What Does Music Mean?

April 16, 2014 — Leave a comment

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Over at the 9Marks blog, there are two different views about music and meaning posted. The first one is from Harold Best. The second is from Ken Myers. Both were asked to answer the following questions:

  • Can God employ any musical form for redemptive purposes?
  • Even if God can employ any musical form redemptively, are some musical forms spiritually or morally “better” than others?
  • Are some musical forms “better” for the sake of the gathered church?

Best answers more or less point by point. Myers offers a broad answer meant to cover each question. Best’s answers are clear and persuasive. Myer’s answer is not entirely clear, and not really persuasive. He actually deals with the first question toward the end of his response and says this:

Can God use musical forms that evolved to express autonomy and defiance for “redemptive purposes”? Of course, but that is to say something about God, not about our responsibility to behave wisely. I believe God could use someone’s steady diet of fatty and sugary foods to improve cardiac health, or that he could use the cultivation of aggression and vengeance to promote a spirit of gentle humility. But should we give our children stones when they ask for bread, insisting that God perform a work of transubstantiation at every meal?

Earlier in the article, Myers laments the rise of postmodern nihilism and its encroachment into musical forms. The result is the view that musical forms are neutral and meaningless. Myers is not a fan, and probably much like T. David Gordon, would argue that certain forms can be inherently inappropriate, especially if being considered for use in worship.

While I would say there are forms of music that would not be entirely appropriate in the worship service (i.e. most of the music I like), it’s a stretch to suggest that there are forms of music (or genres) that in and of themselves express autonomy and defiance. Certainly there are lyrics that do so, but I don’t think there are genres of music that do so. If there are, I don’t think that’s too different than asserting certain chords are expressing autonomy and defiance.

This, to me, is problematic. I’m not sure what it evens means to suggest that musical forms express meaning. It feels like asking, “what does a C# minor mean?” Or, to expand, “what does the chord progression C#m-A-E-B mean?” Whatever it means, it is certainly not an absolute meaning that is abstracted from all individual uses. Perhaps an artist that wants to express autonomy could employ that chord progression in doing so, but that is more an expression of the artist than something inherent in the chord voicings and progression.

Let’s draw an analogy with the normal mode of expressing meaning: language. To assert that musical forms (absent lyrics) express attitudes like autonomy or defiance, is like saying certain sentence structures express autonomy and defiance regardless of authorial intent or the propositional content of the sentences. It makes more sense to say certain authors want to express autonomy or defiance and do so through certain sentences. The form the sentences take doesn’t in and of itself express the autonomy or defiance. Likewise, certain musicians and artists want to express autonomy and defiance, but they can do so through just about any genre and form of music. But, the message won’t be clear unless lyrics are attached because music in and of itself does not communicate meaning. That’s a category confusion.

I could probably go on, but this might be more of a series of posts rather than a one time statement. Read the articles I linked to and see what you think. I really like what Best has to say, and I think would generally agree with his position. His thinking certainly seems to be more in line with how music actually functions. It resonated with me at least. Maybe next post I’ll be a little more positive and expand on some of what Best said. Until then, I’ll be continuing to get used to those two extra strings on my guitar.

Nate

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I’m an avid reader, musician, and high school Bible teacher living in central Florida. I have many paperback books and our house smells of rich glade air freshners. If you want to know more, then let’s connect!

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