As I walked toward the buffet hall at the top of the cruise, a young waiter, equipped with a guitar, sings, “Washy, washy, washy; happy, happy, happy . . .” with a big smile on his face and without any attempt to sing on pitch. To my right and left are hand-washing stations, and I could not help but have the most delightful time . . .  washing my hands. Understand, as a music theory and ear training teacher, I have deducted points from college music students in their singing exams when they have trouble finding their pitch, sing too hastily without care for accuracy, or even if their composition projects are too simple. Yet, this waiter — who I am convinced was literally shown two chords on the guitar in five minutes and thrust out into the hall to make up songs — brought me joy through music. Why did Royal Caribbean pay a waiter to do this every day, three times a day? It is because everyone knows that music brings joy, and that is precisely what Royal Caribbean seeks to do for its customers.

Johann Sebastian Bach is arguably the greatest composer who ever lived (one of the few raw assertions about “the greatest . . . ” that may be made seriously), and he was committed to promoting the glory of God in music. Not only did he compose vocal music set to sacred text, but even his purely instrumental works were intended to glorify God as he often signified with three letters on his manuscripts, “SDG”, which stood for “Soli Deo Gloria,” that is, “Glory to God alone.” For the religious mind, such music that glorifies God may greatly aid in knowing and worshiping God. For the non-religious mind, such music still reveals God, and thus the Christian apologist may use music to point heavenward to Christ as revealed more fully in Scripture. Bach’s music and intention to glorify God are instructive to us: (1) as religious minds seeking to know and worship God, and (2) as Christian apologists seeking to direct non-religious minds to knowing and worshiping God. The first part of this essay will distinguish Bach’s absolute music from other forms of communication in music. The second part will delve into the theology behind music as a means of God’s Self-communication to us. The third and final part will make applications. First, discussing how to enjoy music, how to assess the quality of music, and how to engage people with differing tastes in music. Then, the concluding application will outline an apologetic framework based on the theology of music. This framework will find its resolution in pointing to Christ as revealed in Scripture as the fullness of God’s Self-communication to us and our means of obtaining the glory which is revealed to us at first in music.

There are two general forms of communication in music: text and musical representation. The words of a song directly communicate their meaning while the accompanying music enhances the meaning and experience of the words. On the other hand, musical representation achieves communication without text through symbolic intention and imitation of the things represented. For instance, Bach signified in one song an “upside-down world” — where evil reigns and God’s order is disregarded, yet God will ultimately triumph by inverting the world right-side up again — by arranging for the organ and violin to essentially switch their normal musical roles. The organ plays the main melody up high while the violin plays the accompaniment part down low (the violin never plays accompaniment underneath the organ), resulting in an eerily uncanny musical representation of a disordered, upside-down world, or possibly alluding to the end-time reversal of the world order.[1]

Both of these forms of communication in music — text and representation — when properly perceived, immediately shift the focus off the music itself and point elsewhere for meaning. When text is used, the music is secondary and non-essential to the meaning. When representation is used, the thing represented is the intended meaning. But there is a third category of musical communication that Bach is well-known for, what is commonly called absolute music. Essentially this means that the music is its own subject, not pointing elsewhere for meaning, not containing symbolic references, nor having any kind of narrative except that which is developed purely in terms of the music itself. What made Bach a great composer was his supreme ability to develop purely musical ideas. Bach scholar John Butt makes this interpretation of Bach, “ . . . it was merely his business — perhaps, even, moral necessity — to improve and perfect the art . . . ” Bach believing that such craftsmanship reflected the perfection and beauty of God’s nature.[2] In much of his music, he was not so much trying to express any external idea, but rather he was trying to order musical ideas in an organic way according to God’s order in creation. In such music, what is being communicated, therefore, is God Himself. Strictly speaking, this is still representation, but a special kind of representation that serves to channel a more immanent mode of communication: God’s Self-communication. In Bach’s absolute music, God is not spoken about with text, nor are various aspects of His nature represented by musical symbols and imagery. In the absence of these, the listener is left with music that strives to simply be the outworking of God’s nature in the created order, acting in perfect harmony with God’s purpose for His creation, i.e., to glorify Himself.

In order to understand God’s Self-communication in music, we must discuss theological premises. As stated in the opening paragraph, everyone knows that music brings joy. We may also call this joy happiness, which corresponds to the more theological term blessedness, two interchangeable terms meaning essentially the same thing. What exactly does it mean to be happy? What is happiness and blessedness? Our understanding begins by recognizing that God is Blessedness — just as Scripture says that He is Love (1 John 4:8). All happiness comes from God’s Happiness; there is no other happiness except that which is derived and communicated from God’s Happiness: “I say to the LORD, ‘You are my Lord; I have no good apart from you’” (Psalm 16:2).[3] Therefore, a person may only have true happiness by God communicating His own Happiness to that person. This is God’s Self-communication to humans. The happiness that we have is not God per se, because a finite human could not possibly contain the infinite God. The words of Scripture are also not God per se, and yet they are God’s Self-communication to us. There is a certain mode of communication by which God makes Himself known and present to us, and we may describe that mode of communication as God’s infinite condescension to man. As a father speaks to his three-year-old son with limited terms and pictures his son can understand — and so also his son will only have limited understanding of what his father is really trying to say — so does God condescend to his creatures to make himself known and present. Blessedness is the culminating[4] attribute of God by which God is perfectly and eternally happy in all His being and attributes, e.g., Micah 7:18, “He does not retain his anger forever, because he delights in steadfast love,” i.e., He delights in His own attribute of steadfast love. What is this blessedness that creatures have then? It is God’s Self-communication of His own nature to us. This makes happiness a much more profound phenomenon than mere frivolity! Happiness, therefore, is a direct experience of God, although that experience may be distorted to our senses by our corrupted nature.

In addition to joy, music elicits awe when it exhibits excellent craftsmanship. God, of course, is the great Craftsman, the Creator. Everything He made was “good” and “very good” (Gen. 1). His creation and providence cause us to stand in awe of His Wisdom and Power: Wisdom in His superlative purpose and design for creation, and Power in His ability to bring about all His purposes. “My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all my purpose,” (Isa. 46:10). Bach’s goal in composition was to diligently seek out and apply the principles he found in God’s created order, not to express original artistic ideas or to glorify his own brilliance. (This is, admittedly, an informed elaboration of Bach’s piety.) Music points beyond the composer to the Creator, the master Craftsman, who has determined the principles by which music may be enjoyed while maintaining the order in creation that sustains musical experience. To experience great craftsmanship in music is to experience the great Craftsman Himself, another channel through which God communicates Himself to us through music.

It may seem that the main function of well-crafted music is to point by analogy to the Craftsman, i.e., its well-craftedness being similar to the well-craftedness of God’s creations; but the purpose goes further than that. It is rather innocuous for music to simply exemplify something like God’s nature as Craftsman. It is, rather, the awe that such music produces in us that seems to be overlooked when we evaluate music. We may talk about the awe we have in response to fantastic musical performances, but we often seem to feel that it is more important to discuss the refined order and craftsmanship displayed in the music. I contend that the awe is more important in so far as that awe is a positive experience akin to joy, happiness, and blessedness! There is a blessed component of awe which makes awe such a wonderful experience. That awe, as such, therefore must be a direct experience of God since the blessed component of awe is God’s Self-communication to us of his own Blessedness.

Now, what do I mean by “more important”? It is more important to enjoy God and to bless God as God than to simply recognize Him as God. One may passively recognize the glory of God in music, perceiving and explicating all the wonders of His Craftsmanship, and yet have no interest in enjoying God’s Craftsmanship in that music or worshiping Him for His Glory. This would be like the demons who knew who Jesus was, always crying out that He was the Son of God (Mark 3:11), or like those described in James 2:19, “You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe — and shudder!” When we are confronted with God, our response — whether enjoyment, active obedience, or praise — is crucial. God manifests His glory to us with the expectation that we respond rightly to it. This is the chief end of man, i.e., as is often quoted from the Westminster Shorter Catechism, “to glorify God, and to enjoy Him forever.” If we presuppose that this truly is the chief end of man, then the following should be the full trajectory of our experience of God in music: perceive God in music → enjoy God from our perception of Him → consciously reflect on our joy → recognize God as the proper subject of our joy → praise God for our joy with thankful hearts. Just as God eternally and perfectly delights in His own glorious nature — i.e., just as God is Blessed — so we are to delight in His glorious nature, and so eternally in Heaven! That is, so are we to be blessed, which is to have God communicating His own Blessedness to us, because this is the consummate end for those in Christ, to partake eternally and fully of God’s Blessedness in Heaven.

This brings us to consider what the function of music is for religious minds. There is a solemn call to appropriate meditation in Psalm 19:14: “Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O LORD, my rock and my redeemer.” This is after David, the psalmist, has already meditated through the theology of God’s Self-revelation. The psalm opens with, “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork. Day to day pours out speech, and night to night reveals knowledge.” The psalmist recognizes God’s glory in the heavens. Then in verse 10, he reflects on the enjoyment he receives from God in comparison to created things: “More to be desired are [God’s commandments] than gold, even much fine gold; sweeter also than honey and drippings of the honeycomb.” There is glory in gold and honey as well as the heavens. Fine gold is precious in our sight, and honey is an immediate delight to our taste. The psalmist utilizes the glory of gold and honey to understand and express the surpassing riches of God’s glory in His revealed Word. Whenever one delights in the sweetness of honey, he ought to be reminded that God is sweeter! Our understanding of God’s Goodness would be dimmer without the aid of honey, gold, and nature appealing to our creaturely senses to elevate our thoughts to greater heights. The Scriptures are filled with such meditations: “Oh, taste and see that the LORD is good! Blessed is the man who takes refuge in him!” (Ps. 34:8); “How sweet are your words to my taste, sweeter than honey to my mouth,” (Ps. 119:103); “I am a rose of Sharon, a lily of the valleys,” (Sng 2:1); “…he is my rock…” (Ps. 92:15). Jesus also uses the glory found in created things to point beyond to His own glory: “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life” (Jn. 4:13-14); “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst” (Jn. 6:35).

Music is especially powerful in lifting our spirits, bringing us delight, granting us a sense of blessedness. This must be why God commands us to integrate music in our worship. In Isaiah 42:9-10, in anticipation of the coming of Christ, God calls all people throughout the world to sing in response to the proclamation of the gospel of Christ: “Behold, the former things have come to pass, and new things I now declare; before they spring forth I tell you of them. Sing to the LORD a new song, his praise from the end of the earth, you who go down to the sea, and all that fills it, the coastlands and their inhabitants.” In Psalm 92:1-3 we are instructed to incorporate musical instruments in worship: “It is good to give thanks to the LORD, to sing praises to your name, O Most High; to declare your steadfast love in the morning, and your faithfulness by night, to the music of the lute and the harp, to the melody of the lyre.” Then, in the New Testament, Paul gives us the command, “be filled with the Spirit . . . singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart” (Eph. 5:18-19). From Scripture, true spiritual worship appears to be two-fold: (1) the subject of worship is God, and (2) the mode/manner of worship is musical. We are not to plainly state the glory of God; we must sing the glory of God with melody in our hearts! And, as seen in Psalm 92, it is “good” to worship God with the aid of musical instruments, because musical instruments make music.

This finally brings us to the big idea: God, through Scripture, has appointed music as the image of proper worship; therefore, we know that God’s glory is manifested in music as music. Music is more than a medium to deliver text and symbols about God and more than something to make sacred lyrics more palatable. The purely musical component of music is God’s appointed reference point to understand and experience His glory. Just as the sweetness of honey is a reference point to understand God’s surpassing Goodness, the delight of music is a reference point to understand God’s surpassing Blessedness. Music aids our meditations on God so that the meditations of our hearts may be acceptable in His sight (Ps. 19:14), so that our minds may be filled with God’s Self-communicated glory in music, which is His condescension to us as finite creatures who need reference points that we can comprehend to know and experience God.

The “making melody in your heart” of Ephesians 5:19 is a reference to the purely musical experience of music, i.e., music considered abstractly. The verse does not say, “make this melody” or “that melody,” or even something representational, like, “make a melody that signifies an ascension to Heaven, with the melody steadily rising until reaching a climax.” It simply says “melody” in the abstract sense. The fact that worship should be abstractly musical implies that God’s glory may be heard in all music. It is the essence of music in general that directs our hearts and minds to God’s glory. It appears to be beneficial, then, to be attentive to music and encourage the enjoyment of music in general with the intention that the better the experience of music, the higher our reference point may be for experiencing God.

It makes sense that this would be the function of music for religious minds, which may be termed with a single word: edification. What about non-religious minds? The non-religious mind cannot be edified by music because it does not happily recognize God’s glory through music. Everyone is a recipient of God’s blessings, as is evident in Matthew 5:45, “For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.” The non-religious mind is indeed blessed by the enjoyment of music, but it does not respond with adoration and thanksgiving to God for His Self-communicated Blessedness. What function does music, then, have for the non-religious mind? Music still serves to powerfully communicate God’s nature, i.e., His Blessedness, to non-religious minds. This is consistent with the declaration of Scripture that God’s “invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made” (Rm. 1:20). God’s Blessedness is certainly God’s “invisible attribute,” His “divine nature.” It is the joy of music, derived from God’s Blessedness, which makes it necessary and fitting for proper worship. Thus, God is distinctly perceived by the non-religious mind by its general enjoyment of music, music being of “the things that have been made,” even when the non-religious mind does not actually respond with worship: “For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened,” (Rm. 1:21).

To apply the preceding theological premises, the first way we may engage the world with music is to encourage the enjoyment of music. The importance of this should be clear when we consider that the enjoyment of music in general is a direct experience of God’s Blessedness. Many people may assume that music must point directly to God through text or representation to reveal God. As I have demonstrated, this is too limiting because God’s glory is manifested in music abstractly. All enjoyment of music reveals God. Because of this, I propose that we can benefit from the study of absolute music (absolute music is often called “abstract music”). Bach, a great composer, possibly the greatest composer, is a quintessential composer of absolute music. Since he also intended his music to exist for God’s glory alone (Soli Deo Gloria), he is a suitable role model of music for the manifestation of God to religious and non-religious minds. His absolute music centers on the purely musical dimension of music with the intention of being genuinely enjoyed for its internal quality that reflects God’s glory.

However, the world is full of unique traditions, styles, and tastes of music. Everyone has their own music that brings them joy. As we encourage the enjoyment of music, we ought to encourage the enjoyment of music that people will actually enjoy; we cannot expect everyone to be as enamored with Bach as I am. If our goal is to bring to light God’s glory in the joy of music, it is good not to rule out styles because they do not bring you joy or because they seem invalid or even harmful to society. Yet, we must be vigilant in pointing out when and how music goes against God’s nature. No music is perfectly holy. The point is that God’s glory is everywhere, even in dark places. Thus, we can point out God’s nature even in the most heathen of music if we are careful to distinguish God’s glory from unholy components. To reiterate, God’s glory is manifested wherever there is enjoyment of music because enjoyment is God’s Self-communicated Blessedness.

With that said, there is still good reason to encourage the enjoyment of higher music. While God’s glory is found in the enjoyment of unsophisticated music, there is often greater potential for the communication of His glory in aesthetically superior music. We may encourage the enjoyment of lower music while also, as we have opportunity, discussing and reflecting on the higher qualities of abstract music. The qualifications for ranking music from least to greatest is obviously a debated issue which will probably continue hopelessly without resolution. Still, Bach’s fugues are generally praised as classical models of great abstract music (for prime examples, see The Well-Tempered Clavier, two collections of preludes and fugues for keyboard). The fugue is a form of music which is purely abstract and complexly explores two or three main motifs. Bach sought to develop the main motifs of each fugue to their fullest potential. Motifs are basic melodic and rhythmic ideas that are featured in a musical work. Motifs recur throughout a piece in various forms, in novel combinations, on the surface or hidden in the texture. The way a motif or theme develops and recurs in a piece is often the primary interest of absolute music. Organic unity is achieved when motifs are developed in a logical manner over the course of the entire work. An organically unified work will have the essence of the whole represented in seed form at its outset. In Bach’s fugues, everything that occurs after the initial section which presents the motifs can be rationalized in terms of the material presented in that initial section (called the Exposition). Such detail and care in Bach’s fugues exhibits musical depth and complexity. In Psalm 92:4-5, the psalmist reflects on his joy (with singing) from God, and recognizes God’s depth: “For you, O LORD, have made me glad by your work; at the works of your hands I sing for joy. How great are your works, O LORD! Your thoughts are very deep!” Furthermore, Bach’s fugues are notoriously difficult for solo pianists to perform since there are always three or four separate melodies being woven together. Thus, pianists may exhibit God’s glory by virtue of their skill and excellence in execution, often leaving hearers in awe and admiration.

A musical apologetic framework hopefully seems obvious now, but we can easily get it wrong. First, we may point out God’s nature revealed in music as Blessedness amongst many other attributes. Blessedness appears to be God’s most relevant attribute because it is most widely present in music and seems to embody the heart of music, at least for its role in worship. The crucial step that we can easily fall short of is to point to Christ as the fullness of God’s glory manifested in music. We cannot get hung up on music; we must eventually move towards that which music functions to bring us to. Augustine magnificently exhorts us to this end:

Suppose we were wanderers who could not live in blessedness except at home, miserable in our wandering and desiring to end it and to return to our native country. We would need vehicles for land and sea which could be used to help us to reach our homeland, which is to be enjoyed. But if the amenities of the journey and the motion of the vehicles itself delighted us, and we were led to enjoy those things which we should use, we should not wish to end our journey quickly, and, entangled in a perverse sweetness, we should be alienated from our country, whose sweetness would make us blessed. Thus in this mortal life, wandering from God, if we wish to return to our native country where we can be blessed we should use this world and not enjoy it, so that the “invisible things” of God “being understood by the things that are made” may be seen, that is, so that by means of corporal and temporal things we may comprehend the eternal and spiritual. The things which are to be enjoyed are the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, a single Trinity . . .[5]

Sadly, there is a powerful idolatry of music in the world. I saw this at a concert featuring a new choral piece, Music, Awake! (2015), written as an “ode to music,” imploring “blesséd music” to “console us . . . and grant us peace,” with the hope and thanks “that the art somehow justifies his [the composer’s] being.”[6] The author of the lyrics expresses striking correspondence to an idolatrous mindset when he describes the lyrics/poem as, “what rhetoricians call an ‘apostrophe,’ an exclamatory passage in which an inanimate object or idea — in this case, music itself — is addressed directly, as if it were alive,” (emphasis added).[7]

God’s Blessedness, while communicated through and revealed in music, can only be kept and truly experienced in union with Christ. The joy and beauty of music becomes a façade apart from Christ and will ultimately perish, “For the sun rises with its scorching heat and withers the grass; its flower falls, and its beauty perishes,” (Jas. 1:11). The flaw of Music, Awake! was to enjoy music for its own sake rather than to enjoy music in and through Christ. Knowledge of Christ brings into view the antithesis of blessedness: suffering. First, because Christ’s sufferings on the cross are the necessary condition for our eternal joy. Second, because Jesus calls us to follow Him through suffering, to “take up [our] cross and follow [Him]” (Mark 8:34). Enjoyment of music in Christ, then, is to “rejoice in our sufferings” and to “rejoice in the hope of the glory of God” which is promised to us on the basis of Christ’s sufferings (quotes from Rom. 5:2-5).[8]

Our most vividly realized joy in life is in Christ and His sin-atoning sufferings, which is a joy that is only accessed by faith, a work of the Holy Spirit. This is precisely the joy that cannot be communicated except through the faith of a person in Christ. Attention to sufferings as the antithesis of blessedness is pertinent because it reveals that enjoying music purely for enjoyment’s sake omits the very thing that brings us true joy, and that is Christ’s sufferings and our sufferings in following Christ. So, while Music, Awake! recognizes the Divine Nature communicated through music as a vessel of blessing, joy, peace, and justified existence, it simultaneously omits the very ground for dwelling in God’s Blessedness, which is Christ Himself. The piece “exchanged the truth about God [i.e., the hope of glory through sufferings] for a lie [i.e., joy and glory now in the music without Christ] and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen” (Rom. 1:25).

The last important step in our apologetic framework is to point to Scripture as the fullness of the revelation of Christ. We cannot know Christ and obtain the Blessedness He offers without the words of Scripture which tell us of Him. Then, finally, with Christ-centered lenses, we may more adequately perceive the glory of God in music. The “surpassing worth of knowing Christ” (Phil. 3:8) will fill us with the joy of the gospel and become the very substance fueling our musical worship, now and even to eternity.

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Citation Information

Will Daniels, “The Function of Absolute Music for Religion and Non-Religious Minds,” An Unexpected Journal 2, no. 2. (Summer 2019): 49-72.

Direct Link: https://anunexpectedjournal.com/the-function-of-absolute-music-for-religious-and-non-religious-minds/


Endnotes

[1] Michael Marissen, “On the Musically Theological in Bach’s Cantatas,”in Bach & God (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016), 24-26. The music referenced is the aria “Wie jammern mich doch die verkehrten Herzen” from his church cantata Vergnügte Ruh, beliebte Seelenlust (BWV 170).

[2] John Butt, “Bach’s Metaphysics of Music,” in The Cambridge Companion to Bach (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 58. See further: “On the other hand, it is not difficult to conjecture that a particular conception of God lies behind virtually every line by Birnbaum/Bach: God as the source of the language of music, God as the pattern of all perfection and God as the model of (misshapen) nature. In other words, God is so immanent that he virtually no longer needs to be mentioned.”

[3] See also John Gill, “ . . . the happiness of angels and men is dependent on God; they have nothing but what they have received, and therefore cannot glory, as though they received it not . . .,” Doctrinal Divinity (originally published 1769, accessed through Christian Classics Ethereal Library on April 1, 2019), Chapter 25 – Of the Blessedness of God, section 1b, http://www.ccel.org/ccel/gill/doctrinal.ii.xxv.html.

[4] As John Gill puts it, “And here ends the account of the attributes of God; which all centre and terminate in his blessedness.” Ibid, section 4.

[5] Saint Augustine, On Christian Doctrine, trans. D. W. Robertson, Jr. (New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1987), 9-10 (Book One, section IV).

[6] Terry Teachout, “Beethoven Symphony No. 9 and Music, Awake!” Bach Festival Society of Winter Park, accessed April 30, 2019, https://bachfestivalflorida.org/event/beethoven-9-and-music-awake/.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Romans 5:2-5, “Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.”

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