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).

Music and communication

Composers and/or performers may intend a certain reaction to be experienced by listeners, and that reaction may occur, but this is neither essential nor universal in much music making, except in the very broadest sense that audiences (mostly) know when to applaud… in cultures that applaud.

Some of the intelligibility of music to typical listeners seems to be semiotic in nature, depending on very basic parameters like high/low, fast/slow, loud/soft, complex/simple, bright/mellow, etc. However, every generation experiences the fact that its “musical symbols” are different from the last, sometimes hugely so. In response to music that one generation finds teeth-grating, another generation closes its collective eyes in mellow nirvana. In other words, musical gestures and structures are not interpreted in a universal way, even among culturally related listeners.

It’s important not to confuse communication with expression and the perception of it. A listener can hear a crescendo, or a nice turn of phrase, and even respond to these on some level, perhaps by assuming a certain emotion on the part of the composer or performers, but the content of the communication is very difficult to define. This is not to say that music is not emotional in some absolute sense; it seems clear that sometimes composers and performers do feel things about the music, and sometimes audiences will feel some of the same things. However, the music and its performance may simply signal some form of emotional intensity, and the listener may easily infer a different emotion (as the one to be intensely felt) than the one “intended” by the composer or performer.

There are many theories of emotion. In order for a theory of communication in music to be based in its assumed emotional nature, it will be necessary to choose one of those theories first. Assumptions about the nature of emotion underlie most theories about the nature of musical communication. For a taste, try typing “theory of emotion” into a web-based search engine, and sample the variety of theories. Each one would have different implications for the nature of musical communication, if such a theory is based in the musical communication of emotion.

To illustrate the problem: everyone has a face, and uses facial expression to communicate, but the very same facial expression may express great pain or great pleasure. Tears may signal sadness or joy. A smile can be truly joyful, or darkly evil. In other words, communication via facial expression depends on a context understood by both parties to the communication, and is not inherent in the facial expression itself. There may be only a few distinct facial expressions, with all the subtleties inferred by the viewer of the expression. Emotions can be exceedingly complex, as any slightly introspective person knows. That does not mean, however, that the face actually communicates them with any great specificity.


How much more complex is musical structure and gesture than facial expression?

If musical symbols have been previously assigned (i.e., a melody stands for a certain person or place, etc.), some communication may be said to have happened, but it will be based on a simple sign or leitmotiv. Short of that, the communication may be said to be musical communication, about musical things… a tautology if ever there was one.

If music is primarily communication, and if the communicative potential is merely semiotic and very general, then the structural subtleties matter relatively little. That is, of course, the exact opposite of the professional opinion of virtually every music theorist, and not a particularly helpful point for the beginning of an attempt at faith-integration, particularly in music theory, because it invalidates the reason for most of the content, i.e., the study of the structural subtleties that matter so much to musicians.

If a theory of faith integration in music, and especially music theory, is to celebrate the inquiry into the subtleties of musical structure and gesture, that theory will need to be based on something more than the assumption that music communicates emotion, semotically or otherwise.

Words mean things, but music doesn’t use words.

This is another in the chain of posts dedicated to disposing of common misconceptions about the nature of music, and how it can interact with faith in God.

Music has (more often than not) grammar, syntax, spelling, micro-structure and macrostructure. The study of music is enhanced with all kinds of useful analogies to language, especially in terms of how we process input, and understand sonic gestures in the context of what follows. Does that make music a language, let alone “the universal language?”

To put it simply, if music is a language, then none of the words mean anything. For music to be a language, the meaning of the term must be stretched to include structures that make or have no external reference. Without externally assignable meanings to musical “statements” and “gestures”, it seems difficult to contend that music is a language at all (at least in any conventional sense), let alone a universal one.

Those who are persuaded of music’s supposed universality may appeal to culturally conditioned musical gestures that seem to convey meaning between a particular composer and a particular audience. Of course, the same may be said of smiles, frowns, yells, laughs and cries. We do not ascribe to them the status of language, however.

In a language, meaning is conveyed by a combination of definition and grammar/syntax/structure. Words mean something in the absence of grammar/syntax/structure (or at least there will be several possible meanings — i.e., the word “fish” in English will never mean “shoe”, regardless of syntax/grammar/structure). Possible definitions in a particular instance are constrained by context, i.e., syntax/grammar/structure, but the possible definitions pre-exist the context.

Music lacks any pre-existing definitions to correlate musical gestures or fragments with external meanings. To repeat: if music is a language, then none of the words mean anything. Whatever “meaning” it has is almost exclusively internal.

What are the implications of this for music and faith integration?

Essentially, music will do a very poor job of conveying any kind of concept. That doesn’t mean the listener can’t find analogies between various concepts and music, but music does not convey them in the manner of a language. To the degree that anyone believes that music conveys in language any particular truth about faith in God, disappointment seems certain.

The next post will discuss communication and music, which is related to all of this, of course.

Music is no more mathematical than breathing

Music has some mathematical aspects, to be sure. Musical intervals are ratios of frequencies of air pressure variation. Musical tone quality is partly a result of the cumulative effect of various frequencies on/in the overall pattern of air pressure change (what physicists would call the “waveform”). Scale degrees are numbered in some systems, and mathematical relationships of scale degrees are observed. Rhythmic relationships are described in numerical terms.

Nevertheless, the experiences of musicians and listeners are not fundamentally mathematical, any more than the perception of color is experienced mathematically, though the frequencies of reflected light are essential aspects of the physical reality behind our experience of “color.” It is a canard that music and mathematics go together in some a priori way, either in content or in perception, except in the same senses that most aspects of human living can be counted or measured.

The rate of breathing can be counted, the volume of breath can be measured, the percentage of oxygen uptake can be measured… but breathing isn’t fundamentally about mathematics, either.

Some musicians are also gifted mathematically; but many are not. As a professor of music theory and music technology, I’ve observed many talented music majors struggling with their math classes. I’ve also seen them scratch their heads trying to do the low level math involved in converting sample rates and resolutions into RAM usage for a length of time to be sampled. Binary arithmetic is at the bottom of many concepts in music technology, and I’ve seen no particular affinity on the part of music majors for absorbing it.

So what does all of this imply? Theories comparing the “internal elegance” of mathematics to music don’t tell us much more than comparing mathematics and breathing. There is no causal relationship (in either direction) between musical ability and mathematical ability, though they may coexist in many people. Music and mathematics both involve perception of patterns, but so do about a million other things.

The relevance of all this to faith integration and music is straightforward: if their is no privileged relationship between music and mathematics, then faith integration strategies that are appropriate for mathematics aren’t particularly likely to apply to music.

Coming next: music and language.

OK, Time To Get Down (To It)


Some readers of this blog will probably be confused about all the fuss. What’s the big deal about integrating music and faith? Isn’t it obvious? Aren’t some songs Christian, and some not? Aren’t some styles of music more worshipful than others? Isn’t music the universal language? Isn’t it the words that make some music Christian?

And so on.

Just to start at a nice clear point, my answer to most of the questions above is, “probably not”.

You may disagree… and there’s a comment button below this post where you can say so.

In any case, my opinion is that we can’t have a real discussion of the integration of faith and music until we dispense with some common canards about music, and about the music of faith. So, over the next few days (if I’m lucky), or weeks (if I’m not), I’ll post explanations of why there aren’t that many useful analogies between music and mathematics, or music and language, or music and art, or music and communication.

I’d like to start a conversation here… so feel free to respond, and express your opinion.

Applications of the Wesleyan Quadrilateral to Music Making/Teaching/Learning Applications of the Wesleyan Quadrilateral to Music Making/Teaching/Learning

Just as it is possible to be an excellent scholar of the Bible without being a Christian, it is possible to know a great deal about music and be a poor musician. One may have a genuine heart for God, sincerely attempting to practice Godly living, and yet be relatively ignorant of Scripture and reasoned teachings flowing from it, so that without some correction from traditional interpretations one is at risk of being led significantly astray by poor teaching, trendy ideas, or cultural pressure. Similarly, one may be a very talented natural musician, but without training that includes study of the classics, the development of traditional interpretive skills, and much effort in personal internalization of these things, one’s ability to express that talent will be very limited.

One way to the internalization of musical structure, style and practice is to say it, sing it, read it, write it, play it and hear it. The musician in training should do all these things, using as subject matter the best music that has come down to us. The musician should learn theories about the grammar and syntax of musical structure, and learn to say them, sing them, read them, write them, play them and hear them, so that concept, skill and practice are integrated in the musician.

Just as it is tempting for anyone to avoid what is difficult and do more of what seems to come more naturally, it is tempting for musical theorists to avoid praxis, for singers to avoid music theory, and so on. Similar observations can be made about the difficulty a theologian may have in some aspect of personal living, or the tendency of some good-hearted Christian laborers to misuse, misconstrue or misappropriate theology.

John Wesley’s teachings on the integration of scripture, tradition, reason and experience in the individual’s life would seem to apply to becoming a “complete musician.” The goal of university training in music should be to encourage the development of a musician who can say it, sing it, read it, write it, play it and hear it, from a reasoned understanding of the “canon” of music that has come down to us (but is still “open”), and in light of the traditions of interpretation and praxis that are expressed in the work of the finest performers, composers and conductors. The result should be a musician who has internalized musical structure and gesture, understands both deeply, connects modern musical life to best of the past, and who never stops growing in any of these areas.

Music students in a Christian university can be introduced to the concept of the Wesleyan Quadrilateral fairly soon in their coursework. Applications of this general approach to learning music can be made, so that students have more appreciation for the integrative possibilities of the (seemingly unrelated) activities and coursework that music majors do. Faculty should be more intentional in explaining and modeling this approach. Frequent reference can be made to a musical activity or assignment as being more or less reflective of different aspects of the analogy to the Quadrilateral, reminding students of the integrative target.

For more on the Wesleyan Quadrilateral, see Donald Thorsen’s book, The Wesleyan Quadrilateral.