Monday, December 27, 2010

On Classical Music

I finally got a chance to watch this this morning. It’s excellent and instructive in a number of ways which others have pointed out. I would venture to say that most people who claim to hate classical music have probably never listen to much of it, if any.

What this reminds me of is the fact that music communicates without any words whatsoever. Chopin doesn’t need lyrics to tell us what kind of emotions or attitude to have during the music. Words or explanation can enhance that, to be sure. But no one listens to this Chopin prelude to get hyped up for a basketball game. Listening to this piece tells you why without any explanation.

It reminds me of another of my favorite pieces of music, the Moonlight Sonata. One only needs to listen to it to understand why it’s not entitled “Victory Parade” or “Wedding March.” It does not need a single word to communicate to us how utterly incompatible it is with either occasion. It’s not even “Sunlight Sonata” for obvious reasons. And my guess is that has nothing to do with culture. It’s instinctive.

This short lecture also reminds me how effectively music communicates expectations. This lecturer demonstrates that when he asks everyone to sing the next note, and everyone knows what that note is … Except it isn’t. Chopin actually goes somewhere else.

In musical terms, I explain it this way. The tonal, or the I chord (for instance, the C chord in a piece written in the key of C) clearly signifies the end of a phrase (and often a piece). So when a piece goes to the F chord (or the IV chord, so called because it is four musical steps up from the I or the C chord), everyone knows that it isn’t the end. There needs to be some resolution. But no one has to explain that. It needs no words. The music itself tells you that. There’s nothing immoral about a IV chord. It is a necessary part of any music. It just doesn’t fit in certain places. (This can be easily demonstrated on a piano or guitar, but I don’t feel like recording that here and now.)

In life terms, I explain it this way: You are coming down the steps in the middle of the night and you think you have reached the bottom. And all your weight is positioning itself for that next step which is exactly on the same level as the last step. Except that there is one more step. I did this one night. I fell on my face in the living room floor. Fortunately there was no one there to see it, and if you ever repeat this story, I will deny it. But suffice it to say that I had an expectation that wasn’t met.

Music does that. It creates expectations, without any words. And when those expectations aren’t met, it jars us a bit at some level.

His playing of the Chopin piece is great in that in the middle of it there is a distinct section that gets a bit more energetic, or dare I say, agitated. And yet no one needs to say, “Here comes the agitation, or the change.” We don’t need words. The music itself tells us that.

Another one of my favorite works is Holst’s The Planets. Fabulous music, in my opinion. Particularly Mars. Compare that with the Chopin Prelude that is found on this video. And ask yourself which you would put your baby to sleep with, and why. And it won’t take an advanced degree in music to answer that.

So what’s my point in this whole thing?

My point is that the idea that music is “amoral” and can be used for anything at anytime depending on what words you put with it is so utterly absurd that it is laughable that anyone suggests that. Music needs no words to communicate with us.

By saying that, I am not saying (at this point) that any type of music is inherently sinful or wicked. That’s not my point at all. I am not even saying that the response to music is universal … that all people in all cultures understand music the exact same way. My point is that some types of music are inappropriate for some things, and we do not need to lyrics to know that. It is self-evident.

(BTW, listen to this and try to figure it out before the words start. And don’t cheat by looking at the mouseover that shows the link. Seriously, it makes me laugh how utterly incompatible the music and the words are. And at this point I am not saying anything about the music style.)

Now there is a lot of meat here to chew on and expound on and my point isn’t to do that. Perhaps later I will broach this again.

I would only say this: Don’t say that music is amoral and that any type of music can be used for anything depending on what words you put with it.

No thinking person believes that. If someone does believe that, it’s only because they aren’t thinking. They are simply trying to defend the indefensible.

Strong? Sure. But self-evident.

And if you doubt that, go look and see what type of music they play at different times in their day and in their lives. See what they put their babies to bed with and what they put on the Ipod to exercise to. See what they listen to when they are emotionally down. You will see that they instinctively know that certain types of music create certain types of atmospheres and moods.

Music communicates in and of itself. It teaches us what to think. BTW, that’s why movie music works. It teaches you what to think about what is going on on the screen in front of you. The narrator need not say, “Be scared right now.” The music says it all by itself. 

I wish I had a good ending for this, but I don’t, so let me just get to the I chord and say “Bye for now.”


Scott Buchanan said...

I think the ability of music to communicate apart from lyrics is a good point that is frequently under-appreciated. However, that's a different point that the proposition "music is amoral." The term "amoral" means not carrying moral value. Music by itself, devoid of lyrics or context, cannot be "right" or "wrong"; therefore, it is "amoral." That's not to say it doesn't communicate (which I think is your point). It can strongly communicate/evoke any of the emotions, but since all the emotions are appropriate under the right circumstances, music only gains a moral character when it is tied to lyrics or put in a particular context. Even then, much of the time, categories of appropriateness are more apt than those of morality, though I can grant that at least theoretically there could be times when a conflict between the lyrics/context and the music is actually moral.

That's a long of way of saying that I agree with your point but not your term. The term "communicative" may be better than "moral." I think using the latter term causes too much confusion.

Mark Ward said...

Music is not amoral. And, Larry, you'd better check out seminaries that promote that music is amoral.

One more think - it's interesting how our seminaries and so called "Christian Universities" can place such a high view and high standard on music guidelines, but be weak on their stand about the Bible, preservation, illumination, and even inspiration.

In my humble opinion, I'd rather send my kids to a school that has a strong emphasis on God's word than on some high music standard that most of my kids cannot even understand.

I'm not suggesting that we lower our music standards - but let's get real on the issue of music. We have become so judgmental on music styles, that we have surrendered in the battle over key core doctrinal issues - including what we believe about the Bible.

Again, just a thought. I'm sick and tired of seminaries and so called "Christian" universities that brag about their high music standards, but have little or no standard as to where they stand on the issue of the Bible. And, that, my friend, is my beef!

Larry said...


Thanks for reading and commenting. I appreciate it. I think the issue of communication is the issue of morality. And I would argue that music without a particular context is impossible. Music always exists in a context, and shapes that context.

Perhaps some of it is semantics. Most people instinctively know that movie music works, but they say that's the communicative affect of music, not morality. I think whatever term you use for it, the idea is the same.

Larry said...


What seminaries do you have in mind that teach that music is amoral? I don't know of any off the top of my head, but it's not something I have looked into.

As for a weak stand on the Bible, I completely agree. But I would shape that argument differently than you would. I think it is a very weak stand on the Bible to deny that modern faithful translations are the Word of God. I think it is a very weak stand on the Bible to say that only one Greek text with some serious flaws is the Word of God. I think it is weak because it is not in line with what the Bible teaches about itself. It adds to the Bible (not only verses and words, most likely, but also to the Bible's teaching). Remember that the people who claim that only one text or one translation is "the" Word of God cannot point to any place where God identifies their particular choice as his. I think that is weak. And I think, for what it's worth, that fundamentalism should have nothing to do with any institution that teaches that.

Again, as I have said before, I have no complaint with somebody (individual, church, school) that prefers a certain text or translation. It doesn't bother me if someone says that the TR is the best text, or the Majority Text is the best text (they are two different texts). It doesn't bother me if someone says that the KJV is the best translation.

The problem, the denial of a major fundamental of the faith, is when someone says that a particular Greek text or translation is the only Word of God and everything else is a perversion. I cannot see how anyone can claim the name of fundamentalist while denying one of the very first fundamentals laid out by James Gray in the original fundamentals.

I think we need to be clear about where we stand on the Bible. And I think we need to stand where the Bible itself stands. Remember the old verse ... It's just as wrong to add as it is to take away. I think some of these schools, pastors, and evangelists so-called (meaning they are not biblical evangelists) need to take a serious look at the attacks they are launching against the Bible.

I know we disagree on this and that's okay. I love you anyway, man. Hope your holiday season has been good.

Mark Ward said...


You're gracious, and that's what I like about you. I consider you a friend, but must agree to disagree on some of your points. But, that's a different story.

We're enjoying our New Years - we're in Michigan, at a secret, disclosed location. Who knows, maybe we're near you. I just had supper with a Bob Jones Graduate. Aren't you proud of me? So, who knows, you never know where we may be....
Happy New Year!
Mark Ward