Volume 12, Issue 2: Musica
The primary function of the fourth commandment is to teach us to observe a certain day as a day of worship and rest. Yet for the musician this commandment implies principles which reach beyond just keeping a day, principles which establish cycles of tension and rest. These cycles give music its motion and are key elements in composing music. A good composer knows the proper relationship of tension to rest and is able to balance them in his compositions.
At creation God set up a pattern of six days of work followed by a day of rest. Creation progresses dramatically to a climax, the creation of man on the sixth day. The day of rest naturally followed from this work. God taught His image bearers the pattern of work and rest, and as image bearers, we are required to observe these principles in our work just as God did. A composer must know when to rest, how much tension leads to rest, and how long to rest. He does this by observing how God did it. Thus good music demonstrates a proper balance between tension and rest. The greater proportion of music should be designed to create tension, just as the greater proportion of the creation week was spent in work.
Let us observe two elements of music-pitch and rhythm-to see how the sabbath principle works itself out in music. I will show a positive example of this principle in the element of pitch, and a negative example in the element of rhythm. I will attempt to keep this discussion as simple and nontechnical as possible, but to eliminate all technical language would make it impossible for me to explain this at all.
Pitches are perceived in relationship to other notes around them. These relationships are set up in groups which are called scales. The most familiar scale to us is the major scale (sung as do, re, mi, fa, sol, la, ti, do). Major scales can be built on any note. Thus the notes of the C major scale are c, d, e, f, g, a, b, c in that order. The notes of the D major scale are d, e, f-sharp, g, a, b, c-sharp, d. Notice that both scales, although differing in two notes (c as opposed to c-sharp and f as opposed to f-sharp), share the remaining notes. When the note b is played in the scale of C major it sounds different to the listener than when it is played in D major. It is heard as ti in C major, and as la in D major. The differing perceptions of the same note are caused by the notes surrounding it. The note above b in C major is c, whereas the note above b in D Major is c-sharp. The first relationship is a half step (ti-do), the second is a full step (la-ti).
Try this experiment. While singing the major scale (do, re, etc.) listen closely to the last two notes (ti-do). Ti naturally leads to do. Sing it again but stop on ti without singing do. Are you satisfied to stop on ti? The first example brings us to a point of rest, the second to a point of tension. The note b in C major is a note filled with tension that leads us to the note c, the root note, the note of rest. The note b in D major is a note of relative rest and, when followed by c-sharp, moves us to a point of tension.
There is a hierarchy within the scale of the amount of tension or rest that each note contains. How a note is approached or left determines the amount of tension in it. Try another experiment. While singing the hymn "Be Thou My Vision" [SLANE] observe how each line increases in tension until the third. The fourth line decreases the tension and brings us to a point of rest at its conclusion. The tension is built by the use of certain pitches which move us away from the point of rest. This is a wonderful example of a simple melody which follows the sabbath principle and, as a result, is a great melody.
The element of rhythm is also used to create tension and rest in a variety of ways. One important way is the use of syncopation. In order to understand syncopation, beat and meter must be understood. A beat is a regularly recurring pulse and may be illustrated this way:
Each pulse is exactly the same, none being louder or softer nor longer or shorter than another. Meter is a regularly recurring accent within the pulse. The most common meter today is 4/4 and may be illustrated this way:
The established pattern places the primary accent on beat one and a secondary accent on beat three. Beats two and four are unaccented. Syncopation takes place when an accent is misplaced, i.e., placed on an unaccented beat. Syncopation in effect contradicts the prevailing meter and as such creates tension. In the hands of a good composer it is a rhythmic device that can be used to propel the movement of the music in useful and beautiful ways. The Genevan Psalms are full of syncopations, which is why they were often called Genevan jigs.
Our negative example is Rock as a genre (and by extension, most popular forms of music). Definitions of rock always include some statement about beats being heavily accented. One problem is that the beats accented are two and four, commonly called a back beat. This is a type of syncopation. The problem is the incessant use of the back beat, coupled with distortion. Tension is created and sustained without rest. The balance of the tension-rest cycle is upset. It is very similar to the person who works seven days a week; one cannot do it forever and maintain his equilibrium. Image bearers are supposed to imitate God.