Music in worship is ethical when it preserves people in, or restores them to, just relationships with others and thereby with God.
That was the central claim I made in the last installment of this series.
In this and the next few installments, I will be unpacking that sentence with the hope that doing so will provide a helpful way of understanding and doing musical worship.
Relationships, at the very least, are the context of human being. So how does music play into those relationships?
Music provides a way for people to form communities. By this, I mean that people gather around the music they love and within its scope they make friends.
Think of a concert. You go ostensibly because you either like the music or like someone who likes the music. That’s usually how it works.
And when you go to a concert, you discover you are not alone in your affinity for the band or the person who likes the band. This is part of what makes live concerts a thing.
As Josh Busman points out in his autoethnography (yes, that is a word) of Christian punk scenes (forthcoming, 2020), one of the most compelling memories of attending those concerts is comparing notes with his fellow concertgoers over what band they liked and what they liked about the band.
And while these new friendships didn’t always last beyond the evening, they provided an important part of what made a concert meaningful for him and his fellows.
If we adjust our focus ever so slightly, we can draw an important parallel between Busman’s reflection on the relational efficacy of concerts and the value of singing in church.
Sure, we might not compare notes with our fellow congregants about which worship leader or choir director we like best (although that seems to be an increasingly popular topic of “get to know you” conversation).
However, we still find value in singing with others.
There is a problem with all of this, however. Or at least there seems to be. You see, music at church and music at a concert are inherently different. Or at least we are told as much.
For one, a concert is assumedly about itself, that is to say, it is about the music and the performers and the audience all rolled up into one sonic phenomenon we call “experience.”
Church is assumedly about God and worshipping together and thereby presencing (also a word) the community of faith.
This, then, is to say that the music of church and the music of the concert mean different things. That is, their purposes and methods and self-understandings are different.
Or are they?
Remember back to my last essay in this series, where I mentioned that theologians such as myself like to prescribe which music should or should not be used for worship, but that such attempts were misguided because “that’s not why music matters?”
Part of why that is so is, obviously, because of the relational aspects of music. But there’s more to it. In order to understand what that more is, I’m going to need to indulge in a little history, so bear with me.
Part of why church fathers like Augustine were so suspicious of music (many scholars say Augustine was “ambivalent” about it) was because they thought that music wielded the power to control people – control their mood, their actions and ultimately their character.
In technical terms, Augustine and his ilk thought that music had agency, that music was a moral agent.
Agency, in this sense, means “the capacity, condition or state of acting or of exerting power” (Merriam-Webster).
Viewing this logic through the lens of the Enlightenment, Scientific Revolution, the criteria of proof and so on makes this understanding of music almost laughable: Can you imagine putting a note or chord or melody on trial in a court of law because someone did something wrong after listening to it?
Music is not a moral agent because it cannot be held responsible for what people do with it.
Modern people don’t view music this way. We still believe it should be regulated, but not because it is its own agent, but because it has the power to exert great influence on us, which it does, and that influence is conveyed through what it means.
This is what the “parental advisory” sticker on some albums is all about (Google “Tipper Gore/Parents Music Resource Center 1985”).
But “meaning” is a tricky word. Partly because it is a meta word, in the sense that you cannot inquire about it without using it: What does meaning mean? See what I mean? Or do you?
Word games aside, this is not merely a philosophical exercise intended to make your head spin.
We tend to pass evaluative judgments on music because of what we think it means, by which we mean (ahem) how we interpret the lyrics.
But music is not just lyrics. Otherwise, we would call it poetry. Or words.
Instead, music is a collection of sounds made in time with one another that are connected by similarity, proximity and memory.
These connections are made in our minds, in our brains (See Robin Wallace 2018 for an excellent discussion on this).
Sounds are merely displaced air, translucent material that is moved when another bit of material occupies its physical space.
That movement of material impacts our ears, which encode signals that are translated by our brains at which point we are cognizant of hearing something. (The children’s TV program, “Story Bots,” has an accessible explanation of this process.)
But it doesn’t stop here: We then need to make associations with other sounds that are similar to the one we just “heard” in order to determine what that sound means.
A certain series of pitches and tones means “firetruck siren” because we have experienced those sounds together with other sensory phenomena, such as images of firetrucks.
We used to hear “ringing” and associate that sound with a phone call.
Sonic meaning is made when coupled with sense and memory. Incidentally, because we seldom use our phones for the act of calling each other, there is a humorous and frustrating rise in frequency of cellphones going off in public spaces and their owners being completely unaware of their sounding because we associate that sound with a phone call less and less.
In music, we associate certain sounds with other certain sounds and the memories those sounds share with other sensory experiences.
Heavy metal music means freedom and leisure to some and anxiety and stress to others.
Sometimes, that music is coupled with lyrics that reflect violence or destruction. Sometimes, it isn’t. This becomes a means of making meaning for a sort of music.
However, these associations destabilize another convention of meaning-making for humans: language.
Words accumulate their meanings in the same basic pattern as music yet are encoded differently; their meaning-making mechanism is different.
Mostly, it is different because there is more agreement over what those sounds or collections of sounds mean.
And this is critical: Meaning is relationally constructed. Music is encoded – even the lyrics (perhaps especially the lyrics) in certain ways by certain communities. Agreement on what music and words mean is the foundation for meaning itself.
For example, in 2015 I studied the relationship between style of musical worship and position on human sexuality in 25 churches in Los Angeles County.
I conducted this study because a gay friend had told me that she knew she was not welcome at churches that played the modern worship style of contemporary worship music. The result of the study was that her prediction had about a 95% probability rate.
But none of the congregations I studied shared that meaning for their music. The meaning was brought to the sounds independent of the lyrics or theology those lyrics expressed.
This means that we often overstate the importance of theological content in the lyrics of musical worship.
Instead, the associations that people or groups of people make between their experiences and memories and music are more important for how meaning is made.
And there is always more: This kind of musical meaning-making is always bound up with how music makes us feel with our emotions. We will begin unpacking that in the next edition of this series.
Nathan Myrick is Assistant Professor of Church Music at Mercer University. His work focuses on music and human flourishing in the context of Christian communities.