Music with Meaning
When do we utter words least true about our convictions, beliefs and attitudes if not during song? Often our words declared to melody lack scrutiny and we are not held accountable to them. In song the most unfaithful partner is permitted to declare themselves the most devoted lover; the timid observer morphs into an outraged blasphemer; for a few moments we become the very company we would never keep and others pledge allegiance to a belief they would never truly hold.
But of course we can say that the inverse is also true. It is when the music plays that our most private thoughts and intimate emotions are released, often revealing a fuller explanation to not only the hearer but ourselves. What we could never put into words suddenly flows freely off the tongue and takes on new and fresh meaning.
I doubt I need to persuade anyone about the power of music, especially in the church context. For it is under many steeples that our leaders have carefully structured the presentation and selection of music, knowing that it has often be used as a tool, a manipulator, to bring about superficial following and devotion. But how should we incorporate music? While we are all aware of its power I think most of us are also aware of its necessity; that we should not, simply out of fear, go without it.
An older person commented on a song we sang in church just the other day, talking about how difficult it is to sing these ‘new’ songs. ‘On the contrary’ I said, ‘many of the modern songs are repetitive and easy to sing in comparison to the range and melody line of some of the hymns.’ As with all our senses, we have preferences to certain tastes, smells and sounds. But these preferences do not come from no-where. They have been molded and influenced by experience.
To quote a favorite writer of mine, F.W Boreham, “And thus music revives, as nothing else can do, the tender grace of a day that is dead…There is a sublime virtue in anything that brings us into vital touch with the glorious past.” When we are transported back into a time that was wonderful we cannot help but sing the song with gladness and joy. Even when we are reminded of times of sadness it allows us to sing with deeper meaning and reflection. It is our ability to feel and be driven by unexplainable emotion that connects us to music, for it is the music that pulls on these strings that are so seldom awakened throughout our tedious routine of life.
When we read the songs in Scripture indeed we are meant to reflect back on some past event and remember with emotion filled praise. Think of Moses & Mariam’s song in Exodus 15 “Sing to the Lord, for he is highly exalted. The horse and its rider he has hurled into the sea”; David’s Psalm in 1 Chronicles 16 “Give thanks to the Lord, call on his name; make known among the nations what he has done. Sing to him, sing praise to him; tell of all his wonderful acts”; the song of Mary and Zechariah in Luke 1, praising God for what he has done for his people. We are to remember and be moved to praise. But not only to look back and praise, longing for a past experience to be repeated, but to look forward in great expectation of what is to come. This is what sets songs of worship apart from ordinary music.
“These things—the beauty, the memory of our own past—are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshippers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.” C.S Lewis
St Augustine rightly treated music with caution. Aware of its power he wrestled with the balance of the moving melody and lyrical content, determined to always uphold the latter. He described himself as having ‘grievously sinned’ when being ‘more moved by the singing rather than the thing that is sung’. But is it not also true that some words are sung with inappropriate melody? Moving music is not something we should altogether avoid but rather use appropriately. I have often read the words of the Psalms and hymns and been so moved by them, only to hear them sung and feel indifferent and removed. The mood should match the message and when it does I don’t think we should be afraid.
The fact that we are called to sing and not simply to recite tells me that there is an appropriate emotion expected from us as worshippers which we seldom experience or express without song. So while we are to be careful of extravagant emotions we should likewise be warned not to suppress those that are necessary – for we should not only sing as the expression of our minds’ understanding for then we could simply speak, but in song our souls should praise and our spirits rejoice!