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Summer 2003 Newsletter: Language of Music Part I
Publish date: Mar 12, 2009
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Possibly no issue has created more controversy in God’s Church than the topic of music, especially in the area of praise and worship. For many people, music itself, apart from the lyrics, is basically a neutral medium. The belief is that the listener subjectively imposes any meaning attached to musical communication; your whole response to music is based purely on that which you have already experienced in the past. This would include personal life’s experience, culture, and upbringing.
Thus it is assumed that because each person’s experience is different, the type of music one may enjoy for personal consumption or the worship of God is a matter of taste. In a nutshell, this means that musical standards, secular and religious, can only be individually or culturally determined. It would also suggest that people and not God would determine the standard for music in worship.
The different arguments for or against worship styles have been going on for decades, still there seems to be no clear-cut solution. The answers can be found in Scripture and the Spirit of Prophecy. Our goal is to understand music as a language, and then to build our argument, stone by stone, into an impregnable fortress of historical, Biblical, Spirit of Prophecy, and present-day evidence.
Know ye not that ye are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwelleth in you? If any man defile the temple of God, him shall God destroy; for the temple of God is holy, which temple ye are (1 Corinthians 3:16-17).
The Ancient View
The idea that music has a powerful influence on the human psyche is not a new one. The Great philosophers of old experimented with music and were intensely involved in observing its effect on society.
Plato, for example, held the opinion that you could assess an individual's spiritual condition by simply knowing what kind of music they listened to.
Aristotle made these comments:
Music directly imitates the passions or state of the soul...when one listens to music that imitates a certain passion, he becomes imbued with the same passion; and if over a long time he habitually listens to the kind of music that rouses ignoble passions, his whole character will be shaped to an ignoble form (The Politics, 340 BC).
When modes of music change, the fundamental laws of the state always change with them (The Politics Book 8 section 5, 466).
Shu Ching had this to say in the sixth century BC:
For changing people's manners and altering their customs, there is nothing better than music.
Boethius, the Roman philosopher, said this:
Music is a part of us, and either innobles or degrades our behaviour (De Institutione Musica, circa 500 AD).
Socrates also weighed in on the issue:
Musical training is a more potent instrument than any other, because rhythm and harmony find their way into the inward places of the soul, on which they mightily fasten, imparting grace, and making the soul of him who is rightly educated graceful, or of him who is ill-educated ungraceful (The Republic of Plato, 88).
Confucious gave this advice:
If you would know if a people are well governed, and if its laws are good or bad, examine the music it practices (circa 500 BC).
History records that music has always played a major role in the building up and breaking down of the world's great cultures. When destructive music appears within a civilization, it usually does so very suddenly. It seems to come in, almost as if by a deliberate strategy. Its influence on society is also sudden, bringing about a swift change in philosophy, politics, morals and lifestyle. Music not only reflects, but also manipulates and channels, the conscious state of a civilization, thus perpetuating the popular trend—whether good or bad.
Ancient Greece is a supreme example. Greek music began its decline during the era of Pericles (444-429 BC), when its civilization and arts were at their highest peak. Greek music became filled with cheap innovation and excessive modulation, replacing the more refined and disciplined styles.
Shortly after this musical shift a violent physical revolution and the ultimate downfall of Athens followed. Plato describes the situation:
Through foolishness they deceived themselves into thinking that there was no right or wrong in music—that it was to be judged good or bad by the pleasure it gave.
Uplifting melodies and disciplined styles were replaced by novelty-ridden, unsubstantial modes of expression; Greek music became trite and effeminate, and the people followed suit. Homosexuality became rampant, and the nation waned as a military force and as a bastion of culture.
In almost every case, whenever the music of a civilization becomes primitive and abandoned, the civilization itself has become barbaric and slipped into decline, ceasing to remain a civilization at all. Both China and India declined together with a prior decline in their music.
A Lesson to be Learned
Have we as a modern society, at the start of the 21st century, learned anything from the history of past civilizations? With all our technology and so-called wisdom we are still repeating history. As Solomon so aptly said, “There is nothing new under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 1:9).
The philosophical opinions of the ancients are not stale, uninformed, and naïve. They were firmly based on careful observation and study of history. Great minds throughout history came to the same conclusion that music is not a neutral medium.
Satan knows what organs to excite to animate engross, and charm the mind…Satan has no objection to music if he can make it a channel through which to gain access to the minds of the youth (1 Testimonies, 497, 506).
When it suits his purpose [Satan] can impart to men sentiments that are enchanting…The natural mind leans toward pleasure and self- gratification (Counsels to Parents, Teachers and Students, 27, 325).
Ellen White also spoke about some of the popular music of her day as being frivolous. One can only guess what her response would be to some of the music of today. She said of some music that, “Instead of inciting to holiness and spirituality, has been the means of diverting their minds from the truth” (Counsels to Parents, Teachers and Students, 497).
When speaking about some of the responses that certain types of music invoke she uses terms such as, “pleasing infatuation” (Ibid., 506), “deprave the imagination” (Ibid., 653), and, “abundance of enthusiasm, and a kind of inspiration” (Ibid., 339).
Again referring to the effect of some music she wrote, “It prepares the participants for unholy thought and action” (Ibid., 339).
It can certainly be said that Ellen White agreed with the great minds of old on the question of music and its power to influence the human organism. And as we shall see, modern science and medicine agree emphatically with the evidence of the past. In fact, modern research, with the help of technology and communication, prove beyond a doubt that music is not a neutral medium, that it has the power to change the psychological state of the human mind, and that its interpretation is not restricted to cultural bias.
The Sensory-Motor Level of Functioning
Music is heard in the part of the brain that receives the stimuli of sensations, emotions and feelings. It bypasses the parts of the brain involving reason and conscious decision-making. In other words, it does not go via the master brain but enters by way of the thalamus, which is a relay station for sensations, emotions and feelings. If the stimulus is continued then the master brain is influenced to react in the way the stimuli suggests it should. Reason is broken down, and the response to the influencing mechanism becomes automatic.
Willem Van de Wall puts it this way:
Much of what we call irresistible in music is so because we react on the sensory-motor level of functioning (New York Russell Sage Foundations, 1946).
Medical research has shown that the nerves of the ear have more extensive connections than any other nerves of the body. It has also been scientifically revealed that music has a direct effect on the pulse rate, blood pressure, nervous system, and glands of the body.
All the scientific and medical research available to us today is of incalculable benefit in helping us understand the various functions of our system and how certain external influences have a profound effect on the way we respond physically, mentally, and spiritually to these stimuli.
This is why a certain type of music automatically sets a special atmosphere. A movie without music to set the atmosphere would never have the same impact as one with music. You will hear music in shops to attract prospective customers, music on the radio to entertain the millions of listeners, music in advertising to sell products, and music in private homes for relaxation, parties, and entertainment.
The Study of Human Emotion
Astounding new evidence in the area of music and human emotion has come to light in recent years. The evidence is so profound yet so simple that common sense alone should be enough to grasp it. The best way to begin this study is to put forward simple questions and then logically answer them.
When a baby is told, "No!" as it reaches out to grab something, the baby understands the tone of the mother's voice before understanding the actual word. The emotional content in the voice causes the baby to understand and react appropriately. Even in adulthood, our language is only made meaningful by our use of expression in different ways.
If a man were to say to his wife, “I love you,” how would he say it? Would he shout, “I love you!” and hope that she would believe him? Why not? According to some people’s logic, concerning music anyway, only the words count.
“I love you” is the perfect phrase for communicating the emotion of love, but those words send out a contradictory message when the tone of the voice does not compliment them. Indeed, it is possible to communicate an expression of love, just with vocal sounds, without saying the words at all.
Music can be the most eloquent tool for communicating emotion. But there are some aspects of musical understanding that most do not recognize at surface level, which brings me to our next question.
What aspect of music speaks to the human organism the loudest?
When a band like the Rolling Stones perform live in Russia, where the youth speak practically no English, what is it that is affecting them and speaking most loudly to their mental, physical and spiritual state of being? The music!
This is why it is so naïve to think that, as long as the words are okay, I will be giving the right message. An opinion such as this can only be grounded in ignorance of the real facts. Is it not sad that so many Christians, especially in light of the body-temple principle, have no clue at all?
Some insist we cannot possibly expect all culture to worship God with music in the same way. But it is not culture that determines the emotional content of the music; it is being a human being, created in the image of God that determines the delivery and response. In any culture, the basic principles of music emotion are the same: musical principles that deal with the basic expression of loud versus soft, slow versus fast, and so on.
What role does culture play?
Culture simply defines the flavor that may accompany the actual emotional language of music itself. Music is made up of three major categories, melody, harmony, and rhythm.
Melody: We listen to melody with that part of the brain that is more concerned with the aesthetic, emotional, and spiritual (“spiritual” in this context does not necessarily mean religious).
Harmony: We listen to harmony with the intellectual part of our brain. Harmony is more complex in nature than melody because it is the combining of melody and harmonic interplay that make up this facet of musical communication. Classical music, for example, is a more intellectually based medium.
Rhythm: We respond to this aspect on the physical level. This is why people dance to music that puts an emphasis on the beat.
None of this has anything to do with culture. In Africa they dance to music that contains the same musical principle of beat as do people who go to dance halls, raves, and discos in Europe, China, or the United States. Around the globe people dance to music with the beat accentuated because, humanly, we react to rhythm on the physical level of our functioning.
Have you noticed how children often tease each other in a singsong way? There are a series of very special notes which children use when they do this: G-E-A-G-E. But what is really amazing is that children all over the world use this same series of notes. It is the same on every continent and in every culture.
When a movie producer in Hollywood has the music scored and recorded for a movie, he does not create a different soundtrack for every country where the movie is being released. The Hollywood producer knows that he will elicit the same response from moviegoers in Uganda, Israel, China, Russia, Brazil, and Germany, as he would from audiences in England, South Africa, or the United States. What the producer is concerned about is the atmosphere and what emotional response it will evoke. He knows from experience that the music he chooses will cause the same response around the globe.
Wherever we go today, we are surrounded by the sound of music, in shops, restaurants, cafés, hotels, and elevators. Our subconscious brain continually assimilates and records these musical messages. If we fill ours mind with that which is potentially destructive, then we will most certainly reap the sad rewards. Indeed, our global musical atmosphere has resulted in this world becoming morally, spiritually, and mentally depraved.
That which was sin yesterday has become acceptable practice today, even in the Church. A process of desensitization has so numbed us to the reality of our sick condition, that not even the evidences of science, common sense, the Spirit of Prophecy and the Bible can convince us anymore. We have become spiritually poor, ready to be spewed out of God’s mouth.
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