Music hath charms, it's true, and so much more.

The Disciplines of Knowing: The Humanities (2)

Music can be an instrument and an expression of the Spirit of God.

And do not be drunk with wine, in which is dissipation; but be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord, giving thanks always for all things to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, submitting to one another in the fear of God. Ephesians 5.18-21

Music and salvation
In a June 4, 2012 posting at The Chronicle of Higher Education, University of Virginia professor Mark Edmundson asked, “Can music save your life?” He wondered about this, first, because he had experienced the power of music – specifically, that of Bob Dylan – to “kick open a door” in his life, leading him into a new outlook, new aspirations, and new behaviors.

But he also raised the question because he observed how assiduously and continuously his students listened to music, although he could never get them to talk about it. They seemed almost addicted to their music, yet unable – or unwilling – to explain its allure or effects. When he suggested that great thinkers like Plato expressed concern about the power of music to shape affections in undesirable ways, his students bristled, then opined that Plato was wrong.

Augustine (354-430 AD) understood the power of music to move people in their affections, attitudes, and actions. He was exhibit 1 in his case, since it was hearing the psalms sung in the church in Milan that softened his heart toward the Gospel. He rejoiced that music had such power to open his heart to new possibilities of faith and life; but he also cautioned that those possibilities might not always be to our benefit. In his Confessions, Augustine observed concerning the singing of psalms, “For at one time I seem to myself to give them more honour than is seemly, feeling our minds to be more holily and fervently raised unto a flame of devotion, by the words themselves when thus sung, than when not; and that the several affections of our spirit, by a sweet variety, have their own proper measures in the voice and singing, by some hidden correspondence wherewith they are stirred up.” Singing the psalms engendered powerful affections within him, affections that ultimately led him to trust in Jesus.

But he quickly added, “But this contentment of the flesh, to which the soul must not be given over to be enervated, doth oft beguile me, the sense not so waiting upon reason as patiently to follow her; but having been admitted merely for her sake, it strives even to run before her, and lead her. Thus in these things I unawares sin, but afterwards am aware of it.” When the emotions stirred by music overpower reason, we can end up falling into sinful attitudes and actions.

Music can’t save our lives – as Mark Edmundson concludes – but it can change us. Not always suddenly or dramatically, but truly, and lastingly in some cases. For music has power to engage our affections, invade our thinking, and insinuate values and priorities into our soul. And for all these reasons, Plato was correct to issue his caveat about music. Music can be dangerous.

But for precisely the same reasons, music can also be a glorious resource for leading us more deeply into the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. Music of all kinds can be both an instrument of the Spirit and an expression of the Spirit as He leads us into a richer, fuller experience of Jesus.

Music and the soul
Music is powerful to effect change in our lives because it works from the inside-out. We find a particular melody to be pleasing to our ear, engaging our heart for delight. We want to hear that melody again, and again, and again.

If the melody is particularly powerful, it can obscure the message of the music, whether or not that message is conveyed by actual words. I recall an incident in my ministry when, as we were setting up for a workshop, a young man who was helping me was humming the melody to John Lennon’s “Imagine.” I knew the song, but I asked him what he was humming. He said, “Imagine, by John Lennon.” I asked him why he was humming that song. He said he loved it. It was so sweet, so much in sync with his own attitudes and desires, and that it expressed such a feeling of longing and hope. When I pointed out that the words of that song expressed the hope that all religion would soon be done away with, he was shocked. He knew the words were there, but he’d never thought about them, so powerful was the effect of the melody on his soul.

Because music excites the emotions and engages the mind, it also can insinuate itself into the values, and adjust the priorities of the conscience. We can literally sing our way to a firmer resolve for righteousness, or into the path of debauchery.

Music of all kinds reaches us every day. Advertisers understand its power, as do politicians, athletic teams, and video games. Music can excite, sooth, depress, delight, and otherwise affect the heart. It reinforces settled ideas and teaches new ways of thinking to the mind. And it insinuates values and priorities in the conscience, not all of which may be the most edifying: “Gimme money, that’s what I want!”

But because music can be both an instrument of the Spirit and an expression of His work in our lives, we need to make sure we have plenty of it, and that we’re letting music do its God-intended work of leading us deeper into the knowledge of Jesus Christ.

Music unto the Lord
All kinds of music are available to those who know the Lord, to help us in our desire to know Him better, love Him more, and serve Him more faithfully in the world. Praise music and hymns – including singing the psalms – as well as great spiritual works of the past, such as “Messiah”, should provide a foundation for our musical interests; but on that foundation we may build a superstructure of classical music, jazz, folk, show tunes, pop music, and more to help us increase in the knowledge of the Lord – as long, that is, as all our involvement in music is done unto the Lord.

In two ways we should make sure that our use of music is unto the Lord. First, work to understand the music you’re listening to – how the melodies, harmonies, and instruments work together to create a unified and pleasing sound; what the lyrics mean; what moods the music suggests; and how the music affects you spiritually. Think through the effects of any piece of music on your soul – heart, mind, and conscience. Is it uniformly positive? Learn about different kinds of music, and work to acquire new tastes. If, for any song or piece or type of music you’re listening to, you can give honest, sincere, and specific thanks to the Lord, then this is music you can enjoy in His Name.

Second, consider how the music you listen to fits you for serving others. Does it effect changes in your soul, either of attitude or desire, leading you to want to serve others more? Does it enlarge the horizon of your understanding of the world, and of your desire to be a faithful vessel for the Lord? Does it move you to want to bring joy to others? Would sharing your music be a way to encourage or edify a friend, or even a source of lively conversation, leading to thanksgiving?

Beware of listening to music just because you like the beat or find the melody enthralling. We can appreciate all kinds of music without being shaped by it in sinful ways. But we’ll need to have both our minds and hearts involved, lest, as Augustine warned, emotion override good sense and we fall into sinful ways.

God delights in music, and when we delight in it as He does, music can help us grow in the knowledge of the Lord.

For Reflection
1. What are your favorite kinds of music? Why?

2. Why do we say that hymns, praise songs, and classical spiritual works – like “Messiah” – should provide the foundation of our musical interests?

3. Can you think of a song that has powerfully affected you? In what ways? Did the song give you a greater appreciation of the Lord? A greater love for Him? Did it move you, or make you want to be moved, to share with others?

Next Steps – Preparation: For the next few days, be conscious of the music you hear. Ask questions about it. Try to discern whether and how any of it moves you. Talk with a friend about your observations.

T. M. Moore

Our book, A Mighty Fortress, can help you learn how to think about music and its power to lead us more deeply into the knowledge of the Lord. By looking at how Luther, Bach, and Mendelssohn treated this beloved hymn, we can grow in our appreciation of and interest in music. For your copy, click here. If you’d like to begin singing the psalms, set to familiar hymn tunes, order a copy of The Ailbe Psalter by clicking here.

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Except as indicated, Scripture taken from the New King James Version. © Copyright 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

T.M. Moore

T. M. Moore is principal of The Fellowship of Ailbe, a spiritual fellowship in the Celtic Christian tradition. He and his wife, Susie, make their home in Essex Junction, VT.
Books by T. M. Moore