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.