Volume 11, Issue 5: Thema
Music as Spirit
“And I heard the sound of harpists playing their harps. They sang as it were a new song before the throne” (Rev. 14:3).
Why does God use music? Isn’t it a fluffy, rather inefficient way to communicate? Most of us tend to live as if music were rather unimportant—a pleasant background filler maybe, but certainly not something as central as food. We like to think that the really important parts of life and worship can be said with cardboard words.
If that were true, though, we would be able to capture the “meaning” of any melody in textbook prose; the music of Bach and Beethoven could be translated into strings of simple syllogisms. But we all know we’d lose most of what we’d be trying to capture, like pressing an elephant into a teabag. Music calls up so much more than we could ever capture in words. And that should make us think of the person of the Holy Spirit.
I won’t pretend to understand the depths involved in the analogy between music and the Spirit, but the comparisons are hard to miss. To begin with, in thinking about the persons of the Trinity, we can see the different persons causally associated with speaking, seeing, and hearing. The Father causes words and commands to go forth (Jn. 12:49), the Son causes the divine image to appear (Heb. 1:3), and the Spirit causes us to hear. Faith, especially, is a work of the Holy Spirit (Jn. 3:3ff.; Tit. 3:5; Eph. 2:8,9), and “faith comes by hearing” (Rom. 10:17). Moreover, the life of faith, the life of the Spirit, is characterized as hearing over seeing, “for we walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Cor. 5:7) and “faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” (Heb. 11:1). Faith, the Spirit, and hearing often fall together in interesting ways that open up the connection between the Spirit and music for us.
Traits of Music
More specifically the Spirit is the person most closely associated with time. Though the Father controls time, and the Son indwelt it, it is the Spirit who leads the kingdom through the ins and outs of history, sanctifying us in time (Jn. 14:7). Where painting and poetry can open up the world gloriously, they are not as characterized by time the way that music is. Roger Scruton observes in The Aesthetics of Music (Oxford, 1997) that
in musical experience, we are confronted with time: not just events in time, but time itself, as it were, spread out for our contemplation as space is spread out before us in the visual field. . . . Music is not bound by time’s arrow, but lingers by the way, takes backward steps, skips ahead, and sets the pace that it requires (75).
Rhythm and tempo lie at the heart of musical expression, and history lies at the heart of the Spirit’s work. The Spirit leads the kingdom of God along paths of blessing and cursing which culminate in glory. Music also often sets forth a theme, followed by a “stepping away” from the theme, and then returns to the theme, many times in creation-fall-redemption patterns. Music mirrors the historical path of the Spirit.
Music is not only tied to hearing and time like the Spirit, it also offers an intriguing “omniscient” openness not found in the other arts. Scruton notes that unlike the opacity of a painting, where one color blocks out another, the world of sound is more transparent. We can hear multiple tones at once: “if no sound is too loud I may be able to hear all the contents of that world simultaneously. . . . [I]n music we obtain a God’s-ear view of things” (13). Music offers us a hint of the divine mind not usually encountered. Just as “the Spirit searches all things, yes, the deep things of God,” so too can music depict the searching, instantaneous omniscience of the Spirit.
Music also gives us a taste of the Spirit’s divine causelessness. Neither the Spirit nor any other divine person had a first cause which propelled Him into existence or sustains Him like a foundation. Similarly, musical tones and their combinations are not tied to their causes in the way the color green or red is. A piano doesn’t “bear” a middle C as a part of itself, the way red is part of an apple. Sounds are emitted, and we can contemplate them and their order quite apart from their origin. Music appears to float freely, not apparently tied to anything like a canvas or a chunk of marble. Again, Scruton:
You could identify a sound while failing to identify its source. . . . In hearing, we are presented with something vision cannot offer us: the pure event, in which no individual substances participate. . . . We begin to treat sounds as the basic components of a ‘sound world’: a world which contains nothing but sound (12).
Not only is the Spirit’s causelessness hinted at in music, so is His mysteriousness. Christ describes the inscrutable, nonmechancial nature of the Spirit’s work: “The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear the sound of it, but cannot tell where it comes from and where it goes” (Jn. 3:8). In a similar way, tones and melodies aren’t neatly grasped by mathematical forceps, but instead, says Scruton,
sound . . . lasts for a certain time and then vanishes without remainder. Its spatial properties are indeterminate or vague, and even its temporal boundaries may be unclear until fixed by convention” (8).
Music reflects the Holy Spirit via the similarities of hearing, timeliness, omniscience, causelessness, and mysteriousness, but there are more pressing comparisons, too, which focus on the expressive abilities of music.
Music and Metaphor
Though music teachers often like to compare music to a language, there are important differences. For example, by means of conventional rules, we agree that, say, the symbol “giraffe” is associated with that long-necked tawny animal. But we have no such rules for a specific tone, chord, or melody. A G-major chord doesn’t force us to think of a ship or a mountain the way the words ship and mountain do. Music can’t make such specific connections. In this sense, music is very unlike language. Music is not a strict code that can make us think of particular objects.
Nonetheless, music can still express many things—joy, tragedy, triumph, fear, evil, and goodness. How does it do this? Some have noted that it does so the way a voice can express fear or happiness regardless of the words. Think of overhearing someone speak a foreign language you don’t know. You could still recognize much by the tone and pace of their voice—whether they’re angry, pleased, relaxed, humored, or bereaved. Music works something like that.
Interestingly, Scripture describes the Spirit as communicating like this too, communicating via expressions that capture more than literal statements alone: “Likewise the Spirit also helpeth our infirmities: for we know not what we should pray for as we ought: but the Spirit itself maketh intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered” (Rom. 8:26). Groanings which cannot be uttered? Whatever that means, whatever the mystery, the Spirit appears to intercede for us by expressions which can’t be put into language. Though we can’t plumb the depths of such things, we can recognize the comparison with musical expression. Music, too, can express that which cannot be uttered.
Figurative language aims to express something of the unutterable too, and so it’s not surprising that music works like figurative language, especially metaphor. Metaphors grab much more of us than mere intellectual tidbits. Metaphors (and music) call up deeper, inexpressible aspects of our persons. They can direct our heart attitudes (i.e., our emotions) to look upon things within certain “frame of heart” that enables us to evaluate something. For example, the frame of heart—love—leads us to overlook a multitude of sins, whereas bitterness makes us focus on the petty. Courage leads us to minimize dangers, but fear sees threats in everything. Our frames of heart dictate the way we evaluate the world. And that is why Scripture places such an emphasis on the Fruit of the Spirit. These frames of heart are far more powerful than the intellect. They drive the intellect. But the intellect can’t capture them in simplistic, literal claims. They are much deeper, and they require time: “those who by reason of use have their senses exercised to discern both good and evil” (Heb. 5:13,14).
The music we use in worship shows us what heart frames we think are proper for addressing God. It can be either majestic or trite or something in between, but it cannot fail to reflect us. Since we are not just intellect, music involves our whole person and body. And as with life, so with music. “To everything there is a season. . . . A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance” (Eccl. 3:1,4). A time for sublime music, and a time for brainless fun. A time for Bach, and a time for the Beatles. A time for Mendelssohn, and a time for Nat King Cole. Of course, as one of my music instructors was fond of noting, “you are what you listen to.” If we dwell in trite music, we’ll be trite, and if we only listen to the serious, we may not know how to laugh. Wisdom demands attention here too.
But whatever the music, we know how easily it can stir our memories. It has its own associations across time. Music can transport us back to weddings, back to Sabbaths, back to better times, back to tragedies, back to quietness. Some music does this trivially, but some of the grandest music—a quiet lute melody or a live symphony orchestra—can overwhelm us and shake us up, remind us that we have forgotten the important things. Music can indict our priorities. This too, though, is a trait of the Spirit. More than the other persons of the Trinity, the work of the Spirit was to “bring all things to your remembrance, whatsoever I have said unto you” (John 14:26). But music doesn’t just indict; it can comfort too. It can give us a taste of true Sabbath. And the Spirit, like music, is not just an indicter; He is the Comforter too, the very title Christ gives to Him (John 14:16,26).
Music reflects the Spirit not just in its connections to hearing, timeliness, omniscience, causelessness, mysteriousness, but also its unutterable expressiveness, its ability to draw on the deepest parts of our persons, and its ability to comfort via memory. This is the work of the Spirit reflected in the work of music. This is why the Lord decorates some of His most glorious acts of creation and redemption with music. That is why when God laid the foundations of the earth, the “morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy” (Job 38:7). That is why God has harps and singers before His throne (Rev. 14:3). That is why we gather with the saints to sing and not just state. The glory is too wonderful for words alone. Even with all the wonderful music of the West, I suspect we have not yet begun to stir the possibilities before us. Perhaps the Spirit waits. May He open our ears to hear.
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