Monday, February 10, 2003

Music: Through the Ages and in the Bible

Note: An audio of this teaching is available from the Biblical Studies Foundation. Click here to listen.

I put together these thoughts some time ago when I realized how controversial music can be among Christians. I have come across those who say that the New Testament clearly teaches that we are never to sing with instrumental accompaniment. There is a prominent seminar speaker who teaches, in great detail, those musical elements that are godly and which are not. I have heard that acoustical instruments are OK, but not amplified. In my own church the issue was whether worship was exclusively participatory or whether it was OK to hilight the talent of someone who sang a worship song most people could not sing. In other words, can someone listen and worship?

Now I come blessed with very broad musical tastes. I do not know whether this is an advantage or disadvantage with the subject at hand. It does appear that people tend to universalize their musical preferences as being the style preferred by God. You must decide, in this study, whether I am universalizing broad musical tastes as the standard.

Music Controversy is Not New

New music has always had its detractors, secular and otherwise. The earliest comment on Christian music that I have found comes from Saint Augustine, who had this to say

When I remember the tears I shed at the psalmody of Thy church, when I first recovered my faith, and how even now I am moved not by the singing but by what is sung, when it is sung with a clear voice and apt melody, I then acknowledge the great usefulness of this custom. Thus I hesitate between dangerous pleasure and approved wholesomeness, though I am inclined to approve of the use of singing in the church (yet I would not pronounce an irrevocable opinion upon the subject), so that the weaker minds may be stimulated to devout thoughts by the delights of the ear. Yet when I happen to be moved more by the singing than by what is sung, I confess to have sinned grievously, and then I wish I had not heard the singing.

Who would have thought that there have been periods in church history when the very presence of music would be questioned. Who would have thought that being moved more by the melody rather than the words should be considered sin. The earliest musical ideas were that

  • Music was the servant of religion. It opened the mind to Christian teachings and should direct the mind to holy thoughts
  • Christian music was to be decidedly different from the world's music
What is interesting is that we do not know what music in Augustine's time sounded like. Out first real knowledge of worship music comes down to us with the Gregorian chants. Gregorian Chants had these characteristics:
  • No instruments
  • No harmony
  • No meter (i.e. no discernable rhythm)
  • No participation
  • Latin Only
  • Meditative in tone

You can see, and I encourage you to locate and hear, how these characteristics bolstered the church's sense of what music was to be.

In the twelfth century a musical style called Organum challenged the foundation of sound Christian music by introducing simple two part harmony. Through the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, this trend continued. Some thought these changes scandalous. Jacques de Liege had this to say

In a certain company in which some able singers and judicious laymen were assembled, and where modern motets in the modern manner and some old ones were sung, I observed that even the laymen were better pleased with the ancient motets and the ancient manner than with the new, And even if the new manner pleased, when it was a novelty, it does so no longer, but begins to displease many. So let the ancient music and the ancient manner of singing be brought back to their native land; let them come back into use; let the rational art once more flourish. It has been in exile, along with the corresponding method of singing, as if violently cast out from the fellowship of singers, but violence should not be perpetual. Wherein does this studied lasciviousness in singing so greatly please, by which, as some think, the words are lost, the harmony of consonances is diminished, the value of the notes is changed, perfection is brought low, imperfection is exalted, and measure is confounded?

Jacques de Liege is referring to singing in harmonic parts. Musical instruments were still a century away.

In the fifteenth century, musical instruments could be heard lightly playing in the background. Meter also became part of musical tradition. We could now lasciviously tap out feet. In the sixteenth century, someone got the idea of mulitpart singing. Bernadino Cirillo had this to say about that

You know how much music was valued among those good ancients as the finest of the fine arts. With it they worked great effects that today we do not, either with rhetoric or oratory, in controlling the passions and affections of the soul.... I see and hear the music of today, which is said to have arrived at an ultimate refinement and perfection such as never was or could be known before. Yet I do not hear or see any part of those ancient modes.... Today all such things are sung in a promiscuous and uncertain genus.... In short, when a Mass is sung in church, I should like the music to consist of certain harmonies and rhythms apt at moving our sentiments to religion and piety according to the meaning of the words, ... Today every effort and diligence is bent on making a work in strict fugue so that when one says "Sanctus," another pronounces "Sabaoth," while a third sings "Gloria tua," with certain wails, bellows, and bleating that at times they sound like cats in January....

And so it goes on. With the reformation, came Christian music in the common tongue instead of Latin. The congregation began to sing instead of just listen. Johann Sebastian Bach wrote his "Coffee Cantata" and became the first known cross over musician. No wonder he drew fire

This great man (J. S. Bach) would be the admiration of whole nations if he had more amenity, if he did not take away the natural element in his pieces by giving them a turgid and confused style, and if he did not darken their beauty by an excess of art. Since he judges according to his own fingers, his pieces are extremely difficult to play; for he demands that singers and instrumentalists should be able to do with their throats and instruments whatever he can play on the clavier. But this is impossible. Every ornament, every little grace, and everything that one thinks of as belonging to the method of playing, he expresses completely in notes; and this not only takes away from his pieces the beauty of harmony but completely covers the melody throughout. All the voices must work with each other and be of equal difficulty, and none of them can be recognized as the principal voice.

We do not know who made this comment.

By now you should have a historical perspective on Christian music. I could take many of the detracting comments I have quoted and publish them today. Here is what is interesting. I could only attach them to some of today's music. I can no longer attach them to the music for which they were written. Here then is what history teaches us about this matter:

  • Musical styles change all the time.
  • Each change has its defenders and detractors.
  • The past is remembered and enjoyed, but it is never returned to.
  • Defining Godly music is a slippery task. Most often the definer begins with personal tastes
  • Ancient comments are modern comments. Music moves from controversy to acceptance to old and tired.
  • On the other hand, early adopters of new music may have the wrong motives. (Note I said "may have" and not "have")

Does the Bible have anything to say about music. Although there is no book about music in the Bible, we can glean quite a bit. Indeed, I am about to reveal a precise set of parameters defining Godly music based on what the Bible has to say.

Tuesday: Music in the Bible.