Discerning music, Part 2
Transforming taste through love
Discerning good music is a hornet’s nest if there ever was one. We often declare what we like as good, tying its value to our taste. This is not unreasonable; like attracts like. We call a restaurant good if it produces quality food with flavours we appreciate. Good friends return our affection for them. Why shouldn’t good music be joined together with our taste?
Russian author Leo Tolstoy didn’t believe in good art, because good is highly subjective. He felt there needed to be an exchange of some sort, in which one felt what the artist was communicating. His contemporary Fyodor Dostoevsky, however, felt good art was about humans’ craving for beauty, accentuated by our inevitable disharmony with the world. Yet, Yet, German philosopher Martin Heidegger argued that even our bias (toward art) is grounded in our humanity, making our subjectivity subjective.
Sound confusing? Wouldn’t it be clearer if there was a blueprint that defined good music?
Space between the notes
That would be easy: a blueprint is objective and finite. One doesn’t have to wonder about intention, emotion, meaning. We could dispense judgment on any music. We’ve got pitch, timing, phrasing, dynamics, and nuance in music; we can evaluate based on that. Yes, that would be easier!
And if we took that attitude, in many ways we would be right. But is the music memorable? Does it communicate something deeper than notes? Does the dissonance add to the overall mood it’s conveying? Is it truthful? Does it open a door to the divine?
With these and many other questions, music becomes highly individualistic in interpretation. “People are always talking to me about the notes!” 20th-century composer Igor Stravinsky complained. “Don’t they know it’s the space between the notes that matters?” And so it is. Melody and pitch do not alone make good music; there is that space between the notes.
A few years ago some dear friends of mine, Dan and Rachel, adopted two young boys from Ethiopia. After much waiting, they flew to Ethiopia to pick them up. I looked at the pictures of the two boys they sent by email and instantly fell in love with them. “I’m going to be a part of their lives,” I thought, “and they’re going to be part of mine.” I’d never met them, but I felt a bond with these boys because I love Dan and Rachel.
This very simple concept has stuck with me from that day years ago: we welcome who and what the people we love love. Our spouse, our friends, even new acquaintances inculcate in us their passion for books, music, movies, art, stores, restaurants, and people. We open ourselves up to that which is an extension of them.
Could it be so simple that, like our friends, when we love God with our whole heart, soul, and mind (Mark 12:30), we love what he loves? And who he loves?
Listening through love
What does loving God have to do with what we think about music and how we listen to it?
For one thing, it opens us up to receive God’s extension of himself in the whole of our lives: in our relationships, our work, our thought life, and yes, in the music that moves and affects us. Loving God opens up a vast horizon, much wider than we previously thought. “What a vast distance between knowing God and loving him” French philosopher Blaise Pascal reiterates. We begin to see God’s inimitable imprint everywhere, in music and in the beauty of his creation.
The apostle Paul encourages: “Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable…think about such things” (Philippians 4:8). Loving the Father with our whole hearts, and accepting his ever-present love through his Son and by his Spirit is hearing music through his ears, tasting and encountering life as he intended. “In the same sort of way,” wrote Malcolm Muggeridge, “listening to great music, or reading great literature, or standing before great buildings, an inner rhythm is detected, and the heart rejoices, and a light breaks, which is none other than the love of God shining through all his creation.”
When God finished creating the world and ourselves in it, he remarked at every step of creation that what he saw was good. And he entrusted us to craft a life out of that goodness. He wants for us not only to share in what he created, but to live in it, as he lives in us. And that mutual indwelling (perichoresis), wrapped in mystery, calls us to love him, heart, soul, and mind. “For in him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28).
Come taste and see that the Lord is good (Psalm 34:8).
—Roy Salmond is a music producer, itinerant speaker, and worship leader who enjoys the cross-section of faith and the arts. Roy is a member of Cedar Park (MB) Church, Ladner, B.C.