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Lewis & Quark

     What sounds beautiful to you? Music pervades almost every aspect of our existences. The radio booms, our Spotify accounts roll, and playlists of pop songs reverberate through movies and advertising. It may be a serious regret then to observe a largely undeveloped philosophy of music in most people's life. This doesn't mean people don't think about their music--far from it. Music is exegeted frequently, and most people have a preferred genre or style. Beware the person who accepts all music uncompromisingly. It is not necessarily examining music that is at stake--though that retains importance. A lack of systematization pervades us. What are the technical aspects of music? How do we classify the different components of music? Is there anything special about auditory art as opposed to visual art? And the quintessential question that has plagued the "good man" for ages--how do we deal with immorality in musical art?
     "Without music life would be a mistake," said the German thinker Nietzsche. While this could have more profound implications about the meaning of life, it indicates something fundamental about music. Music, in a variety of forms, speaks to people. It moves them, inspires them, and in a deeper sense, speaks to them. Plato, one of the first great mathematicians and philosophers claimed that music is actually what changes a culture, or that you can read a culture by the music it creates and/or approves. He also factored music into his cosmology, speaking of the "music of the spheres," the spheres being the giant glass-like globes that emanated outwards from Earth, each sphere denoted by a planet. The idea ran that as the spheres interacted, they would produce literally heavenly music.
     The idea wasn't Plato's alone--it was also developed by such men as Pythagoras, Augustine, Boethius, Ptolemy, Copernicus, Kepler, and countless other philosophers and theologians. They didn't just believe this just because music tickled their ear, although it did. Music is something fundamental, written into the underpinnings of the universe. This should not come as a surprise. Pythagoras, Greek mathematician and thinker, was the first to note that the most beautiful types of music could be expressed as simple mathematical ratios. An octave results from a ratio of 2:1, an interval of the fifth as 3:2, and an interval of the fourth from a ratio of 4:3. These ratios manifest in the relationship of one note to another, creating the idea of scales, from which all melodies and notes derive. There is much more to the arithmetic of music, but it suffices to know music can be somewhat understood through the lens of numbers. Mathematics--numbers and shapes--is the base code of the universe. If music is comprised of this, its not just what we turn up the bass boost on. We're tapping into the universe itself.
     All of a sudden, we have two implications: music (i) is to be taken very seriously and (ii) has an established order. It is no small matter to display the nature of reality for thousands of people. At the same time, arithmetic has an order. 2+2=4, not 5 or 17 or 876. There are hard and fast rules laying at the bottom of musical discipline. This does not quash expression or say that music must be in a particular style, but it does mean that there are orchestras and there are lawnmowers. The two are not to be confused. But when we do, what are the consequences? We may not have technically accurate music, but we can still have emotion in and through it. There is much more to music than the sounds and math behind it. Is a page of a book ink on tree guts? Yes. Is that all that a book is? Absolutely not. Good art is union of rational order and emotional appeal, art defined as crystallized emotion. While the arrangement and arithmetic may play a large part, without the emotional communication or metaphysical anything, we are observing a spreadsheet. Quantifying the metaphysical is challenging, but rewarding.
     The most common way to classify music with an eye towards both is the form and content approach. Form--the instruments being played, and content--the lyrics. This is the typical modern Christian approach to music. Form can certainly be in instruments, but why can't it be in the lyrics? The lyrics are content, but so are the instruments. It may be a funny question, but is the music itself true? For all the mistakes the medieval church made, this was not one of them. This was how they thought about music and they produced some of the greatest pieces of music ever. This is the music of Pope Gregory, who John Calvin called the "last Bishop of Rome," the music of J.S. Bach, and more. It would be best to delineate the four parts and elaborate.
  • Instrumental content--is the music true?
  • Instrumental form--is the music beautiful?
  • Lyrical content--are the words true?
  • Lyrical Form--are the words beautiful and composed?
If anything, the casual listener will not hear this call. That does not mean we cease to cry. Like Wisdom in Proverbs, the truth of the statements does not depend on who will listen--but whether it is consistent with morality and truth. With that in mind, we embark to understand and systematize music.
     As aforementioned, beauty and order are directly correlated. The universe--the physical world--contains many natural instances of beauty. Beauty seems to be a natural byproduct of what we can see all around us. Man, sometimes blissfully and sometimes horribly, stands apart from nature. Sometimes what he produces is eloquent and meaningless, or powerfully truthful and bland. The correct combination of the two is not a simple process. The wise man, to paraphrase Aristotle, knows the generals and works to the particulars. Real beauty is a natural and instinctual part of art. An artist can create something moving, precise, and ordered like Bach's St. Matthew Passion. Beautiful--Google it. Order--the truth--in instrumental form is beautiful. It can be boring, and become a science, science being something anyone can do with the right tools.
     And while this precise geometrical form may be beautiful, another level of beauty is reached when a Dante picks up his pen to sing poetry of his Beatrice, or when raw emotion shows itself on a performer's face. Even then, that is not emotion in its purest state. No one perfectly relates to another's emotion or thoughts. Each is unique, due to the near-insurmountable differences in people. Even then, humans find a way. In order for music to resonate with others, our observations and feelings have to be isolated, and to a certain degree, rationalized. We are putting how we feel and what we want others to see in a communicable format. At a minimum, it must be understandable. We have a meaning--even saying there is no meaning is a meaning unto itself. So what of the myriad of meanings shall we choose? This is where instruments bleed away into the content of the words. Instruments reinforce meaning, to be sure. A bass heavy song with rapid drumming sends an specific aesthetic message, just like soft piano or a jangling acoustic guitar. But the main meaning is found in words. A genre is a mood, words are a message.
     The first thing to lay down regarding lyrics is simplistic--they must make some kind of sense. This doesn't mean the meaning can't be obscure, or unclear at first. There should be some kind of order in the words. Poetry is unnecessary, but basic structuring is. But what meaning should we assign to our songs? If we are Christian, and do all things to the glory of God, should not our music, falling under all things, do that? The definition of glorifying God is debated. Some would define that as only songs that explicitly praise God or have a Christian message. But the objection arises--does not nature praise God? And where does it proclaim His name clearly? If music is expressing something fundamental to the universe, then every piece of music in line with that would be glorifying God in some sense.
     Even then, a song with an evil meaning can be ordered and beautiful. But first, an "evil meaning" must be defined. This can be anything that promotes sin, vice, or error, contrary to Philippians 4:8: "Finally, brethren, whatever things are true, whatever things are noble, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report, if there is any virtue and if there is anything praiseworthy—meditate on these things." (New King James Version) Not only can we make a paramount distinction between what is true and what is good--it is true that as many as 75,000 to 100,000 people died in the Peloponnesian War, is true but not good--also notice the word meditate. Does that exclude listening to horrible music in an effort to understand it? If we cannot understand it, we cannot refute it.
     Creating music promoting vice is out of the question, though there can be nuance in handling and displaying evil. Some things we must handle in life are not nice. Consistently sentimental art, ignoring vice and evil, is a weak and unrealistic art. Speaking to inner pain and vice, or reminding listeners of the value of hatred and anger is completely appropriate as long as we understand the context. Songs that deal in a purely Christian realm can be hugely beneficial and uplifting, but still aren't lies by omission. Even an explicitly Christian song is omitting something. A song that speaks to the danger of drugs without working back into the love of Jesus is not a bad song. Different art has different emphases, not different truths.
     Of course, when a Christian writes lyrics, they must be true. We must strive to remember that a song is a snapshot, a picture of how someone feels in a moment. There were moments before, and moments after--things change. Quoting opposition, or using lyrics sarcastically are challenging, but not wrong--not only does the intent matter, we see these tactics all throughout the Psalms, where David experiences a range of emotions, sometimes saying things that are, by themselves, untrue. Did God abandon him? No. But in the moment, that was how he felt. And part of the point is that he goes on to realize how he is wrong. Art should not ignore reality, even when it is ugly. Meditating has more of a sense of dwelling. Depression is a valid feeling and experience, and for art to speak of it is unsurprising, returning to art as crystallized emotion. Meditating implies staying there, saturating oneself and pouring over it to discover more and make it some part of ourselves. That is honorable and biblical, if done over the right things. Meditation on evil results in the same effect, only negative. Steeping yourself in what one knows is immoral is internalizing sin and putting yourself in patterns of sin, horrible things.
     Furthermore, a song which contains these elements may have a huge emotional appeal or a stunning aesthetic. We should strive to replicate what Aristotle says about a wise man--entertaining a thought without accepting it. Emotions pass, and may highlight a truth, but they come and go. You will not be feeling the same things you do now as you will in eight months. And while some of the most annoying (or wonderful) songs can get stuck in your head and try to rule your thoughts, it is your brain. You have to power to understand an emotion, judge it, and even if you keep feeling it, work around and out of it.
     That's the essence of a song--a feeling that may continue or fade away. We need both, and songs for both. Often, music can have great therapeutic value, helping us understand and work through feelings and ideas. It's demeaning to the song and yourself to think that songs don't communicate something the artists wants you to know about something. We turn to authors and counselors for our problems--perhaps the poets also have this value. But the goal of anything even pseudo-therapeutic is not to rub your face in your problems--it is to help you grow out of them. Do not make the mistake of putting yourself on emotional high via music and continuing to immerse yourself necessarily. As a counter to that, do not dismiss music because of what could happen. You are in control of what you listen to and intake, for the most part. That has the potential to be both a curse and a blessing. The solution is balance.
      There is so much more to be said on so many more levels. This has only been a cursory overview of the most basic and general aspects of music. I have, by no means, said all there is to say. The listeners and creators of music will continue to produce and hear and evaluate. So listen to music. Evaluate it. Enjoy it. Think through it.
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