, it is an art which produces no objects of art, since the score is not the music. (In any case, “art” is considerably less definable than mathematics, language or communication, so any analogy to it may not help us much.) Historically, music has not been automatically considered to be an art until relatively recently in western culture, and in some other cultures not at all.

These are some things music is not. Therefore, faith integration with music will also not automatically reflect these things. If it could be conclusively shown to be primarily any of these things, the faith-integration task would be simpler, and would consist largely of borrowing approaches from other disciplines.

This is not to say that music does not share some features with mathematics, language communication and art, but none of them is an adequate metaphor for music, nor do they in combination suffice to explain or capture the essence of music. If there were any simple relationship between music and any (or all) of the foregoing, then the task of faith integration in music would reflect similar considerations to them.

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.

Music for worship: Jazz and Pop and Rock, oh my

Here’s a link to a discussion on jazz and popular music in worship, with lots of responses and some disagreements expressed. Hat tip to CHAD from

Here are a couple of sites that express some strong opinions about music in worship, with very conservative opinions. Not coincidentally, both sites appear to subscribe to the King James Version as the “real” Bible.

On the other hand, check these out:

Both of the above are “commercial sites”, but the fact that they’re in business seems to imply that someone THINKS they’re worshipping God with jazz.

A little history here:

A couple more interesting links:

Well, enough of this. And now, for all you naysayers about modern pop music, and how we should go back to the proper worship music: read some music history, especially medieval and renaissance, and then we’ll talk. In the meantime, consider that we have not a fuzzy clue how ANY music sounded that is mentioned in the Bible. Apparently, it was more important to God that we MAKE music, not that we make the RIGHT music (as if there is such a thing).

In the meantime, try not to muddy up your thinking about music in worship, and particularly which styles of music are appropriate, by thinking about lyrical content common in certain styles for secular audiences. Denying those styles in the church is like denying the use of English poetry because some of it is too sensual for your tastes.

Anybody wanna guess which classic hymns and chorales are direct lifts from which German bar songs of bygone centuries? Which hymns originated with lyrics of a considerably, uh, baser nature?

Here’s someone who disagrees regarding Luther’s hymns:

and about the Wesleys

I still suspect a considerable interpenetration of sacred and secular music over the centuries. I do believe that “sacred” and “secular” are deeply artificial categories, and in connection with music, these categories are normally used to defend personal taste more than divine dispensation.

Here’s a pretty good article on all of this:

Bottom line for me, before I go back to posting more on the “background” of these discussions (I’m still promising a post on art and music): make a joyful noise unto the Lord. If you’re gonna make it where people can hear it, consider making it in a musical style they understand, at least a bit. Try not to confuse your stylistic prejudice with God’s perspective. And if you really want to go back to the “good old days” of the church, you’d better climb into your time machine and find out what was going on before Gregorian chant. Let me know when you find out. I’m pretty sure, though, that it didn’t sound like Luther, or Wesley, or Bach, or (fill in the blank here).