What Music Is, and why you love it

Arcade Fire's Win Butler

Arcade Fire's Win Butler. Photo by Fremlin via Flickr.

Anyone who knows me knows that one of my great passions is music. I love to surround myself in it; to hear and marvel at new sounds; to go back to old sounds to express and shift my state of mind. I rarely shut up about it. Over the last year I’ve been thinking about why I love music so much, and what music is. How is it that music moves us so deeply? There are very few people I have met who are genuinely untouched by music; most of us know what it’s like to be cheered by a familiar melody or moved to tears by a progression of minor chords.

One crucial thing I’ve learned in my reflections is this: music engages the whole person, as we in turn engage God’s created order. We Westerners have a habit (inherited from ancient Greek philosophy) of dualism: the ‘physical’ and the ‘spiritual’ are seen as separate. (Christians are particularly prone to this.) Such an understanding of the world falls apart when we think about music. Music is not possible without the physical world—music relies on sound, a material phenomenon. I don’t often say this: it’s science. Someone plucks a guitar string, or blows a French horn, or strikes a key; and one needs a body to receive and process the resulting sounds. And, for some of us, it moves our feet, too!

Yet as we all know it also affects us emotionally and intellectually (and, yes, spiritually). We need the brain to analyse the patterns of those sounds; simultaneously, we can never fully explain why a piece of music brings us joy. Music has power because it engages human beings as whole people.

British theologian and musician Jeremy Begbie was a great help to me in thinking these thoughts, and so here he is quoted at length:

[M]usic making and music hearing are ways we engage a sonic order: there are sound-producing materials, sound waves, the human body, and the reality of time. These interacting components with which music deals have ultimately arisen through the free initiative of God’s love—they are part of the ordo amoris. … [Thus] the most basic response of the Christian toward music will be gratitude. This does not mean giving unqualified thanks for every bit of music we hear, but it will mean being thankful for the very possibility of music. It will mean regularly allowing a piece of music to stop us in our tracks and make us grateful that there is a world where music can occur, that there is a reality we call “matter” that oscillates and resonates, that there is sound, that there is rhythm built into the fabric of the world, that there is the miracle of the human body, which can receive and process sequences of tones.

—Jeremy Begbie, Resounding Truth: Christian Wisdom in the World of Music, p. 213.


12 thoughts on “What Music Is, and why you love it

  1. It’s an interesting thing to think about hey! The old definition of music that I learnt in school (“organised sound”) just doesn’t hold water when you consider its emotional, intellectual and spiritual effects. And I do agree that music affects us spiritually, and I’d probably say that good old King David and the other psalmists agreed with this too. I think Begbie’s probably got it right there with regard to gratitude to God being the appropriate Christian response to music in general, and I think the inspiration of gratitude is a large part of its spiritual effect on us. Not so sure I agree with his implication that this response is (or even can be) universal though… I mean, it’s definitely true that music and all associated functions are part of God’s world, and that we can praise God for them in the same way as we can praise God for air, food, conversation, art and such. However (and I say this even with tears), some people just don’t get music. Whether it’s a physical impairment or just a generally unappreciative outlook on it, some people don’t like or don’t understand music, its form, its function or its beauty. I don’t really know why I’m objecting on this point, other than that he said “regularly allowing”, and for some people that just won’t make any sense! Otherwise, good points :o)

    • Hi Iain,

      Yeah, you make a valid point. I expect he was generalizing. It’s yet another example of how deeply messed up the world is that the joys of music cannot be enjoyed by everyone. Actually, my deepest anxiety about growing old is the possibility of losing my hearing. While both are terrible, I actually think I’d rather be blind than deaf.

      • Ditto! Being blind would be terrible, but being deaf would be far worse in many ways. I guess, when hearing a sight go, there will always be other things to be thankful for about God’s creation, and the less we can experience of it the more we can thank Him for the approaching new creation. That’s the plan anyway… pretty sure I’ll be fairly grumpy if that happens 😛

  2. ‘Rejoice in the Lord always.’ There’s a great passage in Marilynne Robinson’s ‘Gilead’ where the protagonist, an old preacher, is reflecting on creation. He says that nothing in a future perfected world could ever put this one entirely in the shade, because it is so good. True. Even when we lose senses we can thank God that we were ever given the blessing of experiencing them, and then look forward to experiencing them again.

  3. True that… it’ll be much like when the guy in Avatar goes for a run with his new-found legs. “When this poor lisping, stammering tongue lies silent in the grave, then in a nobler, sweeter song I’ll sing Thy power to save.”
    I saw you quoted that passage from “Gilead” a few posts ago. Good post! I’d been thinking just now that I wonder if that could really be true, since we can only imagine perfection as the absence of imperfection and can’t really conceive of any magnitudes of quality beyond that (would you agree?)… but then, we see beauty in imperfections now, like the wizened paint on my balcony door, and like the mistakes Hendrix made that sound like improvisations. Surely we will remember that beauty, even if it’s a shadow of what we see around us at the time. In that sense, that kind of beauty couldn’t ever be overshadowed because it will have no direct replacement. It will be made redundant, but not forgotten, and it’s certainly worthy of thanking God for it.

    • I agree, except that I don’t think the beauty of imperfection will even be made redundant. In fact, I think that’s because it isn’t the beauty of imperfection so much as beauty despite imperfection. Beauty which occurs where there is imperfection (which is most beauty) is still beauty; and in the world to come it will be made new, rather than redundant. Somehow it will retain its beauty in the absence of the imperfection which made it.

  4. Interesting… how would that work though? Beauty is a more-or-less subjective quality imbued upon a thing by an observer… take away the thing, and where is the beauty? It can only be remembered. Slums are an obvious imperfection in justice and stewardship and health, despite the beautiful smiles within them that defy circumstances. I don’t think there could be any slums in the new creation, because making the world new involves setting it free from decay, whether physical, social or judicial. But then, where does that stop? Will decayed things remain as they are at that time, while the process of decay is removed? And then, how could they be called perfect when they are decayed? I think that the process of renewal necessitates some redundancies. That said, I love seeing beauty in imperfection, and so I’d love to be wrong about that 🙂

    • What I mean, rather, is that the smiles from the slum would remain, and the slum itself renewed (rendering it no longer a slum, of course).

  5. i am randomly reading everything on your blog. hi! just wanted to add to this one of my favourite quotes from c.s lewis:

    “the books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing. these things—the beauty, the memory of our own past—are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshippers. for they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.”

    love how we are ‘whole person’ affected, and yet it’s nothing in comparison with what’s to come.

    • It’s a great quote.

      And yet… I agree all the beauty in the world is only a reflection of what is to come (‘Now we see as in a glass, darkly…’, 1 Corinthians 13). However, I think the beauty in the world is more than just ‘the scent of a flower we have not found’; it is true beauty. What we look forward to is the rescue of what is good from the midst of all the pain of the world. Real, but stunted; beauty as though stillborn, and yet genuinely beautiful all the same.

      Thanks for reading 🙂

  6. Sounds interesting, I’ll have a listen. Yes, sehnsucht: a longing, perhaps, for total beauty, rather than beauty all mixed up with sadness. Full-time beauty. instead of fleeting beauty.

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