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Discerning music, Part 1

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The one who has ears

When I was a young boy, as my Dad and I were driving one day, he reached over, turned up the radio, looked at me, and said, “Hear that? That’s soul!”

I remember sweeping strings and a raspy, expressive voice singing, “I Can’t Stop Loving You.” And I recall that the singer (Ray Charles) sounded very different from the mellifluous bass voice I heard at home (George Beverly Shea). That day, my world got a little bit bigger, as I began to listen instead of just hear.

Hearing is about receiving and acknowledging. We hear trains on the track, sirens in the city, and jets overhead. We hear people talking, pastors speaking Sunday mornings. Listening, on the other hand, is about interpreting what we hear through the ear of discernment and understanding.

In the sound of the siren is the anguish of an accident; the roar of a jet is someone being whisked away from (or toward) loved ones. We hear heartbreak in a lament, joy in vows exchanged. We isolate more than the sound and semantics, we detect the depth and emotion behind it.

We can’t modify what we hear, but we can change how we listen.

One of the tacit qualities of good listening is the unconscious awareness that we don’t know. We haven’t heard this friend’s story before; we haven’t heard this music before.

This applies to even the very familiar. With the 2009 remastering of all the Beatles albums, I heard instruments and nuances I hadn’t heard before. And who hasn’t heard a verse we know well, only to discover a depth we haven’t encountered before? Or heard a friend retell a story that sheds unexpected insight into who they are? This takes more than just hearing words, but a humility of listening.

Be teachable

Listening with humility means attending beyond what we know, and having the will to surrender ourselves to what we’re hearing. In short, it means being teachable. We too often make up our minds quickly, limiting ourselves to our own tastes and preferences. “We cut a coat to the measure of our own ignorance,” said the artist Picasso.

I don’t have to be a Greek scholar to know when Jesus says, “Whoever has ears, let them hear” (Matthew 11:15), he’s not concerned that we’re catching his syntax and elocution. He wants us to savour his living words like a rich feast; to pay attention with humility. When we really listen, we have to lose our ears, so to speak, in order to find them.

How does this apply to good music? I haven’t the authority to tell you what “good” music is, except to say I don’t think it’s confined to what one likes. But I can say that how we practise listening is a huge step toward discerning good music from the bad, wheat from the chaff.

It’s easy to say we don’t like rap music or an artist’s voice (Dylan anyone?) – and dismiss the heart of the music and lyrics. Conversely, we may like a worship song merely because it’s comforting. In listening only for comfort, we risk redirecting the vertical trajectory of the song into nostalgia, attaching sentiment to what was at the expense of what is.

Mystery of creation

Nostalgia isn’t necessarily bad (who doesn’t indulge it when we hear songs from high school?), but music can be so much more than what it does for us, positive or negative. To treat music as such, we render it utilitarian, a thing we use when it suits us. Good art – good music – leads us into the mystery of who we are and into the mystery of God’s creation. When we truly listen to unfamiliar musical genres to absorb the work with understanding and discernment, we witness God’s creativity in the musicians, whether they have welcomed being a part of Jesus’ vision or not.

In 2 Corinthians 5, Paul writes of our groaning as we long for heaven. In Romans 8, he refers to the Holy Spirit interceding for us with “groans too deep for words.” None of this wordless exhale makes sense unless we believe God is actively listening to the music of our lives, and understanding the fervency of our cries and our joys.

If we listen with the heart of God – past what we simply hear – the glorious vista of his presence will open wider for us, increasing our joy and gratitude for being part of his world. And music will give us an ever-widening portal to see God’s Spirit at work, and the work still to be done to reconcile us to him (2 Corinthians 5:19, Colossians 1:22).

—Roy Salmond is a music producer, itinerant speaker, and worship leader who enjoys the cross-section of faith and the arts. Roy resides in Surrey, B.C.


See also

Part 2: Transforming taste through love

Part 3: Working the muscle of attention

Part 4: The ends for which we live

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